The Name of Jesus—Phil 2:10 (Monday with Mounce 56)
I find it interesting how things can often occupy Christians’ minds. Sometimes our preoccupations are healthy, when they are the very things that preoccupy Jesus. But other times we become so preoccupied with secondary things that, in essence, they become idols.
This doesn’t mean our preoccupations are necessarily wrong; many times the things that consume our thinking are good things, theological things, things of God. Just like the Pharisees. They were consumed with the minutia of the Law, but that consumption was a barrier that allowed them to neglect the heart of God. And that is the point.
In dealing with the adiaphora (“secondary things”), in working with “strong” and “weak” Christians (Romans 14), the difficult question is determining whether our particular theological or social preoccupation is of central significance, something all Christians must agree to, or whether our preoccupation belongs to the adiaphora, secondary things about which we can agree to disagree.
One of the topics that often surfaces in this context is the name of God. When the Bible says “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil 2:10, ESV), is the power in the actual name “Jesus” (or more likely “Lord,” see later in the verse)? When Peter says that “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), do we all have to get the “name” right, and that means pronouncing it properly?
This preoccupation often surfaces when it comes to God’s most holy name, generally spelled “Yahweh.” I have seen people so preoccupied with insisting that we must get this right that it becomes the hallmark of their ministry, studies, and church. “We are the church that gets God’s name right!” which is a ludicrous claim and can so easily become an idol.
(I was watching a YouTube video the other day of a pastor who announced that they would be reading out of the “original 1611 King James,” and the people responding by standing, clapping and shouting, obviously taking more joy in their pastor’s insistence on an English translation than on the words of God it contained or in God himself. But this is an aside, and I wouldn’t respond here to questions about the King James debate; it does strike me as a good parallel to some people’s insistence on having to get God’s name “right.”)
A quick history of the name follows. In the burning bush account (Exodus 3), God reveals himself as the great “I AM,” using a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” While Hebrew has always been pronounced with vowels it was not always written with them, and so the name comes to us through its consonants basically as YHWH. Through a desire not to violate the third commandment, the Israelites stopped pronouncing the vowels and eventually replaced them with the vowels from another name of God, “Adonay.” This came into English through German as “Jehovah” and generally today as “Yahweh.” It is translated in the LXX with κυριος and hence influences the theology of “Lord” in the New Testament. (See my dictionary for more information, page 421-422).
But the Third Commandment is not about saying or not saying a specific word. The “name” of a person represents the essence of who they are. That is why the Lord’s Prayer says, “hallowed by your name”; “may your name be kept holy” (NLT). We are to pray that in our conduct people will see God to be the holy God that he is. It is not the word “Lord” that will draw all men and women and creation to their knees at the end of time; it will be the person and work of Jesus. And Peter does not believe that it is a series of morphemes that alone holds salvation; it is the person and work of Jesus, ordained by God the Father and brought to completion by God the Spirit. On the surface, the Third Commandment is about oath taking, and not binding yourself with an oath made in God’s name and then breaking it. But I suspect that behind this is a deeper concern, and that is we do not treat God himself vainly, with contempt, as a common, everyday person, but rather treat him and relate to him as holy.
So back to my in point. Why do some people obsess over “getting the name right” when it is not the name but the person that is important? Why do they move something that is important but secondary into the realm of the essential? Who can know the heart of a person? But I encourage us to remember the words of Jesus, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). I suspect the Pharisees knew how to pronounce the name.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek (third edition coming in 2009!), and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.
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