He shall be called Jesus
Two perspectives and two names
Beyond his genealogy, Matthew’s attention shifts to Jesus’ nativity. His account has obvious dissimilarity from that in Luke, but these should not concern us too much, for each gospel pitches its presentation at a different audience and together they present a clearer picture of events.
For Matthew’s purposes, the first incident of significance was Joseph’s angelic visitation, an event whose historical precedents should have reassured the aggrieved husband that the legacy of Abraham was at stake. Once again, adoption of a heritage was the way to save it and that depended upon Joseph naming the child. Moreover, the name Jesus was a pointer to his Messianic mission and from the numerous biblical statements concerning God’s deliverance, it becomes clear what Jesus needed to achieve if he was to save his people from their sins.
The differing objectives of the two apostolic gospel nativities open up historical vistas that neatly interleave without ever covering the same terrain. Thus, Luke describes Zacharias’ experiences in the temple, Mary’s angelic visitor and her time with her relative Elizabeth. Matthew takes up the baton to address Joseph’s response to his wife’s condition, his supernatural caller and the naming of the child. Luke then recounts the birth of John the Baptist, the birth of Jesus and the child’s presentation at the temple. Matthew concludes by detailing the visit of the Magi, the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth, leaving Luke to expound the events when Jesus reached the age of twelve.
Luke, whilst focusing on Mary’s experience and the microcosm of cultic affairs, addressed a gentile audience who were interested in the Church’s relationship to Judaism and the teaching of John the Baptist. Thus, he mentions events in the temple, the experiences of temple employees (the shepherds1) and those of a priest (Zacharias, amongst whose family Mary spent time adjusting to all that had befallen her). His reputation as a careful historian and his particular perspective, suggests he used well-attested traditions from Levitical sources. Furthermore, some scholars suggest he was writing for a Roman official2, in which case his omission of Matthew’s material becomes more understandable. A derogatory portrayal of Herod the Great would have unsettled the Roman authorities, for they generally held his achievements in high regard.
By contrast, Matthew, writing for the likes of his Levite peers, sought to relate the Hebrew Bible to the life of Christ and so used his nativity to explore the precedents for Jesus role. Given his audience, it is easy to appreciate his omission of Luke’s material. His primary concerns were Jesus’ claim to David’s throne and the legal basis of Messiah’s prophetic priesthood. Luke’s details, already familiar to his primary audience, would have served only to blunt his theological focus.
Two lives turned upside down
For Matthew, the significance of Joseph’s heritage emerged only as he adopted Jesus as his son, a process that began when this heir to David’s throne learnt of Mary’s condition. Joseph was a righteous man and, perceiving this as an adulterous pregnancy, he acted from his convictions. Under Moses’ Law, Mary’s crime carried the penalty of death (Deut 22:13-24). Moreover, amidst his culture, matters of honour and shame were of great import. A public accusation would have disgraced both Mary and her family, therefore he decided, for their sake, to deal with the matter quietly presumably through a divorce as, by Jesus’ day, Judaism considered that an equally righteous option to execution3.
Joseph had made considerate plans, but they fell apart as an angel appeared, instructing him to take Mary as his wife (Matt 1:20–21) and instructing him to name the child. This message must have reminded him of Abraham’s experience, of the angel that announced Sarah’s conception and the name given to her child (Gen 16:11). Abraham’s visitor spoke a life-transforming message. Joseph, like Abraham, found himself in a fruitless marriage and facing an uncertain future (Gen 17:19). Like Abraham, he had seen life working out a different way (Gen 16:3) until an angel’s words announced that his legacy would take a different path. However, whilst Joseph might have reflected upon Abraham’s situation, he knew the patriarch was not alone in receiving such a message. Sarah’s maid, Hagar, also found her life turned upside down, then interrupted by an angel and in many ways, her circumstances were far closer to Joseph’s.
Sharing Hagar’s dilemma
Both Hagar and Joseph had cause to anticipate their circumstances improving, for Hagar had born Ishmael, a first son for Abraham, and Joseph had found himself a wife. Yet, for both, the conception of a child transformed their dreams to nightmares and brought unanticipated difficulties (Gen 16:4-6). In response both fled, Hagar into the wilderness, but Joseph into the security of tradition and law. As a result, both the unborn children appeared destined to vanish from the scriptural stage.
