What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”.  So lamented Juliet, reflecting on the fact that Romeo’s surname was a barrier to their relationship.  She felt his name should not be a significant issue.  True, the fragrance of the rose would remain unchanged if we had named it stinking bogweed, but we might not be so fond of it.

Jesus says something very interesting in his prayer recorded in John 17 – “I have shown them Your Name” (John 17:6).  We often overlook it, but which name does he mean?  They already knew the sacred name YHWH even though they might not know how to say it, because it was considered too holy for a human to pronounce.  They used the words ‘King’ and ‘Lord’, which rightly expressed that God was their ruler.  But these are not names, they’re titles, and there were many other titles which they used as well, but not names.  So what does Jesus mean?

There is one word which he used more than any other to talk about God – Father.  Not just our Father, as the Hebrews frequently prayed, sometimes the Father, but usually my Father.  This was utterly unheard of.  There is no record of anyone in the Old Testament being so presumptuous.  Indeed, the phrase only appears once on the lips of a person in reference to God, and that’s in Psalm 89 where it talks of the Messiah using it.  John records that the religious types understood exactly the implications of Jesus using it.  They accused him of blasphemy, for making himself equal with God.  And this would indeed be blasphemy, if it weren’t true.

So how does ‘my Father’ come to be considered a name?  Many of us call one of our parents ‘father’ but we recognise that it is a title and that he has a personal name as well.  But in Hebrew, ‘name’ doesn’t merely mean a label we randomly place on something.  Names are significant.  They are often prophetic, as Jesus made clear when he gave Simon the new name of Peter (Matthew 16:18).  Sometimes they reflect people’s hopes and dreams – just look at the names Leah gave her sons (Genesis 29), showing that she hoped her husband would love and value her because of her fertility.  Names encapsulate the essence of someone – Barnabas, son of encouragement (Acts 4:36), or James and John who were nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’ because of their fiery temperaments (Mark 3:17).  So Juliet was wrong – a name is highly significant, whether prophetic or causative in shaping the destiny of an individual.

So when Jesus chooses to say ‘My Father’, he is not merely making a statement about his own divinity – which was not lost on his contemporaries.  He is primarily making a statement about the essential character of God.  He used imagery showing how God is a good father (Matthew 7:11).  His most famous parable is about a father who loves his lost son so much that he breaks all the rules to have him back again (Luke 15).  He asserts the compassionate nature of a God who cares for his children (Mark 10:14).  By applying this name, he emphasises that God wants to be our Dad.

How does he show them God’s name?  This doesn’t really make sense in English until you’ve realised that ‘name’ is more than a label.  He could as easily have said “I’ve shown them your nature”.  And he makes the point that he hasn’t simply told people; he’s demonstrated it.  He has lived out the message, as St Francis encouraged his followers to:

“Preach the Gospel at every opportunity.  If all else fails, use words.”

Jesus encapsulated the message.  He demonstrated in his lifestyle who God is.  John gives evidence of this when he records Jesus saying “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  His incarnation, life and death showed the love and holiness of God, and the extent to which God is prepared to go to rescue his lost sheep (Luke 15:7).  What should be our response to this revelation of God’s nature in Jesus?  Go and do the same (Luke 10:37).