Do you know what your name means? My name, Stephen, means ‘crown’ or ‘garland’. As a noun Stephen first appears in Homer’s Iliad. So the name has been in use for at least 2,800 years. In the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6-7, Stephen became the first Christian to give his life as a martyr for Jesus. That is very special to me, although I’m not sure that’s why my parents chose the name.
In many cultures, names are significant. They are chosen with care or handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter through the generations. In the West people often have no idea what their name means, more a novelty than necessity. Children’s names are often chosen for the sound or rhythm. Sometimes children are named after famous personalities.
Currently, the most popular boys name is Jack (third year running) followed by Oliver, Harry and Charlie. The most popular girl’s names are Olivia, Ruby and Grace. Olivia has been in the top three for three years also. Oliver and Olivia both in the top three? Is that due to the subliminal influence of adverts for a healthy Mediterranean spread? Or the countries favourite pinup – sorry, chef. There may be some truth in that because Jamie’s latest cookbook, 30-Minute Meals, has sold 735,000 copies in the last two months alone- making it the fastest-selling non-fiction book of all time, outselling even the Bible.
In biblical times names were of incredible importance. A name carried more than your identity. It said something about who you are, what your God is like, or how you were expected to live. Names were not always given at birth. In fact it was common for a child to go for years without a permanent name. And sometimes God changed people’s names to better define who they are or whom they will become. Abram’s name was changed to Abraham; Jacob’s name became Israel.
On the other hand sometimes, people were given names that were never used. In Joseph’s dream, for example, the angel says Jesus will be given the name “Immanuel” which means “God with us”. This was predicted in Isaiah 7:14. And yet in the New Testament, Jesus is never called by that name. Maybe one day when every knee will bow.
In an hour or so we will have our Nativity Service and re-live the birth of the Lord Jesus. We’re very familiar with the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. But we don’t often take time to get to know the people who had a role to play in God’s plan just before Jesus was born. Luke begins his gospel with the coming of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah and the promise that Elisabeth his wife will bear a son and they will name him John. This morning I want us to see how this family are not just the prelude to Christmas but testify by their names and by their actions that God is sovereign. That God is faithful to do what he has promised.
Lets meet them and see what their names teach us about God:
1. Zechariah – Jehovah Will Remember
“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. ” (Luke 1:5-10)
It was a great honour and responsibility to burn the incense. To be chosen was a once in a lifetime privilege for any priest. So honoured was this act that ever afterwards the priests chosen would be referred to as “rich”. Many thoughts must have gone through Zechariah’s mind as he prepared himself to present the incense.
The act was simple in and of itself. He simply had to enter the holy place alone and spread the incense on the coals. As the assembled congregation prayed outside he was to offer the prayer before the altar and withdraw as quickly as possible, as he exited the holy place he would pause on the steps to offer the Aaronic Benediction,
‘’The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.’ (Numbers 6:24-26)
In all of this remember the meaning of Zechariah’s name, ‘Jehovah will remember’. In the bleak days of life under Herod the Great, Zechariah’s name cried out, ‘Jehovah will remember’. Remember your promise Jehovah, remember your people Jehovah. Over the past 400 years of silence was the promise, ‘Jehovah will remember.’ And so on that day with faithful Israelites gathered outside, Zechariah entered the holy place, dimly lit by candle-light.
For the moment Zechariah was alone, I wonder if he paused to take in the inner sanctum, a moment of blessing in a lifetime of service, a moment that would soon be over. Alone, Zechariah approached the altar, alone he spread the incense, alone he waited as it kindled on the coals and as the smoke began to ascend and the multitude outside fell prostrate in prayer. The burning incense was a symbol that Israel’s prayers were accepted by God. Zechariah prayed in silence. ‘Remember Jehovah, remember your people, remember your promise.’ As Zechariah opened his eyes he realised he was not alone. Zechariah : Jehovah will remember.
2. Gabriel – Mighty One of Jehovah
Before the aged priest stood Gabriel, whose name means, ‘Mighty One of Jehovah’.
The last time Gabriel appeared was before Daniel, in exile, 600 years earlier. Gabriel had been sent to reveal to Daniel the time when the Messiah would arrive.
“Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ (Daniel 9:24-25)
There were those in Israel who could do the maths. Those who knew the prophecy must have known that the promised one would have to born soon in order to fulfil the prophecy. Gabriel had come, the ‘Mighty One of God’ to deliver a message.
“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:11-20)
Gabriel means – Mighty One of Jehovah. Knowing this we can well understand how terrifying it must have been to stand face to face with him. Zechariah’s prayer had been heard, but which prayer? The prayer he had just uttered, that God would remember his promise to his people or the prayer that God might bless him with a son. Gabriel makes it clear that the answer is to both prayers, as he will indeed have a son in his old age and that son will be the forerunner to the promised Messiah.
Whether from fear or doubt, Zechariah challenged Gabriel, ’How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’
Gabriel’s response reveals the importance of this message. This is Gabriel – the mighty one of Jehovah, who stands in the presence of Jehovah. As a sign to Zechariah and all around him of the veracity of the promise, he will be silent until the baby is born. The other priests must have stood for a moment waiting for the blessing which would conclude the ceremony, but the blessing never came.
As they looked at Zechariah they must have noticed the shock on his face. And from his gesturing they understood he had had a vision. When the week ended Zechariah departed silently for his home in the hills of Judea. Zechariah : Jehovah will remember had encountered Gabriel – Mighty One of Jehovah.