Hagar could have continued running and run on into obscurity. Joseph could have quietly set aside his problem and with it all chance of notoriety. However, as each vexed individual reposed from their respective dilemma4, so their salvation appeared. To both, the Angel of the Lord brought an equivalent message, go back and endure the social humiliation. For both, future blessing lay in embracing that which they sought to escape. Yet, each returned with a precious gift to help them persevere, a hope-filled name for their child.
The scriptures seldom record God directly naming children but when that happened it was always for a purpose. For Hagar it was to reassure her that her prayer was heard (for Ishmael means ‘God hears’5), God would included her child in the promise to Abraham and Ishmael would indeed father a multitude of descendants. Similarly, the name Jesus served to reassure Joseph that by adopting Mary’s child as his own, God would include Jesus in a promise given to Joseph’s ancestors.
The name Jesus means ‘Jehovah is salvation’6 and the context was adoption, therefore the promise was one given through Jeremiah. As the prophet proclaimed that Jehoiakim had forfeited the throne (Jeremiah 22:24-25), he announced that the time had come to judge the nation’s leaders, who, by neglect of shepherding their people, had left the flock strewn upon the hillsides (Jer 23:1-2). Then came God’s promise (Jer 23:3-6), the scattered sheep would be gathered and shepherds would be raised over them, for a wise and righteous branch would arise from David’s house and in his day, Judah would be saved. God fulfilled the promise to Hagar and from Ishmael sprung twelve clans (Gen 25:12-16). Similarly, the adoption of Zerubbabel fulfilled the promise given by Jeremiah. This left Joseph (and by implication Matthew’s readers) to ponder whether this angel’s words would be any less assured.
The implications of naming the child
The significance of name giving comes in part from its scriptural link with authority, for, where relationships are clear, the one in authority usually names the person (or thing) that fall within their sphere of influence. Thus, it was common for a person who came under a different authority to receive a new name that reflected their altered status, thus Daniel gained the Mesopotamian name Belteshazzar (Dan 1:7), Pharaoh renamed Joseph as Zaphenath-paneah (Gen 41:45) and God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (Gen 17:5). Similarly, in Genesis we find God naming day and night, heaven and earth (Gen 1:5, 8, 10), then delegating authority to Adam who promptly names both the animals he rules over and his new helper (Gen 1:26, 2:19-20, 23).
In practice, although a mother often named her child7, its father, as God’s delegated authority over his family, had the final say8. The life of Hagar illustrates this, for God told Hagar to name her son Ishmael, but Abraham gave the child that name (Gen 16:11, 15). Similarly, Benjamin’s mother called her child Ben-oni, ‘son of my sorrow’, but Jacob over-ruled her to call him ‘son of the right hand’, a name that reflected his significance as favoured son (Gen 35:18). There is even an example of this from the ranks of Jesus own extended family. When Mary’s relative Elizabeth gave birth to a son, her relatives, querying her suggested name of John, asked the child’s father for a final ruling (Luke 1:13 63). Thus, by giving a child its name a father could explicitly accept it as his own9.
Simple righteousness might have spared Mary, yet God expected Joseph to go further. The angel’s instruction, to confer a name, asked Joseph to completely accept the child, to allow the grace of God to triumph over the zealous application of the Law, thereby surrendering the birthright of his family for this God-sent saviour’s use.
His people and their aim
Thus far, I have focused on the naming process rather than the name itself. However, Hebrew names often marked memorable events or reflect aspirations (at times prophetic). Hence, Peleg carried the name ‘division’ because, in his day, they divided the land (Gen 10:25) and Seth received a name that meant ‘compensation’ because his parents expected that he would compensate them for the loss of Abel (Gen 4:25).
Jesus was to bear the prophetic name ‘Jehovah is salvation’ because he would save ‘his people’, i.e. those who acknowledged his sovereignty, ‘from their sins’. However, the modern English concept of ‘sin’ is remarkably broad and a contemporary reader could easily miss the angel’s point. The word used in Matthew (hamartia), comes from archery where it described missing the target. Thus, the angel was referring to a group who, whilst trying to hit the mark, were going adrift in their aim10.
