The Bible talks a lot about names. In the NIV, the Hebrew and Greek words for “name” appear 944 times. That’s a bunch!
I get a lot of questions about Bible names. Many people are confused about how “name” is used in the Bible. It’s used in more than one way, so some explanation would be helpful. The simplest way the Bible uses “name” is like this:
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. (Genesis 29:16)
Everybody understands this. Everybody has a name. The word is used in other ways, which causes some confusion…like this:
There Abram called on the name of the Lord. Genesis 13:4
This doesn’t mean that Abram knew God’s name, and called Him by that name. Nobody knows whether God has a name, let alone what that name might be. Now, it’s important to avoid thinking about the Bible in strictly 21st-century terms. To understand what phrases like “the name of the Lord” mean, we have to learn what the authors meant when they wrote them.
The Hebrew word for name is shem. It can mean a name, like Bob or Dave or Melissa. It can also be used to talk about a memorial, or a monument, and it can also be used to talk about a person’s reputation, fame, or glory. This is the part that confuses some people. A lot of people have written to me over the years, suggesting that God’s name is important. They want to know God’s name, or how to pronounce God’s name, or why English-speaking Christians say “Jesus” rather than Yeshua or Yehoshua. They say things like, “Jesus’ name has power” or “Praying in Jesus’ name means your prayer will be answered.”
There’s nothing special, or spiritually meaningful, about speaking someone’s name out loud. There’s no reason to worry about whether you’re saying it exactly right. We don’t need to only talk about the Son of God by using His Hebrew name. This kind of thinking turns Christianity into some kind of system of magic, or superstition…if you say it wrong, you get the wrong result. That’s nonsense.
When we pray in Jesus’ name, we’re not invoking some spiritual power by saying it out loud. Instead, we’re calling on God to help us based on Jesus’ reputation…His character, and our relationship with Him. There’s no power in speaking the sounds “gee” and “zuss” together, like an incantation. We’re saying that we belong to Jesus, and we’re asking for help based not on our own authority, but on Jesus’ authority. It’s not our reputation that we talk about, but His.
An example would help here. When a police officer comes to a house to arrest a criminal, they may knock on the door and say something like, “Open up, in the name of the law.” They’re not saying that someone should open the door for Bob, or Dave, or Melissa…as if they have any authority of their own. Instead, they’re saying that their authority comes from the law of the land. They come “in the name of the law” in the same way that we pray in Jesus’ name: we have no authority of our own. Jesus has all authority (Matthew 28:18), and when we pray, we’re to pray as He instructed.
God made a promise to Abraham. Here’s what He said:
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
When God said that He would make Abraham’s name great, He meant that Abraham would be famous, that he would have a great reputation, and that he would gain glory because he would be used by God in important ways. That’s what the Bible means when it talks about the name of the Lord. Not that His name is Bob, or Dave, or Melissa…but that He is great, and powerful, and good. When Abram called on the name of the Lord, He was relying on God’s reputation, believing in God’s character, and trusting that God would deal with Him in ways that matched His reputation.
When the Bible says “the name of the Lord,” we should translate that to “the reputation of the Lord…what we know about His character.”