The name above all names

Names and titles matter. On one level, names can be taken as little more than labels: Here’s what this human being is called, but this one is called something else. Even Shakespeare suggests the arbitrariness of names when Juliet tells Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But on another level, Juliet must say this precisely because names have become more than mere labels. Romeo and Juliet’s surnames of “Montague” and “Capulet” have come to symbolize the two sides of an ongoing feud between the families. Think of how the labels “Democrat” and “Republican” or “liberal” and “conservative” function in the United States today. It’s as if once I can label you, I know everything I need to know about you and how I should respond. Names can also convey status and power, as when we drop names to impress someone, or use someone’s name to access privileges. “Rocko sent me,” for example, is shorthand for “Treat me like Rocko’s friend, or you’ll have to deal with Rocko.”

And you don’t want to deal with Rocko.

In a highly individualistic “you do you” society such as ours, I suspect that names don’t carry quite the same weight as they do in an honor-shame culture where the reputation of an entire family is on the line every time a member of the family misbehaves. But in the honor-shame world of the Bible, names matter.

Previously, we’ve seen how Paul (possibly quoting an early Christian hymn) tells the story of Jesus in a way that begins with the downward movement of humility. Jesus was of one essence with God, but in humility took on fully human form, serving the Father and humankind through the humiliation of the cross. Paul doesn’t mention Jesus’ resurrection or ascension back to the Father, but that “comic” reversal of fortune is assumed in what he says next:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father
. (Phil 2:9-11, NIV)

In the Greek, Paul says that God “hyper-exalted” Jesus, exalted him to the highest place possible. And with that exaltation comes the bestowal of “the name that is above every name.” And the question, of course, is, “What name is that?”

Well, “Jesus,” right? Isn’t it obvious?

If that’s how we’re supposed to read it, then Paul doesn’t mean that Jesus was given the name, but that the name he already had was exalted with him. He envisions the day in which “at the name of Jesus,” when the name “Jesus” is spoken, every heavenly and earthly being and even those who have died would acknowledge his lordship.

“At the name of Jesus” is a literal translation of Paul’s Greek. But the updated New Revised Standard translates the phrase differently: “at the name given to Jesus.” Jesus, in other words, was given some other exalted name. That sends us back to our original question: And what name might that be?

Personally, I think the New Revised has it right. And the answer to the question is this: Jesus was given the holy name of God, the name rendered “LORD” in our English Old Testaments, the name Jews considered too holy to say aloud.

Remember, this is not a rags-to-riches story; in that sense, it would be a “riches-to-rags-to riches” story. Jesus was not being rewarded for a job well done, but being returned to his rightful place as the one who was of the same essence of God and existed before creation (John 1:1-3). Nobody, not even Jesus’ closest followers, understood the humiliation his humility would entail. And they, along with Romans and the Jewish authorities who conspired together against Jesus, would have considered the cross the final word.

The resurrection, the ascension, the exaltation: these are not reward but vindication. Despite initial appearances to the contrary, this is all God’s doing. And this man Jesus is God.

Think what it would have meant for early believers to say “Jesus is Lord.” On the one hand, it’s what would have gotten the Philippians in trouble with their neighbors, living together in a Roman colony where the emperor alone was supposed to be worshiped as lord. On the other hand, the phrase also points us back to Jewish piety. The word translated “Lord” is kurios, which in turn recalls the Hebrew adonai, also translated “Lord” in the Old Testament. But adonai is also the name Jews would use when addressing God. And when reading or reciting Hebrew scripture aloud, rabbis and pious Jews would automatically insert adonai whenever they came across the divine name.

Jesus is Lord, in other words, because Jesus is God, and God’s name is the name that is above all names. The downward movement of humility, of incarnation, humiliation, and death, is reversed. God’s character is embodied in the humility of Jesus — but we must never forget that Jesus is God, and God is the one we must rightly fear.

Paul will say more about that shortly. Meanwhile, we might do well to ask ourselves what we mean we when sing or say that “Jesus is Lord.”

Jesus is Lord.

Jesus is LORD.

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