3. Elisabeth – Jehovah is an Oath (Absolutely Reliable)
The only one who would be more shocked by the promise Zechariah had received must have been Elisabeth. She must have started life with high hopes like all young women do. She was a descendant of Aaron of the priestly line and she had married a priest.
Their union was said by tradition to have a double blessing, but things just didn’t seem to turn out that way, in fact most every dream she had ever dreamed had by this time withered and died. Her name means Jehovah is an Oath, or Jehovah is Absolutely Reliable. Her name must have often seemed a bitter joke, for she experienced a double curse by being barren. A curse because it was believed children were a sign of God’s blessing. To be without children was a sign of God’s displeasure or judgment. Second, a curse because it disqualified her from the blood-line of the promised Messiah. The desire of every Jewish woman was to be mother of the Messiah who would restore their nation and fulfill the promise of God. For years Zechariah and Elisabeth must have prayed that God would remove their shame and grant them a son, but surely those prayers had stopped long ago and the two had resigned themselves to the autumn of life alone.
What might have embittered many did not corrupt Elisabeth. We are clearly told both she and her husband were upright in the sight of God, observed all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. Zechariah and Elisabeth did not concern themselves with the whispers of their neighbours, they knew whom it was they sought to please. We are told that they were blameless in the sight of God. That simply means Zechariah and Elisabeth were accepted by God because they trusted his promises.
“After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:24-25)
The name which seemed so long to be misplaced on her, now took on its fullest meaning, Jehovah, the Absolutely Reliable One!
“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.” (Luke 1:57-58)
You imagine the scene at the home of Zechariah. An elderly couple with a miracle child. The story demonstrates how God proves himself even in the impossible, especially in the impossible. Three characters – three names – three insights into the character of God. Zechariah : Jehovah will remember. Gabriel – Mighty One of Jehovah. Elisabeth – Jehovah is an Oath – the Absolutely Reliable One. But there is one more.
4. John – Jehovah is Gracious
The day of circumcision arrived for Elisabeth’s son eight days after he was born just as it had from the time of Abraham. This would have been a solemn communal assembly as the male child was set apart with the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Perhaps a larger crowd than usual given the age of the parents. Tremendous tradition and meaning were concentrated in this ritual and as the ceremony began the people fell silent listening to the words of benediction as the child was dedicated.
Then came the naming of the child. Obviously there had been no discussion with Elisabeth as to the name and seeing Zechariah could no longer speak, it was assumed that his name would be given to this child, that he might model his life and serve as a priest of God.
“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbours were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. (Luke 1:59-66)
Suddenly, Elisabeth interrupted the ceremony, ‘No, his name will not be Zechariah, he will be called John.’ Does she dishonour her aged husband by giving the child a different name? Why the name John?
In confusion they turn to Zechariah and pose to him the question of what the child should be named. Purposefully Zechariah took up his stylus and writing tablet. With a glisten in his eye he turned the tablet towards them and they saw it was written, ‘His name is John.’ Not, ‘His name should be John;’ or ‘we would like to call him John,’ but, ‘His name IS John. It was the name given to him by the command of God through the angel Gabriel. With this testimony, immediately Zechariah began to praise God, to the utter surprise of all his neighbours. ‘What’s in a name?’
Why did God choose the name John rather than allowing the parents to name the son. Because the name John means Jehovah is Gracious. We are told that many people will rejoice because of his birth. He is a sign given to the Jews of the coming arrival of their king, and so they should rejoice at his birth. Gabriel told them that he would turn many people back to the Lord, that he would precede the coming of the Lord with the spirit and power of Elijah. Indeed John the Baptist forms the bridge between Old Testament and New.
In Malachi 4 we read the final words God speaks in the Old Testament before 400 years of silence,
‘See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hears of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.’ (Malachi 4:5-6)
When God breaks his silence for the first time in 400 years it is through Gabriel that he speaks to an old priest serving in the Temple. And the message he delivers is that he will have a son who will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah.
It was God’s sovereign plan that John’s parents were both descendants from Aaron, the first priest of Israel. It was God’s sovereign plan that John would graciously turn the people of Israel back to their God and prepare the way for the promised one, whose birth we celebrate today. Whose name is ‘Jesus’ which means? – Jehovah is salvation. The Lord saves.
Four characters introduce Jesus to us in Luke 1. Four names – Four insights into the character of the Lord God Almighty. Zechariah : Jehovah will remember. Gabriel – Mighty One of Jehovah. Elisabeth – Jehovah the Absolutely Reliable One. John – Jehovah is indeed Gracious. That we might know, might truly know Jesus, Jehovah saves.
You may be happy with the name your parents gave you. You may not. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter for two reasons. When you trust in Jesus you join his family and you receive a new name.
When you trust in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord – because that is what his name means – Jehovah is salvation – the Lord saves – you are adopted into the family of God, you become a child of God, and in this life you become known as a Christ-follower, a Christian. What a name to be proud of.
But one day soon you can look forward to receiving a new name. In Revelation 2 we are promised:
“To those who are victorious, … I will also give each of them a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:17)
This may mean that we receive a new name in heaven because of our relationship with Jesus, or it may mean Jesus reveals His new name to us because of our relationship with him. Either way, we will receive a new name becauswe of our relationship to him. A name that reflects the name that is above all names.
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
With thanks to Marc Bertrand for his sermon ‘What’s in a name?’ and William Hendriksen’s commentary, More than Conquerors, which also gave me much inspiration.