God has a name, and he's given it to Jesus

  • Scott Newling
  • 29 August 2016

Three crosses

I recently saw a table of world religions that listed the name(s) of “the divine” in each religion. While I was heartened to see it listed God’s name in Judaism as ‘Yahweh’, I was disappointed (although not surprised) that Christianity’s name for God was simply listed as ‘God’.

Functionally, I suspect this is exactly the way many in our congregations think of our god. Just look at the way we pray. Occasionally we might sing to Yahweh (or Jehovah), but for many the idea that our god has a name doesn’t really cross our minds. And it’s completely understandable: since our god is the only god, when we speak of ‘God’ we refer to a unique being. Furthermore, in the New Testament—on the surface at least—we search in vain for any reference to the name Yahweh. In fact, in most of our translations, we search in vain for the name Yahweh in any part of the Scriptures.

Nevertheless, God does have a name—Yahweh (which means “I will be who I will be”, Exod 3:13-15)—and it is the name that is above every name precisely because it is his name. God’s name is bound up with the revelation of his glory—his nature, being, character and greatness (Exod 33:18-23, 34:5-7). It is a name unique in all creation, and were it to be given to another it would stir God’s jealousy since that would detract from his holiness and glory (Isa 42:8).

And yet the claim of the New Testament is exactly that: Jesus Christ now bears the name Yahweh. And rather than detract from God’s glory, confessing Jesus as Yahweh magnifies it.

It takes a little bit of work to see this, however. The name Yahweh occurs thousands of times in the Hebrew Old Testament, but in English Yahweh is translated as Lord. This is due to a tradition in Judaism (still practised today) of avoiding using the name of God. When the text said Yahweh, it would be read out loud as adonai, the Hebrew word for ‘lord’.

When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek, the translators made no distinction between Yahweh and adonai: they were both translated as kurios, ‘lord’. And understandably so: there is no Greek equivalent for Yahweh. Our English Old Testaments also use lord for Yahweh, although we’re able to identify the word as Yahweh since it is printed in small caps: Lord. In the New Testament, however, there is no differentiation; it’s up to the reader to figure out whether ‘ruler’ or ‘Yahweh’ lies beneath each occurrence of lord. Realistically, this can only be done with confidence when the Old Testament is being quoted, since then we have an objective point of comparison.

All this background information comes home to roost in Philippians 2:5-11, verses that are so familiar to us. Here we’re told that Jesus has been given the name that is above every name. There is only one name that is above every name, Yahweh, and Jesus has inherited it (cf. Heb 1:1-4). In our translations it sounds like the name Jesus has been given after his resurrection and ascension is Jesus, which makes no sense. But when we have the translation peculiarities of Yahweh in our minds, we see something else at work: an allusion back to Isaiah 45:23. Read in its context (several chapters affirming Yahweh’s uniqueness), this verse affirms Yahweh as the one alone to whom all shall bow down. And yet, according to Philippians, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord: Yahweh! The Father has given him the name above every name, and, rather than being blasphemous, it glorifies the Father.

But notice the connection—both here and in Hebrews 1:1-4. The name Jesus has been given is a direct consequence of his nature: he has the name Yahweh because he is Yahweh, and reveals Yahweh perfectly in his incarnation, suffering, and glory. As he returns to the glory he had in the beginning, the difference is not that the Son has become Yahweh (he is Yahweh from eternity), but rather the Father, in the economy of salvation, has now revealed Jesus as Yahweh, and God as Trinity.

Once we grasp this reality at work in the New Testament, we read Old Testament quotes about Jesus in a new light. Consider the very opening of Mark’s gospel. We are told that someone would come (who turns out to be John the Baptist) who would “prepare the way of the Lord”. In its original Old Testament context, the verse is saying that someone would come to prepare the way for Yahweh. But who is it John prepared the way for? Jesus is the one who comes.

It’s an audacious claim to say that Jesus is God, and a reprehensible blasphemy were it not true. And yet, to acknowledge Jesus as Yahweh makes the audacity of the claim that much greater. There is a man in creation who bears God’s personal name. There is a man in creation who is worthy of our worship as Yahweh. The stakes are as high as they get. And yet, as we have seen in Philippians, such a claim does not detract from God’s glory, but enhances it. Jesus can bear the name of Yahweh because he is Yahweh: God the Son, incarnate; God as man revealing God to man. And through the revelation of Jesus as Yahweh we come to understand God as Trinity. “I will be who I will be”, Yahweh, reveals himself in Jesus in a way that no mind could imagine. And God, Yahweh, is glorified as a result, as his triune nature is displayed.

Many of us will be familiar with the translation peculiarities of Yahweh that I’ve just outlined—although I suspect fewer will have made the connection of how the New Testament regularly applies Old Testament verses about Yahweh to Jesus. In my experience, however, Christians are by and large unaware of the richness of God’s name throughout Scripture. Our responsibility as disciples calls for us to grow our brothers and sisters in their knowledge (and hence love) of God.

It might be as simple as encouraging people to spend ten minutes reading the preface of their Bible translation—this information is literally at our fingertips each day. It may involve working through some key examples with Bible study leaders and their groups, unlocking the profound richness behind such a simple shift in reading. It will involve us taking the time to be deliberate in our vocabulary choices as we teach and preach (that is, to let our close exposition reflect the vocabulary of the passage we have exegeted) and, as we consider our churches’ diet of teaching across a year, to be intentional about the explanatory tangents we choose to pursue (or not). Occasionally it will involve us stepping back and focusing on a biblical theology of Yahweh. In any event, it will involve us being intentional about how we choose to communicate the depths of God’s name as we expound Scripture. And as our God becomes that much more magnificent in the eyes of all, we will offer our praise to him, to his glory.

First published in Vine Journal #3 (April 2016).