Who is Our Firm Foundation? Names and Descriptions of the Messiah

Just over 2000 years ago the great Apostle Paul wrote by revelation that Jesus Christ was the foundation for every Christian life, and no one could lay any other foundation than him (1 Cor. 3:11). He also said that each of us “should be careful how he builds” (1 Cor. 3:10). Every builder knows how important the foundation of any project is. When it comes to our Christian life, however, our “foundation” is even more important than the foundation of a building because Jesus is not only our foundation, but our example. The more we know about Jesus, the clearer we will be about what and how to build our lives as Christians. One of the most important ways that God has chosen to reveal His Son is by the names and descriptions that are given of him in the Bible.

Defining the Terms
The name of our Savior, “Jesus,” and the titles and appellations that the Word of God uses to describe him, are very helpful in understanding both the man himself and his mission, and also how to live as Christians. Before we begin to delve into some of the names and titles of Jesus, however, it greatly helps if we define the terms we will be using. Although the word “name” is used in different ways, properly and most usually, a “name” is a word or words which are given to a person close to the time he or she is born and by which he or she will be known in society. We refer to this as a “proper name,” in contrast to an “appellation,” “title,” or “description,” which we will define below. This article will focus on some of the names and appellations of Jesus, and thus will deal with names that are Semitic in nature. Although a full article on the names in the Bible would have to cover the customs involving Greek and Roman names, we do not do that in this article.

Proper Names
Proper names are constructed differently in different cultures. Typically in American culture, a baby is given a “first name” and often a “middle name,” and retains the “family name” or “last name” as the last part of his or her “full name.” Thus, my first name is John and my middle name is William, both of which were names of my ancestors. My “last name” is Schoenheit, which is an Americanized spelling of the German name that has come down to me from my distant ancestors. In our Western culture, the “last name” typically continues generation after generation and families are recognized by the “last name” (sometimes referred to as the “given name”). Hebrew culture treated names differently. There was no “last name” that was passed on from one generation to the next. Usually a Hebrew man or woman had one “name.” Of course, many people had the same name. Thus, for example, there are nine people called “Amariah” in the Bible, twelve called “Hananiah,” and eight called “Jehoram.”

To alleviate any confusion as to who was being referred to by any specific name, it was common in Semitic culture for people to clarify who they were by using the name of their father as a “last name.” Most students of the Bible are familiar with King David, whose father was Jesse. David is called “David son of Jesse” in the Bible (2 Sam. 23:1), but calling him that sounds more like a description than a name. However, there is no “the” in the Hebrew text, and Young’s Literal Translation is correct in translating the phrase, “David son of Jesse.” The Hebrew is simply “David ben Jesse,” which was David’s “full name.” Solomon’s full name was “Solomon son of David” (Solomon ben David; 1 Chron. 29:22). Similarly, the full name of Solomon’s son Rehoboam was “Rehoboam son of Solomon” (Rehoboam ben Solomon). It was the same for women as for men. For example, although most English versions refer to Dinah as “the daughter of Jacob,” the Hebrew text simply refers to her as “Dinah daughter of Jacob” (Dinah bat Jacob; Gen. 34:3). [1]

An interesting biblical study is to note when people are called by their “full names.” Around the house, I usually called my son “Sam” unless he was in trouble, then I would call him, “Samuel Schoenheit.” We all know that when someone calls us by our full name, something serious is happening. That is usually the case in the Bible, too. After Peter had denied Jesus, Jesus needed to have a serious talk with him, so he said, “Simon son of John…” (John 21:15). [2] Peter knew in an instant by the way Jesus addressed him that this was going to be a serious talk. First, Jesus called him by his birth name, Simon. When Jesus had first met Peter, he changed his name from Simon to “Cephas,” which is the Aramaic form of the Greek name, “Peter” (John 1:42). However, in this serious moment, Jesus refers to Peter as “Simon ben John,” his full birth name. [3] Jesus is only called by his “full name” one time in the Bible, and that was by the Jews who were confused by what he was saying (John 6:42; compare to John 1:45, which is close).

Since in the Hebrew culture no “last name” or “family name” continued generation after generation, if a person was not familiar with the family, by the third generation any direct connection to ancestors by name was lost. Therefore it was common for people to be very aware of the names that had been used by their ancestors, and use those names over and over. Thus, when Zachariah and Elizabeth were going to name their baby “John” (the Baptist), there was much concern among family members, who pointed out, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name” (Luke 1:61).

