The Sanctity of God’s Name

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There is an inseparable link between one’s name and one’s reputation. That is an ancient concept found in the wisdom literature of the Bible. Proverbs 22:1 says that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” In a time when major media outlets do not seem to care about their reputations, I’m still willing to argue that this biblical concept has not been totally lost in our modern era, as there are at least a few popular voices that recognize this truth. For instance, the founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, once remarked that “a brand for a company is like a reputation for a person; you earn a reputation by trying to do hard things well.” Warren Buffett once noted that “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” Surely Mr. Buffett knew that he wasn’t being original. Thousands of years before him, King Solomon said that just “as dead flies cause even a bottle of perfume to stink, so a little foolishness spoils great wisdom and honor” (Ecclesiastes 10:1, NLT).

I recently became amused at how it seems to be deeply ingrained in our nature to want to find security in knowing if we can put trust in a name or brand. As Christmas and Hanukkah draw closer, online shopping becomes a well-traveled avenue in our home. However, just the other day my wife and I backed out of making a purchase online because we had never heard of the company that we had considered doing business with. We did not know if we could trust them because we were not familiar with the name. I was then reminded that this is precisely why God goes to great lengths to be known by what He does. We put trust in His Name, and yet His Name is informed by who He is and what He does. Is it any wonder, then, that God fiercely protects and safeguards His Name? 

We do not actually know God’s real name!

God protects His Name in a variety of ways, the most obvious being the commandment to not take His Name in vain (Exodus 20:7). This, of course, has far more to do with our actions as His people rather than how a name for God flows from our lips. However, one of the most overlooked ways that God protects His Name may also be the most surprising, which is that we do not actually know God’s real name! Why is this? 

What’s in a Name?

First, in the ancient Near Eastern mind, being able to name something suggested having authority over it. This concept is rooted in Genesis when God created and named the elements of His creation. Also, when God gave humankind dominion over creation (Genesis 1:26–28), one of the first acts of authority that Adam exercised was naming the creatures over which he had dominion ( 2:18–20). Compare this to today, when parents exercise authority over children and pets by naming them. Second, in the ancient Near Eastern mind, knowing someone’s name meant at least having the power to summon that individual. This still holds true in relationships today—at the very least we have the power to call another person to our attention so long as we know that person’s name. Furthermore, relationship experts are quick to acknowledge that there is a balance of power within a relationship between two persons so long as both parties are willing to equally disclose and reveal themselves to one another. 

God determines what we are allowed to call Him, and He has the authority to preserve Himself by retaining an element of mystery to His identity.

However, God would have none of the above when it comes to His relationship to humankind. As the sage mused in Proverbs 30:4, “Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name, if you know?” This is not to say that God doesn’t disclose and reveal Himself to mankind at all; however, His transcendence dictates that He will always be supreme. God determines what we are allowed to call Him, and He has the authority to preserve Himself by retaining an element of mystery to His identity. This is especially evident in how we address Him. Notice that all of the biblical names for God are really divine titles, attributes, or even a combination of the two. But not a single one of those names can stand alone to capture all of God’s identity; thus, we have many names for the same God. But what about His covenant name given before Moses in Exodus 3? 

What God’s Name Reveals About Him

Although this is a contested point between the various circles of both Judaism and Christianity,1 it is safe to assert that by the time God entered into a covenant with the nation of Israel, mankind’s understanding of the power and authority in naming something had evolved. One Bible scholar, Kenneth Turner, observed that “it was common in the ancient world (Egypt included) to think that humans could manipulate the gods by naming or defining them. . . . In contrast, Yahweh is not like any other god and must not be treated as such, especially by His own people.”2 Turner asserts that God’s holy covenant Name, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), may be thought of as “sort of a non-definition promoting divine freedom; He cannot be manipulated or limited to a short definition (e.g., ‘I am whoever I say I am’).”3 Thus, this understanding of the Name highlights God’s self-existence and transcendence. 

He is both immanent and transcendent, mysterious yet knowable.

