The Names of God
God’s names refer to the appellations, titles, and metaphors by which God reveals himself in his relationship to people. God’s names appear as the LORD discloses himself to Israel; this revelation culminates in the gospel that is for all people as God’s name unfolds to include Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Divine names in the Bible are integral to God’s self-revelation. They are best studied along the Bible’s storyline using appropriate interpretive principles. God’s primary names, with many additional designations, are initially revealed in the Old Testament. The Bible also makes explicit statements about God’s names; this is particularly true of His personal name YHWH (Yahweh), typically translated as “the Lord.” These names and their functions reveal God’s nature and teach Israel about their relationship to him. As God intervenes in history, he reveals more and more about his name. When God acts in Christ, it is the God named in the Old Testament who is at work. This can be seen by the names used, especially in the identification of God by his name “the Lord.” This name passes into the New Testament through the Greek Old Testament’s translation of YHWH as Kyrios (the Greek for “Lord”). With the coming of the gospel, something new is revealed about God’s identity: Jesus Christ is included in his name, along with the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches the Church how all people, Jews and Gentiles, can be related to the God whose name and identity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A name reveals one’s identity. Divine names in the Bible are integral to knowing God’s identity. Who is God? And what is he like? Knowing God as he is named in Scripture enables us to trust him and to be faithful to the church’s global mission for the glory of his name.
Principles for Studying God’s Names
There are important methodological considerations for studying God’s names. First, we should pay attention to what the Scriptures explicitly say about God’s names. For example, God explains his name to Moses (Exod. 3); and in the New Testament we are told that Jesus is given the name above every name (Phil. 2:9–11).
Linguistic principles should guide the interpretation of God’s names. Along with attention to context, we should use etymology with caution. It is safest to proceed here when the Bible does. For example, Scripture unpacks the meaning of YHWH (Exod. 3:15) and the meaning of Jesus’ name (Matt. 1:21).
We should observe what God reveals about his name. The Lord reveals himself first as El Shaddai and later more fully as YHWH (Exod. 6:2-5). Nevertheless, it is the same God. YHWH tells Moses that he is the God who made a covenant with the patriarchs (Exod. 3:15). In the New Testament God reveals his name to include the Son and the Spirit (Matt 28:20). But this one God is still the God of the patriarchs (Matt. 22:32).
Finally, we should note what the Bible does not say about divine names. The Scriptures never teach Israel to use God’s name as an amulet or magical formula. Likewise, despite the deference for God’s name, the Bible never tells us not to pronounce or say his name.1
Naming God in the Old Testament
The most common Hebrew names for God are YHWH (Yahweh), Elohim, and Adonay. There are many compound forms of Yahweh, especially Yahweh Sabaoth (“Lord of Hosts”), and cognates of Elohim, such as Eloah, and El with its compound forms, especially El-Shaddai. There are titles such as King, Creator, Father, Holy One, Redeemer, and Rock. These names, with their varied combinations, and many other designations deserve attention. This essay only highlights a few of them.
What the Names of God Reveal
El, Eloah, and the plural of majesty Elohim occur over 2500 times. These cognates are the basic Hebrew words for deity, much like “God” in English or theos in Greek. What gives shape to the divine identity is not generic titles, but the words, works, and ways of God. Allah, for example, the Arabic word for God in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition has a particular meaning, but the same designation has a different significance when used by Arabic speaking Christians. Through God’s actions his names take on their unique meaning.
YHWH permeates the Old Testament (6828 times). It also indirectly saturates the New Testament. YHWH can suggest abstract truths, such as God’s self-existence, since YHWH comes from a Hebrew word that means “to be” (Exod. 3:14). But in its biblical context, this name teaches that God is personal, present, and faithful. YHWH is God’s covenant name (Exod. 6:2–8). When Israel fails to be obedient, it is YHWH who promises a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34).
Other divine names tend to cluster around this name. “Lord of Hosts” (286 times) nearly always occurs with YHWH. King David’s influence increased because “the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him” (2Sam. 5:10). The Hebrew reads YHWH Elohim Sabaoth. The term “hosts” refers to God’s armies, including angelic forces and the armies of Israel. YHWH is king, a warrior with sovereign power. The title Adon also indicates God’s rule; the plural form Adonay (456 times) is especially important, not least because of later Jewish usage.
