What's in a Name?

Nomenclature Revealed

There are some surprises - and some very serious concerns - lying behind the meaning of "a name." (Hebrew: shem; Greek: onoma; Latin: nomen.) A "name" is that by which a person, place or thing is marked and known. In Scripture, names were generally descriptive of a person: of his position, of some circumstance affecting him, hope entertained concerning him, etc., so that "the name" often came to stand for the person.1 Besides designating persons, the name also stands for fame, renown, reputation, character gained or expressed, etc.2 It might be an "evil name." 3 The "name" can also be equivalent to a "people" or "nation" (which might be "blotted out"; i.e., destroyed.4 )

To speak or write "in the name" signified authority.5 To "call one's name" over a place or people indicated possession or ownership. 6 To act "in the name" was to represent; 7 to be called or known "by name" indicated special individual notice.8

The Name of God

Of special interest is the usage with respect to the name of God. He revealed Himself to Israel through Moses by a new name (YHWH: Yahveh, or Yehovah) - the nature of which would be shown by His manifestations on their behalf. 9 The name of God was therefore not a mere word, but the Divine manifestation, the character of God as revealed in His relations to His people and in His dealings with them.10 The "name of Yahveh" was proclaimed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, "Yah, Yahveh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth," etc. 11

His sole Deity was such an important element in His name that Deuteronomy 6:4 was termed the "Shema" (from Heb: shema, "hear," the first word in 6:4), the first article of Israelite faith, taught to all the children, written on the phylacteries, and still recited as the first act in public and private worship "twice a day by every adult male Jew." (In later Jewish usage, the sacred name Yahweh was not allowed to be pronounced in reading the Scriptures: the Hebrew word Adonay ("my Lord") was substituted for it (the vowels belonging to Heb: Adonay were written with the consonants of the Divine name), hence, the frequent term "the Lord" in the King James Version, for which the American Standard Revised Version substitutes "Yahweh.") Where Yahweh is said to record His name, or to put His name in a place (or on a person), some special Divine manifestation is implied, making the place or person sacred to Him.12 His "name" was in the angel of His Presence; 13 what He does is "for His great name's sake," in fidelity to and vindication of His revealed character and covenant relationship; 14 the great things He should do would be "for a name." 15

God, in calling His people into new and close relationship with Himself, gives them a new name. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai, Sarah; Jacob, Israel. So spiritually, in the highest sense, God's giving a new name implies His giving a new nature. So, too, Messiah, Jesus, Immanuel, and the Word all indicate His manifested relations to us in redemption;16 "His name shall be called Wonderful," etc.17 Also His gracious and glorious attributes revealed in creation and providence,18 authority,19 and manifested glory.20

He would give His people a new "everlasting name";21 to be called by the name of Yahweh is "to be His people";22 it implies protection, etc.23 To "call upon" the name of Yahweh was "to worship Him" as God;24 "to confess" His name, to "acknowledge Him";25 to love, trust, act in, etc., "the name," was to love, trust, etc., Yahweh Himself.26

But there is also a dark side. To "forget His name" was "to depart from Him."27 Instead of a "curse," as the name of Jews had been,28 the elect Jews shall have a new name: God's delight, "Hephzibah," and married to Him, "Beulah," instead of "forsaken" and "widow."29

New Testament Usage

In the New Testament Greek, onoma has also the significance of denoting the "character," or "work" of the person; e.g., "Thou shalt call His name Jesus; for it is He that shall save," etc.30 The "name" of God has the same relation to the character of God as in the Old Testament; 31 it is manifested by Christ (the name of Jesus, as manifesting God, takes the place of the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament 32). Men "called upon the name" of Jesus, as they had done on that of Yahweh.33

We have, with reference to Jesus, simply "the Name." 34 The "name of Christ" is equivalent to "Christ Himself."35 "To believe on His name" is to believe in Him as manifested in His life and work.36 In like manner, we "prophesy" or "preach" in the name of Jesus.37 The "name of Jesus" represented His "authority" and "power"; e.g., working miracles in His name,38 and it is contrasted with casting out evil spirits by some other name or power.39 The Gospel of salvation was to be preached "in His name," by His authority and as making it effectual; 40 sinners were justified "through His name"; 41 and, sins were forgiven "for His name's sake." 42

"To name the name" of Christ was to belong to Him;43 the calling of His name on the Gentiles signified their acceptance as God's people.44 To "hold fast His name" is to be true to Him; 45 "to baptize in" or "into the name" of Jesus Christ 46 is contrasted with baptizing into one's own name. 47 Christians receive their new name at baptism, indicating their new relationship. They are "baptized into the name of (eis onoma) into living union with48 the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." 49

Unrecognized Gravity

To take His name "in vain" was to swear falsely;50 the penalty for which was death by stoning.51 However, the commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," would seem to go far beyond just swearing, as is commonly taught. To minister, prophesy, or speak in His name signifies divine appointment, inspiration, and authority.52 We are to be His ambassadors. 53 We have no higher calling than to be the personal representative of the Lord Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Savior of the world. Yet, therein lies a peculiar jeopardy.


