The season of Advent is an important time for Christian believers around the world, a time to focus on the significance of the birth of Jesus and his expected return.
Most of us know the Christmas story. The virgin Mary miraculously gave birth to a baby in approximately 0 AD in a stable in Bethlehem – a baby given the name Jesus, and who was called the 'Son of God' and 'King of Israel'. But how much do we really think about what these titles actually tell us about who Jesus is?
In some parts of the world, a child's surname is linked to their parent's identity. In North Sumatra, Indonesia, the Batak people can recognise and establish children born abroad who are part of the same tribe by their surname. Heritable or occupational family names can also be found closer to home, with surnames including the suffix 'sen' or 'son' often found in Scandinavia surnames and occupations such as 'Smith' found in the UK. In some cultures, surnames can be linked to perceived aspects of a person's character, such as being hardworking and straightforward.
A surname, and or title, can therefore reveal a lot about a person in many societies. So, how about Jesus?
Like the aforementioned Scandinavian example, Hebrews used patronymic names, i.e. their first name followed by their father's name. By calling Jesus the Son of God, or Jesus Godsson to reframe it using the Scandinavian example once again, we instantly understand His divine origin. This is more than a name. It is a written and verbal embodiment of Jesus' identity, Emmanuel.
But how often does that thought cross our minds? How many Christians in the UK, and indeed around the world, understand the significance of Jesus' name when they say it? Advent could be a time of truly enthusiastic preparation when we really consider who and what we are celebrating and preparing for.
Without understanding the importance of Jesus' name, we can often become confused or sceptical when we read the Bible. Normally, we get to know someone through shared experience, how many times have we formed close enough ties to someone else to become devoted to them after just one encounter? Yet Philip, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John met Jesus just once in Galilee and seemed to immediately accept Jesus' call to become his followers.
This might seem spontaneous and even reckless at first, but it isn't. These disciples were Jews who had read the Scriptures, as is made apparent by the fact that Philip found Nathanael and told him that they had found 'the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote" (John 1:45).
Their knowledge and understanding of Jesus' name enabled them to identify who Jesus was and led to Nathanael accepting Philip's invitation to see Him, even though he knew Jesus as Joseph of Nazareth's son (John 1:49).
Jesus can be made known to us through Scripture and Jesus wants us to know him, just like he knows us. Nathanael's scepticism turned to admiration when Jesus revealed that he knew him before they had even met. It was Jesus' prior knowledge of Nathanael that convinced him of Jesus' identity as the Son of God and King of Israel.
Jesus has prior knowledge of us too, he knows the number of hairs on our heads, the days marked out for us and He knew us in our mother's wombs.
Understanding who Jesus is, and the radical nature of his kingdom and calling, should make us eager to introduce him to others. After being invited to follow Jesus, Philip immediately found Nathanael and invited him to meet Jesus. After meeting Jesus, Andrew immediately found Simon and introduced him to Jesus as well.
As Christians read the Bible less and their understanding of Jesus' name and true identity decreases, the result can be a reluctance to evangelise.
Advent is the perfect time to recommit ourselves to reading, studying and increasing our understanding of God's Word. It might mean turning down the constant noise of watching movies and seeking entertainment, but it will mean growth in our relationship with Jesus and understanding of His nature.
In the midst of the pandemic and uncertainty, we can celebrate this Advent and Christmas season because He is the Son of God. He still wants to reveal His identity and invite people to follow. Can we be brave enough to do the same?
Rev Canon John Libby, National Director, UK and Ireland for Langham Partnership, is an ordained minister in the Church of England. He has spent 18 years as vicar of St. James, a large Anglican church in Carlisle where he was heavily involved in initiating and leading a city-wide united church response following the disastrous floods in the region in 2005 and 2015. As a Christian entrepreneur John has built and fundraised for a range of charitable enterprises.