Since the identity of the family line was not passed down in the name, it was also quite common among Hebrews that people were “named” by other things, such as where they came from. Some good examples are Mary Magdalene, who was from the town of Magdala in Naphtali, Abishag the Shunammite (1 Kings 1:3), who was from Shunem in Issachar, or Uriah the Hittite, whose ancestors were Hittites.

The Bible contains about 1400 individual names, and demonstrates the wide variety of subjects chosen by parents as names. Names that came from nature include Deborah (bee), Rachel (ewe), and Jonah (dove). Names that refer to physical characteristics include Edom (red) and Hakkatan (small one). Many names reflected a hope or wish, or some circumstance in the parent’s life at the time. The sons of Jacob fit that category very well. “Reuben” the firstborn son of Leah, the less loved wife, means, “Look, a son.” Her second son, “Simeon” means “hearing,” for she said that Yahweh heard she was “hated” (loved less) and so He gave her a second son. [4] Another common practice in Hebrew culture was the “sentence name,” in which the name itself was compound and made into a sentence. “Abraham” means “Father of a multitude,” “Elimelech” means “God is king,” and Hosea named one of his children, “Loammi,” which means “Not my people” to show God’s rejection of Israel due to their sin.

Appellation, Title, and Description
In contrast to a “proper name,” an “appellation” is a designation or identifying “name,” by which someone is known, due to some circumstance or characteristic. Calling Jesus Christ “Immanuel” is a good example. It was not Jesus’ “proper name,” but is an appellation, a designation by which he is known (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23). In our common English vernacular, when we use the word “name” we include appellations, even though an appellation is not a “proper name.” A “title” is a type of appellation, marking some honor, dignity, or distinction due to something such as rank (Admiral), office (Mr. President), or attainment (Dr.). Titles are often used in conjunction with the name, but do not have to be (Archbishop Smith; Sir Hillary; Queen Elizabeth). “Lord,” which we use today of Jesus Christ, was a common title in both the Hebrew culture (“adon”) and the Greco-Roman culture (“kurios”).

In contrast to a “name” or “appellation,” a “description” is verbal representation of the person focusing on an attribute or attributes. For example, when the Messiah is referred to as “a man of sorrows” (Isa. 53:3), or “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20), he is being described, not technically “named.” However, sometimes the difference between a name and short description gets so blurred that it is hard to tell the difference between them. For example, when John the Baptist saw Jesus, he said to his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). It is common to hear Christians today say that “Lamb of God” is a “name” of Jesus Christ, but the way it is used in Scripture, even though it is short and pithy, is actually a description. No one that we know of who was contemporary with Jesus spoke to him and addressed him as “Lamb of God.” However, through the years it is clear that what was a description in the Bible has become a common “name” (appellation) for him. Today, Jesus is clearly addressed as “Lamb of God” in Christian poetry, songs, and even prayers.

At this point we can understand why the list of the “names” of the Messiah often differs from organization to organization. First, as we have seen, it can be difficult to distinguish between a name, appellation, and description. Second, over the years descriptions sometimes become used as names, and people are reticent to exclude a “name” that is well known to them. Third, descriptions of the Messiah are generally so important in revealing his life and ministry, and the actual list of genuine “names” is so short, that most people feel that it is important to include some name-like descriptions of the Messiah. After all, a major reason for listing the names of the Messiah in the first place is so that we all will have a clearer picture of his life and ministry so we can build our lives upon the firm foundation of Christ. A few of the names and appellations of our Savior, Jesus Christ, are below.

Jesus
We know it was very important to God that His Son be called “Jesus,” because He sent an angel to both Joseph and Mary, and told each of them separately to name their child “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21, Luke 1:31). Technically, “Jesus” is the only proper name of our Savior, and his “full name” would be “Jesus son of Joseph.” The Greek text has the definite article and calls him, “Jesus the son of Joseph.” This sounds like a description, but it is a rendering of what would have been simply “Jesus son of Joseph” in the Hebrew or Aramaic that would have been spoken by his parents and most of his fellow countrymen (John 6:42). The Peshitta Aramaic text has “Jesus bar Joseph” (the Etheridge Translation of the Aramaic done in 1849 reads; “Jeshu bar Jauseph”).

