“And you shall call his name…” announced the angel Gabriel, “Jesus”.
No he didn’t. He said “Yeshua”. But then again, Gabriel wasn’t really called Gabriel either – in Hebrew it sounds different: “Gav-ree-el”. Mighty one of the Lord. But at least Gabriel sounds a BIT like Gav-ree-el. It’s at least recognisable! How in the world did Yeshua, the actual Hebrew name for our Lord and Messiah, turn into Jesus? It sounds nothing like Yeshua! And does it really matter what we call him?
How did we end up calling him Jesus?
The name “Jesus” comes from the Greek way of expressing his name: Ἰησοῦς, which is pronounced “Yay-soos”. While we have an English version of the Hebrew name for Gabriel, we seem to have ended up with an English version of the Greek version of the Hebrew name for our Messiah, that doesn’t even sound close anymore. It makes him all the less recognisable to his Jewish brethren. Jesus just sounds so… gentile! But when Jewish people hear his name in Hebrew, quite often the lights go on. Ah! Yeshua! The name Yeshua was known and used in Jewish history – you can find men called Yeshua in the roll calls of teams serving in the temple (1 Chronicles 24:11, 2 Chronicles 31:15, Ezra 2:2,6,36). It’s a version of Joshua, and it means “salvation”. This makes much more sense to Jewish ears.
How Jesus is known and what he is called in Israel
Sadly, for many long years among Hebrew-speaking Jewish people, Yeshua has been known as “Yeshu”, which is an acronym for a curse: “yimakh shemo ve zikhro” which means, “May his name and memory be obliterated”. So much suffering and persecution has been inflicted upon Jewish people in the name of Yeshua that his very name has become a stumbling block and offense, and now he is often considered one of the enemies of the Jewish people. This word “Yeshu” is made of three Hebrew letters – Y-Sh-U (ישו), but it is missing the last letter of his name – the “Ah” sound. This last letter is called an “Ayin” (ע), which, rather interestingly, means “eye”. It’s almost as if without the “ayin” they cannot see, but when the “ayin” is added, sight comes to the blind.
Yeshua is commonly called Yeshu here in Israel, but there are some academics who call him Yeshua, and funnily enough, one particularly extremist group who sprayed anti-Messianic graffiti on a church, declaring that Yeshua was a monkey, actually spelled his name correctly! But sadly he is often referred to as Yeshu haNotzri, which means “curses on Jesus-the-Christian”. In Israel, he is usually seen as gentile, Christian, and ‘other’. But Jesus wasn’t a Christian – he wasn’t a Christ follower – he was Christ himself! The Jewish Messiah! Jesus wasn’t a Christian, Mary wasn’t a Catholic, and John wasn’t a Baptist: They were all Jewish! While “Notzri” is the Hebrew word for “Christian”, it actually means one from Nazareth (Natzeret in Hebrew). It would be more accurate to say Yeshua me Natzeret – Yeshua from Nazareth. It’s close, but worlds away in Israeli perception. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, so Jesus Christ really means Yeshua the Messiah.
I remember being in a class on the New Testament at university here in Israel which was taught by someone who did not believe in it one iota – it was simply considered an important book which has shaped western civilisation. When students asked about what “Christ” meant (was it his surname?) the professor explained that it was the Greek word for Messiah. To my delight, she wrote on the board (in Hebrew, to a class full of Israeli students):
Jesus = Yeshua = Christ = Messiah
This is not well understood here in Israel, but slowly, the lights are going on as more and more people understand that Jesus Christ is not a foreign personality of a pagan religion, but Yeshua, salvation, is the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth in Israel, the one prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. “And you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
What should we call him then?
So now to the question, having established his real, Hebrew name, Yeshua – should we cease to call him Jesus?
It is true that his mother and friends called him Yeshua rather than Jesus, but if you know him as Jesus, does he mind that? Is it incorrect to call him Jesus? There are some who would argue till they’re blue in the face that it is critical to call him Yeshua and not Jesus, but Yeshua’s coming was also God’s time to take salvation to the gentiles. I believe that it was no accident that his name was disseminated in the international lingua-franca of the day: Greek. It was to go far and wide, to every nation on earth.
God was now opening up the way to all the peoples of the earth to come to him. If you relate to him by his name Jesus, then don’t let it be a burden to you to change to Yeshua if you don’t feel the need to. He knows his sheep, and his sheep know his voice. His name has gone out to the nations in various versions of the Greek “Yay-soos”, but now, back here in his birth-place, Israel, people are starting to discover Yeshua their Jewish Messiah.
Yeshua will be recognised again by his brothers
Just as Joseph was unrecognisable to his brothers dressed in foreign Egyptian garb and speaking a strange language when they came for help, Yeshua has been out among the gentiles, bringing salvation, and now appears to be shrouded in gentile terms and culture. It has become hard for his Jewish brothers and sisters to recognise him as one of the tribe.
Let’s remember what happened to Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 45:1-5:
“…Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Joseph was a foreshadowing of the Messiah – sold for 20 silver coins as Yeshua was betrayed for 30, suffering at the hands of, and on behalf of, his brothers, and yet procuring salvation both for his family and a whole lot of other gentiles besides. We know that there will be a time when this revelation will come to the Jewish people en-masse too, as God promises in Zechariah 12:10;
“I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn”.
This has not yet happened, but when it does, there will be a lot of weeping both in horror (what have we done?) but also joy, as there was with Joseph and his brothers. They will embrace their Jewish brother, Yeshua, the promised Messiah. And the joy of reconciliation and family reunion will be mutual, for God has profited all those years of rejection for the benefit and salvation of the whole world.
“I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved… they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:25-33)