In the Hebrew Bible references to forgiving sin abound (e.g. Jer 31:34) but it contains no explicit reference to salvation from sin. Perhaps the nearest it comes is a poetic parallelism that equates ‘God our salvation’ with ‘atonement for sins’ (Ps 79:9). However, the Angel’s phrase was a particularly succinct reference to a sort of salvation about which it often talks.
The scriptures, as Joseph knew them, depict various prophets bringing the unambiguous message that God alone could save (e.g. Isa 43:11, Hos 13:4). Yet, there is a clear emphasis on salvation from enemies. Thus, one of Moses’ great assertions was that the Lord would save Israel from her enemies (Deut 20:4, 28:7), just as in their deliverance from Pharaoh (Exodus 14:30). Similarly, during the time of the Kings, Israel’s enemies were once again the major focus for salvation, as when the Lord saves Jerusalem from an Assyrian siege (2 Kgs 19:34). The Psalms frequently extol the Lord for saving his people from their enemies, even if these foes occasionally take metaphorical form (e.g. Ps 22:20-21), are the anonymous instigators of evil (e.g. Ps 37:40) or hide behind their attributes (e.g. 2 Sam 22:3). It happens less frequently, but the scriptures do occasionally credit the Lord with saving in other ways, for example from death (Ps 6:2-5), from drought-induced famine (Gen 45:7) and from wild animals (1 Sam 17:37).
God’s people and the covenant of Moab
A single common thread runs through the biblical inventory of woes from which the Lord saves. They all feature amongst the curses attached to the covenant of Moab. These covenantal curses lie behind Psalm 79:9’s suggestion that ‘God our salvation’ equates to ‘atonement for sin’, for they only affected an unclean land and atonement provided a nation’s way to keep their land ritually clean. However, such atonement was only possible when the nation humbled itself and was willing to allow God’s commandments to set it back on course.
Under the terms of the Covenant of Moab Israel became God’s own people and, as was typical for a covenant of that period, both parties expected to benefit from it11, the weaker to gain the security of a powerful ally, the greater to gain honour and loyal service. It spelled out what the Israelite’s Lord required of them, it explained the divine blessings that accompanied obedient service and, again quite typically, it provided punitive measures in the form of curses. At the time of its instigation, Moses had tribes declare the blessings from Mount Gerizim and the curses from Mount Ebal, thus ensuring that everyone was aware of them (Deut 27:9-13).
The blessings, the ‘up side’ that came with obedience, included the ability to defeat their enemies, plentiful rains, general fertility and the right to dwell in the land. Their antithesis, the curses, included succumbing to ones foes, the affliction of illness, suffering through drought, having your dead body consumed by wild animals and ultimately being scattered amongst the nations. The penalties stipulated at Moab might seem harsh, but were the inevitable consequences that one might expect from a powerful ally withdrawing their support, especially when through it came peace, justice, life and order.
Psalm 119, guidance for those who have gone astray
The extent to which the national arrow that was Israel experienced blessings or curses provided an effective ‘off target’ indicator and an opportunity for in-flight adjustment. When they began to suffer the curses, the way back was to remember the terms of the covenant, whereupon ‘God our saviour’ would personally get involved and begin delivering them from wherever the curses had left them scattered (Deut 30:1-3).
At the corporate level, all that Israel had to do when the curses bit was remember their Lord’s commands, repent of their disobedience and come under the authority of faithful shepherds. The process was similar at a personal level. Psalm 119:1-176, an extended acrostic meditation on the right attitude towards God’s law, gives us a glimpse of this ‘remembering’ in action. It forces anyone who engages with it to ‘remember’ Gods commands and then it provides a voice for those who recognise their need12. In the final section each of the eight verses starts with a cry for assistance, deliverance or salvation, each then ends with a statement that accepts the proper status of God’s commandments. The final verse sums it all up – ‘I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, For I do not forget Your commandments’ (Psalm 119:176, NASV).
A flight of misdirected arrows
Throughout the history of Israel, one can trace the waxing and waning of the blessings and the curses. It is particularly evident in the book of Judges, where the author consistently links Israel’s subjugation by enemies with ignorance of God’s ways or rebellion against them (Judges 2:10-19). Repeatedly, the people realise their error and repeatedly the arrival of a new judge turns the tide and saves them.
