Meaning of a Name: A Lesson in Angelic Etymology

An exegetical prize can be discovered at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel as you unravel a subtle etymological prophetic puzzle in the first and last chapters. The story begins with a divine messenger challenging the disillusioned Joseph not to divorce his seemingly unfaithful bride to be. How could she be pregnant? Yet, Only God — the Angel of the Lord reveals that this pregnancy is a gift from God to the world—a Holy Spirit begotten Savior for his people. Joseph is given the honor and privilege of naming the child, Jesus.

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”.

Matthew 1:20-21

The Gospel writer adds a little prophetic mystery to the occasion as he quotes the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

    “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

        and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us).

Matthew 1:22-23

Matthew does not always explain how he sees a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, but drawing these types of redemptive historical threads together is something he will often do throughout the entire Gospel. It happens around 130 times. Because Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience, he aims to show how Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. At face value, the Isaiah prophecy is fulfilled in the virgin birth.  The part about “Immanuel” seems to be something of a prophetic misfire. Didn’t the Angel of the Lord know the plan? Why would he tell Joseph to name him Jesus when clearly his name should be Immanuel!? Perhaps that part of the prophecy does not apply. But then you have Matthew’s parenthetical etymology lesson in the name “Immanuel”—“which means, God with us”. Matthew is very specific to point out that Immanuel is a compound of two Hebrew words, עִמָּנוּ אֵל (ʿimánu meaning “with us” and ʾélmeaning God). What is going on here? 

The key is in the word lesson given to Joseph by the Angel of the Lord. But first, let me give the background of the the English spelling of the name “Jesus”. The English translation “Jesus” corresponds to the Greek spelling Ἰησοῦς (Iesous) which corresponds to the Aramaic name יֵשׁוּעַ‎ (Yēšūa’) which is short for Hebrew  יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehōshu’a, Joshua, which means “Yahweh is Salvation”). Whew! Got all that? Stay with me, it will be worth it.

Back to the angelic etymology… Joseph is told to name him Jesus/Yesua/Yehoshua/Yahweh is Salvation (and here is the angelic etymological lesson) “for he will save his people from their sins.” The mystery is revealed: the baby in Mary’s womb is none other than Yahweh conceived as a baby, born to save his people from their sins. In other words, Immanuel! God is with us as a human baby.  To make the point explicit, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah with the parenthetical etymological note that the Hebrew name Emmanuel means, “God with us”.

In a very Jewish way, Matthew’s Gospel is making exactly the same point that John’s prologue is making. God has become flesh and has made his dwelling among us. (see John 1:14)

Matthew ends his Gospel with the Great Commission to go forth into all the world and make disciples of all people in the authority and in the name of Jesus. We are teach the world the obedience of faith in Jesus Christ. There is a wonderful connection as Matthew ties the end of his Gospel with the beginning. As he quotes the one who is named: Jesus/Yesua/Yehoshua/Yahweh is Salvation/Immanuel. Only, “God with us” has transfigured into “Jesus with us”.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”.

Matthew 28:18-20

This Christmas give your life to the one who came to save his people from their sins. “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The Scriptures testify over and over that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. The gift in the birth of Jesus demonstrates the heights and depths which your creator is willing to scale in order to bring you into a loving relationship with him. Simply ask Jesus to come into your heart with a prayer. “Jesus save me from my sins, and be with me forever.” Jesus loves you and desires your heart, your life, your all—he desires to be with you. Give your life to the one who gave his life for you. Jesus. Immanuel.