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How do the names given to Jesus in the Christmas story fit into our faith?

Scripture: Matthew 1-2; Luke 2

If the gospel writers are any indication, it’s entirely possible that our December 25 holiday could’ve been called “Immanuelmas.” Or maybe “Consolation-of-Israelmas.” Or one of a dozen other options besides “Christmas.”

Fact is, the accounts of Matthew and Luke assign the blessed baby in the manger no fewer than 16 names and titles as they tell about his birth and early life! Why so many? Let’s look at some of those names and titles in our Christmas story and see what we can discover.

1. Messiah / Christ

(Matthew 1:18, 25, 2:4; Luke 2:11, 26)

The names “Messiah” and “Christ” are interchangeable, with the former derived from Hebrew and the latter adapted from Greek. Other than the generic term, “the child,” this is the title most often assigned to Jesus in the gospel records of his birth. The literal definition means “Anointed One” or more specifically, “God’s Anointed One.”

What’s interesting to discover here is that, in Jewish history, “Anointed Ones” were those chosen by God to lead in three significant roles: prophets, priests, and kings. Unlike others, though, Jesus is THE “Anointed One”—meaning the baby of Christmas was destined to be ALL those things for us: our supreme and eternal Prophet, Priest, and King.

2. Jesus

(Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31, 2:21)

This is the name commanded by the angelic visitation. It’s our English transliteration of the Greek version of the Hebrew name, Yeshua (or Joshua). Jesus literally means, “Yahweh (God) is salvation.” According to the angel who spoke to Joseph in a dream, this name communicated the purpose for God’s human incarnation: “Because he will save his people from their sins” (NIV).

It’s significant that the angel didn’t say, “He will save his people from their enemies,” which would’ve required the overthrow of Roman overlords. This salvation of Jesus wouldn’t be simply a regime change, a temporary rescue at best. Instead Jesus would bring, once and for all, at long last, full emancipation from the spiritually devastating consequences begun in Adam’s original sin.

 3. Immanuel

(Matthew 1:23)

The famous Christmas name is a quote from Isaiah 7:14, first revealed by God and written as prophecy some 700 years or so before the birth of Christ. In the original context, it referred to the military downfall of two kingdoms that were enemies of the Hebrew nation of Judah—something that actually happened within a lifetime after the prophecy was made. However, like many messianic prophecies, this promise had dual application—one that was imminent, and one that was to come. The second application was fulfilled when Jesus was born.

The literal meaning of Immanuel is exactly what Matthew explained in 1:23: “God with us.” The practical understanding, though, is much, much more. “God with us” doesn’t simply convey “God is nearby” or “God is passively watching.” It’s a statement of active, dynamic involvement in all aspects our everyday existence. It could almost be rephrased as this:

“Because God has chosen to be with us, it means that God is actively for us.”

 4. King of the Jews

(Matthew 2:2)

At Jesus’ death, Roman governor Pontius Pilate irked Christ’s enemies by calling him, “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). Pilate was repeating the title that Magi (wise men) assigned to Jesus not long after his birth.

Claiming this title for Jesus was controversial at best, and deadly at worst. King Herod saw it as enough justification for the mass murder of toddlers (Matthew 2:16). Jesus’ enemies in adulthood used this claim to provoke Rome into crucifying Christ. In both instances, “King of the Jews” was interpreted to mean a political and military ruler. But the eternal King of the Jews saw it differently:

“My kingdom,” Jesus said, “is not of this world … Now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36 NIV).

 5. Ruler

(Matthew 2:6)

At first glance, the title “Ruler” in Matthew 2:6 gives the same meaning as “King of the Jews.” However, as is often the case in Scripture, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

At this moment in the birth narrative, Matthew quotes Micah 5:2—a well-known prophecy of the coming Messiah. It was widely believed that this messianic “Ruler” Micah spoke of would be 1) a descendant of King David, the founder of Israel’s greatest royal dynasty, and 2) Born in Bethlehem, just like his forefather David.

