The Most Important Name

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 24, 2016

Exodus 3:13-15 From Slavery to Salvation: The Most Important Name

Pastor Russell’s Guide to Choosing a Baby Name
Naming a child is a tremendous responsibility. When parents choose a name for a newborn child they are choosing a word that child will hear for the rest of his or her life, a word which will come to be associated with that child, a word which—in some ways—may shape that child’s destiny. So, if you are expecting a child and you are in the process of choosing potential names… no pressure or anything.

Actually, if you are expecting a child and need to choose a name, I’m here to help. Here is Pastor Russell’s guide to choosing a baby name:

Pronounceability. I don’t know if that’s a word. But the point is: will your child have to be constantly correcting people on the pronunciation of his or her name. I think you want to go for a name that will pass the “track and field” test. That is, when you go to a junior high track meet in a different town, and your kid finishes 3rd in the long jump, will the PA guy reading the results be able to say the name correctly?

Spelling. Related to pronounceability, the question here is: will your child always have to be fixing the way people spell his or her name? This is a particular burden for me. I don’t think my name is all that hard to spell: R-U-S-S-E-L-L. Two S’s, two L’s. It’s got a nice symmetry to it. And yet, I run into people all the time who insist on spelling it with only one L. And I don’t know why. Every famous person I can think of named Russell spells it with two L’s. Russell Crowe. Russell Brand. Russell Wilson. Russell Westbrook. Even Bill Russell, the Hall of Fame Basketball Player.

This bothers me so much, in fact, that I once wrote to a comic strip artist to complain about the way he spelled Russell. The comic strip was called “Heart of the City” and it was about a 4th grade girl who lived in New York City. And she had a classmate named Russell. He wasn’t in the strip very often, but when he was, his name was spelled with only one L. So I emailed the artist, explained the enormous burden I live under when people misspell may name, and pointed out how all the famous people spell it. I got a very nice email in reply, and three weeks later, the next time Russell showed up in the strip, his name was spelled with two L’s.

Or, again, I think new parents need to consider the uniqueness of any potential names. If you can help it, you don’t want your kid to be one of 5 kids in his or her 3rd grade class with the same name.

The flip side of this, of course, is trendiness. While you don’t want a name that everybody has, you still want a name that sounds and feels current. My Great-Grandma’s name was Hermina. It would be a unique name today, but it also sounds like a great-grandma name.

Then there are factors like family legacy, potential nicknames, and people you knew in 9th grade who had the same name. (“I’m not naming my child Clark. I knew a Clark in high school, and he was the worst!”)

And then, one more factor, aspiration. We want to pick a name for our child that says a little about our hopes and dreams for them. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of the book Freakonomics, had a chapter in their book exploring the impact of a child's first name on success later in life. They share this story:

Many parents seem to think that a child will not prosper unless it is hitched to the right [name]; names are seen to carry great aesthetic and even predictive powers.

This might explain why, in 1958, a New York City father named Robert Lane decided to call his baby son Winner. The Lanes, who lived in a housing project in Harlem, already had several children, each with a fairly typical name. But this boy—well, Robert Lane apparently had a special feeling about him. Winner Lane: How could he fail with a name like that?

Three years later, the Lanes had another baby boy, their seventh and last child. For reasons that no one can quite pin down today, Robert decided to name this boy Loser. Robert wasn't unhappy about the new baby; he just seemed to get a kick out of the name's bookend effect. First a Winner, now a Loser. But if Winner Lane could hardly be expected to fail, could Loser Lane possibly succeed?

Loser Lane did in fact succeed. He went to prep school on a scholarship, graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and joined the New York Police Department, where he made detective and, eventually, sergeant. Although he never hid his name, many people were uncomfortable using it. To his police colleagues today, he is known as Lou.

And what of his brother? The most noteworthy achievement of Winner Lane, now in his late 40s, is the sheer length of his criminal record: more than 30 arrests for burglary, domestic violence, trespassing, resisting arrest, and other mayhem.

These days, Loser and Winner barely speak. The father who named them is no longer alive.

