Introduction to the Names and Titles of Jesus


Audio (9:28)

'Bread of Life' stained glass window (1911), First Congregational Church, Fremont, Michigan
'Bread of Life' stained glass window (1911), First Congregational Church, Fremont, Michigan

Why Study the Names and Titles of Jesus?

Should we study the names, titles, metaphors, and descriptors of Jesus so we can impress others with our Jesus vocabulary? By no means. I believe there are three ways that a study of Jesus' names and titles can benefit us, all of them closely related:

1. Our prayer life is enriched by having meditated on Jesus' names, titles, and metaphors. For example, as I've studied about Jesus as my Shepherd, I find myself calling on Jesus in prayer as my Shepherd, trusting him to supply my needs and to guide me.

2. Our worship is enriched, as well. With a limited vocabulary of praise and a limited understanding of Jesus we are reduced to a kind of hobbled, truncated praise. But as we begin to know more of Jesus' facets, we are able to praise him better.

3. Our faith in and understanding of Jesus is increased. As I study how Jesus provides as a shepherd, I now am able to trust him more fully in this area of my life. Whereas I once had a lot of anxiety about making ends meet, now my trust in Jesus as my Shepherd and Provider bring me confidence, assurance, and joy that was missing before.

What Is a Title of Jesus?

Name. "A word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing." Let's use Billy Graham as an example. "Billy" is his first name, "Graham" is his surname, his father's name. Jesus was known by people in his village as "Jesus, son of Joseph" (Luke 3:23; John 1:45; 6:42).

Title. "An appellation of dignity, honor, distinction, or preeminence attached to a person or family by virtue of rank, office, precedent, privilege, attainment, or lands." When he is introduced in public he is often called "Reverend Graham" or "Doctor Graham." If he had been a pastor, he might have been referred to as "Pastor Graham." He also might be titled "Evangelist." One of Jesus' titles is "Messiah" or "Christ."

Metaphor is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." For example, Jesus is referred to as Shepherd, though he wasn't a literal shepherd for his living. But the metaphor of "shepherd" tells us something about his ministry.

Descriptor is "something (as a word or characteristic feature) that serves to describe or identify." Sometimes metaphors of Jesus could also be called descriptors. In English we have several grammatical constructs used to describe nouns. Descriptors can describe his functions, such as Savior, Redeemer, Healer.

One is an adjectival phrase, a noun together with an adjective modifying it. In Hebrew and Greek, this modifier often appears in the genitive, such as "Man of Sorrows" (Isaiah 53:3). Another is a predicate adjective, "an adjective which appears in the position of the predicate (i.e., after the verb) but which modifies the subject,"[1] such as "Jesus is hope." This describes a quality of Jesus, but is it a title? Probably not. But if Jesus is addressed in prayer as "Jesus, my Hope," perhaps we should consider it a descriptor. If the phrase is used often enough, it might even be considered a title.[2]

Perhaps this helps you see the fuzzy borders of determining what are the names, titles, metaphors, and descriptors of Jesus. Add to that different translations. So let's not be too dogmatic about precisely which are which. What we're really seeking to know is the Jesus who existed long before any names for him were even needed.

Messianic References

When we examine the names and titles of Jesus, we look back to the Old Testament, to messianic prophecies. Of course, not everyone agrees on whether a particular Old Testament passage refers to the Messiah. That's okay. But we'll be looking at the clearest ones, especially prophecies mentioned in the New Testament with reference to Jesus. For example, in Isaiah 53, Jesus is called "Servant" and "Man of Sorrows." In Isaiah 9 he is called "Wonderful Counselor."

Second Person of the Trinity

In our study we'll consider Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity. I won't spend time trying to prove the concept of the Trinity here. Rather see my article, "Four Reasons Why I Believe in the Trinity" (www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/trinity.htm). For many centuries Jesus' relation to the Father has been helpfully described by the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds:

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord...." (Apostles' Creed, second century AD)

We believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made...." (Nicene Creed, 325 and 381 AD)

Features of This Study

Hebrew and Greek Word Studies. Rather than relying on previous books about the names of Jesus, I've gone back to the original Hebrew and Greek languages and the conclusions of contemporary conservative scholars to determine the meanings of the words as precisely as possible. If you find Hebrew and Greek confusing, you're not alone. Please accept my condolences and just skip it. But for preachers, teachers, and small group leaders I've included this kind of information, as well as footnoting my sources, so that readers can assess the value of the information and not just pass it along blindly to their listeners.

Questions are included at various points in each chapter to help the reader pause and think more deeply. It's too easy for us to read unthoughtfully and assume that we understand what we are reading. The questions are designed to help readers articulate and apply what they are learning to their own lives and growing faith. Each question includes a hyperlink to the Joyful Heart Bible Study Forum where participants can share their answers to the questions and read what others have written.

Songs and Hymns are ways that we use the names and character of Jesus in our worship. To help those designing worship services around the names and titles of Jesus, and to facilitate personal worship, I have tried to include some of the more popular hymns and songs that I could find, among the many thousands in the CCLI Song Select and Cyber Hymnal databases. I've tried to include songs that actually include names and titles somewhat prominently, though that is a judgment call. These are included at the end of every lesson, and for all lessons in a separate Appendix 3 available online.

Lists of the Names and Titles of Jesus in each of ten categories are included too. Appendix 2 provides a complete listing of all the names, titles, descriptors, and metaphors of Jesus that I could find. I encourage you to try to use the various ways of addressing Jesus in your prayers for each week of the study. Your prayers will be richer for it, and so will your understanding of the great God whom we serve.

Be aware that the exact names and titles can vary a bit. I've used the NIV as the primary text for these lessons, but also show variations in the NRSV, ESV, and KJV.

I've also included Appendix 6. Exercises to Help You Internalize the Names of Jesus. These suggest ways to include a lesson's names and titles in prayer, meditation, worship, drawing or painting, composing a song, community involvement, and prayer for friends. I hope you'll take advantage of many of these ideas throughout the study.

Names and Titles of Jesus: A Discipleship Study, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Also in paperback, PDF, and Kindle

Okay, we're about ready to begin. Don't be afraid to stretch yourself and do some things you've never done before. It is my joy to take this journey with you. Let's pray:

Father, guide us as we learn about Jesus through his names, titles, descriptors, and metaphors that we find in your Word. I pray that you would change our lives, energize our faith, and make us more like Jesus in this process. Help us to know him more fully. In Jesus' holy name, we pray. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] Albert H. Marckwardt and Frederic G. Cassidy, Scribner Handbook of English (Third Edition; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), p. 256.

[2] To make it even more complicated, Hebrew may omit the verb and put a noun side by side with Elohim or Yahweh. Does this make it a title? Maybe.


Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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