So when Matthew wrote the words of 2:6, he wasn’t simply calling Jesus “a ruler,” but “THE Ruler”—the beating-heart fulfillment of God’s ancient messianic prophecy. It was both an apologetic argument and a challenge to faith for all who would one day read Matthew’s gospel—including us.

 6. Shepherd

(Matthew 2:6)

Calling Jesus a “Shepherd” hearkened back to King David’s pronouncement in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd …” (NIV). This image of God was instantly understood in the agrarian society of Jesus’ time. It conveyed the idea of trustworthiness, of care, of intimacy, and hope.

Jesus emphasized this title when he later said, “I am the good shepherd …” (John 10:11 NIV) So our Christmas promise here is this: Like an ancient shepherd, Christ knows each of us personally, by name; He guides us faithfully toward safety and provision; He stands between us and true danger; He provides peace and rest; He willingly lays down his own life in order to save ours (John 10:11-18).

 7. Nazarene

(Matthew 2:23)

Nowadays we celebrate Matthew 2:23 with songs and grand sermons saying, “… he would be called a Nazarene” (NIV). In first century Israel, though, that name was more insult than honor. Nazareth then was today’s equivalent of a “backward, hick town”—a small, insulated place that was easy to overlook. Even Jesus’ disciples viewed people living there with open disdain (John 1:46).

Yet Matthew included the insult in the account of Jesus’ early years without complaint. God, he seems to say, is not ashamed to be associated with even the lowliest of his children—and Jesus the Nazarene is proof that.

 8. Son of the Most High/Son of God

(Luke 1:32, 35)

“Son of the Most High/Son of God” is perhaps the most important title ever ascribed to Jesus. It’s only because Christ is God’s Son that he can be called “Immanuel,” or “King of the Jews,” or “Messiah” and so on. If he were only a human son of Joseph and Mary, then none of those other Christmas titles (except “Nazarene”) would be applicable, or even possible.

In ancient Israel, to name one a “son” meant more than only a familial relationship, and in the case of Christ that was remarkably true. To declare this baby to be “Son of the Most High” or the “one and only Son” of God (John 3:16) was to say that Jesus was of the same substance as God, equal with God—the human incarnation of God himself. Theologian Lawrence O. Richards explains Christ’s sonship this way “His unique position is based on his coexistence with God and as God from the beginning.”

In fact, it was this “Son of God” concept that incited religious leaders to pursue the death penalty for our Christ: “For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18 NIV)

And so then, this is the real reason for our annual holiday traditions, and the meaning behind all those Christmas names of Jesus:

The Son of God has come

For Further Reflection

If you’re curious, here are the other names and titles ascribed to Jesus in the gospel accounts of his birth and earliest years. Take time to read the accompanying Scriptures below, and meditate on what those names might mean for you today.

  • Holy One (Luke 1:35)
  • Lord (Luke 1:43, 2:11)
  • Savior (Luke 2:11)
  • Consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25)
  • Salvation (Luke 2:30)
  • Light for Revelation to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32)
  • Glory of Israel (Luke 2:32)
  • Sign that will be Spoken Against (Luke 2:34)


TTW 240-241; EDB 360, 573; BKB 47

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Does Jesus want me to give away all I have to the poor?

Scripture: Matthew 19:16–30

Here’s exactly what Jesus wants of you: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40).

For the rich man in this passage, this meant selling all he had and giving the proceeds to the poor. In Scripture, he’s the only one of whom that total financial sacrifice was asked, and that request appears to have been mostly to make a point rather than a real demand (see previous commentary above). For others in the Bible, giving is a natural part of the Christian faith—particularly giving to the poor—but the amount given is a matter to be determined between the giver and God: “You must each decide in your heart how much to give,” the apostle Paul instructed in 2 Corinthians 9:7. “And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. ‘For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.’”

That was also the standard for the early church. Around ad 150, Justin Martyr reported that the weekly Christian practice was this: “They that are prosperous and wish to do so give what they will, each after his choice. What is collected … gives aid to the orphans and widows and such as are in want.”

