The Names of God


This paper was written for the outreach ministry of the Church Without Walls. CWW is a ministry to Muslims based on meetings for better understanding in churches and mosques. The ministry is conducted in various localities throughout the world.

The Old Testament Names of God

Names are important. People choose the names of their children carefully. This is why many Muslim boys are named Muhammad, and in Latin America many Christians name their sons Jesus. In the Bible, men are given names that describe their character and calling. Abraham’s name means father of many peoples, or nations. God gave him this name to describe his role in the plan of salvation.
The Biblical names of God are even more important because they tell us who He is. God reveals himself in the Bible by different names. These names are not contradictory, but progressive. Cornelius Van Til suggested that there is a history in the different names of God because he discloses who he is gradually. This is why it would be a serious error to substitute the word “God” for all these different names in the English Bible. It is also an error to substitute the name Allah for other names in the Arabic Bible. Such generic translations obscure who God is and how he desires to be known. Above all we must protect the names of God because in the Bible the name often stands for the person. When Christians pray in Jesus name they are asking for their prayer to be accepted through his person and work.
The first name used for God in the book of Genesis is “Elohim,” which is a plural form. This is from the oldest Semitic name, “El,” which was used outside of Old Testament religion. It may be etymologically related to “Al” or “Allah.” However, the similarity is only linguistic. The form “Elohim” is used only in the Hebrew tradition. It is not simply a term of respect as suggested by a number of Western and Islamic scholars. Rather God is teaching us not to think of an abstract monotheism, but understand what is more clearly revealed later, that He is a triune God.
Although there are a number of names for God that are compounds of “El,” The three pivotal names in the Old Testament are “Elohim,’ “El Shaddai” and “Jehovah,” or “Jahweh.” “Elohim” refers to God’s exalted power in creation. “El Shaddai” is the name used in patriarchal times. It means “God Almighty” and is used to demonstrate that God is able to keep the promises he made to Abraham. “Jehovah” is the most frequently used name for God in the Old Testament. It is a personal name by which God distinguishes Himself from other Gods, and it is a covenant name that emphasizes the fact that God will carry out his purposes of grace in His creation.    God officially reveals this redemptive name to Moses in Exodus 3 just before he delivers Israel from Egyptian bondage. He explains what the name means by telling Moses that when he informs the people of God’s deliverance he is to say “I am who I am has sent me. It is highly probable that the name “Jehovah,” and the expression, “I am that I am” come from the same Hebrew root. This is fitting because by this name Jehovah is distinguishing Himself from all the other idolatrous gods who cannot deliver.
Some Islamic scholars, such as Ahmed Deedat suggest that the word “Jehovah” is actually the result of a vocative “Ya” meaning “Oh” in English, and the Hebrew word “Hu” or “Huwa” which means “he.” Thus the word would be “Yahuwa” and would mean “O He ” Thus the compound “Jehovah Elohim” would mean “O He God.” If this was true the Jews would not have regarded the name as too sacred to speak. Instead they used the word “Adonai” which means Lord and Master and refused to speak the sacred name. Also if Deedat was correct about the etymology, why would God have explained the meaning of the name to Moses with the words, “I Am That I Am?”
Clearly we should not obscure these precious names of God that reveal his redemptive love by using only “God” or “Allah.”

The New Testament Names of God

In the New Testament God is often referred to by the Greek word “Theos,” which is the generic equivalent of the English word God. However this denomination of God is frequently linked to the word “Father.” Jesus taught his disciples to refer to God as Father as in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 5-13). We can see this continued in all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament as for example in Romans 1:4, Galatians 1:1. We also see it in I Peter 1:3. Although God is referred to as the Father of Israel in the Old Testament, the designation of God as Father by Jesus belongs to the New Testament age of fulfillment where salvation is more clearly seen as the bestowal of God’s grace upon individuals. The term Father is also inseparable from the idea that there must be a Son. Jesus claimed to be the unique Son of God, and therefore, we cannot speak of the names of God in the New Testament without considering the names of Jesus.
Although there are many metaphorical names for Jesus such as Lamb of God, Alpha and Omega and Lion of the tribe of Judah, the most common way that Jesus referred to Himself was “Son of Man.” This name does not refer to his humiliation in becoming man, but to the exalted figure of Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7: 13 & 14. With the name “Son of Man” Jesus identifies Himself as the glorious coming Messiah.
It has been maintained by Islamic scholars and others that the New Testament does not use the name “Jehovah.” Although this is true, the name Jesus means “Jehovah saves,” Furthermore there are quotations of Old Testament Scriptures in the New Testament where the name “Jehovah” appeared in the Hebrew, and these are applied to Jesus. For example, in Hebrews 7:20-22 the author applies a quotation from Psalm  110:4 to Jesus. In the Old Testament this would be properly rendered “Jehovah has sworn.” In Old Testament quotations in the New Testament the Greek word “Lord” may represent either the Hebrew word “Adonai” or “Jehovah.” In the English Bible these are respectively differentiated by the renderings “Lord” and “LORD.” Although the word “Lord” is most often designates Jesus it may also be applied to God as in Revelation 19:6.
Furthermore, as we have seen above, God explained the name “Jehovah” to Moses by the words “I am that I am” (Exodus 3). In the New Testament Jesus frequently uses the words “I am” in an absolute sense. Examples include: I am the Light of the world, I am the Way the Truth and the life, I am the living Bread, and others. However the most instructive “I am” is found in John 8: 57-58. In this passage the leaders of the Jews accuse Jesus of being a liar, a Samaritan, and being demon possessed. They are convinced they are the true children of Abraham and Jesus says they are not. The Pharisees are incredulous when Jesus says he has seen Abraham and yet he is not even fifty years old. Jesus says, “Very truly I say to you, before Abraham was, ‘I AM.’” Then they took up stones to kill him, because he had committed blasphemy. They understood that he was claiming to be Jehovah. Jesus had already said to them (John 8:24). “if you do not believe that ‘I AM’ you will die in your sins.” Our salvation depends on knowing who God is and we can only know this through His revelation of Himself which is His name.

