Do you have an interesting name? Have you every tried to trace your ancestors? Many names reflect the trade or occupation of their original owner – Mason, Collier, Smith, Hunter, Driver, Butcher, Thatcher and so on.
In Wales, over the centuries, so many people acquired surnames such as Davies, Jones or Williams that it became necessary to add a distinguishing description. For example, the great hymn writer William Williams is always referred to as Williams Pantycelyn (the place of his birth) to distinguish him from all the other Williams.
Jones has always created a problem. So you would have in a village, Jones the fish, Jones the school, or Jones the baker. In one small town, Jones the baker was known as Jones the crust. So when the Queen visited his little bakery he became known from then on as Jones the upper crust!
What was God up to?
Seriously, though, there are two biblical names, closely linked to the Christmas story, which contain the essence of the Christian message.
The first is Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’. The baby born in the manger at Bethlehem was none other than God in human flesh. The more you think about it the more staggering the truth becomes. What on earth was God up to – coming down to earth?
When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans it left a trail of devastation in its wake. When the full extent of the disaster was realised, President Bush visited the area several times to encourage and assure the people that all possible help would be given. He stayed for a few hours, meeting various officials, but then flew back to Washington.
When God visited this planet it was not a flying visit. He stayed for 33 years. That must mean he had come to deal with a pretty major disaster. But he did not come thundering down from the skies like Superman, ready to destroy evil men with supernatural powers.
No; he came instead as a baby born to a virgin – Mary, an ordinary humble Jewish girl. Once again we must ask, what was God up to?
Saving from sin
The second name Jesusprovides the answer. It means ‘saviour’. Mary and Joseph did not choose that name, they were specifically instructed by an angel to call their baby Jesus. More than that, they were told what the name signified – ‘it is he who will save his people from their sins’.
The disaster God has come to deal with was (and still is) sin. He did not come just to teach, or heal, or set an example. He came to save us – not from poverty, ignorance or social injustice but from sin.
But what issin? The Bible describes it succinctly: ‘it is the transgression of God’s law’. It is an attitude of rebellion against God – when people say to God, ‘Don’t tell us how to run our lives. We’re going to do things our way. We don’t like your Ten Commandments or your Sermon on the Mount – they inhibit our freedom so we are going to ignore them (Oh, and we’ll ignore you too)’.
Well, we are free to ignore God. But the Bible makes it clear that God is not going to ignore us! He is loving but he is also righteous and just. That means he must punish sin – which will involve eternal separation from him.
So, what can we do to avert everlasting punishment?
A perfect substitute
Suppose a perfect sinless human being could be found who was willing to take the punishment of guilty sinners. God might accept such a sacrifice, but it would only be effective for onesinner.
What was needed was a perfect human being who was also divine – because such a sacrifice would have infinitevalue. That is why God’s Son was born of a virgin – having a sinless start he could live a sinless life for 33 years. Then he could offer himself to the Father as a sinless substitute, a sacrifice for sinners.
Thus on the cross he took the place of sinners, dying in their stead.
Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned he stood.
Because Christ died, God is perfectly placed to forgive sin. He will pardon and welcome into his family all who repent (that is, who turn their backs on their old self-governing ways) and trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour.
Upon a life I have not lived,
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.