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What's in a Name

Updated: Oct 8, 2022

(By Angela Watson)

This line from Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, conveys that the name of something is irrelevant: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” However, with God, names hold great relevance. When we look closely at the meanings of names, whether it be the names of people or places in Scripture, we can appreciate how those meanings often reveal the plans of God and how His plans are always fulfilled.

In the Bible, God often changes people's names when they have a significant encounter with him or when He calls them to fulfill His purposes. Joshua is no exception. He is first mentioned in Numbers 13 when the Lord speaks to Moses and commands him to send spies into the promised land. Twelve men are chosen, one from each of the tribes of Israel, but Scripture mentions only one name being changed. “These were the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua” (Numbers 13:16).

This small shift from Hoshea meaning “salvation” to Joshua meaning “Jehovah is salvation” sets Joshua apart as a portrait of Jesus, the one who will lead God’s people into the promised land. Our God knows the beginning from the end and His purposes will always come to pass (Lamentations 2:17a).

Joshua was not only a portrait of Jesus, but God also chose to use the way the Israelites left the wilderness and entered the promised land as a picture of what our Savior would go through so that we could enter heaven.

The way of the cross wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t easy for the Israelites to enter the promised land. They needed to cross over the Jordan river. It’s interesting to see God’s timing. The Israelites arrived during harvest season when the Jordan overflowed its banks, which from a human perspective is the most impossible time to attempt a crossing (Joshua 3:15). But our God loves to perform miracles and show us that nothing is impossible with Him (Luke 1:37).

The word Jordan means “to descend” and comes from the root word “Jared.” If we follow the principle of first mention, it leads us back to Genesis 5:15, where we read of Mahaleel, a descendant of Seth, bearing a son Jared. Translated, the names Mahaleel and Jared mean “The Praise of God, who descends.”

In Joshua 3:16, we find beautiful imagery of God’s plan of salvation: “The waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam (red), the city that is beside Zarethan (distress), and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah (desert), the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over.”

For us to leave the wilderness of sin, Jesus the praise of God (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22) had to descend to this world overflowing with sin. His path would lead to the cross, where from above, God would place all the punishment for our sins on Jesus. At the cross, Jesus’ blood would flow (Matthew 26:28, John 19:34), He would be in great distress (Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 27:27-31) and be all alone (Matthew 27:46) so that our sins could be completely removed (Psalm 103:12) and so that we could cross over to be in the presence of God (1 John 1:7).

While it may be true that “a rose by any other name might smell as sweet,” I’m so thankful for the beautiful pictures that we can see in God’s word in the meanings of names. Truly we can say like the psalmist, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3).


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