Generosity is a hallmark of Christian people, an expression of gratitude in response to what God has given us, and a means through which God increases joy in his children. Giving is also intended to be more than simply money: time, talent, encouragement, effort, advocacy—all these things and more are included in the act of giving.

As to what that means in your particular economic and social situation, that’s something you’re going to have to discuss with God and then “decide in your heart.”


DCC 71; Proverbs 3:27; 11:25; Luke 6:38; Acts 20:35; 1 Timothy 6:18–19; Hebrews 13:16; James 1:27

“Does Jesus want me to give away all I have to the poor?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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Jesus clearly promises “you will receive what you ask for” in prayer. So why do so many prayers go unanswered?

Scripture: Matthew 7:7–11

Christ’s exhortation to “keep on asking … seeking … knocking” in prayer appears to be a carte blanche promise that God will give anything you or I ask for. The normal Christian life, on the other hand, seems to discredit this promise on a daily basis.

So what gives? Was Jesus lying, or mistaken, or exaggerating for effect when he made his promises? Are we doing something wrong in the ways we “ask, seek, and knock”?

Perhaps the problem lies in a twenty-first-century perception that we’re entitled to immediate gratification, and in our assumption that God will override his good, eternal desires for us in response to the selfish, shortsighted desires we have for ourselves. Here’s how theologian Lawrence O. Richards explains it:

Jesus describes prayer as asking, seeking, and knocking. “Ask” is the act of prayer in its simplest form. “Seek” conveys intensity, and “earnest sincerity.” And “knock” pictures persistence. We knock on the door of heaven and keep on knocking!

It is important not to mistake what Jesus is saying as laying down conditions which, if met, will move God to respond to us. Jesus is not saying if you ask ardently enough, then God will answer your prayer. He is simply saying that when we feel a need so intensely that it drives us to the Lord again and again, we need not be discouraged even if the answer is delayed. God really does care about those things that matter to His children. And God responds to our requests by giving us good gifts.

Jesus promised that if we “keep on asking … seeking … knocking” then our heavenly Father will respond with “good gifts” (verse 11). Our job, then, is to keep asking with sincerity and persistence—and let him worry about when he answers and which good gifts he delivers in response.


NTL 41

“Jesus clearly promises ‘you will receive what you ask for’ in prayer. So why do so many prayers go unanswered?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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So what exactly is the “unpardonable sin”

Scripture: Matthew 12:22–37

In Matthew 12:31, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.”

This is a frightening truth, and one that’s been parsed in so many ways over so many centuries as to make it seem indecipherable. What does it mean exactly to commit “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”? Here are some of the theories that have been circulated over time.

Theory #1. It was a sin specific to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, committed when they claimed Jesus’ was empowered by Satan. This was the view of early church fathers such as Jerome and John Chrysostom. According to them, this sin could only be committed when Christ lived on the earth, and so would not apply to anyone after that time.

Theory #2. It is the stubborn unwillingness (the impoenitentia finalis) to repent, all the way until death. St. Augustine and other historic theologians were proponents of this view. Basically, this is the idea that the unpardonable sin is a refusal to accept Jesus Christ by faith for the entirety of one’s life.

Theory #3. It is a “conscious, malicious, and willful rejection and slandering … of the testimony of the Holy Spirit respecting the grace of God in Christ, attributing it out of hatred and enmity to the prince of darkness.” This is the perspective articulated by influential Reformed scholar, Louis Berkhof. He adds that this sin is, “the audacious declaration that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of the abyss, that the truth is a lie, and that Christ is Satan.”

Theory #4. It is a hardened, irrational, irrevocable decision to reject Jesus. The idea here is that of apostasy, of a deliberate and decisive rejection of Jesus as Lord. This is a popular view among evangelical theologians. Dr. Lawrence O. Richards sums up this thinking when he says, “Speaking against the source of Jesus’ power was, first of all, a recognition of its supernatural origin, and second, a hardened rejection of Jesus Himself.… Their choice, made in the face of all the unique evidence which Jesus Himself had presented to them, was irrevocable; they had chosen to step beyond the possibility of repentance.”