The name “Jesus” has quite a history. The full Hebrew name is Jehoshua, more properly pronounced “Yehoshua.” There is no “J” in Hebrew, but the Hebrew letter yod gets consistently represented as a “J” in English despite the fact it has a “Y” sound. Jehoshua is the name of the man commonly known as “Joshua.” Both Jesus and Joshua were divinely given their names. Joshua was originally named “Hoshea,” (salvation, savior), but Moses changed his name and added the “J” prefix on the front representing “Yah,” God (Num. 13:16). Thus, Jehoshua became a sentence-name composed of the name of God and “savior” or “salvation.”

The problem with a “sentence name” is that the words in the sentence can be arranged in many different ways. Normally this is not a problem because the people who know the person get the sense of the name from the person and the family. Some of the ways that Jehoshua can be understood are: “Yah is salvation,” “Yah our Savior,” “Yah is his Salvation” or “The Salvation of Yah.” [5]

Jehoshua also occurred in a shortened form, Jeshua (pronounced Ye-shu´-a), and this is the name that most modern Hebrew speakers associate with Jesus. When the angel appeared to Joseph and Mary to tell them what God wanted them to name their child, we do not know whether he said “Jehoshua” or “Jeshua,” because both of those names became Iesous in the Greek text that we have today. When the Hebrew text was translated into Greek starting with the Septuagint, about 250 B.C., Jehoshua became Iesous (pronounced “?-?´-sus”). Eventually the Greek Iesous became the English “Jesus,” but that history is too long to cover, and involves the evolution of the English alphabet and its pronunciation. Suffice it to say that today, “Jesus” is the accepted transliteration of the Greek, while “Joshua” would be his accepted Hebrew name. [6]

It is hard to say too much about the name “Jesus,” the only “proper name” of God’s only begotten Son. The angel said God named him Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). From that angelically given context, understanding the sentence-name of Jesus as “Yah is salvation,” or “The Salvation of Yah” both make good sense. The great gloom that hangs over every person’s life is the fact that it will come to an end. Due to Adam’s sin, every person will die. There is no amount of love, fortune, or fame in this life that is really meaningful without everlasting life. Without salvation and everlasting life, the greatest achievements of any man are simply like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: they simply do not matter. On the other hand, if there is salvation from sin and death through the work of “Jesus,” the salvation of Yahweh, life matters. Can that be said clearly enough? Life matters IF salvation and everlasting life are real—and they are.

A closing remark that should be made about the name “Jesus” is that the power and authority of the name clearly transcends languages. The disciples healed people and expelled demons from people using the name of Jesus. Those early disciples would have been speaking Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, certainly, but perhaps other ancient languages as well. English, Spanish, and many other modern languages would not evolve for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, as the languages evolved, something did not: the power in the name of Jesus. That name, no matter how translated, transliterated, or pronounced, is the name of the real man who sits at God’s right hand and has authority over His creation. Jesus knows when we are speaking about him, and he backs up our use of his name with his authority.

Son of God
The appellation “Son of God” was much more powerful in the biblical culture than it is in our modern culture. In the “patron and client” [7] culture of the Bible, the son of a powerful person had power and authority simply by virtue of who he was. Although there is some of that in our culture today, modern American culture does not assign status because of birth family, but instead each person must earn his or her position in life. Ancient culture was more stratified and class oriented. The authority that Jesus had simply because he was God’s Son was clearly demonstrated shortly before his crucifixion. He did not have to die. As the son of the King, God, he had more than 12 legions of angels (72,000) at his command, and they could have easily defeated the entire army of Rome (Matt. 26:53). However, as any good and godly child, Jesus did not abuse his position but obeyed his Father and did what it took to save mankind, even though it meant terrible suffering and even his death. Using the word “although,” the book of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus did not take unearned advantage of his family position. “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Having been obedient even unto death, His Father recognized his maturity, raised him to His own right hand and gave him “All authority in heaven and on earth…” (Matt. 28:18).

Jesus Christ lived his life in such a way that God saw fit to make him the very foundation of the Church, and as “sons of God” via the New Birth, we Christians should learn from him. It is one thing to be happy to have the privileges of being born into the family of God, such as righteousness imputed by faith and authority to use the name of Jesus. However, it is another thing to have those family privileges anchored in a life of obedience and sacrifice. Jesus showed us how to walk as children of God. We need to honestly evaluate our lives, and if we are not serving as we should, make the necessary changes to “live a life worthy” of our family name (Eph. 4:1). If we serve and sacrifice here and now, we will reign with Jesus in the future (2 Tim. 2:12).

Wall peg (Nail; Tent Peg)
The book of Zechariah contains a verse that has three appellations of Jesus Christ.

