Essay / Theology

Knowing the Names (Lesson 6: Matthew 1)

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As the arrival of Christ draws nearer, all the names by which he is to be called really begin piling up. We first heard about him as the seed of the woman who would defeat the seed of the serpent. The prophet said he would be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace.  The angel told Mary he would be called the son of the most high. But in the traditions of the old world, the person who would actually do the job of giving a boy a name would be his father, and so it falls to Joseph to do his duty as the dad and put a name on the boy. Of course there’s the little problem that Joseph has not done the job of actually being the biological father of this child. But just as an angel told Mary that God had a strange new plan for the conception and birth of this child, an angel now lets Joseph in on the secret as well. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

So just as Joseph steps in to the role of stepfather, he puts on the boy a name that was handed down not from the family tree but from the mouth of the Most High: Jesus, meaning “the LORD saves,” because in his life and his death and his resurrection, the LORD will save his people from their sins. And not only that, but he also comes with yet another name, not a nickname and not a name for the birth certificate, but a prophetic identity marker that puts into words the significance of who he is: Immanuel, which means, God with us.

Speaking of names piling up, Matthew begins with a genealogy with dozens of names of ancestors of Christ. The first bracket runs from Abraham to David, and we know those names from the early part of the Bible; these are characters we recognize. The second bracket runs from David to the Babylonian captivity, and we know those names from Chronicles. They’re a royal line, even if not all the kings were good.

But the third bracket runs from Babylon to the time of Jesus, right across that 400 year gap between the Old Testament and the New. We don’t have any record of those names anymore except what’s here in Matthew. They weren’t kings. By Joseph’s time they’ve got pretty humble craftsman jobs like carpentry. But even if history had otherwise lost their names, God had not. None of them were lost or forgotten. He knew them, and the lineage they traced was in fact the one line God had his eye on the whole time, a straight line from Father Abraham down to the Son of God, Immanuel, Jesus.

Because God knows our names, we know his.

For my church‘s 2014 Christmas concert service, I wrote a set of 9 readings to accompany the night of songs: a Lessons and Carols service. I’m posting the lessons here at Scriptorium Daily from now until Christmas day. Banner design by Josh Kenfield



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