“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Juliet tried hard to convince Romeo that names don’t matter. To put it another way, for Juliet, who we are is not dependent upon a name, nor are we defined by a name. While I admire Shakespeare on many levels, on this point he’s wrong.
I think the real question is “Do any names matter?” And the Biblical answer to that is a resounding “YES!” What we learn as we read the Bible is that who we are is precisely dependent upon a name—the only name that matters.
For an ancient Israelite, one name in particular mattered more than any other name.
Exodus is the retelling of God’s powerful rescue of Israel out of the bondage of slavery and oppression in Egypt. God uses a human, Moses, to be his representative before Pharaoh during this miraculous rescue. To Pharaoh, in essence, it is as if Moses is God, performing signs and wonders, and delivering the Divine message to Pharaoh, with Aaron as his helper (Exod 4:15-16).
This is an awesome task! To represent the God of the universe to someone who does not know God is a frightening endeavor, especially if you don’t really know the God you are representing!
Moses instantly feels inferior to the task, asking “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exod 3:11) God never answers the question directly, but indicates that God’s presence will be sufficient. Simply put to Moses, “I will be with you.” (Exod 3:12)
The second, and possibly the most informative question that Moses asks is how to acknowledge God before the people. Here is God’s reply:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”Exodus 3:14-15 NIV
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.”
There is a long rabbit trail here concerning the name(s) God chooses in this revelation to Moses. Without going too far down that trail, we need some clarification here. The Hebrew phrase “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” is what the NIV translates as “I AM WHO I AM.” Without totally nerding out on Hebrew, we should know that depending on how one views this phrase, it can mean variously “I AM WHO I AM,” or “I AM WHAT I AM,” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE,” or any combination of these options. God’s revelation of being in this name shows that God is not dependent on anything, and everything else in all creation has its dependence upon God. You and I are human, we are tired, we are in a particular location at a particular time, etc. Simply put, we are finite. God simply IS.
And that’s the second name. What most English language Bibles translate as “LORD” in all capital letters, is the actually the 3rd person version of Ehyeh. Instead of “I AM”, the Hebrew name Yahweh (LORD) is means “HE IS.” (For more information on why the English translation does this, Bible Project has this great video.)
This name, Yahweh (LORD/HE IS), is the name of Israel’s God (Exod 20:2), the only god Israel is to worship (Exod 20:3), and the one whom his people are to represent well through bearing this name (Exod 20:7).
Bearing the Name
That last part, bearing or misusing the name of Yahweh, might be one of the most misunderstood commands of the Bible, and one that I intend to unpack a bit in my sermons over the next few weeks. But here’s the short take on what this command means:
- Humans have always been designed to bear the image of their Creator (Gen 1:27).
- Instead of bearing the image/name of their Creator, sinful humans decided to make a name for themselves (Gen 3:5; 11:4).
- The Creator then decides to create a new people to bear his image/name in the world, thus growing his reputation/name as well as theirs, in the process of bringing blessing to all humans (Gen 12:1-3).
- This new family commits to bearing the Creator’s name, Yahweh, and being representatives of the name/reputation of the Creator in the earth (Exod 19:5-6).
- This is not a light responsibility, and must be taken seriously. Bearing the name of Yahweh in a careless way brings guilt upon the people (Exod 20:7).
- (This point needs more unpacking, but…) That name/reputation has been transferred to Jesus, the name we must now represent, respect, and honor (Phil 2:6-11).
- This Jesus (which means “Yahweh Saves”) is the physical representation of Yahweh (John 8:58 – I AM), and the name of Jesus is the only name that brings us salvation (Acts 4:12).
- When we place our allegiance in the name of Jesus, coming to God through Jesus, we become chosen people, that priesthood of representatives in the world (1 Peter 2:4-10).
What’s in a name? EVERYTHING! And the name we need for salvation, the name we must bear carefully, the name we must represent to others is the name of Jesus.