Later the Jews would no longer pronounce YHWH, preferring to say Adonay or Hashem (“the name”). However, the non-pronunciation of God’s name developed late. Earlier, the Levites pronounced it in blessings (Num. 6:24–27). The people remembered the name (Exod. 20:24; 23:13) and swore proper oaths by it (Deut. 6:13). The Psalms confirm that YHWH was pronounced: it is to be declared (Psa. 22:22), blessed (Psa. 100:4), sung, praised and exalted (Psa. 66:2; 7:18).2 God desired intimacy and he intended for his name, though holy, to be a source of revelation and blessing.
God’s designation as Father captures this intimacy. God identifies Israel as his son signifying their covenantal relationship (Exod. 4:22–23). Israel’s failure to be faithful, therefore, is particularly pitiful (Hos. 11:1–4). There is a mournful confession of God as Father toward the end of Isaiah (63:16–17).
When God makes his name to dwell in a place, God’s presence is there (Deut. 12:5). His name stands for himself.3 When God’s name is placed on an entity this marks his ownership. God’s name is placed on the ark (2Sam. 6:2), the temple (1Kgs. 8:43), Jerusalem (Jer. 25:29), and most importantly on his elect people (Num. 6:27).
Response of God’s People to His Name
The Lord chose to glorify his name by proclaiming it over his people (1Sam. 12:22). They, in turn, were to represent him in the world (Psa. 29). The Lord prohibited his people from taking his name in vain (Exod. 20:7); that is, they were not to bear his name improperly. Their mission was to carry YHWH’s name as his emissaries.4
But Israel failed. So, the prophets began to point to a time when God would redeem his people and extend the glory of his name (Ezek. 36:20–23). God would reveal more about his name. His people would be called by a new name (Isa. 62:2) and even the nations would bear YHWH’s name (Amos 9:11–12).
Naming God in the New Testament
As God revealed himself in each new situation, Israel learned more about the Lord. This revelation reached full blossom with the unveiling of God’s glory in Christ (2Cor. 4:6). Here in “the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9) God’s loving nature is most fully revealed.
Naming the Same God
The New Testament’s naming of God involves both continuity and discontinuity. The God who spoke to the patriarchs has now spoken in his Son (Heb. 1:1–2). The New Testament divine names confirm this continuity. They generally reflect prior translation into Greek. “Lord Almighty” provides an example (2Cor. 6:18, citing 2Sam. 7:8) – a translation of the Greek name Kyrios Pantokrator. This title came from the Greek Old Testament that used this expression to translate the Hebrew YHWH Sabaoth and YHWH El Shaddai.
The few Hebrew or Aramaic names that come directly into the New Testament also exemplify this continuity. On the cross Jesus cried in his mother tongue, “Eli, Eli!” (Matt 27:46). Matthew translates this into Greek as theos mou, theos mou (“my God, my God”). Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 where El and Elohim each occur once, and YHWH seven times. This illustrates the obvious: when the New Testament uses the Greek theos (1235 times), the reference is to the God of Israel.
Naming the Same God as Triune
But now there is something radically new about the naming of God: Jesus, God’s Son, participates in God’s name and identity. The New Testament divine names confirm this.
Jews were in the habit of pronouncing Adonai when they came to the name YHWH. So, before Christ, the Greek Old Testament had translated YHWH as kyrios (the Greek for Adonai). Thus, YHWH came into the New Testament as kyrios, where it is used of God the Father about one hundred times. But it is also used, over seven hundred times, with reference to Jesus (Acts 2:36; John 20:28).
Some of these references are Old Testament quotations containing YHWH – only now these texts are applied to Christ. There are many examples of this in Paul’s writings (Rom. 10:13; 1Cor. 2:16).5 Other similar quotations and allusions occur throughout the New Testament (1Pet. 2:3; 3:15).
