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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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Is the Lord’s Prayer supposed to be repeated word for word, or is it a sample prayer?

Scripture: Matthew 6:9–13

The Lord’s Prayer, as quoted in Matthew 6:9–13, is one of the most famous Bible passages of all time. It records Jesus’ specific instructions for how to pray.

It’s important to notice that, immediately before giving the Lord’s Prayer, Christ warned his followers to avoid “babbling like pagans” when they prayed. Pagans at that time viewed prayer as something like a business contract that had the sole purpose of earning favor from whichever deity was its object. As a result, Greeks peppered their prayers with all types of honorifics and titles, hoping to flatter their way into heavenly favor. Other pagan prayers did the same, and also reminded the deity of all the ways the pray-er had kept their end of the blessing bargain by making sacrifices and/or defending the reputation of the so-called god.

Jesus dismissed this approach to prayer as worthless and insulting.

Instead Christ offered a prayer structure based on an intimate, family relationship with our heavenly Father. Many people today call this a “model prayer,” because it demonstrates key elements of prayer for us. In Jesus’ day, though, his disciples would’ve known it as an “index prayer.”

Index prayers were common in ancient Judaism, something a rabbi would use to teach people to practice praying. These were what we might call “directed prayers,” delivered in outline form. For instance, a rabbi would collect a few short sentences that each identified an item for prayer. The intent was that a person following an index prayer would start with one of those statements, but then “enlarge upon it,” drawing out what it means and how it applies. They were not to simply memorize and recite each line, but to use each line as a catalyst for deeper, more personal times with God.

That’s the kind of index prayer that Jesus gave in Matthew 6:9–13, and it has proved a timeless model for Christ followers ever since.


IBB 62; APB 92

“Is the Lord’s Prayer supposed to be repeated word for word, or is it a sample prayer?” 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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Do ‘outer darkness’ and ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ always refer to hell, or are there other interpretations?

Scripture: Matthew 25:14–30

Well, let’s see…

The Greek phrase translated as “outer darkness” in the nlt is skotos to exōteron. That phrase is exclusive to Matthew’s gospel and shows up three times: Matthew 8:12; 22:13; and 25:30. In every instance it’s a record of Jesus talking, and all three verses are references to hell. Interestingly, every time he says “outer darkness,” Jesus also pairs it with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

“Weeping” by itself obviously has multiple uses and applications in the New Testament, but when combined with the Greek brygmos tōn odontōn, “gnashing of teeth,” that phrase appears seven times in the New Testament, again always spoken by Jesus. Six of those appearances are in Matthew, as in: Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; and 25:30. The final occurrence is found in Luke 13:28. Again, in every usage, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” refers to an eternal hell, often combined with a description of fire in place of “outer darkness.”

Seeing the consistency with which this image of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used, it does make one think. We typically assume this is an allegorical, sensory/emotional view of hell. But since Christ described hell this way every time, we must wonder if he was perhaps, giving us a literal peek into that awful, painful place?

It’ll be best, I think, if we never have to find out.


CWSN 93; CWDN 1298, 1025, 609, 349, 1027

“Do ‘outer darkness’ and ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ always refer to hell, or are there other interpretations?” 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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6 Creative Ways to Pray Unselfishly Today

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three…”

So begins the classic theme song from the 1971 fantasy film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s a delightful melody—except that many of us have unintentionally adapted it as a model for self-serving use in our daily prayers. When it’s time to pray, we find ourselves unconsciously thinking:

“Close your eyes. Make a wish. Say amen…”

But your prayers don’t have to be singsong exercises in personal gratification. See for yourself—try one (or all!) of these 6 creative ways to pray unselfishly today.

1. Lectio Divina Prayer

Learning to pray unselfishly requires first building a habit of praying away from yourself—of turning your inward thoughts to outward interests. This is the power of Lectio Divina, the practice of “divine reading.” An ancient spiritual discipline, it empowers us to focus our prayers on Scripture instead of ourselves—a method that helps us internalize and pray God’s words back to him.

