A study of names in the Bible is both instructive and inspirational. Bible names have meanings that are apparent in Bible language but not in English. In Bible times, a name was much more than a means of distinguishing one person from another. People back then understood the significance of a name. They believed it should identify something special about the person. They considered that a name represented a person’s nature, circumstances and/or character.
For example, take the name Nabal, which means “fool.” Nabal, the man, was a fool (1 Samuel 25:25). Abram means “father,” but God changed his name to Abraham, meaning “the father of a multitude” (Genesis 17:5), in keeping with God’s promise to make his descendants more numerous than the stars of heaven (15:5). Moses was named for his rescue from the Nile River: “She named him Moses [drawn out], saying, ‘I drew him out of the water’” (Exodus 2:10). Jacob’s name was changed to Israel “because you have struggled with God and men and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28).
In the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, God’s name appears as YHWH. In our English translation, it is rendered “Lord” (in capital letters). The four consonants, YHWH, are thought to have been pronounced “Yahweh.” The Jews did not pronounce YHWH because they considered it too sacred and did not want to run the risk of profaning it. Whenever they read the Scriptures and came to YHWH, they would substitute Adonai, meaning “Lord,” or Elohim, meaning “God,” depending on the context.
The Septuagint, a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, translated YHWH as kurios, meaning “Lord.” Several popular versions of the English Bible render YHWH as “Lord” (all capital letters) to distinguish it as the name of God. They render the Hebrew word adonai or the Greek word kurios as “Lord” (first letter capitalized). They translated Elohim as theos in Greek.
Some English versions of the Bible use Jehovah, a sixteenth-century transliteration of YHWH, in their texts instead of “Lord.” We
will not deal with the name Jehovah in this booklet.
A phenomenon among some Sabbathkeepers is the teaching that reference to God should be made by His Hebrew name, Yahweh, or an equivalent. This practice is known as the sacred names, predicated on texts like these: “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8), or “Those who know your name will trust in you
. . .” (Psalm 9:10). The importance attached to this teaching varies. Some simply prefer to refer to God as Yahweh. Others insist that salvation depends upon avoiding references to Deity by titles like “Lord” and “God.” To refer to God as “Lord” or “God” is considered, by these folks, to be idolatrous. The idea of the sacred names is that it is imperative to know the Hebrew names and titles for God. It teaches that one can only call upon God properly by articulating His name in Hebrew. Hence, those worshippers refer to Deity as Elohim for “God,” Adonai for “Lord” (lower case), or Yahweh for “Lord” (capital letters). Jesus must be called Yahshua, Hebrew for Joshua and the equivalent of the Greek name Jesus. Some advocates of this teaching have mistakenly taught that Jesus is derived from Zeus, the Greek god. Contrary to this misrepresentation, Jesus is derived from the Greek name for Joshua and means “the Lord saves” (Matthew 1:21).
One of our objectives here is to examine the teaching of the sacred names from different biblical perspectives. We will examine the argument for the exclusive use of the Hebrew names, in reference to Deity, to determine if it has biblical support.
Yahweh is the most common reference to God in the Old Testament. It appears more than 6,820 times (Names of God, by Nathan Stone). Most people presume that Yahweh is the exclusive name for God the Father. However, it must be considered as the name for Deity (God). The Bible gives no definition for God, but His attributes are displayed throughout its pages: spirit, eternal, immutability, wisdom, holiness, fairness, loving kindness, goodness, and truth. We will demonstrate from Scripture that these characteristics give meaning to YHWH.
Yahweh is derived from two tenses of the Hebrew verb havah — “to be,” meaning simply but profoundly “One who is what He is.” His name is in Exodus 3:14, and it means “I AM THAT I AM.” The words, “I am who I am,” express who God is (The Name of God, by Andrew Jukes). The Hebrew appellation YHWH was the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) to inform Israel who had commissioned him to come to them and lead them out of Egyptian slavery.
Yahweh must be conceived as the Being who is absolutely self-existent, the One, who in Himself possesses essential life, permanent existence (Names of God, Nathan Stone).
God’s name Yahweh is rich in meaning. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in God’s revelation of Himself to Moses.
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:6, 7a).
The true significance of this glorious display of God to Moses is not in His name (an appellation) but more what Yahweh, His name, stands for: His character.
The psalmist speaks of the importance of knowing the virtuous character of God. “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you” (Psalm 9:10). David is not suggesting that those who call upon God as Yahweh will trust in Him. He means that those who know what His name represents — compassion, patience, love, forgiveness — will put their trust in Him. He illustrates this in the following texts:
But you, O Lord [Adonai], are a compassionate and gracious God [Elohim], slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15).
Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits . . . The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. . . . he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:2, 8, 10-12).
It is the gracious nature of God, not His name alone, that instills trust and faith in Him. This truth is borne out by 1 John 4:19 (KJV): “We love him [God] because he first loved us.” The gracious nature of God motivates men and women to commit their lives to Him in love and service.
A Name That Reflected Circumstances
Incidents reported in Scripture illustrate that it is more important to trust in the person of God than to insist that He be called Yahweh. For example, God gave Moses specific instructions at the burning bush:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [Yahweh], the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob — has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exodus 3:14, 15).
Moses was instructed to identify the source of his instructions to go to the Israelites as “I AM” — Yahweh — the God of their forefathers. He had made Himself known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Yahweh. Each of them had called upon the name of the Lord (Yahweh) as the God who protected and blessed them (Genesis 12:7, 8; 27:27, 28; 28:20-22). Yet in Exodus 6:2 God told Moses:
“I am the Lord [Yahweh]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty [El-Shaddai], but by my name the Lord [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them.”
The apparent meaning of this verse cannot be its true meaning. No writer would contradict himself in this manner. The explanation is in the manner in which God identified Himself to the patriarchs. Abraham encountered El-Shaddai — God Almighty — first in Genesis 17:1, 2: “The Lord [Yahweh] appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty.’” Isaac invoked the name of El-Shaddai (God Almighty) in blessing Jacob (Genesis 27:27-29). God appeared to Jacob as El-Shaddai and commanded him, “Be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body” (Genesis 35:11).
God was known to the patriarchs as the God of “might” and “power” — El-Shaddai — rather than Yahweh. Therefore, we conclude that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know Him as the “I AM WHO I AM” — the eternal and self-existent Yahweh who revealed the fullest meaning of His name to Israel in their Exodus experience but not to the patriarchs. Moses and Israel observed the powerful demonstrations of “I AM” — Yahweh — in delivering them from Egyptian slavery in ways the patriarchs had never experienced.
Since God had not fully revealed Himself to the patriarchs as Yahweh, they could not be expected to call upon Him by that name. He had not revealed Himself to them in all the name Yahweh represents. Hence, they called upon the Lord by the name most familiar to them: El-Shaddai, God Almighty.
This revelation teaches that knowing the name Yahweh is insufficient in itself. It is more important to know the God behind the name and trust in His character and unchanging nature than in His Hebrew name. We conclude that the revelation of God’s person and our acceptance of Him exceeds the importance of knowing His name. This experience also demonstrates that all that can be known about God cannot be comprehended in an appellation. It teaches that we are free to call upon Him by the name or title inspired by our understanding of and experience with Him.
An example of this is when Abraham came to know God as Yahweh-jireh. When God instructed him to offer Isaac, his only son, as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), Abraham was preparing to slay Isaac on the altar he had built. But an angel of the Lord called to him and forbid him to harm the boy (vv. 10-12). The text goes on to report:
Abraham looked up and there in the thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide [Yahweh-jireh]. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided” (vv. 13, 14).
This inspiring account of Abraham’s faithfulness to God further illustrates that insisting on the use of the Hebrew name Yahweh misses the point of worshipping God. The facts of this story are that Abraham worshipped God in terms inspired by his experience. It wasn’t God who named the place Yahweh-jireh, but Abraham. This suggests that the faithful have latitude in how they respectfully refer to God. Therefore, we may call upon God in our own language and in a name we understand as long as we are calling upon our creator, sustainer, and redeemer!
Other names attributed to God are significant in meaning. These were assigned to God when He met or fulfilled a need in unusual circumstances in the lives of His servants:
Yahweh-nissi means “The Lord is my Banner.” After miraculously defeating the Amalekites, “Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner” (Exodus 17:15).
Yahweh-shalom means “The Lord is Peace.” After God confirmed that Gideon was to deliver errant Israel from the Midianites, “Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it The Lord is Peace” (Judges 6:24a).
Yahweh-shammah means “The Lord is There.” This is the name Ezekiel gave the city seen in his vision (Ezekiel 48:35).
Yahweh-sabaoth means “The Lord of hosts” (KJV) or “Lord Almighty” (NIV). First Samuel 4:4 tells of Israel’s recovery of “the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty [Lord of hosts], who is enthroned between the cherubims.” The account reports Israel’s joy in recovering the ark from the Philistines: “When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook” (v. 5).
