Fifty years ago, my parents chose to name their youngest son Brent. I have no idea why. In Old English, it means "steep hill." I seriously doubt that has anything to do with why they chose this name for me. Since there's no one else in my family with this name, I'm guessing they just liked how it sounds.
Two thousand years ago, Mary and Joseph didn't have to choose a name for their first-born son. They were spared the process of going through books of baby names for likely candidates, or scouring family trees for ancestors to name their child after. They were told what to name by no less than an angel from heaven: "You are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Jesus, pronounced "Y'shua" in Hebrew, literally means, "the Lord saves." And so this name tells us about the Child whose birth we are about to celebrate. He came, not to condemn and destroy, but to save. This he would accomplish by his atoning sacrifice on the cross.
But the Babe of Bethlehem was given more names than just Jesus. Seven hundred years before he was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." In Hebrew, the word "imanu" means "with us," while "el" means God. Thus, this name of the Christ child also serves to remind us of why we celebrate his birth. He is God who became one of us. As a man, he became our substitute, living the life we couldn't, dying the death we wouldn't.
There are still more names the Bible gives us for Mary's Son. "Christ" and "Messiah" are two commonly heard names for him. Christ is Greek, and Messiah is Hebrew, but both mean the same thing: "Anointed One." From eternity, the Son of God was designated as the one who would lift up the fallen human race, winning salvation for all.
As an adult, Jesus acquired still more names, including:
"Beloved Son" is the name God the Father called Jesus at his baptism and again at his transfiguration, shortly before his death. The baby in the manger is the eternal Son of God, loved by the Father, yet willingly given for a world that had turned away from Him.
"Good Shepherd" is what he called himself in John chapter 10. He is the one who came to lead his sheep to green pastures and still waters of heaven. He gained admission for his flock by laying down his life for them.
"Light of the world" is another name our Lord called himself. Like a bright flashlight beam pierces the darkness and reveals the way, so Jesus came to shed light on our path of life, guiding us through the darkness of this world and on to the glories of heaven.
"Lamb of God" is the name his cousin, John the Baptist, bestowed on him. Like the Passover lambs, whose blood spared the Israelites from death at the exodus, so Jesus, the Lamb of God, would shed his blood that his people would be spared eternal death.
May the names of the baby whose birth we celebrate remind us that Christmas is so much more than just an excuse for overindulging and overspending. Let the names of the Christ child point us to the boundless love of God, his mercy and grace, and our eternal home in heaven.
- Brent Merten is pastor of Mountain Valley Lutheran Church, 802 Brush Creek Terrace, Eagle.