 In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, theologian Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes it this way: “Lectio divina invites us into God’s presence to listen for his particular, loving word … rooted in the assurance that every part of the biblical story—letters, parables, Gospels, Prophets, history—is inspired and can give voice to God’s particular word to us.”

Are you curious yet? If so, then you can try it now. Here’s how Lectio Divina works:

  1. Silencio (“silence”). First, take a moment to breathe in silence, preparing to hear from God.
  2. Lectio (“reading”). Read a Scripture passage out loud to yourself.
  3. Meditatio (“meditation”). Read the passage again, out loud or silently, pausing to reflect on any words or phrases that seem to catch your attention.
  4. Oratio (“prayer”). Speak to God in prayer about the Scripture passage. Pray it back to him as is appropriate, Ask questions, make promises. Speak the Scripture into his ear while he whispers them into your heart.
  5. Contemplatio (“contemplation”). Before saying “amen,” take time to contemplate what an answer to your Lectio Divina prayer might look like, and yield your will to God’s intentions in your prayer.

2. Paint-a-Prayer

No, you don’t have to be an artist to pray unselfishly in this kind of prayer (although if you are an artist, you’re going to like it a lot). You can use paints, or crayons, or colored gel pens, or even just pencils and ink. The medium doesn’t matter—only the heart does.

This creative prayer is a form of intercession that visualizes your desires for God’s blessing and kindness on others. You can use it to pray unselfishly for friends or loved ones, but in the spirit of 1 Timothy 2:1-3, I’d encourage you to use Paint-a-Prayer as a means to intercede for your world at large: For government leaders, for nations and states, for people who are poor or oppressed, for pastors and priests and corporate employers and so on.

First, choose a prayer subject (such as any of the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph). Though it may seem counter-intuitive, it’s important to limit your prayer to just one subject, for instance, your government leaders or the family down the street.

Next, make a list of the kinds of things you’d like to speak to God regarding that subject. You can speak gratitude, sorrow, hopes, repentance, requests—anything you want to be sure to mention.

Now take a sheet of blank paper (or a canvas if you’re so inclined), gather painting or drawing supplies, and create a visual representation of the prayer you want to make. Let each stroke and line and color become a new, visual expression of your hope in prayer. Spend as long as it takes to create the image you want to present to Jesus, because that image itself, and your labor in creating it, is your prayer.

When you’re done, you can either keep the image to pray it again in the future, or use it to prompt new verbal prayers, or even share it with the subject of your prayer as a means of encouragement. (How cool would it be if the governor of your state got your prayer in the mail? I’m just sayin’.)

3. Listening Prayer

I learned this one from Bible teacher, Jody Brolsma, in her book, Praying to Change Lives. It seems that she was at a conference when a speaker invited everyone to picture a friend sitting with Jesus, and to do that for one full minute. At the end of the minute, the speaker said, ask Jesus what he’d like you to share with that friend. Then …

Just listen.

Sit and wait until you hear what God might want you to say to someone you love.

Brolsma reports, “When I asked Him what He wanted to tell me about Kelsey, the image was as clear as day: … ‘Kelsey? I love her! I’m so pleased with her.’ What a joy to share this with my friend! We both had tears in our eyes as we soaked in Jesus’ love.”

This is what a Listening Prayer of intercession is like. It’s taking a moment to intentionally hear from God, to let Jesus guide your thoughts in regard to someone you love. You may be surprised at how quickly Christ speaks to you!

A warning though: Once you start to pray unselfishly like this, you may never want to stop.

4. Park-It Prayer

There are those who like to quote the mantra, “Children are our future.” While I certainly agree with that sentiment, I’d like to point out what those people sometimes forget: “Children are our today.”