An ambassador is an official representative of a king or government, as of Pharaoh,54 of the princes of Babylon,55 of Neco, king of Egypt,56 of the messengers of peace sent by Hezekiah, king of Judah, to Sennacherib, king of Assyria.57 The same Hebrew term is used of the messengers sent by Jacob to Esau, 58 and by Moses to the king of Edom.59 The inhabitants of Gibeon pretended to be ambassadors to Joshua in order to secure by deceit the protection of a treaty.60 To do injury to an ambassador was to insult the king who sent him.61 When one takes on the mission of being an ambassador, he is commissioned to represent his king to others, and he "takes on the name" of his sovereign to others. His effectiveness is, of course, critical to the plans and purposes of the king. Malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance in the role of ambassador of a sovereign is a dereliction of duty that can have grave consequences. If he faithfully represents his king, people will respond in a manner that the king requires. If he misrepresents his king, the king's purposes may be thwarted, and the king's enemies may prosper in their deceits or cross-purposes.

As Jesus' ambassadors, we have "taken the name" of our Sovereign. What does it mean to "take it in vain"?

"Vain" is the adjective of "vanity," and it is virtually synonymous with empty, hollow, or idle. "Vain" implies either absolute or relative absence of value; "empty" and "hollow" suggest a deceiving lack of real substance, soundness or genuineness; and, "idle" suggests being incapable of worthwhile use or effect.

This reveals an even darker side of the Third Commandment. When we misrepresent His name, we are guilty of malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance as His ambassador. "Being a witness" is more than giving out tracts or responding with theological clichés. We are commissioned to "make disciples."62 But do we? We need to consider this very, very carefully and be diligent in daily prayer over this if we take Him seriously.

This also casts a dark shadow over the performance of many present-day churches. How effective is our collective ambassadorship? It is a disturbing reality that the divorce rate among "believers" is no better than the divorce rate among non-believers, etc. Many sincere seekers drop away from their initial encounters, underwhelmed by contemporary practices. This is but one of the aspects we review in this month's featured briefing, The Once and Future Church.


  1. In Acts 1:15; Revelation 3:4, Greek: onoma stands for "persons"; compare Numbers 26:53,55.
  2. Genesis 6:4; 2 Samuel 7:9,23, etc.
  3. Deuteronomy 22:14,19.
  4. Deuteronomy 7:24, etc.
  5. Exodus 5:23; 1 Kings 21:8, etc.
  6. 2 Samuel 12:28; Amos 9:12, etc.
  7. Deuteronomy 25:6.
  8. Exodus 31:2; Isaiah 43:1; 45:3,4.
  9. Exodus 3:13-16; 15:2,3.
  10. Exodus 9:16; Joshua 7:9; 9:9, etc.
  11. Exodus 34:5-7.
  12. Exodus 20:24; 1 Kings 8:16.
  13. Exodus 23:21.
  14. 2 Chronicles 6:32; Psalm 25:11.
  15. Isaiah 55:13.
  16. Revelation 19:13.
  17. Isaiah 9:6. Cf. Jonah 17:6; 26; Psalm 22:22.
  18. Psalm 8:1; 20:1,7.
  19. Acts 4:7.
  20. Philippians 2:9.
  21. Isaiah 56:5; Revelation 2:17; 3:12.
  22. 2 Chronicles 7:14; Isaiah 43:7.
  23. Isaiah 63:19; Jeremiah 14:8,9.
  24. Genesis 21:33; 26:25, etc.
  25. 1 Kings 8:33,35.
  26. Psalm 5:11; 7:17.
  27. Jer 23:27.
  28. Isaiah 65:15.
  29. Isaiah 62:2-4. Cf. Revelation 18:7.
  30. Matthew 1:21. Cf. Luke 1:31; 2:21; 1:63, "His name is John"; compare the new names given to Simon, James and John; Saul's new name of "Paul."
  31. Matthew 6:9; "Father, glorify thy name," John 12:28.
  32. John 17:26; Cf. 17:3; also Cf. James 2:7 with Jeremiah 14:9; Philippians 2:9,10 (Cf. Isaiah 45:23).
  33. Acts 9:14,21 (Cf. 7:59); Romans 10:13,14.
  34. Acts 5:41.
  35. Matthew 10:22; 19:29.
  36. John 1:12; 2:23; 20:31.
  37. Acts 4:18; 5:28.
  38. Matthew 7:22; Mark 9:39; Acts 4:7, "by what name (or "power") have ye done this?"
  39. Acts 16:18; 19:17.
  40. Luke 24:47.
  41. Acts 10:43; 1 Corinthians 6:11.
  42. 1 John 2:12.
  43. 2 Timothy 2:19.
  44. Acts 15:17 (quoted from Amos 9:12; cf. Romans 1:5).
  45. Revelation 2:13; 3:8.
  46. Acts 2:38; 22:16.
  47. 1 Corinthians 1:15.
  48. 2 Peter 1:4.
  49. Matthew 28:19,
  50. Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12.
  51. Leviticus 24:13-16.
  52. Jeremiah 11:21; 14:14,15, etc. Matthew 21:9; 23:39.
  53. 2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20.
  54. Isaiah 30:4.
  55. 2 Chronicles 32:31.
  56. 2 Chronicles 35:21.
  57. Isaiah 33:7.
  58. Genesis 32:3.
  59. Numbers 20:14.
  60. Joshua 9:4.
  61. 2 Samuel 10:5.
  62. Matthew 28:19 (NIV).