When the Use of God’s Name is Never in Vain

Posted September 20, 2011

John H. Hampsch, CMF

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

That oft-quoted Shakespearean truism may ring true for most names of persons or objects in most cultures in recent centuries. But in the Middle East in ancient times, a person’s name was more than a mere label to distinguish one person from another. A name served to describe a person’s qualities, characteristics, values, or goals. Hence, in biblical times, names were often changed to denote a change or upgrading of vocation or status (something like the names of popes, monks, nuns, etc. today). Hence, Abram morphed to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul, etc.

Thus, in a biblical mindset, a personal name conveyed something significant by which the individual could be better known. Thus, the various names referring to God revealed something about him of profound significance. For instance, the name Elohim—a plural form in Hebrew—suggests a pre-Christian hint of the Trinitarian nature of God, like the name Adonai, which stresses God as man’s master, authority, and provider. El Shaddai (Almighty God) emphasizes his power; El Elyon (the Most High God) portrays his strength, sovereignty and supremacy, El Olam (the Everlasting God) implied that he is unchangeable and inexhaustible. Yahweh, in its vowel-less Hebrew form, YHWH, bespeaks its own reverence in being unutterable; it suggests that the very entity of God is self-existent. It is a name rephrased through the Bible in multiple compounds in various contexts.

Once we grasp this often-unappreciated truth that names provide knowledge about the one named, the words of Jesus’ prayer of John 17:3 become profoundly nuanced and spiritually meaningful for us, prompting us in some mysterious way to know God: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

That insight should inspire us to a devotional use of the name of God in its generic form, as well as in some of its more specific forms found in the sacred Scriptures. God, as revealed by his names in the Old Covenant is shown to become even more meaningful to us in the New Covenant, where he is staged in his incarnate form as the God-man, Jesus Christ, with a litany of names like Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, Our Savior, Redeemer, Master, etc. God’s sacred revelation of himself is projected in the New Covenant even more beautifully than in the Old, for it is in the New Testament that our awesome Deity is unveiled as even more self-revealing—and more love- revealing!

In five places in John’s gospel, Jesus, as the Incarnate God, tells us to “ask in his name.” The devout exploration of the various names of our Divine Creature-Creator can enable our entire life to become God-centered. Such a meditation should become an integral part of our daily life, for it is an all-pervasive and life-framing mandate of God’s holy word. You’ll find it emblazoned in the sublime words of Paul to the Colossians (3:17): Everything you do or say should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus as you give thanks through him to God the Father.”