“And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
In Hebrew (as well as Aramaic), names mean something. God calls Abram Abraham because He will make him a “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5). Jacob’s name involves cheating, consistent with his character and tale in Genesis (cf. Genesis 27:36). One can discern the saga among Jacob, Rachel, and Leah based upon the names given to their sons (cf. Genesis 29:31-30:24).
Jesus’ name also has meaning: as Y’shua or Yehoshua, it means “YHWH saves” or “YHWH’s salvation.” Thus the angel Gabriel charges Joseph to name the Child which Mary is carrying from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:21). His name sets the stage for the one thing with which Jesus is most often associated: “Jesus saves,” or, more properly, God saves people through Jesus. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of the Gospel message.
Accordingly the term is used frequently in “religious” language. Preachers frequently speak of “salvation.” People will often talk about the moment at which they “got saved.” Not a few spiritual songs focus on salvation and how it comes from Jesus. Since the word is so common and so frequently used, it would be natural to assume that people really have a good idea of what it means.
Yet what is salvation, really? From what are people “saved”? Why should they be “saved”? For that matter, how can a person be “saved”?
It is tempting to describe salvation in terms of another description used in the New Testament: sacrifice, redemption, or something of the sort. Yet such really does not tell us what “salvation” means or why Jesus would be named Jesus, “YHWH saves,” and not something akin to “YHWH redeems.”
This challenge is compounded by the fact that the English language also uses the idea of “saving” to describe the preservation of resources: we try to save money, save our computer files, or something like that. It is tempting for many people to think that they save money at the local big box retailer and then go to “get saved” at the local church building!
The idea of salvation in the Bible is akin to deliverance or rescue. We would do well to read in “rescue” when we read about Jesus “saving” or providing “salvation.”
The concept of salvation as rescue helps to explain what it is and why it is necessary. “Rescue” does well at communicating the difficulty of the situation in which people find themselves. After all, no one ever needs “rescuing” when they are in a pleasant situation. One only needs “rescuing” when the situation is dire: they are caught up in a natural disaster, adrift at sea, stuck in a burning house, held prisoner unjustly, or something of that sort. Very few people want to find themselves in a situation in which they would need rescuing! And so it is with humanity: Jesus came to rescue us, as the angel Gabriel says, from our sins (Matthew 1:21). Scripture shows how dire our situation is when we remain in sin: we are separated from God, hostile toward Him and toward each other, and reserved for condemnation (cf. Isaiah 59:2, Romans 6:3, Titus 3:3).
While there may be a few exceptions, in general, we do not talk about “rescue” as something we do for ourselves; if we need rescuing, it normally must come from the energies and resources of others. Thus, salvation as rescue also underscores our inability to save ourselves. We find ourselves in the dire predicament of sin, and we cannot escape through our own efforts or resources (Romans 3:20). If we will be rescued, it will be on account of the resources of God, freely given despite our unworthiness (Romans 5:6-11).
Nevertheless, in all of this, we must want to be rescued! If we do not believe that we are in any danger, we will not think that we need to be rescued. If we think that we can get ourselves out of this mess, we will not think we need rescuing. It is only when we come to the realization of the imminent spiritual danger we face and our inability to fix that problem ourselves that we prove willing to turn to God and find salvation by the rescue accomplished through Christ. God never forces anyone to be rescued/saved; God is love, and love does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5, 1 John 4:8)! The opportunity for rescue is provided for us: Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven. We can obtain that forgiveness, be reconciled back to God, and learn how to serve Him (Romans 5:6-11). The means of rescue is there; we just have to take advantage of it!
Salvation as rescue also nicely illustrates the “now, not yet” aspect of salvation. In the New Testament, many passages speak of salvation as a present condition (cf. Romans 10:10, 2 Corinthians 6:2), but other passages speak of salvation as obtained on the final day (cf. Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 1:5, 9). This has caused no end of consternation for many believers: how can salvation be present and yet future? When we understand salvation as “rescue,” the picture is a bit clearer. When we turn to the Lord, we are rescued from the sentence of condemnation and from the penalty of sin (cf. Romans 6:16-23). Nevertheless, we still live in the world with its many temptations to sin; we still remain in spiritual danger (1 Corinthians 5:10, Hebrews 10:26-31, 1 John 1:8-10, 2:15-17). Therefore, we await the day of our final rescue, when “full” salvation will be manifest: the day when there will no longer be any stumbling-blocks or temptations to sin, the day on which sin and death will be fully defeated and destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:22-58, Revelation 20:1-22:6).
Therefore, it is right for the Lord to be called Jesus, “YHWH saves.” Through Jesus we all can be rescued from sin and death, obtaining the victory through Him. Let us praise God in Christ for salvation, be rescued from sin, and be preserved through faith until the day when salvation is fully revealed!
Ethan R. Longhenry