A Shared Name
We question the presumption that Yahweh is the name of God the Father alone. Yahweh is a shared name; it is not exclusively a designation for the heavenly Father. Jesus, the Son of God, shares the name Yahweh with the Father. Support for this is found in the fact that some Old Testament references to Yahweh are fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament. All four Gospel writers quote Isaiah 40:3 in their introduction to the baptism and ministry of Jesus Christ:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Matthew 3:1-3. See also Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23).
When Isaiah says the way is prepared for the Lord (Yahweh), according to the Gospels, he is saying the way is prepared for Jesus.
The prophet Joel wrote, “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Yahweh] will be saved” (2:32a). Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10:13, and he ascribes saving power to the Lord Jesus (vv. 9, 10).
Ephesians 4:8 says Christ “ascended on high”; Psalm 68:18, the source of Paul’s quotation, says Yahweh ascended on high.
It is instructive that New Testament writers clearly use Old Testament references to Yahweh to identify Jesus in the New Testament. Since they use the name Yahweh (Deity) for the Son so freely, we have to conclude that He shares His Father’s name and is included in all that it comprehends. Consider that at the incarnation of the Word, who was God (John1:1, 14), Jesus was called “Immanuel — which means ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23).
Additional evidence that Yahweh is the name of Deity who has revealed Himself as Father and Son is in the Creation account. In Genesis 1, Elohim is Creator: “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.” But in Genesis 2:4-22, Yahweh Elohim is identified as Creator, thus making the name synonymous with Elohim. New Testament writers identify Jesus as Creator: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3; see Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2). Jesus, as Creator, cannot be separated from Yahweh Elohim.
There are peculiarities connected to the name Elohim that must be considered if we are to understand even a portion of all that is divinely taught by it. It is a plural noun used in Scripture to describe the one Creator. It is a plural noun always joined with singular verbs and adjectives.1 Thus, we are prepared from Creation for the mystery of a plurality in our creator, God, who has said, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4) but who also said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26a); “Man has become like one of us” (3:22); “Come, let us go down and confuse their language” (11:7); and “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8).
The unavoidable truth of these texts is that Jesus shares the name Yahweh with His Father. To insist that Yahweh is exclusively the Father’s name, or that the Father in heaven must be addressed as Yahweh, misses this glorious truth. Therefore, the Son of God and the Father are both addressed as Yahweh. Because of this, the Father can never be addressed exclusively by that name. Yahweh must be understood to be that of Deity!
New Testament Lessons
One of the promises of the new covenant, ratified by the blood of Jesus, is the greater revelation of the Lord. The text, Jeremiah 31:34, quoted in Hebrews 8:11, predicted that God would become known universally:
No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
Jesus Christ made the Father known! The Father was unknown until He was revealed by His Son. Jesus said:
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and to those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27; see also Luke 10:22).
John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17:3, 6 gives testimony that Jesus had revealed the Father:
“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. . . . I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They are yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.”
It should be observed here that Jesus revealed God as Father, not as Yahweh, Elohim, or Adonai. Jesus always referred to God as Father: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
One of the ways Jesus made the Father known is in the model prayer He taught His disciples: “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:9). In Gethsemane Jesus prayed to the Father and in Aramaic called Him “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). Paul informed us that now that we have become the adopted children of God by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we, too, may call upon the Father as “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). We are freed from the spirit of fear so that we also may call upon God the Father in familiar terms (Romans 8:15), just as we might call upon our earthly father: “Daddy, Father.” Abba is a familiar Aramaic word for father. It was used by Jesus and is now recommended to believers as a form of address to our heavenly Father, indicating our familial intimacy in Christ.
In spite of our privilege to approach God in familiar terms, we are instructed, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7). Jesus taught us to revere God: “Hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). But at the same time, He instructed us to come to the Father freely and persist in our petitions to God: ask, seek, and knock. He reasoned:
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (7:11).
The Universal Appeal of the Gospel
The events of the Day of Pentecost, reported in Acts 2, introduced a dramatic change in the believer’s relationship with God. Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Father and Son make their dwelling with believers (John 14:23). The glorious manifestation of the Spirit on Pentecost attracted the attention of a large and diverse international crowd who were gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5-12). Verse 11 illustrates how the appeal of the gospel became universal: “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
Jesus gave the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In Acts 1:8 He instructed the apostles on how they were going to accomplish this gigantic task:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
On Pentecost the apostles communicated the gospel of Christ in the language of the people:
There were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. [who said] “. . . we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues [languages]!” (2:5, 11).
This experience sets the Word of God free from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or any particular language. It is now unnecessary to approach God by a particular name, unknown or meaningless to the worshipper. God is accessible to believers of all nationalities, tongues, and languages as a loving Father. Such accessibility transcends language!
