The following article appeared in The New Millennium, a publication of the Association for Christian Development. To receive a free subscription to The New Millennium, please write to

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What's in a Name?

Kenneth V. Ryland

It took two to three weeks for the tape to arrive. When I finally had it in my hands, I wasted little time getting it into a cassette player. I really wanted to hear what the lady had to say about her life and personal experience with God. I was not disappointed. Her tape was even more interesting than her radio interview which motivated me to order the tape. She said one thing, however, that really intrigued me. She referred to Jesus as "Yaveshua ." She stated that this combination of Yahveh and Yeshua represent a proper way to refer to Jesus Christ. Well, it was difficult to know what to make of all this. I could see the combination of the two names as possible but also knew that there was no place in the Bible where "Yaveshua " is used to refer to God or Jesus Christ.

Over my 30 some years as a Christian, I have many times come across the belief that Christians should refer to the Father and to Jesus Christ by their Hebrew names. There is a belief among some that the Hebrew of the Bible is the one "original" and "pure" language. Therefore, to refer to God or Christ by any name other than their Hebrew names is sacrilegious, even blasphemous (depending on the view of the person you talk to).

Reverence God's Name

It is very clearly stated in God's Word that we must reverence the name of God and not take His name in vain (Exodus 20:7). In fact, we are to fear His glorious name: "If you do not carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD, then the Lord will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues -- great and prolonged plagues -- and serious and prolonged sicknesses" (Deuteronomy 28:58-59).

Because we are known as God's people in this world, many non-Christians judge the character of God by what they see in us and hear from our lips. When people turn to or turn away from the Lord, it is often because of what they see in us who are His children. We are indeed His hands, feet, and lips. Our reverence for His name is most important in our commission to carry the gospel to the world.

Another point to keep in mind is that His name is a representation of His character. When we reverence His name, it is because His name points us to the one who has perfect His character. His name would mean nothing if it did not stand for all things that are good and desirable. He has a reputation to uphold, a reputation based on perfect character, and we, His children, are the ones who must uphold His reputation before the watching world and make sure that none speak evil of God because of our misdeeds or the profaning of His good name.

There is no Christian who would not agree that reverencing the name of God is important. However, can we go one step further and state that we must reverence the name of God the Father and Jesus Christ only in the Hebrew language -- that to do otherwise is to profane God's name? Some would say yes. Many over the years have ceased to fellowship with other believers over this very point. But, is the pronunciation of the Hebrew names for God and Christ really important enough to alienate some of God's children from others, often permanently? For a number of reasons, I do not believe that it is.

Which Name?

Apart from the fact that wrangling over this issue destroys fellowship between God's children, one of the major difficulties with the idea that we must refer to Jesus and the Father by their Hebrew names is deciding which name to use. God has revealed Himself throughout the Bible in different ways at different times. For example, the woman I mentioned at the beginning of this article believes that Jesus Christ should be called Yahveshua and that the Father should be called Elohim . Others will contend that Jesus is Yeshua Ha Meshiah . Others insist on Yashua instead of Yeshua , since the latter is a "late" variant of the spelling. However, Hebrew scholars know that there were originally no vowels in Hebrew, so we really don't know for sure which vowel sounds were applied to the Hebrew YHWH (or YHVH ) the first time this name of God was spoken. (There is also a related theological problem with all this, but we will get into that later.)

In the Bible's account of creation the Hebrew word Elohim is used to refer to God. Nonetheless, in Genesis chapter 2 God is called YHWH Elohim (verses 4, 5, 7, 8, etc.), the two Hebrew terms together. In English that is translated "LORD GOD."

To further confuse the issue, when Moses is confronted by God at the burning bush, he asks God to identify Himself so that Moses can explain to his Hebrew brethren who sent him. Does God say to Moses, "tell the people that YHWH [or Elohim ] has sent me?" No, God tells Moses "I am who I am. Tell the people that I AM ['HAYAH ' in Hebrew] has sent me." It is because of this incident that there is a group of people who insist that God must be called "I AM." (They prefer the English.)

Most scholars accept that the Hebrew term YHWH is a name that God used most often in identifying Himself with the nation of Israel. Notwithstanding this identification of YHWH with Israel, we have already seen that God called Himself by this name (along with several others) long before Israel appeared in history. So, YHWH cannot be limited to a connection with God's chosen people.

