Is “Jesus” only an earthly name of the Lord? Should we address Him only by specific titles? It seems like the apostles emphasized “Lord” and “Christ” a lot during their ministries, but I’m not sure what we learn from this. What should I do?
I’ve struggled with questions like this in the past, and Patterns of Truth recently received an email with a variation on this question. Maybe I can answer it by exploring a series of related questions: What does “Jesus” mean? Was the Lord Jesus the only person with that name? What will God do with His earthly name now that He is risen from the dead and ascended? What should we do in response?
What’s in a Name?
An early hint at the name of the Jewish Messiah, the “Christos” (Christ) in Greek translation, is found in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name ‘Immanuel’.” In Matthew 1:21-23, we find similar language, but now more specific: “She” [the virgin Mary] “will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew’s gospel confirms this as a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, and tells us that “Immanuel” means “God is with us.”
Jesus was born to Jewish parents in a Jewish society (although it had a mixed language of Hebrew and Aramaic, the latter being a Gentile language). Scripture never records it, but Jesus’ birth-name was probably Yeshua, a name still used in modern Hebrew. It appears in the Old Testament and is a shortened form of Yehoshua (Joshua in modern English). It means “Yahweh saves” (or “Jehovah saves”).1 In Greek this translates to Iesous which we would pronounce similar to “Yeh-soos,” or in modern English, Jesus.
So, may God be praised for His goodness! He established different languages to humble man’s sinful pride (Gen. 11:1–9), then broke down that barrier at the Day of Pentecost following Christ’s resurrection. He speaks in the person of His Son to all peoples and nations (Acts 2; Heb. 11:1–2). Jesus’ name is now translated into every language. Pronunciations differ somewhat, but the meaning is known universally.
Who else had this name?
Jewish culture, both ancient and modern, has a deep appreciation for the meanings of names. (For modern Bible students, some meanings can be found as proper name dictionaries within general Bible dictionaries or other study aids.) Popular Hebrew names were reused across centuries. Many people had the same name at the same time, and still do now. (I’m not even Jewish, yet my own name “Aaron” is found in Exodus 4:14. And I’ve met a few others with the same name!)
As an example in Scripture, the name Simon (from the older forms Simeon or Shimeon) was widely used in first-century Israel. Just looking in Matthew’s gospel, there was Simon Peter, also called Simon the son of Jonah (4:18; 10:2; 16:16–17; 17:25); another disciple called Simon the Canaanite (10:4); one of the Lord’s natural brothers (13:55); a former leper (26:6); and Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross (27:32). Notice how these people are sometimes distinguished from each other by attaching an alternate name, a family lineage, a known condition, or a hometown. A name could also be distinguished by stating the bearer’s occupation (such as “Simon, a tanner,” with whom Simon Peter stayed for a while in Acts 9–10).
While the New Testament mostly uses “Jesus” in reference to the Lord Jesus Christ, archaeological evidence is claimed for at least 71 “Yeshuas” in Israel around the time of the Lord’s crucifixion.2 We sometimes see Him identified separately from other people of the same name, notably as “Jesus of Nazareth” on many occasions (e.g. Mt. 26:71; Mk. 16:6; Jn. 19:19; Acts 2:22) and in one case, “the carpenter’s son” (Mt. 13:55). Of course, I don’t imply that these are only incidental details. God’s Spirit records details purposefully. But those details do have a practical origin.
So, the Lord as a Man on earth had a common name with a wonderful meaning, and He was humbly associated with an undesirable hometown (Jn. 1:46). But following His death, resurrection, and ascension, what comes next for the name “Jesus”?
What God is doing now
After the resurrection, the name “Jesus” remains intact. Note that in Mark 16:6, the angel tells the women visiting the tomb, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here.” He is still Jesus, but they were looking for a dead man’s body in a tomb, instead of the living Man in His resurrection body.
Also consider Peter’s bold declaration to the crowds in Acts 2:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised Him up…Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:22–24, 36).
Throughout Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, he interchangeably speaks of Jesus as Lord and Christ. All three titles are forever tied together in the Man of God’s choosing.
In Paul’s writings we see the power His name will have when He is publicly revealed:
Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11).
What form will His name take when He commands “every knee” to bow? Will it be proclaimed as Iesous, as Paul wrote in Greek? Will it be Yeshua, according to when He walked on earth? Or will it be some other form? Scripture doesn’t say, but when that name is publicly declared, everyone will be compelled to acknowledge that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
How should we respond?
In light of Philippians 2, I suggest that if everyone will someday be compelled to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, it should be our joyful privilege to do so now! But we must not make legal rules about these titles. Words don’t become holy by usage, or holier by stacking them together. We must use those three titles with true reverence for what each one means.
Throughout the New Testament, the most common name used by the apostles and teachers in the early church is simply “Lord.” It places His absolute rights and authority at the front of the conversation. In most other cases, the name “Jesus” is used in pairing with “Lord” or “Christ.” Sometimes, all three are used (1 Cor. 1:7-9). Scripture provides the patterns, so we should follow them.
At the same time, if you read older translations (notably the KJV), and compare to the full range of manuscripts available today (if you can read them) or other newer, accurate translations, something else appears: there may be more combinations of the three titles in some translations than actually exist in the best source texts! Scribes and translators were not immune to accidentally or intentionally multiplying the Lord’s titles. But each title has its own meaning, and different passages use different combinations of the titles to emphasize different things.3 If we get carried away in stacking titles, we can lose the meanings that God’s Spirit wants us to see.
I hope that helps answer your question! The team at Patterns of Truth would like to hear your further thoughts and concerns about this topic. Please engage the PT team in the comments section below.
1. Jehovah is a modified form of YHWH, the so-called “tetragrammaton” name of God in the Old Testament, thought to be pronounced “Yahweh.” (Ancient Hebrew didn’t use a Latin letter set, of course, so these are phonetic equivalents used by scholars.) To avoid mis-pronouncing Yahweh’s name and risk judgment for blasphemy, a common practice by Jews during and after the Babylonian captivity was to insert the vowel sounds for the Hebrew adonai (“Lord” or “master”) into the four consonants of YHWH and the result is approximately “YaHoWaiH” or, in modern English, “Jehovah.”
2. Palmer, Brian. “Was Jesus a common name back when he was alive?” Slate, December 24, 2008, with supporting credit given to Joseph P. Amar of the University of Notre Dame and Paul V.M. Flesher of the University of Wyoming. Accessed online: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2008/12/was-jesus-a-common-name-back-when-he-was-alive.html, April 23, 2022.
3. Example: In the original Greek New Testament, sometimes there is a reference to “Christ” and sometimes a reference to “the Christ.” Darby’s translation (DBY) preserves both types. Other translations may omit “the” as superfluous (for two instances, compare 1 Cor. 11:1 and 12:12 in DBY and ESV). Commentators have various ideas on what “the Christ” means, and one suggestion is that it refers to Christ in heaven together with His body of believers on earth, while “Christ” refers to Him personally. Another example: some commentators propose that when we read “Jesus Christ,” it emphasizes His time and ministry as the Man on earth, while “Christ Jesus” reminds us that He is now the Man in glory, seated at the Father’s right hand. These are just two examples where small differences can enhance the interpretation.