Confirmation of God’s intent to save people of all nationalities and languages within the context of their culture and language is observed in Peter’s experience with the Roman centurion, Cornelius. Through a vision, God instructed Peter that he had to abandon his prejudice of Gentiles and stop calling them “unclean” (Acts 10:1—11:18). Later Peter recalled his experience with Cornelius:
“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:7-11).
What stands out in Peter’s argument is that salvation is universally available by faith, not by the works of knowing an ethnic appellation. People are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, not by a discipline of calling upon God in His Hebrew names. Thank God for faith and grace that save!
Facts of History and the Bible
Historic evidence precludes first-century Christians using Hebrew names exclusively for Deity. It is commonly agreed that Aramaic was the language of Palestine in Jesus’ day. Aramaic is considered to be a sister language to Hebrew. Those who spoke Aramaic could not follow the Hebrew Scriptures when they were read in synagogues. Therefore, synagogues appointed turgems (i.e., “translators”) who paraphrased Hebrew into Aramaic as it was read.
Peter spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic, which was distinguishable from the Jerusalem dialect (Matthew 26:73). When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, just prior to His betrayal, He called upon His Father in Aramaic: “Abba, Father” (Mark14:36). Perhaps even more revealing is the manner in which Jesus called upon the Father from His cross. Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 report that Jesus’ cry in Aramaic was “’Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” In the KJV, Matthew wrote the words “Eli, Eli” in Hebrew. In Mark they are written in Aramaic, as “Eloi, Eloi.” The NIV gives the quotation in both references in Aramaic.
The common language of apostolic times was Greek. As Christianity spread to the world of Greek-speaking Jews and then to the Gentile world, the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, was the Bible used for preaching the gospel. It may have been a Roman world, but Greek was the prevailing language of the day. The Greek references to Deity were theos for God and kurios for Lord. Most quotations from the Old Testament that appear in the New Testament are from its Greek translation and not from the Hebrew text. Therefore, the Greek references to Deity were commonly used by the early Christians, as is reflected in the New Testament Greek manuscripts from which our English Bibles were translated.
In the present gospel age, ethnicity, language, and shrines of worship have lost all meaning. Jerusalem and the temple were the center of worship in Jesus’ day. Now worship takes place wherever believers are and whatever their language happens to be! Palestinian Aramaic and Greek have given way to the languages of believers today. Jesus said:
“Believe me . . . a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Samaria] nor in Jerusalem. . . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21, 23, 24).
The essential elements of worship are acknowledging God in all truth and totally commiting one’s self to Him. It is not language- or site-based anymore! Paul reinforced Jesus’ teaching when he wrote:
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).
God is not a respecter of persons; all believers stand on level ground before Him regardless of their nationality, social standing, gender, or language.
The universality of the gospel is wonderfully proclaimed in one of John the Revelator’s visions:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and open the seals, because you [Jesus Christ] were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God” (Revelation 5:9, 10).
Throughout the book of Revelation, languages and tongues are frequent references to the diverse people who obey and worship God (7:9, 10) or who rebel against Him and stand condemned (13:7, 8; 17:1, 15). Language, referring to ethnicity (7:9), suggests that worship and thanksgiving transcend language.
Like the Pentecost event, the book of Revelation demonstrates the appeal of the gospel to all men regardless of their language. Thus, the love, mercy, forgiveness, and patience of God have become known to people of all languages and nations whether they call upon Him by His Hebrew name or not. People are inspired to call upon the Lord in repentance and for forgiveness, for help and in thanksgiving, for the same reasons the patriarchs did. They know the love and graciousness of the God of their salvation. It is His person and character, not His name, that matter.
The teaching and practice of referring to Deity only by His Hebrew name seems unwarranted from biblical examples and teachings. It is apparent that some of God’s most faithful and trusted servants did not know all that His name Yahweh represents. As God revealed Himself progressively to the patriarchs, they began to call upon Him by various names, based upon what they had come to know and experience about Him. The patriarchs knew God best as El Shaddai. Moses and Israel came to know God as “I AM WHO I AM” by the greater manifestations of Himself in their deliverance from Egyptian slavery.
Today we have come to know God through His latest and best revelation: Jesus Christ, His Son. New Testament writers verify that Jesus mirrors His Father: “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15); “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus spoke of Himself: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). We received the salvation of the Lord not because we called upon Him by one particular name or another but because we believe in Him through the life, love, grace, and ministry of Christ. We are drawn to Him because He loved us and saved us by His grace while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).