What’s in a Name?

  • Brian Overholtzer
Man on his knees praying

 One of my favorite songs to sing in church when I was growing up was “I can only Imagine” by Bart Millard. One line in particular stands out to me when I read Philippians 2:9-11.

Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel?

Will I stand in Your presence
Or to my knees will I fall?

While it sounds catchy in the song, we don’t have to wonder; Philippians 2:9-11 is also a hymn, and it informs us that our knees will bow in worship. What is it about the name of Jesus that demands the entire intelligent universe kneel down and worship Him? Tune in to the second verse of the “Christ Hymn” found in Philippians 2:9-11 for the answer.

In the first half of this early Church hymn (Phil. 2:6-8), the Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to have the same humility that Jesus had, who being the eternal and pre-existent Son of God took on human flesh, became a slave, and died a humiliating death on the cross.

In the second half of the hymn (Phil. 2:9-11), Paul fades out the instrumentals, and like a soprano in the midst of a captive audience, declares a bold statement about the Person of Jesus. Paul declares that Jesus Christ is Yahweh (LORD). Paul makes this clear declaration in several ways with each pronouncement bolder than the former.

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,”

Whose name is higher than any every other name? The unquestionable answer to this query is the name Yahweh. Such an explanation is seen all throughout the theology of the Old Testament. One familiar event is when God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush at Mount Sinai (Exodus 3). When Moses asks God what His name is, He responds, “I AM WHO I AM.” This is the name Yahweh and is commonly translated in our English Old Testament as an all upper-case LORD. This is the name that is higher than every other name, the name Yahweh (LORD). Jesus Christ was eternally Yahweh before His incarnation, continued to be Yahweh during His earthly ministry, and now Paul affirms that at His exaltation Jesus still is and forever will be Yahweh. This would have been unsettling in the ears of Jewish listeners as they were accustomed to religiously repeating “The Shema” on a daily basis: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4). Don’t get too comfortable, “politically correct” is not in Paul’s vocabulary. He has a theological point to make about Jesus, and things are just about to heat up.

“So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,”

In Paul’s second astonishing declaration of Christ’s deity, he quotes a verse from Isaiah 45:23 and applies it entirely and unequivocally to the Person of Jesus. What’s the big deal about quoting the Old Testament? Doesn’t the New Testament quote the Old Testament frequently? Yes, it does. Let’s take a look at what makes Paul’s statement so unique. Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear (i.e. confess).” So, the question is, who is speaking in this passage?

Our first observation is an easy one. Our English Bibles inform us that it is the LORD. For example, look two verses prior: “Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD?” [Isaiah 45:21]. Now our second observation is what really highlights the boldness of Paul’s use of this passage in Isaiah 45. Keep reading Isaiah 45:21, “…was it not I the LORD? There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me.” This is the context from which Paul drew upon in order to communicate to the Philippian church that God has bestowed upon Jesus not only the name Yahweh but also the worship that is only to be given to Yahweh.

“And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

If these two declarations were not enough, Paul clearly calls Jesus Lord (Yahweh). In the New Testament the word “Lord” does not always represent the name Yahweh as the Old Testament “LORD” does. For reasons more spacious than this blog can handle, the New Testament word Lord can mean “master” in the context of slaves, a way to address a superior, to refer to God, and most significantly to translate God’s unique name Yahweh. This last usage of “Lord” in the New Testament is well attested (see 1 Cor. 8:6). This concludes Paul’s third and final bold declaration in which he ascribes the full weight of deity to the Person of Jesus Christ. In order to prevent anyone from thinking that Jesus the Son and God the Father are therefore the same person, Paul ends with a clarifying remark that is “to the glory of God the Father.”

As far as application goes, two thoughts come to mind. First, the recent surge of kneeling for political causes and beliefs, tearing down statues, and praising anarchy and chaos can tempt Christians to feel overwhelmed. Christians have no need to fret over these times but have the privilege to bend the knee on a daily basis to the Lordship of Jesus and hope in His future return when all people—friend or foe—will bow at His feet.

Second, what wonder and majesty belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ! I sincerely pray that your heart, soul, and mind are better equipped to lift up the Lord Jesus in worship in every aspect of your lives. Jesus is truly exalted with the name that is above every name which is Yahweh and every knee will one day bow before Him.