It’s probably a good thing that names are not destiny. While we want to choose well for our kids, we don’t need to be saddled with the pressure that the name we pick might determine their success or failure in life.

But there is this caveat: when God chooses a name, it does mean a lot. Here’s the difference between God and us. When we give names, we do not have the power or authority to make sure the person fits the name. But God does. When God chooses a name, it speaks volumes about that person’s character and mission in life.

So, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, because he is going to be the “father of many” (Gen. 17:5). Jacob’s name is changed to Israel because he “wrestled with God” (Gen. 32:28). Moses’ name means “drawn out” because he was drawn out of the Nile and, also, he is going to draw the people out of Egypt (Ex. 2:10). And when God sent His Son into the world, He made it very clear that His name would be Jesus, because He would save His people from sin (Matt. 1:21).

So, when God gives a name, it is important. And if that is true of the names He gives to others, what about when He names himself? That’s what we are going to see in our passage for today. God gives His name, and it is the most important name in the Old Testament.

Burning Bush
We are working our way through the book of Exodus. And today I scheduled us to look at chapter 3 and the first half of chapter 4, which is the entirety of Moses’ conversation with the burning bush.

But, I’ve got to tell you, I had to make a choice this week. The truth is, there is no way I can do justice to everything that is in this passage. There are 39 verses in this episode. So I had to make a choice: was I going to try cover every verse, and just fly through it? Or would I focus in on just a small part of the story?

I’ve decided to focus in. We’re going to look at Exodus 3:13-15, where God gives His name.

So let me set the stage. Moses, we saw last week, burned his ships with Egypt and decided to identify with the people of Israel. As a result, he ended up with the Midianites, where he married and became a shepherd. Acts 7 tells us that he spent 40 years as a shepherd (Acts 7:30).

Then, one day, he looks up from his flocks and sees a bush on fire. He keeps an eye on it, because he doesn’t want his sheep caught in a wildfire, and he realizes something strange: the fire doesn’t move, and the bush doesn’t burn up. It just is. It just keeps burning.

So he goes to investigate and discovers something even more strange: the bush speaks! God speaks to him from the burning bush!

After telling Moses to remove his sandals, God tells Moses the plan. Exodus 3:7-8, and verse 10:

7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…

10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

My friend Matt calls verse 8 the purpose statement of Exodus. This is what the book is all about: God has come down to rescue His people from the hand of the Egyptians. God has heard their cries, he has seen the oppression of the Egyptians, and now He has come to do something about it.

And Moses is God’s chosen leader to bring His people out. This whole burning bush thing is about sending Moses to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out.

But a funny thing has happened to Moses in the desert. No longer the brash young man who killed an Egyptian slave driver in an effort to spark a revolution, suddenly Moses is timid. The rest of this conversation, to chapter 4:17, is Moses making excuses about why God has the wrong man: “Who shall I say sent me?” “What if they don’t believe me?” “I’m not a very good talker.” “Can’t you send someone else?”

God answers every objection. He gives Moses a staff that can do miracles and He gives him his brother Aaron to act as a spokesman. But, make no mistake: God is going to rescue His people, and Moses is His man.

What Is Your Name?
And, in the midst of this story there is a passage so vital, so important; that I didn’t want to just fly past it. It’s the passage where God gives His name.

Psalm 9:10 says “Those who know your name trust you.” God’s name tells us about His nature and His character. It reveals things about Himself that will deepen our love for Him and grow our admiration and strengthen our trust. So here’s our key verses this morning, Exodus 3:13-15:

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.

When Moses asks God what His name is, God gives three answers:
• The first, in verse 14, is: “I AM WHO I AM.” This isn’t really a name. More of a statement. God is saying: “I am exactly who I have always been, and I am exactly who I will always be.” In English, the verb “to be, is, are, am” is the most basic verb we have for describing the state of something. “The frog is green.” It’s how we express facts. God uses the Hebrew equivalent here. He is the one who is.
• Then, later in verse 14, God says: “Say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ Same word.
• Then, in verse 15, He says: “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD…has sent me to you.’” Here’s God’s actual name. The LORD. Only, that’s not what God says. In the original Hebrew, God uses a four letter word: YHWH. It’s a word that is built off the Hebrew word for “is.” So God is tying His name to His earlier statement: “I AM WHO I AM.” God is giving Himself a name that is built off the idea that He is the One who is.

