Jesus’ name and the meaning of salvation

Jesus’ name and the meaning of salvation December 23, 2015
Benson, Ambrosius (1495/1550) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Benson, Ambrosius (1495/1550) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In Matthew 1:21, the angel Gabriel tells Mary what to name her new  baby: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This sentence doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you understand that the word Jesus is the transliteration through Greek, Latin, and English of the Hebrew word Yeshuah which means “salvation.” So what exactly does salvation mean? To many evangelical Christians, salvation means simply not going to hell when you die. But none of the 77 uses of yeshuah in the Hebrew Bible have anything to do with an afterlife destiny. Most often, yeshuah describes a battlefield deliverance from one’s enemies. So let’s take a look at some of these references and see what they reveal about the kind of salvation Jesus provides.

I. Hebrew Bible references to  ישועה (yeshuah)

In Exodus 14:13, right before the Israelites cross the Red Sea, Moses says, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the salvation the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” After the Egyptian army has been drowned in the sea, the word pops up again in Exodus 15:2 at the beginning of Miriam’s song of victory: “The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” Deuteronomy 32 is a poem narrating Israel’s rescue from oppression by God. Verse 15 describes how Israel “abandoned the God who made them and rejected the Rock their Savior.” Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1 attributes her salvation from barrenness to God, amidst descriptions of his warrior qualities. In 1 Samuel 14:45, Saul’s soldiers talks him out of putting his son Jonathan to death because of the salvation he has brought to them in battle. In 2 Samuel 22:51, David uses the word for salvation to describe the battlefield victories that God has given him.

Isaiah has 19 occurrences of yeshuah: 12:2 (twice), 12:3, 25:9, 26:1, 26:18, 33:2, 33:6, 49:6, 49:8, 51:5, 51:6, 51:8, 52:7, 52:10, 56:1, 59:11, 59:17, 60:18, 62:1. I’m going to pick out the more interesting ones.

Isaiah 25:8-9 is noteworthy because it’s the first place where we see any possible connection between salvation and sin, though ambiguously through Isaiah’s reference to “his people’s disgrace.” It is also the first cosmic-sounding description of salvation. “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’”

Isaiah 49 is the first of a series of chapters that refer to a “servant of the Lord” typically associated with the coming messiah. In verse 6, God declares His intent to extend salvation beyond the people of Israel: ““It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Verse 8 talks about the “day of salvation [on which God will] restore the land and reassign its desolate inheritances [to the exiles].” It’s worth noticing that there is no direct connection to sin as such here; yeshuah has to do with restoring justice and making the world right.

The references to yeshuah in Isaiah 51 again speak of yeshuah as a restoration of justice to the Earth, e.g. 51:5, “My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” There is only a very indirect link to sin in this passage in the sense that the restoration relates to Israelite exile.

In Isaiah 52, yeshuah continues to have the same quality of restorative justice. It returns to the more explicit battlefield hero motif in verse 10: “The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” Salvation happens when God flexes his biceps in the sight of the nations. It’s unclear whether the recipients of this salvation are as cosmic as in Isaiah 49 or if God is simply saving Israel from the nations.

Isaiah 59:11 describes the desperation of the people who are without salvation or justice: “We look for justice, but find none; for salvation, but it is far away.” Verse 17 makes God explicitly the battlefield hero of His people: “He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.”

The final two references to salvation in Isaiah have to do with the deliverance of Jerusalem itself: Isaiah 60:18, “No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise,” and Isaiah 62:1, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.”

In the Psalms, yeshuah refers to God’s battlefield deliverance of His people from their enemies in Psalm 3:3, 3:9, 9:15, 13:6, 14:7, 18:51, 20:6, 21:2, 21:6, 35:3, 35:9, 44:5, 68:20, 74:12, 78:22, 98:2, 98:3, 118:14, 118:15, 118:21, 140:8, 149:4. The word is not always translated as “salvation” in English. The NIV actually translates yeshuah as “victory” in half of these references. In Psalm 22:2, 69:30, 70:4, 88:2, 91:16, 106:4, 116:13, 119:123, salvation is described in the abstract as deliverance or protection from evil, though not necessarily on the battlefield. In Psalm 28:8, 62:2, 62:3, 62:7, 89:27, salvation is connected to the image of a rock or fortress. A refrain repeats in Psalm 42:6, 42:12, & 43:5 that I translate, “Wait upon God, for again I will praise Him whose face is salvation – My God!” Psalm 67:2, 80:3 likewise connect God’s salvation with the “shining of His face.” Psalm 96:2, 119:155, 119:166, 119:174 do not give a clear context for their references to salvation.

Yeshuah also comes up in Jonah 2:10, in the prayer when Jonah asks God to be delivered from the whale. In Habakkuk 3:8, it is battlefield victory. 1 Chronicles 16:23 repeats one of the psalms that speaks of God’s deliverance of His people. 2 Chronicles 20:17 describes the Israelite king Jehoshaphat’s battlefield victory. In Job 13:16, Job describes salvation as deliverance from “the godless,” which seem to be his friends who have been criticizing him. In Job 30:15, he says that his “salvation vanishes like a cloud.”

II. So why does this matter?

By naming Jesus using the word yeshuah, Gabriel has given us a particular meaning to what Jesus will do to “save his people from their sins.” Based on the usage of yeshuah in the Hebrew Bible, I would say that a savior in the yeshuah sense is a hero who rescues his people in battle from some kind of enemy. Recognizing this will help evangelical Christians today not to superimpose an anachronistic modern individualist meaning onto what Gabriel says. We also need to pay attention to the pronouns: Jesus saves his people from their sins. It is a specific group of people, Israel, and their sins are described collectively, not individualistically.

Next we need to be attentive to the Greek. The Greek word for sin that Matthew uses, hamartia, is an archery term that means “to miss the mark.” Figuratively, it means “to wander” from the path of righteousness. In other words, it has a spatial connotation; hamartia describes sin in terms of how lost or distant a sinner has strayed from God. Sin can also be described in terms of “debt,” opheilema, the word used in the original Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12, or “trespass,” paraptoma, Paul’s word for Adam’s original sin in Romans 5:15. Within the word hamartia, there is a connotation of scattered wandering. So a way to understand Gabriel’s prophecy to Mary is that her son will bring yeshuah to his wandering people by engaging in acts of valor that rally his people together. This is a connection that someone who knew the meaning of yeshuah and hamartia would make.

The modern evangelical meaning of “salvation” lacks the rich evocative imagery of yeshuah because it’s been distorted into a consumer product with an individualist sales pitch. The reason it has been reduced to afterlife fire insurance is because we live in an era saturated by people selling all different kinds of insurance. Does Jesus save his people from hell? Yes, because it’s hell to live under the constant oppression of our greatest enemy, sin. But that doesn’t mean that salvation is an afterlife fire insurance that takes effect once we fill out the right paperwork and go through the right protocol.

The reality is that our lives are a battlefield on which sin, our greatest enemy, has pinned us down with the constant bombardment of its artillery fire. We need a deliverer to come down from the clouds and silence our enemy’s guns. And that’s what Jesus has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

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