There are several expressions used for God in the Bible, many of them beginning with El, which simply means “god” or “deity”. When the word is extended in Hebrew, a clearer meaning emerges:
Elyon – God Most High
Eloah / Elohim – One of strength or powerful effect
Elohai – My God
El Shaddai – God who is sufficient / satisfies
Tzevaot / Adonai – the Lord of hosts
There are also several names used for God in the old testament – all used in conjunction with a main root of YHWH:
YHWH-Jireh – The Lord will provide (Genesis 22:13-14)
YHWH-Rapha – The Lord that heals (Exodus 15:26)
YHWH-Niss’i – The Lord our banner (Exodus 17:8-15)
YHWH-Shalom – The Lord our peace (Judges 6:24)
YHWH-Ra-ah – The Lord our shepherd (Psalm 23:1)
These names describe the various ways God moved in the lives of His people to help them, and give some clues as to his perceived character.
But what did God say His name was?
After God called Moses to deliver His people, in Exodus 3 Moses asked God – “Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of your father has sent me to you, and they shall say to me, what is his name? what shall I say?
And God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM, and said, so shall you say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. And God also said to Moses, So shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord 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 for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.”
The word God used on this occasion was the Hebrew word YHWH. Because there are no vowels in the word, it is usually pronounced Yahweh, or the English version used from early protestant times of “Jehovah”.
Too sacred to be uttered?
However, Jewish tradition gradually and increasingly dictated that the name of God was too sacred to be uttered. It was replaced vocally in Hebrew as Adonai (my Lord) or Kyrios in Greek, and The Lord in writing. If a mistake was made in writing, the name could not even be erased – it had to have a line put through it with the correct form placed afterwards. It appears that the avoidance of uttering God’s name, or even writing it fully (the beginning and end letters only were used) arose from an over-zealous interpretation of the third commandment, which is not to take the name of the Lord in vain – usually associated with using His name in an oath. More and traditions around the use or non-use of God’s name were added as time went by, under the guise of “honouring” God.
But was this apparently reverential practice what God wanted?
Throughout the Bible, God instructs the people to “proclaim His name” (Isaiah 12:4, Psalms 105:1), and to “chant praises to His name” (Psalms 68:5) and speaks highly of one who “knows My name” (Psalms 91:14). There are countless other references to His name.
Jesus even rebuked the Pharisees in Mark 7 for “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition, which you have delivered, and many such like things you do” (listing several instances). He quoted Isaiah’s prophecy which said that “this people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
So what was achieved by making His name too sacred to be uttered? It placed a distance between God and His people – He was successfully kept at arm’s length by the very religious leaders who claimed to be honouring Him.
So perhaps this places a new importance on the fact that the angel told Joseph that the holy son which had been conceived by the Holy Ghost was to be called Jesus – for He shall save His people from their sins. And in the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 His name was also given as Emmanuel – God With Us. God was clearly signifying that His Son would have both a name and an identity. He wasn’t going to stay at arm’s length where religion wanted Him to stay, but would come to live among us, up close and personal – He could be spoken to, seen and touched.
This is probably another reason why the Pharisees were so offended when Jesus – who clearly had a name – identified Himself as being their God, not only repeatedly by reference to His Father, and saying that He and His Father were one (John 10:30) – at which point they tried to stone Him – but very specifically in John 8:58 when He declared “Before Abraham was, I AM” – using that most sacred name of God.
It is notable that in Matthew 28:18, in Jesus’ great commission, He said:
“All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth – Go therefore and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
There is a permanence about His presence – name included – with us, to the end of the world.
Note that the word used is in the singular – “name” not names. Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the final name of the one true God. It affirms:
• That God is one.
• That He exists in a personality which is threefold – indicated by relationship as Father and Son, by a mode or way of being as Spirit, and by the different functions used by the Godhead - in the way God appears to us, in the work of redemption, and in His work in our lives. In the baptism of Jesus recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke, all three Persons are shown/demonstrated together.
• The joining of the three Personalities into one name confirms both equality and the oneness of their substance.
In other words, God has the same substance – Jesus said that God is a Spirit – but exists in three distinct Personalities, all acting in unity, with each emphasised at different times.
Jesus spoke about God’s name many times in John 17:
“I have manifested your name unto the men which you gave me out of the world … I have given them the words which you gave me … Holy Father, keep through your own name those whom you have given me … I have kept them through your name … I have declared unto them your name and will declare it, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Far from being remote and unapproachable, He is a God who wants us to know Him – who sent His Son to reveal Him, to remove the barriers between us and Him, and to give us eternal life. This is not just eternal existence, but eternal Life. Jesus clarified how that eternal life comes about, in John 17:
“And this is life eternal, that they might know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
What better name could God have used for Himself than I AM! This says so many things about Who He is:
• He simply IS.
• He is absolute reality – there is no reality outside of him unless He makes it.
• He is completely independent – He does not need anything to make, support or counsel Him.
• Everything that is not Him depends totally on Him.
• Everything else is as nothing compared to Him.
• He is constant – the same yesterday, today and forever.
• He is the absolute standard of everything. He does not need to consult any other authority to determine what is truth, what is right or what is best.
• He is free to do whatever He wills. He created all reality outside of Him and therefore has no constraints.
• He is the most worthy and valuable Person that exists.
We live in linear time, with each generation following on from the one before it. We cannot move backwards in time, only forwards. Our perspective is limited to hindsight. We can hope and plan for the future, but have no real control over it.
But God is eternal. He dwells outside of time. He IS. He can see the beginning of all things at the same time as He sees the end of all things. He sees the beginning of our earthly life journey at the same time as its end. He saw and knew us before we were born, and made the way open for us to know Him in return, to become part of His Family, and to live with Him forever.
Acts 17:28 – For in Him we live and move and have our being.
Isaiah 45:5-6 - I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting, people may know there is no one besides me. I am the Lord and there is no other.
Everything we need is in Him. He is the One who is:
• Our provider (YHWH-Jireh)
• Our healer (YHWH-Rapha)
• Our banner (YHWH-Niss’i)
• Our peace (YHWH-Shalom)
• Our shepherd (YWHW-Ra-ah)
• The resurrection and the life
• The Alpha (beginning) and Omega (the end)
• The Way, the Truth and the Life
And the most important of all – HE IS LOVE.