Now, I need to stop for a moment and talk about those four letters: YHWH. I find this fascinating. Those four letters are known as the tetragrammaton—the “four letter word.” In English, we pronounce this word as Yahweh. But that’s only a guess. Because the truth is, nobody really knows how to pronounce this word.

The reason for that is because written Hebrew originally had no vowels. When the Bible was written, it was only consonants (they didn’t have punctuation or space between words either!) Ancient Israel was primarily an oral culture. So they learned scripture by hearing it. The consonants which were written down were basically mnemonic devices, but the way you learned to pronounce the words was by hearing them read by someone who already knew how to say them.

The problem was, ancient Israelites took the command to not take the name of God in vain so seriously that they refused to read this word—YHWH—aloud. So no one knows how to pronounce it. Instead, when they came to this name of God in the Bible, they would substitute a different word. And the word they used was “adonai”, which is Hebrew for Lord. This is why, when you are reading your Bible, you will often see the word LORD, written in all capital letters. In truth, that didn’t really say LORD in the original language, but YHWH—the unpronounceable name of God.

With me so far? Now, this is where I think it gets really cool. In about the 8th century after Christ a group of Jewish monks known as the Masoretes decided it would be really helpful if there were marks in scripture to help with pronunciation. So they created a system of vowel points—they look like commas and apostrophes—to help a reader know how a word should sound. But when they came to the tetragrammaton—YHWH—they didn’t know how it should be pronounced. So they used the vowel points from the word adonai. The result was a word that is often pronounced as Jehovah.

So you may have heard that as a name for God. It is technically not a name from the Bible, but at least now you know where it comes from. Today, Yahweh is considered the most acceptable way to say God’s name.

And the point we need to see is that God ties His personal name to that phrase “I AM WHO I AM.”

Here’s where we are going to spend the rest of our time this morning. What does it mean when God says He is the One who is? What does God’s name reveal about Him? When we ponder that God is the One who absolutely is, what do we discover about Him?

John Piper writes:

This is the most basic fact and the most ultimate fact. Period. Of the billions of facts that there are, this one is at the bottom and at the top. It is the foundation of all others and the consummation of all others. Nothing is more basic and nothing is more ultimate than the fact that God is.

Nothing is more foundational to this church than that God is. Nothing is more foundational to your life or your marriage or your job or your health or your mind or your future than that God is. Nothing is more foundational to the world, or the solar system, or the Milky Way or the universe than that God is. And nothing is more foundational to the Bible and the self-revelation of God and the glory of the gospel of Jesus than that God is.

He then goes on to tease out ten truths that spring from this name of God. I’m going to crib from him a little (and also from 7 truths he includes in this sermon) and give you 7 implications of the name God gives Himself. The most important name in the Old Testament.

Seven Implications of God being “I AM”
So, first, God exists. When God says “I AM WHO I AM,” He’s saying: “I am the God who is there.” That may be basic and sort of self-evident at this point—after all, Moses is talking to a bush that burns but never disappears—but it needs to be said because so many people live as if it were not true, or as if it makes no difference in their lives.

Piper uses the example of going to a dinner party, and then ignoring the host the entire time. Even though the host is right in front of you, you pretend he is not there. You never make eye contact. You never respond to anything he says. You never initiate a conversation. In other words, you are indescribably rude.

If someone asked you if you believed your host existed, you would say “Of course.” You are even willing to agree that this is his house and that you are eating food he provided, but beyond that you pay your host no regard. Practically speaking, you are acting as though your host did not exist. You are ignoring him.

That, Piper says, is how so many people live with regard to God. They believe He exists, but they pay Him no attention. Practically speaking, they live as though He was not there. They value the things He provides, but not Him.

But here in the name God gives Himself is the judgment of that kind of behavior: God is. God exists. Yahweh. And when we live as though He is not there we condemn ourselves with our God belittling rudeness.