The term Elohim is an even more difficult word to deal with. Though God identifies Himself as Elohim at the creation, He also tells Israel at Mount Sinai: "You shall have no other elohim [gods] before Me" (Exodus 20:3). In this passage and others in the Old Testament, elohim is used to refer to pagan gods. From the way elohim is used throughout the Old Testament, it seems to be a general term for "gods" of any type, and only in the context of its use as "the" Creator God or the God of heaven does it take on the meaning of the One True God.

Well, I must tell you that this is all very confusing -- that is, if you accept the assumption that there is one Hebrew name for the Father and another for His Son, Jesus Christ. If you don't get caught up in this debate, then the confusion swirls on the outside and not on the inside. One thing is for sure: "God is not the author of confusion but of peace" (1 Corinthians 14:33). So, it is obvious that the confusion and misunderstanding surrounding this subject are not coming from God.

Theological Considerations

To this point we have looked only at the words or names that some consider to be sacred. There are, however, some thorny theological issues that need to be addressed in understanding the subject of "sacred names." One is that the LORD, as Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the redeemer of mankind, did not exist in the Old Testament period. Jesus only became Jesus at His birth in approximately 4 B.C. Nor was there a Heavenly Father as we know Him today. He was not the Father until His only begotten Son was born in Bethlehem. Once Jesus was born, the relationship of God with mankind changed. That is why we are Christians today and no longer wait for the coming of God's suffering servant (i.e. Jesus at His first coming. See Isaiah 52 and 53.), the one who would take away the sins of the world.

Most adherents of the sacred names theology are content to refer to Jesus as Yeshua (or Yashua ) Ha Meshiah , meaning Jesus the Messiah or Jesus Christ. But, since the New Testament did not come to us in Hebrew, but in Greek, we have no biblical reference to Jesus' being referred to in Scripture by a Hebrew name. Please don't misunderstand. I am not saying that the followers of Jesus did not call Him Yeshua . What I am saying is that God in His wisdom did not preserve the New Testament in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek, so God shows us in New Testament Scripture the Greek name of His Son. It is likely that some of the New Testament, particularly the gospels and the book of Hebrews, were written in Hebrew or Aramaic and then translated to Greek. Nevertheless, God preserved only the Greek for us. He made it impossible for us to peer behind the Greek to a "Hebrew New Testament." The only Hebrew New Testaments are those translated from the original Greek into Hebrew. God wanted the gospel to go to the world, not just to the Jews, and Greek was the most universal language of that day. There were few places one could travel during that time of history that Greek was not spoken or at least read.

Another theological issue that must be confronted is Who was the God of the Old Testament. Some connect YHWH of the Old Testament with the Father of the New Testament. But is this an accurate picture? It seems clear from many scriptures in the New Testament that the one who became Jesus Christ is the God of the Old Testament. Referring to the Father, Jesus said that no one had "heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form" (John 5:37; see also John 1:18). Paul, writing in Greek to the Colossians, stated that God had created all this through Jesus Christ (1:15, 16; see also Hebrews 1:1, 2). The apostle John also gives us a description of Who the Creator God, the God of the Old Testament, is. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... All things were made through Him , and without Him nothing was made that was made ... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1-3, 14). Is there any doubt that the Creator God, the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the same one who became Jesus Christ in the New Testament? If this is true, then Elohim , YHWH , and Yeshua refer to the same member of the godhead, the one who became the Son. By what sacred name in Hebrew are we then to call the Father?

What about the Father?

Jesus constantly referred to the Father, but gave us no other name to call Him besides "Father." He told us to pray to "our Father in heaven," (Matthew 6:9). In fact, Jesus stated that one of His purposes for coming to earth in human form was to "reveal the Father." Jesus desires us to be "one" with Him and the Father (John 17:20 - 23). How then can we come up with a name for the Father other than what Jesus Himself called Him? I find no scriptural justification for referring to the Father only in the Hebrew language.