Zechariah 10:4 (NET Bible) [8]
From him [the tribe of Judah] will come the cornerstone, the wall peg, the battle bow, and every ruler.

While it is quite easy to understand the appellations “cornerstone” and “battle bow,” and how they apply to Jesus Christ, the appellation “wall peg” is more difficult. First, many modern versions read “tent peg,” as if this verse is referring to one of the many tent stakes that supports a tent. That is not its meaning here. The meaning here is “the wall peg.” The single word “peg” is used in Isaiah 22:23 and 25. Tenney notes, “Such pegs were driven into the walls of houses and used as hangers for various articles.” [9] Keil and Delitzsch write, “This figure [of the nail] is to be explained from the arrangement of eastern houses, in which the inner walls are provided with a row of large nails or plugs for hanging the house utensils upon.” [10] Like houses, tents had supports for hanging things too, so everything would not sit in the dirt on the floor. Inside a tent, the “nail” would refer to, “The large peg inside an Oriental tent on which is hung most of its valuable furniture. On Messiah hang all the glory and hope of His people.” [11]

When Jesus is referred to as the Cornerstone, the Battle Bow, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Righteous Judge, and other such appellations and descriptions, we get the feeling of power and authority. However, there is another aspect of Jesus Christ. Just as our wall hooks and hangers allow us to keep our lives properly organized, without Jesus Christ no life is truly organized. Many people living on earth today seem to be well organized and doing fine without Jesus Christ. Good Christians, however, are not deceived by outward appearances. Without him, everything we own, including our hopes and dreams, sit on the floor in the dirt, awaiting certain destruction. Jesus Christ is the only sure foundation any person can have in his or her life, and it is important that we learn about him and diligently build our lives upon him. [12]

Endnotes

[1] In Hebrew, “ben” is “son of” while “bat” is “daughter of.”
[2] Peter’s father is known by two names in the Bible. “Jonah” (Matt. 16:17), and “John” (John 1:42; 21:15-17). The Bible does not explain why Peter’s father has two names. It is possible that his birth name was John, as the Gospel of John twice indicates, but because he was in the fishing business he picked up the name “Jonah.” He was more commonly known by that name. Some later copyists tried to harmonize the gospels of Matthew and John by changing the name “John” to “Jonah,” in the Gospel of John, which is why “Jonas” always appears in the King James Version. However, modern textual research shows that Peter’s father is called by two different names. Although that bothers some people, it is not a problem. Many people are called by different names in different situations.
[3] Although it is not explicitly stated that the family patriarch led the family in the worship of God, the heads of families, such as Abraham, are consistently said to build altars and worship, while there is no record of a woman or child doing so. The implication is not that the man worshipped on his own while his wife (or wives) and children did not worship, but rather that the head of the family led the worship of the family.
[4] The “name” of God in the Old Testament is “Yahweh,” sometimes referred to as “Jehovah,” although that spelling does not exist in the Hebrew (technically, neither does the spelling “Yahweh.” Hebrew does not have the vowels, so the name is YHWH in the written text. We supply the vowels as we believe the name would have been pronounced). It is used more than 6000 times in the Old Testament. “Names” such as “Elohim,” and “El Shaddai,” are titles, not God’s proper name.
[5] Various ways the “sentence name” of Jehoshua can be constructed can be found in All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible by Herbert Lockyer; Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names, by Alfred Jones; and some Bible Encyclopedia articles on Jehoshua, Joshua, and Jesus.
[6] The fact that the names Joshua and Jesus are the same has led to some confusion. In the King James Version of the Bible, for example, “Jesus” is said to have brought the Tabernacle into the Promised Land (Acts 7:45; it should be “Joshua”), and he is also confused with Joshua in Hebrews 4:8.
[7] For further study on the patron-client relationship see TruthOrTradition.com/patron
[8] Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible® copyright © 1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. Bible.org. All rights reserved.
[9] Merrill Tenney, editor; The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Regency Reference Library, Grand Rapids, MI, 1975), vol. 4, p. 358, “nail.”
[10] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament; Volume 10, The Minor Prophets (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, reprinted 2006), p. 584.
[11] R. Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, D. Brown; A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody MA, reprinted 2008), p. 692.
[12] There are many other appellations and descriptions of Jesus Christ in addition to the ones handled in this article. You can find some in our book, One God & One Lord, in the appendix “Names and Titles of Jesus Christ.”

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