The Nature of God

In Jeremiah 9:24 God says, “Let him that glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows me.” Knowing God is the primary reason for our existence. The religions of the world reveal that men have invented many ideas about who God is. However, there is only one way to know his character, and that is through the 66 books of the Bible where God reveals who He is. Furthermore, we must be renewed and taught by the Holy Spirit in order to know God either through nature or the Scriptures (Romans 1:18-21 and I Corinthians2:12-14).
But even spiritual insight through the Scriptures cannot enable finite men to fully comprehend the infinite God of the Bible (Jehovah). For this reason we normally divide the attributes of Jehovah into two categories. We call these communicable attributes and incommunicable attributes.
In other words, some of the characteristics of Jehovah cannot be shared with or communicated to men. These attributes include His Self- existence (John 5:26), immutability (Malachi 3:6), eternity (Deuteronomy 33:27), immensity (I Kings 8:27), omnipresence (Acts 17:27,28) and unity (I Kings 8:60). It should be obvious that men’s existence depends on Jehovah; they are changeable; they are bound by time and space (not immense, eternal, or present everywhere). Jehovah alone possesses these attributes and there is no one else like Him. (I Kings 8:60)   As we see these attributes set forth in Scripture we realize how great Jehovah is, and also that the being of the Creator is different from that of the creature. This is why finite men cannot fully comprehend the God of the Bible.
On the other hand many of the attributes of Jehovah are shared with men who are made in His image. These include spirituality, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, grace, mercy, longsuffering, holiness, justice, righteousness, truth, power and any attribute of Jehovah that is not incommunicable. Men are spiritual beings because Jehovah breathed into them the breath of life, but they are also material. Jehovah is pure spirit and has no body. Men may possess knowledge, wisdom, goodness, grace, mercy and all the other communicable characteristics of Jehovah, but men possess these in a limited way. In Jehovah these attributes are perfect and absolute. In Jehovah’s being these communicable attributes are infinite, eternal and unchangeable. In men they are finite, temporal and changeable. Jehovah is perfectly loving and just. This is why His absolute justice demanded an absolute sacrifice for our sin in the person of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

The Oneness of God and The Doctrine of the Trinity

Our finite minds are not capable of fully comprehending the concept of the Trinity because it is like the incommunicable attributes of God. Just as we cannot comprehend what it means that God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable, so also we cannot fully comprehend the Trinity. God has revealed his infinity and eternity to us, but we cannot know what it is like to be infinite, eternal and unchangeable. In the same way God has revealed his triune being to us so that we can describe it, but at the same time it is beyond our experience. Louis Berkhof reminds us that although God is one and exists in three persons, these persons are not individuals as we humans are. If you think of the abstract words “humanity” and “Deity” it may help. Humanity is finite and Deity is infinite but it is also true that both involve plurality. Humanity is divided into distinct persons who are discrete and separate individuals. Because God is One the persons of the Godhead cannot be separate and discrete like human persons. Though we cannot fully comprehend this because we are finite, we can understand that the persons of the Godhead, unlike human persons, are unified in a way we cannot be.
So we may assert, first of all, the absolute unity of God. Scripture teaches us in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel; The LORD (Jehovah) our God, the LORD is one.” And this truth of God’s oneness is found in the New Testament as well. In the great commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28: 18-20, Jesus says in verse 19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Observe that three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned but the word “name” is singular. Three persons and one name. God’s unity is not violated by His existence in three persons.
We may assert with equal authority the tri-unity of God because it is attested throughout the New Testament. Beside the reference in Matthew 28:18-20 we find the three persons of the Godhead mentioned in the apostolic blessing as in II Corinthians 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” The triune God is also mentioned in Peter’s apostolic salutation in I Peter 1:1, 2. In addition to these we have the account of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:18 where the three persons of the Godhead are implied as the Father sends the Spirit upon the Son. None of these references imply that God is not One because Jesus says in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” There are numerous references to the deity of the Son (John 1:1 and John 20:28), and the deity of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5: 3, 4 and II Peter 1:21.
There are also references in the Old Testament where two Persons of the Godhead are mentioned and a third is implied. Isaiah 63:9,10, “In all their affliction He was afflicted and the angel of his presence saved them…but they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit” The angel of God’s presence refers to a pre-incarnation appearance of the Son of God as in Genesis 18 and 19 where three men come to Abraham’s tent. Two of them are identified as angels in Genesis 19:1, and they proceed to the judgment of Sodom. The third remains behind and Abraham prays to the third man and addresses him as Jehovah. We can find a similar Old Testament reference to the Trinity in Isaiah 61:1, 2 which Jesus applies to Himself in Luke 4:16-21.
In summary, as we have seen the doctrine of the Triune God may challenge our limited finite minds, but the Holy Scripture leaves no question. We do not believe this because we fully understand it, but because the Bible says it. In the end, this is why we believe in the truth because the Holy Spirit illumines our minds and conveys to us from the Scriptures what Jehovah has revealed about Himself. (I Corinthians 2:11-16)