In modern Western society, names are often just labels. Parents often choose a name for their baby simply because they like the way it sounds, and in English speaking countries most people have names which have no meaning in English. Knowing someone’s name doesn’t tell you much about them. In my case, my name (Thomas) comes from an ancient Aramaic word meaning ‘twin.’ But most people don’t know that, and even if they did, it wouldn’t help – because I’m not a twin.
In the ancient Middle East, as in many cultures today, names were not just labels; they were far more expressive. They described something fundamental about one’s identity such as a distinctive attribute or a memorable event at the time of one’s birth, usually in one’s own native language. Take, for example, Esau and Jacob. Esau means ‘hairy,’ because he was hairy at birth; and Jacob means ‘heel catcher,’ because he was born hanging onto his twin brother’s heel. You can imagine their mother calling, “Hairy and Heel Catcher, it’s time for dinner!”
So what about God’s name? When Moses asked God his name in Exodus 3:13, he wasn’t just asking for a label to use when referring to God. He was asking God to describe his identity in a single word. And there is a very interesting phrase about God’s name that pops up over and over again in the Old Testament: ‘for his name’s sake.’ The phrase doesn’t resonate with the Western mind. We might say, “Do it for my sake,” but we wouldn’t say, “Do it for my name’s sake.” It sounds redundant. My name is just a label for me. But remember, God’s name is not just a label; it expresses who he is.
Here is a list of all (I think) Old Testament passages where the phrase occurs: 1 Samuel 12:22; 1 Kings 8:41; Psalm 23:3, 25:11, 31:3, 79:9, 106:8, 109:21, 143:11; Isaiah 48:9, 11, 66:5; Jeremiah 14:7, 21; Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22, 44; 36:22. You may want to read all of these in context in your own time, but we’ll just focus on a few representative examples:
“For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” (Psalm 25:11)
“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name's sake!” (Psalm 79:9)
“Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: "Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name's sake have said, 'Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy'; but it is they who shall be put to shame.” (Isaiah 66:5)
“And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I deal with you for my name's sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 20:44)
The above verses show us that God’s name expresses his distinctive character. His mercy and faithfulness so far exceed that of sinful human beings that they are like God’s signature.
The name of God, Yahweh, is a Hebrew word. When we come to the New Testament, which was written in Greek, this name is no longer used. But what we do find is very surprising. This phrase “for his name’s sake” is used, but with reference to Jesus, not God! A survey of passages to look at: Matthew 10:21-22, 19:29, 24:9 (par. Mark 13:13, Luke 21:12, 17); John 15:21; Acts 9:16; 1 John 2:12; 3 John 1:7; Revelation 2:3.
Here are two of the most striking:
“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21-22)
“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake.” (1 John 2:12)
Matthew 10:21-22 is an obvious reference to Isaiah 66:5, and 1 John 2:12 likely draws on the language of Psalm 25:11 and 79:9. So we can see that these verses parallel the “for his name’s sake” passages in the Old Testament. The difference is simply this: now, the name in question is not Yahweh, but Jesus! The New Testament seems to be equating the name of Jesus with the name of Yahweh.
Throughout the Old Testament God stringently protects the glory of his name against usurpers and blasphemers:
“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7, the Third Commandment, NIV)
“I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” (Isaiah 42:8)
“For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ezekiel 34:14)
With this in mind it is astonishing how the New Testament describes Jesus, a human being, in language that the Old Testament reserved for Yahweh alone. This should cause us to reflect deeply on the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.