Simultaneously, the divine Name still asserts God’s very existence, standing in contrast to the sheer non-existence of false gods. In this understanding, the Name ensures God’s immanence and His presence with His people. Therefore, Turner concludes that perhaps the Bible’s most holy name for God is one of both “divine freedom and divine presence” which is found to “cohere with two later texts in Exodus in which Yahweh reflects on his own name” (see Exodus 33:19 and 34:6–7).4 What is so marvelous about the divine Name is that, almost paradoxically, it captures the complexity of God. He is both immanent and transcendent, mysterious yet knowable.

The Power of Jesus’ Name

But what about Jesus (Yeshua)? I am willing to contend that everything that has been said so far about Yahweh supports the truth that Jesus is in fact both God-incarnate and the promised Messiah. Let’s survey how God inspired the writers of the New Testament to establish Jesus’ identity. 

Remember that in Genesis, God spoke creation into existence. For instance, He commanded light to enter His creation (1:3). In other words, God’s creative power came in His spoken word. Later, Isaiah would prophesy of the Messiah’s mission in terms of a personified word of God where it is written, “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (55:11). Interestingly, in John 1:1–5 this spoken Word of God is personified as the text says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Of this word that is God, the text further declares that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14). 

Why is this significant? With regard to Genesis 1:3 and 1:14–19, perhaps you have asked yourself, “How is it that the Genesis account has light entering the world prior to the creation of the sun, moon, and stars?” The answer is Jesus! Significantly, John 8:12 records Jesus identifying Himself as the ultimate “light of the world” that comes by the power of the divine spoken Word in the flesh! Notice that the divine name precedes His aforementioned declaration: “I am the light of the world” (emphasis added). 

The leadership of Israel that rejected Jesus understood His use of the Divine Name here, evidenced by the fact that towards the end of this discussion they sought to stone Him for blasphemy when He said to them, “Truly, Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58–59, ESV). The leadership in Jerusalem would have been right to stone Him for blasphemy if Jesus were actually lying. However, He was in truth affirming what was written before His arrival. God said in Deuteronomy 18:18, “I will put my words in his mouth,” warning that “whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (v. 19, emphasis added). Therefore, we can say with assurance that Jesus the Messiah was being quite literal when He told the leaders of Israel that they (and therefore the world) would “not see [Him] again, until [they] say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:39, emphasis added). 

The Name No One Knows

Finally, when Jesus does return, the Bible tells us that (in keeping with His divinity) “He has a name written that no one knows but Himself” but that “the name by which He is called is The Word of God” (Revelation 19:12–13, ESV). This data is in perfect harmony with God’s revealing of Himself back in Exodus! What is so beautiful is that the Messiah has made a way for us to know Him even more intimately through the New Covenant, as Revelation 2:17 promises His followers a stone of remembrance “with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it”; signaling a complete restoration to the image of God in Messiah!

The Messiah has made a way for us to know Him even more intimately through the New Covenant.

As Hanukkah and Christmas approach, I can think of no better concept to meditate over other than the sanctity of God’s Name and the One who comes in that Name, Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus the Christ). He is the link between Hanukkah and Christmas! The Lord Jesus picked Hanukkah as the day that He would assert again before the leaders of Israel that He was working in His Father’s Name (John 10:25), telling them that “[He] and the Father are one” (v. 30). Fittingly, Jewish believers across the world often remember the link between Hanukkah and Christmas by lighting the candelabra with the shammash (or “servant”) candle. It is pointing to the Suffering Servant who is the Messiah and the Light that lights all others. 

Endnotes
1 See the first section of the article at this link for similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity when it comes to this topic: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-name-of-god.
2 Turner, Kenneth J. “Exodus.” In What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible, 81–101. Edited by Jason S. DeRouchie. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013.
3 Ibid., 84.
4 Ibid., 85–86.

About the Author

Cameron Joyner

Cameron and his wife, Amber, are Church Ministry Representatives with The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry in Atlanta, GA. If you would like to learn more or partner with Cameron’s ministry, you can contact him at cjoyner@foi.org or call our headquarters at 800-257-7843 and speak with someone in North American Ministries. You can also support their ministry online here.

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