There are a couple of instances mentioned in the New Testament in which Jesus refers to God not in Hebrew but in Aramaic. It is significant that the writers of the gospels in these cases thought it important to preserve the exact words of Jesus as they were heard in Aramaic. For example, when Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, He prays to God: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will but what You will" (Mark 14:36). At His crucifixion Jesus calls out "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani," (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 uses the words "Eli, Eli" to refer to God), which is an obvious attempt to present us with the exact words uttered by Jesus in the language in which they were uttered. The fact that Jesus would call out in Aramaic in the midst of His deepest agony would indicate that Aramaic was His primary language, the one He spoke most often. Also worth noting here is that Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 in Aramaic, not in Hebrew.

The apostle Paul also makes reference to the Father several times using the Aramaic "abba," (see Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6). Abba was a term of endearment meaning something between Daddy and Dad, a term used by a child toward a male parent. Paul makes no mention of a Hebrew word for Father. In fact, it appears that Paul is trying deliberately to avoid stiff, formal terms for the word "father" choosing to draw God's children into thinking of the Father in intimate, personal terms.

Should Sacred Names Be Used?

There is no real reason to avoid referring to God by His Hebrew names. God's names in Hebrew give us a wealth of information about who He is. Christians should not avoid understanding the Hebrew names of God any more than they should demand that only Hebrew names be spoken. To exalt Hebrew to the status of "the one pure language" is to ignore the facts of history. Hebrew, like all human languages, derived from the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel. The Bible nowhere indicates that Hebrew was the original language from which all other languages were "confused." In fact, if Hebrew were the language at the tower of Babel when all men spoke one language (see Genesis 11:1 - 9), then we would have to conclude that Hebrew was the means of communicating such evil that God had to intervene directly to confuse this language and separate the nations. There is, however, no evidence that this is the case. Hebrew was just one of many languages that developed after Babel. The Hebrew language is never called a holy language in the Bible. In Isaiah 19:18 it is referred to as the tongue of Canaan. Like any human language it can be used to communicate good or evil.

Probably the most important reason for learning the Hebrew names of God is that our Heavenly Father wants very much for us to know Him. That is the reason He revealed Himself to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and has been revealing Himself to mankind ever since. Among the many things that Jesus accomplished by His life, death, and resurrection was that He revealed to us how God would live if God were a man. God truly wants us to know Him intimately, the same as any parent wants his children to know him. For that reason, God has revealed Himself by many names throughout history. Studying the names of God is profitable in that it helps round out our picture of who God is and what He is like.

When God reveals to us that He is the Lord of Hosts, we have a picture of someone willing to go to war for us (or against us if we choose to oppose Him). Seen in the light of the New Testament, we see Jesus at His second coming making war against His enemies and establishing an eternal kingdom of peace upon this earth. When we know Him as Abba or Father, He is our loving parent. When we are sick or broken, He is our Yahweh Rapheka , the God who heals. This becomes very real to us when we or a loved one is sick and we call for anointing and prayer for the sick with the promise that "the prayer of faith will heal the sick" (James 5:14 - 16). Jesus said that we were to take no anxious thought of what we are to eat or drink because our heavenly Father knows what we need and will provide it because He is YHWH Jirah , "The LORD Will Provide." By the names of God we know the He is our sufficiency in everything, whether we need food, clothing, shelter, or spiritual and emotional strength to face some trial. Each of His names is a message to His children that they can count on Him no matter what the need.

Anything that causes division among the brethren is a clear violation of the commands of God, especially when there is no scriptural evidence that God's law is being broken. Subverting fellowship is in fact an abomination in God's eyes (Proverbs 6:19). There is never any justification for breaking fellowship apart from a clear violation of God's law, and there is no violation of the law if we do not use the Hebrew names for God.

On the other hand, those who choose not to use "sacred names" must be careful not to offend their sacred-name brethren because of the liberty they have. We are all called to one body (Ephesians 4:3 - 6) and to live at peace with all men insofar as it is up to us. Our mission is to prepare ourselves and the whole body of Christ as we wait for our Savior's return and His kingdom. This means that we must avoid squabbles and dissensions that weaken ourselves and others. There is too much at stake and the time is too short to take our eyes off the mark, and there is too much to be gained by remaining strong in unity.

Each of us must stay focused on the things of God which are most important. It makes no difference whether we call God Yahweh , Elohim , or Lord. What we do is much more important and powerful than the words we use. Jesus will recognize us, not by what we call Him, but by our deeds. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven," (Matthew 7:21).

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