That child in your neighborhood or church doesn’t have to wait 18 years before he or she has meaning to God, or until that person can make a difference in God’s world! Christ works today, right now, in and through the lives of children that surround you. His Holy Spirit has instituted no age limit on his grace or power. Maybe it’s time we began to partner with him in that understanding, to pray unselfishly for those kids he’s using to make a difference today?

So try this:

Go to a nearby park (or indoor location if weather is inclement) where children gather. Don’t stalk anybody or act weird or scare a parent or child—but sit at a distance where you can see children playing. Then begin a conversation with Jesus about each child you observe.

That little red-haired girl? Pray that God will guide her steps and use her words to encourage someone today. That copper-skinned boy laughing as he streaks down the slide? Ask Jesus to fill his heart with joy that lasts for eternity. The shy one who hangs back and doesn’t join in the fun? Pray for the Holy Spirit to meet that child in a meaningful, life-affirming way today, and tomorrow, and forever

You get the idea. Ready? Go!

5. Groaning Prayer

This prayer concept is drawn from Romans 8:26-27 (NIV):

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

We use the term “groaning” for this type of prayer, but that’s mostly symbolic (although you can certainly groan if you feel like it). What we really mean by this is praying without words. I once asked a friend what he did when he prayed without words, and he was mystified. “That’s impossible,” he said. “I have to use words when I pray, don’t I?”

Well, no Johnny, words and sentences are optional in prayer. Try one of these inarticulate approaches instead:

  • Think about emotions you’re feeling, such as worry, excitement, anxiety, joy. Then let yourself feel those emotions fully, directing each one toward God—knowing that he both can and will interpret your feelings in the most perfect way.
  • Think in pictures instead of words. Want to pray protection for a friend? Imagine what that would look like in a photo—and pray that photo to Jesus. A loved one has need of healing? What might that look like when you saw her next? Pray that image, without words, to God’s Holy Spirit who has power to heal.
  • Go ahead and groan. Clear your mind, and simply groan out this world’s sorrows to Jesus. (If people are nearby, it’s OK to groan silently.) Sometimes I like to add the name of Jesus to my groaning, making his name the content of the agony. If it seems appropriate, feel free to do that too.
  • If you, like Johnny, need words to pray, then choose a single word and use it as a repeated groan. For instance, I have a friend who likes to choose one word and pray it again and again, sometimes for hours, until she feels done: Comfort. Peace. Healing. Wholeness. Mercy. And so on.

The point is this: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness … the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans…”

6. Free Prayer

This one takes a little planning, but it can be worth it—and it’s a wonderful way to serve your local community. The idea is inspired by James 5:16 (NIV): “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

First, you’ll want to make a T-shirt that simply says: “Free Prayer.” If you’re feeling enthusiastic, you may also want to make a booth (a sign and a table) that likewise says, “Free Prayer.” And you’re ready.

Now, put on the T-shirt and go someplace where people gather in public (for instance, a mall, a sporting event, outside the county courthouse, etc.) … and wait. Set up the booth if you’re able, add a smile, and … keep waiting.

Let people come to you, and when they do, take a few moments to pray for each and every person who asks. Learn what you can about who they are and why they want prayer, and then access heaven on their behalf!

You may find that only a few come to you for prayer—or it could be that people start lining up around the block to enlist your help with God. Either way, remember that the person who counts is the one standing in front of you—the one God has brought for you at this moment, in this place. Serve that person fully in prayer before moving on to the next one who comes by.

Don’t ask for donations. Don’t “sell” your church. Don’t insist on email addresses to build your mailing list. Don’t ask for anything from anyone. Just tell people you felt like praying today, and decided to go public with that feeling—no strings attached.

If you want, invite a few of your Christian friends to make their own T-shirts and join you in the fun too.


Now that you know 6 creative ways to pray unselfishly, you’ve probably also figured out that there are more ways to do this than can be numbered! So tomorrow add a few of your own ideas—and keep adding new ones until it becomes second-nature for you to:

Close your eyes. Meet with God. And pray unselfishly every day.


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