“Jesus.” The very sound of the word evokes a response of excitement, wonder, and awe in millions of Christians. What once was a very common name has become so rare, in English-speaking areas, that it almost exclusively calls to mind the man of Nazareth who wore it centuries ago. Yet Jesus was such a common name at the time he lived that the writers of the gospels referred to him frequently as “Jesus of Nazareth,” “the Nazarene,” “the son of Joseph,” or “the carpenter’s son.” This would distinguish him from the others who were called “Jesus.”
There are five men in the New Testament who share this name (acts 13:6, Colossians 4:11, Matthew 27:16, Luke 3:29, and Hebrews 4:8; some of these are translated with the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus, which is Joshua.) In the Old Testament there are eight individuals or families designated by the name in its Hebrew forms. Josephus, a Jewish writer contemporary with Christ, mentions twenty men who were named Jesus. So it is interesting to note that, beginning in the second century, this name is no longer a popular choice for newborn sons. The reason for that seems to be that the Christians held the name in such reverence, and Jews considered it so controversial that it became very rare.
Tracing the origin of the name Jesus involves four languages. It comes into English from the Latin word Jesus, which was borrowed from Greek. The Greek word is derived from the Hebrew name “Yehoshua,” which in English is “Joshua.” Jesus and Joshua are identical names, only one is from the Greek form, while the other comes from Hebrew. Yehoshua is actually a sentence. It is composed from a shortened form of God’s Hebrew name, “Ya,” (from “Yahweh”), and a form of the verb yasha, which means “to save.” Help, liberate, deliver, give victory.” The name of Jesus, or Joshua, means “Yahweh is salvation,” or “Yahweh saves.”
Scanning a few verses in the Old Testament helps us to appreciate the meaning of the verb part of the name. Here are three passages where the verb yasha occurs. First it is translated “rescued” in Numbers 10:9.
When you go into battle in our own land against an enemy who is opposing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the LORD your God and rescued (yasha) from your enemies.
The word occurs in I Samuel 23:5 with the meaning “save.”
So David and his men went to Keilah and fought the Philistines and carried off their livestock. He inflicted heavy losses on the Philistines and saved (yasha) the people of Keilah.
Then it has the sense “give the victory” in Psalms 44:6-7.
I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory (yasha); but you give us victory (yasha) over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame.
The New Testament indicates that the name “Jesus” was chosen deliberately. In Luke 1:31, Mary is told by the angel Gabriel to give her child the name “Jesus.” The reason for this is explained in Matthew 1:21, when Joseph is told the same thing.
You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
This is a word play in Hebrew. “Jesus” and “save” are from the same root words. His very name communicated his mission. He was going to save – to liberate, to help, to give the victory – to his people. Now we can understand the angel’s announcement to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you…” (Luke 2:11). The name he wears means “Yahweh is salvation.” It becomes clearer what Peter wanted to convey when he preached “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The irony of those who mocked Jesus when he was crucified is made even more bitter when we are aware of the strong link between his name and the word “save.”
“He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself… Let God rescue him now…”
Through the first decades after Jesus’ death on the cross, the tight bonding between Jesus and “Yahweh’s salvation” became more evident. By the time the Apostle Paul faces his court trial, Jesus is often referred to by the special title: SAVIOR (II Timothy 1:10). Paul leaves us no doubt about what this means for him personally.
“But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (II Timothy 4:17-18).
For us today, right now, the connection between Jesus and salvation means that all of God’s resources have been made available for our benefit. He has come to save us from our sins, to liberate us from our fears, to rescue us from our empty lives and broken relationships. God has already “given us the victory” in Jesus, if we can only bring ourselves to trust in him. This is the only way we can be freed to live a courageous life and meet the obstacles and challenges all of us face every day.