Since I am married to a teacher of teachers, I’m always unconsciously reading for insights pertaining to the educator’s craft. I came across one recently in Father Gregory Boyle’s book, “Tattoos of the Heart.” On his first day as a young teacher, Father Boyle poked his head into the classroom of Donna Wanland, a veteran teacher, and said, “It’s my first day of teaching. Give me some advice.” Without even looking up from the morning paper, Donna replied, “Know all their names by tomorrow.”
What is it about a name? Veteran teachers understand that to know a student’s name is to command attention, to exert influence, to engage more fully.
In the Biblical world, names often reveal identity. Isaac’s name means laughter because his parents chuckled at the thought of Sarah having a son at age 90. Moses’ name is related to the Hebrew word “drawn out,” because Moses was drawn out of the river Nile. Jacob’s name can mean usurper or heel-grabber since he stole Esau’s birthright. Again and again in the story of Scripture, names reveal character and describe identity. Peter is nicknamed “the Rock” and will be a builder of the early church. James and John are “the sons of thunder,” ready to call down fire on unrepentant villages (which Jesus wisely resists).
Those who met Jesus and those who later described him in New Testament writings found they had a tall order as they grappled to find the appropriate words to adequately describe this itinerant first century Jewish prophet, teacher, healer, and revolutionary. More than sixty different names and titles are used in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ identity, mission, and character. Those early witnesses, authors, and theologians struggled mightily to catch up with what God was revealing in and through the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Two thousand years later, we’re still writing books, doing theology, creating ministries, and going on mission, all in the attempt to better understand Jesus and to more fully follow in his Way. Jesus’ name is holy, mysterious, and of great importance to us as his followers. We confess Jesus as our Messiah and Lord, we are baptized into his name, we pray in Jesus’ name, and we worship Jesus as our Savior. As we reflect on the kaleidoscopic richness of Jesus’ names, may we grow in our appreciation of who he is and what he means to us, providing us with insight and inspiration for living more Christ-like lives.