Formations 01.02.2022: Name above All Names

Luke 2:21-24; Philippians 2:5-11

I’m an adjunct professor at Mercer University. That means every semester, I meet a few dozen college students, mostly first years, and set about learning their names.

Sometimes, a name comes easily. The student makes a memorable impression from the start, and you can’t help but remember their name. Last fall, I had a student with the same first name as my brother-in-law…and he looked just like my brother-in-law would have looked as a nineteen-year-old!

Sometimes the names are more challenging, especially if the student is from a different culture or country. In those cases, I work extra hard to learn their names and pronounce them correctly, because who wants to hear their name butchered all semester?

Putting faces to names has been a challenge the last couple of years, with COVID and masking and “face” time with students limited to Zoom calls. Which of those two tall blond kids was Mike and which was Steve?

But I’m convinced that getting people’s names right is worth the effort. Names matter, even if only as a gesture of respect to the people who wear them.

In the biblical world, names mattered even more. Numerous Bible stories explain how a person’s name reflects some hope their parents placed in them at their birth or some statement about how they came into the world. Isaac means “laughter.” Reuben, the firstborn of unloved Leah hoping to gain Jacob’s favor by bearing him children, means “behold, a son.”

In two separate accounts, both Mary and Joseph are instructed to name Mary’s baby Jesus, “the Lord saves.” By Jewish custom, Jesus would have been formally named and welcomed into the community at his circumcision a week after he was born—January 1 on the liturgical calendar. In Luke, Joseph and Mary name their son in obedience to the angel’s instructions and, several weeks later, offer the required sacrifice in the temple.

In Philippians 2, Paul quotes what was apparently a familiar Christian hymn in praise of Jesus. This hymn describes how he has been given “the name that is above every name” (v. 9), and it anticipates a time when all of creation bows before him and proclaims that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Christian tradition has long contemplated the name of Jesus as a focus of devotion. Think of the ways we sing about Jesus’ name. Sometimes these songs are reverent and theologically nuanced; sometimes they are trite and overly sentimental. Either way, they nudge us toward an understanding of Jesus: his person, incarnation, his mission, and his power.

We pray “in Jesus’ name.” We offer refreshing cups of water “in Jesus’ name.” We love others “in Jesus’ name.” Not because there is magic in those spoken syllables, but because there is grace to be found when we take the time to know this Savior, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend by name.

Discussion

• What does it mean to you to pray “in Jesus’ name”?
• What does it mean to “praise the name of Jesus”?
• How can Jesus’ name be abused or taken in vain?
• What does Jesus’ name reveal about his character and mission?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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