Theory #5. It is deliberately honoring Satan for the work of the Holy Spirit. This is also a common view, as articulated by Anglican Evangelical scholar, F. F. Bruce. He says the Pharisees were charged with blaspheming the Holy Spirit because “They deliberately ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency.”

So what exactly is the unpardonable sin? I don’t think anyone has yet come up with a complete definition—and I think that’s OK. Bruce seems to speak for all opinions when he says, “The nature of this sin is such that one does not repent of it,” and thus “The very fact of [one’s] concern over having committed it proves that they have not committed it.”


ST 252–253; TC 561; HSJ 89–90

“So what exactly is the ‘unpardonable sin?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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What Does Matthew 18:18 Mean, “Whatever You Bind on Earth”?

Scripture: Matthew 18:18

By my count, Jesus made over 350 promises that are recorded in the New Testament. Some of them are comforting, such as “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47, NIV). Some are frightening: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42, NIV). And let’s face it: some are simply hard to understand.

Matthew 18:18 (NIV) fits into that last category. It records Jesus as saying, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What exactly does that mean for us today? Let’s explore this by asking three related questions: 1. What was the context? 2. For whom was the promise intended? and 3. What did “bind on earth” mean to the original hearers?

1. What Was the Context for Matthew 18:18?

Matthew indicates that Jesus made his binding-and-loosing statement privately to his disciples, while they were in a home in Capernaum (see Matthew 17:24, 25, and 18:1). Apparently a family was there too because at one point Jesus “called a little child to him, and placed the child among them” (Matthew 18:2, NIV). Bible historians from Reader’s Digest have established that Jesus typically stayed with Simon Peter’s family when in Capernaum, so that’s likely where they were—in Peter’s house.

While there, the disciples posed this question to Jesus: “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1, NIV). All of Matthew 18:3-20 is Jesus’ wide-ranging response to that single query. His answer included: a) a child’s example of greatness (18:3-4); b) danger of causing a child to stumble (18:5-7); c) hyperbolic warning against temptations (18:8-9); d) the parable of the Wandering Sheep (18:10-14), and finally, e) instructions for dealing with persistent sin in the church (18:15-20).

So, in the broad sense, the context of Jesus’ binding-and-loosing promise of Matthew 18:18 was part of a larger explanation of heavenly greatness. In the more specific sense, it was practical, relational advice about how to address persistent sin among believers.

2. For Whom Was the Promise of Matthew 18:18 Intended?

Once, while researching my book, The Promises of Jesus, I spent a significant amount of time combing through all of the New Testament in an attempt to identify every single promise Jesus made. What I discovered was that there were three categories:

1. Promises made to everyone, including us (i.e. “whosoever will…);

2. Promises made to specific people for a specific time (for instance, John 11:23, when Jesus told Martha that her brother Lazarus would rise again); and

3. Promises made directly to his disciples—which may or may not be for everyone.

Knowing the context of Matthew 18:15-20, it’s no surprise to discover that 18:18 is a promise made directly to Jesus’ disciples. That leads to the question of whether or not the disciples’ promise also applies to us as well? It’s exegetically possible to interpret Matthew 18:15-20 as being only for Christ’s original disciples, but clues in Jesus’ language and the witness of Scripture as a whole seem to indicate that this promise is as much for us as it was for them.

First, Jesus spoke of “the church” before it was formally created. While it’s true that this could have referred in general terms to the synagogue or temple assembly, it’s also true that the mention of “brother or sister” (verse 15) likely indicates Jesus was referring specifically to his followers, those Christ-believers who would make up his church in history. However, his official church as we know it wouldn’t have its dynamic beginning until the Day of Pentecost after Christ’s death and resurrection (Acts 2). Second, although Matthew 18:19 speaks specifically to Christ’s disciples who were present at the time, Matthew 18:20 (NIV) delivers a related, generalized spiritual principle that Jesus applied in a timeless way: “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Finally, the Apostle Paul seemed to have enacted Jesus’ instructions from Matthew 18:15-20 in a situation within the church at Corinth—a situation that clearly extended outside of the original disciples (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:1-8).