Or, again, God has no Beginning or End. When God calls Himself “I AM” He is telling us that “He has no past or future but only an eternal present. God is the One who always is. He is who he is; he has always been who he is; and he always will be who he is.” (Philip Ryken, Exodus, p. 97) Like the Burning Bush now speaking to Moses, God is a fire that burns without every burning out.

So when someone asks: “Who made God?” the answer is: “Nobody made God. God simply is. And always was. No beginning. No end. Amen and Amen.”

So, third, God does not change. When He says: “I AM WHO I AM” He means to say that He is now what He was yesterday and what He will be tomorrow. He is constant. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He cannot be improved. He will not decline.

As humans, we go on diets and start up exercise plans because we know that our bodies are breaking down, or we want our bodies to improve. We go to school so that we can learn and grow. We come to church because we want to become better people. God needs none of that. “There is no development in God…Absolute perfection cannot be improved.” (Piper)

And we can take comfort in that. Malachi 3:6 says: “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” God’s name—Yahweh—assures us that He is utterly reliable.

Fourth, Everything that “is not God” depends on God. God is self-existent. He was not made, and He does not depend on anything or anyone else. But everything else in the universe—everything that is “not God”—is utterly dependent on God.

Matthew Henry wrote: “The greatest and best man in the world must say, By the grace of God I am what I am; but God says absolutely—and it is more than any creature, man or angel can say—I am that I am.” (quoted by Ryken, p. 97)

God is who He is in Himself. He does not need any help. He does not need us to do anything for Him. He does not have any unmet desires. He is not co-dependent. He does not live or move or have His being in anyone other than Himself.

Fifth, God is the standard of truth, beauty and goodness. Because He is the One who is independent of all others, then He alone determines what is right and good and proper and true. God appeals to no higher authority. God is not subject to some higher law. He is the highest authority. He determines what is law.

Which leads to a sixth observation: We must conform to God, not He to us. Because God is the One who is, and He never changes, and He is the highest authority in all of Creation, then our ideas and opinions and speculations about what God should be or how God should act don’t mean much. We may wish God would be a certain way, we may dislike things that the Bible reveals about Him: but what we feel or like or desire does not make God what He is. He is what He is, and our opinions on the subject do not matter.

Piper writes:

The vast majority of God’s creatures go their own way with little or no thought of conforming their lives to the daily will and character of an absolute God. And when they think of God, they picture him arbitrarily in images of their own making, to suit their own desires. But if God simply is who he is and not who we make him out to be, then it is we who must conform to God and not he to us.

Then, seventh, and finally: God cares about us. Despite all we have just said about what God’s name implies for His otherness—He alone in the universe is unconditioned, ungoverned, unending… He simply is… He is so unlike us in every way…despite all that, still, He cares about us. This great God has looked down on the creatures He has made and He has compassion for us.

Here, we go back to the text and look at the verses right after He declares His name:

16 “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’

God “comes down” (3:8) so that He can bring His people up (3:17). He is not too far from us that He is unwilling to rescue us.

The important thing for Moses to tell the elders of Israel is that “I AM” has come to rescue them. The One who is, the One who always has been and always will be, the One who exists, is not so distant that He has missed their cries.

And this is a lesson that applies not only to ancient Israel, but to us as well. In John 8, Jesus is engaged in a debate with the Jewish leaders. At one point Jesus says that Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing his day. John 8:57-58:

57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

It’s very important and instructive that Jesus chose to use those two words: “I AM.” There can be little doubt that He was identifying Himself with the name of God. The Jewish leaders certainly understood it that way, because they took up stones and tried to kill him for blasphemy.

So what Jesus was saying was that all that it means for Yahweh to be the Great I AM is also found in Him. That He is, in fact, the God who Is come down to earth, to rescue us. So that, if you know Jesus, you know the God who:
• Exists
• Has no beginning and no end
• Does not change
• Is independent from all that is
• Is the standard of truth, beauty and goodness
• Is the one to whom all creation should conform its life
• And cares about us.

This is the name of God: I AM WHO I AM! May those who know the name of God put their trust in him.