This ebb and flow continues through the dynasties of the kings and into the time of the later prophets. Those men of godly wisdom realised the source of this dynamic all to well for in their writings the concept of ‘the enemy’ becomes much more diffuse. The enemy was not the king next door and his army, though that was part of it. Rather it was the whole impact of the curses brought by disobedience.
To those that were going astray the prophets brought God’s warnings and pleas for a change of heart. However, as people neglected or, in some cases, blatantly rejected the covenant, they faced the consequential curses, repeatedly leaving God to lament the self-inflicted suffering that befell them through their continued ignorance (Isa 5:13-14, Hos 4:6).
Eventually, the disobedience of first the Northern Kingdom, then Judah, carried them so far under the curse that they suffered exile. This left the prophet Daniel to pour out his heart in a foreign land and tell it how it was. “As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us; yet we have not made our prayer before the Lord our God, that we might turn from our iniquities and understand Your truth” (Dan 9:13, NKJV).
Through Jeremiah, God returned to Psalm 119’s metaphor, of sheep that have gone astray, to describe the scattered people at that time13. “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray; They have turned them away on the mountains. They have gone from mountain to hill; They have forgotten their resting place” (Jer 50:6 NKJV).
Because of their disobedience, these people had gone off course and they were no longer where they should have been. They had followed the wrong path and had missed their God given goal of a resting place amidst green pastures14. Just like a misdirected arrow, they had failed to find their mark. Now they lay uselessly adrift of the target and scattered upon the hillsides. They needed to turn again to God’s commandments, remember them and let them realign the nation’s trajectory toward the place of rest.
As a nation, Israel had seen endeavour after endeavour leave the bow on misguided trajectories that resulted in corporate sin. This process had started with their rebellion in Sinai, continued with lax attitudes to the law and culminated in the idolatry and bloodshed that brought exile. Throughout the centuries, the national life of Israel had swayed between blessings and curses like a reed blowing in the wind. As First Century Joseph listened to the angel’s words, many of Israel’s leaders were avidly assimilating Hellenistic and Roman culture, forging unholy alliances and shedding innocent blood. His nation was once again adrift of its divine target and about to suffer the curse of subjection to foreign rule.
Often the Lord’s salvation involved the divinely initiated actions of a heroic figure, a David for the Philistines (2 Sam 3:18), a Gideon for the Midianites (Judg 6:16) or an Elijah for an Ahab (1 Kgs 17:1-45). Amidst the bleak scenario that was First Century Judea, an angel announced the advent of a new deliverer, a child who would inherit God’s promises to David and a king who would save his people, a latter day judge who would banish veering and a saviour who would make an end to misguided trajectories. His name was Jesus for he would save his people from the curses of an unclean land.
Return to outline
of The Emmaus View book
1 Edersheim, The life and times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:186-187.
2 T. E. Provence, “Theophilus,” ISBE, 4:831-32.
3 France, Matthew, 77.
4 Hagar’s rest finds its counterpart in Joseph’s slumber.
5 Strong, “3458 יִשְׁמָעֵאל,” Concordance.
6 Strong, “2424 Ἰησοῦς,” Concordance.
7 Examples are numerous, and include the naming of the majority of the sons of Jacob (e.g. Gen 29:35).
8 The Bible presents an idealised arrangement (Col 3:18-20, Prov 6:20). Clearly alternative arrangements exist where people are unwilling, or unable, to work within that ideal. Yet, such exceptions do not negate God’s preference for parents, especially fathers, to exercise benevolent authority over children.
9 France, Matthew, 77.
10 G. W. Bromiley, “Sin,”ISBE,4:518-525. In particular 518.
11 J. Arthur Thompson, “Covenant,” ISBE, 1:790-93.
12 For this aspect of the cursed penitent turning to God’s commandments see especially Psalm 119:65-72.
13 As this section of Jeremiah refers with hindsight to both the Assyrian conquest and to the Babylonian conquest under Nebuchadnezzar, it seems reasonable to assume that it describes a people in exile.
14 Hebrews 4:1-13 has much to say on this ‘rest’ but concludes that the Christian should be diligent to enter into it and not fall through following the example of disobedience.