“Jesus is Lord (kyrios)” was the basic Christian confession, a confession that Jesus was indeed YHWH (Rom. 10:9-13; Phil. 2:9–11). This identification is also implied in a very early prayer: Maranatha! “Our Lord, Come!” (1Cor. 16:22). This plea contains an Old Testament Aramaic name for God, Mārē (Dan 2:47). In the New Testament, the name refers to Christ, further evidence the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus as Lord. Despótēs, a less common Greek word for YHWH from the Greek Old Testament, is also used in the New Testament for both God (Luke 2:29) and Christ (Jude 4; 2Pet. 2:1).
With God’s revelation in Christ, the divine name has been reoriented. This reconfiguration is complex: in his deity Christ is identified with the divine name (John 1:1); and in his humanity he is given God’s name (John 17:11–12). Hebrews captures this complex phenomenon. Jesus inherits the name (Heb. 1:4), arguably YHWH. But, in his deity, the Son also participates in the divine name (Heb. 1:10–12). As the Son identifies with his people, he declares God’s name in the church and leads in praise (Heb. 2:12; Psa. 22:22). Through Jesus’ high priestly function (Heb. 4:14) believers, in turn, offer up praise and lovingly confess God’s name (Heb. 13:15; 6:10).
Matthew 28:19 affirms monotheism (“the name”) and, at the same time, compliments this with an implicit trinitarianism (“of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”). Here both the unity of God’s being, and the gospel’s relational plurality, more fully answer the question of God’s identity. This is his name: YHWH – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Islam’s conception of God is radically different, because Islam names God as Allah but rejects the Lord’s self-revelation as Triune. This has huge theological significance and leads to the rejection of the gospel.6
Response of the Church to God’s Name
God’s name, which now includes that of “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” is proclaimed upon his new covenant people (Jms. 2:1,7). This naming now includes the Gentiles (Acts 15:16–18; Amos 9:11–12). In this name, we find salvation (Luke 24:47; John 1:12).
Revelation describes the blessing and reward of being marked by God’s new name (Rev. 22:4; 3:12, cf. Isa. 62:2). To have and know this name belongs uniquely to Christ (Rev. 19:11–16) and then to his followers (Rev. 2:17). This pattern fulfills the Old Testament blessing of receiving God’s name (Num. 6:27).
Abba (“Father”), another Aramaic name, was arguably Christ’s favorite (Mark 14:36) Believers now respond to the ancient longing to know God as Father (Isa. 63:16) as they by the Spirit of the Son, cry “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6)!
God’s people are to live up to the standard of God’s name as a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1Pet. 2:9–11; cf. 1:15). We are not to bear his name falsely. Rather, we are to carry his name faithfully to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19–20; Acts 9:15).7 Then will the Lord return, even the Lord of Hosts (Jms. 5:3,7).
The naming of God in the Bible is a matter of God’s saving self-revelation. This is no generic god. It is the God who made promise to the patriarchs, the God who entered into covenant with Israel, and the God whose name is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.8 This is the God Christians talk about when we talk about God. To the Father, we exclaim, “Hallelujah!” With the ancient Church we cry, “Come, Holy Spirit.” In anticipation of the consummation, we pray “Maranatha.” Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
God reveals more and more about himself so that people, in ways appropriate for creatures, may apprehend the Holy One. Yet God is more than can be named. Here, perhaps, is the valid lesson of reticence about “the name” (the unspoken YHWH of the Old Testament for Judaism and the deference paid to “the name” by the earliest Christians).9 God is still, in all his gracious self-revelation, to be adored and worshipped as the incomprehensible and absolutely perfect One. “Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen” (Psa. 72:19)!
- Bray, Gerald Lewis. “God.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 511–521. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
- Capes, David B. The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel. Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2018. See an Author Interview here.
- Ebert IV, Daniel J. “How Does God’s Love in Christ Relate to Islam?”. In The Love of God, edited by Christopher W. Morgan. Theology in Community, Chapter 8. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.
- Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013.
- Hood, Jason, “Getting God’s Name Right,” The Gospel Coalition.
- Imes, Carmen Joy. Bearing Yhwh’s Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 19. University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018.
- Morgan, Christopher W. The Love of God. Theology in Community Series. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016.
- Powell, Mark Allan, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
- Sanders, Fred, Klaus Issler, and Gerald Lewis Bray. Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2007.
- Soulen, R. Kendall. The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
- Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.
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