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What’s in a name? image

What’s in a name?

Beth Braga reflects on the significance of our names … and God’s.

If you've ever had a child (or a pet!) you know how important it is to choose the right name.

My husband, Chris, and I have eight children (but no pets), so we've had a bit of practice choosing names. We had lots of different reasons for our selections. In the end we have Jonathan, Rose, Peter, Abby, Jack, Timothy, Matthew and Alice.

Choosing the right name

Jonathan was actually going to be Jessica. Then at the last minute, the doctor said, ‘I think you’ll need a different name—it’s a boy’. Rose was the favourite girl’s name of Chris’ mother. She had only boys, so we used it for her sake. Other children were named after family members. Peter is named after my Dad, Jack is after my Poppa, and Alice is after my great-grandmother. We simply liked the names Timothy and Matthew.

I have not forgotten Abby—I’ll come back to how we arrived at her name in a moment.

I am sure that, like us, you have stories of how and what names you have chosen for the different people in your life (not to mention nicknames!). In the end, I guess we often just do it because we like the sound of a name.

But we sometimes make our choice based on the meaning of the name itself. 

That’s what we did with Abby. As you are probably aware, it is a shortened version of Abigail, and it means ‘a Father’s joy’. She was, and is, a delight! The meaning of a name suggests the character of the person, or the sort of person we want them to be. Your name can reflect who you are, as in the case of Abby.

Famously, Jesus called his disciple Simon, ‘Peter’ meaning ‘rock’. Timothy means ‘honouring God’, Philip means ‘lover of horses’, Alice means ‘noble’, John means ‘God is gracious’, and so on. There are whole books giving the meanings of names. Do you know what your name means?

The most beautiful name

As Matthew’s Gospel recounts, an angel of the Lord told Joseph about the name of Jesus:

‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:20–21).

Matthew then quoted Isaiah 7:14:

‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”)’ (Matthew 1:23).

Joseph had been planning to break his engagement to Mary, deeply upset by the news that his fiancée was pregnant with a child not his. (Fair enough.) But now he knows that Mary has not been unfaithful, and more than that, as the names ‘Jesus’ and ‘Immanuel’ reveal, this is going to be a unique and wonderful child.

The name ‘Jesus’ in Hebrew is the same as that of the Old Testament hero, Joshua, and it means ‘God saves’. Hence the reference to the child saving his people, not from other armies, but from our sins.

And the name ‘Immanuel’, by which Jesus is also known down through the years, means that the baby is not merely a human child but is also God come among us, or as John says, ‘The Word become flesh’ (John 1:14).

Knowing, as we do, that we do not live in a way that pleases God, the very name of ‘Jesus’, the ‘Immanuel’, is a constant reminder to us of the love of God. We deserve his judgement, but instead we have his forgiveness through Jesus. We deserve to be cut off from him, but instead he draws near to us and becomes one of us. This is the very essence of love.

Calling him by name

A name reveals who a person is and gives us access to the person. You really know a person when you can call them by their name.

My parents named me Elizabeth. I always know when people haven't met me before, because they call me ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘Liz’ or ‘Libby’. But I've always been known as ‘Beth’ by those who know me and have a relationship with me. The name Beth speaks of a more intimate friendship. I give them permission to call me ‘Beth’ when they know me.

Now we know that there is a God. But he is so far above us, so remote, so very different, so holy compared to us, that we can at best hope to speak to him by his title, ‘God’. But the absolutely miraculous, wonderful, grace-filled thing is that he has revealed his personal name to us, Yahweh (see Exodus 3:13–17). And now he has revealed the name of his Son Jesus, who came to save us from our sins, and who is Immanuel, ‘God with us’. His names tell us who he is and what he has come to do, and they invite us to speak with him.

What a wonderful privilege!

This article originally appeared in MU Sydney’s MUSE magazine, Issue 17, December 2020.


Beth Braga is married to Chris and they have eight children. Jonathan is now in heaven with the Lord. Beth is the creator of ‘It’s Music Time’, a structured music program for preschoolers and their families.


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'GPS: God's Plan for Salvation' aims to give readers direction in finding their way around in the Bible, highlighting what shapes and holds it together. More importantly, it’s to help Christians live in line with God’s great purposes, in a way that truly honours him.

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