So, although Jesus’ binding-and-loosing promise was made directly to the first 12 disciples, it seems safe to assume it also has application for us, and for all Christians in history.

3. What Did “Bind on Earth” Mean to the Original Hearers?

Now we can get to the crux of the question: What was Jesus talking about when he said, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”? How would his original hearers have understood that phrasing? To discover this we need to look at both the cultural and linguistic context of the terms.

It’s important to note the intimate fellowship of the circumstance Jesus described. “If your brother or sister sins…” (Matthew 18:15, NIV, italics mine). This brother-or-sister phrase emphasized the important relational aspect of the binding-and-loosing promise which followed. With that in mind, N.T. (Tom) Wright, in Matthew For Everyone Part Two, reveals what should be obvious but is often overlooked: Matthew 18:15-20 is not about punishment, but about reconciliation among family members of faith.

New Testament scholar, Craig Evans, writes in his commentary on Matthew that Jesus’ goal was, “to restore right relationships and fellowship.” He adds, “Proper process is taught, as well as the willingness to forgive—repeatedly if necessary.” In Jesus’ time, this process would’ve played out as a judicial proceeding within the Jewish synagogue assembly; for us it’s less formal, but no less important.

Within this judicial framework the terms “bind” and “loose” (or “forbid” and “permit” in the NLT) would’ve carried specific meaning in the minds of Jesus’ original disciples. Evans explains, “‘Binding and loosing’ normally refer to forbidding and permitting. In the present case … the reference is to convicting and acquitting.” In other words, when he spoke Matthew 18:18 Jesus transferred an aspect of his heavenly authority to a small group of his followers, empowering them with agency to make decisions about whether to convict or acquit another believer who is charged with persistent sin.

So, What Does “Whatever You Bind on Earth” Mean for Us Today?

Matthew 18:18 is not simply a promise, but also a grave responsibility for those who are leaders in a church. It deals directly with the issue of reconciliation that Jesus described in Matthew 18:15-17, and indirectly with the idea of greatness in the kingdom of God that was his larger topic at the time (Matthew 18:1-14).

When Jesus spoke of binding and loosing, then, he appeared to be saying that his heavenly authority to call for righteous living among his followers had been extended to his people, the church. This delegated authority is a trust from God himself. It is not a temporal power to be wielded with heavy hand, personal agenda, or political intent. The ultimate goal in every situation must be for grace and reconciliation among the members of our family in Christ.

So, in our modern-day context, that means…

When wronged we’re first to take our grievances directly to our brother or sister. Failing to reconcile, we’re to bring two or three witnesses and try once more (see also Deuteronomy 19:15). Again failing to reconcile, we’re bring it to our church body for resolution. For us today that would likely mean our local church leadership team or a small group within the larger church body.

If, after that process which Jesus described, our brother or sister rejects the efforts to reconcile, then we are authorized—as a small group, not individually, not retributively—to regretfully “convict” or “bind” that situation and disassociate with the offending person until he or she changes the sinful behavior. Wright says, “We don’t like the sound of this, but we need to ask what the alternatives are. If there is real evil involved, refusal to face it means a necessary break of fellowship. Reconciliation can only come after the problem has been faced.” Wright speaks true; you can imagine how our history and modern reputation might be different if the Catholic Church and/or the Southern Baptist Convention had taken this approach when dealing with sexual abuse among the ranks of its priests and pastors.

Likewise, when our brother or sister turns away from persistent sin, we are joyfully authorized by Jesus himself to “acquit” or “loose” that situation and restore full faith-family relations in reconciliation.

That, it seems, is what Jesus meant when he made the promise of Matthew 18:18 (NIV), “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”


JHT 228; MFE2 33-34, 36; MAT 334;

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