Steven Thompson, PhD, is a former principal of Newbold College of Higher Education in Bracknell, United Kingdom, and a lecturer in theology at Avondale University in Cooranburg, New South Wales, Australia.

The name Jesus is derived from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. What did that name mean to the contemporaries of Jesus? What message did it communicate? How can we draw on its meaning and message to benefit those to whom we minister?

Jesus and Joshua

The name Jesus comes from Joshua. The Hebrew Yehōshu‘a occurs more than 170 times in the Old Testament.1 At the core of the name are three Hebrew letters: yodh, shin, ‘ayin. In that order and combined with various vowels, they express “help,” “deliver,” and “save from danger.”2 In other words, it refers to someone who rescues. Moses changed Joshua’s original name, Hoshea (Hebrew Hōshē‘a, “rescuer”), by prefixing to it Yah, the short form of Yahweh, resulting in Yehōshu‘a, “Yahweh the rescuer” (Num 13:16).

Yahweh directed Moses to assign Yehōshu‘a, son of Nun, increasingly important roles, first as leader of a quickly assembled military unit to push back attacking Amalekites (Exod. 17:8–16). Moses then appointed Yehōshu‘a as his personal assistant. He was the only person to accompany Moses up the mountain to receive from Yahweh the Ten Commandments and related Torah instructions (Exod. 33:11; Num. 11:28; Josh. 1:1).3

Yehōshu‘a’s next role was to be one of the twelve Israelites sent to survey the land of Canaan. When the surveyors returned, the majority delivered their discouraging negative report. Yehōshu‘a and Caleb countered with their faith-inspiring report of the land’s excellent qualities, reminding fellow Israelites of God’s previous care and declaring their faith that God would keep His word to give them the Promised Land (Num. 14:6–9; 32:12).

Yehōshu‘a’s most significant role began when Yahweh transferred to him leadership of the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land: “Yahweh directed Moses, ‘Take Yehōshu‘a son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him’ ” (Num. 27:18).4 A ceremony in the presence of the assembled Israelites formally appointed Yehōshu‘a Yahweh’s chosen replacement for Moses (Num. 27:22, 23; 34:16–18; Deut. 1:38; 3:28). In each of his roles, Yehōshu‘a fully and consistently obeyed Yahweh’s instructions, “not leaving undone anything that Yahweh had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:15).

The Spirit-empowered leadership of Yehōshu‘a continued to be recited by generations of Israelites, exerting a powerful influence on them. Jesus’ contemporaries were clearly aware that He was named after this great Israelite leader, Yahweh’s appointed “rescuer” of their ancestors. Their awareness directly impacted their understanding of, and relationship to, Jesus of Nazareth, the new Yehōshu‘a.

Jesus, the promised Rescuer

After the Babylonian captivity, the spelling of Joshua’s name was shortened in the Hebrew Bible from Yehōshu‘a to Yeshu‘a, the form behind Jesus’ name, which in Greek is Iēsous.5 Jesus is derived from this Greek form. According to Matthew, an angel instructed Joseph in a dream that “[Mary] will give birth to a son and you will name him Yeshu‘a, because He will rescue His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).6 After Mary gave birth, Joseph obeyed the angel’s instruction and “named Him Yeshu‘a” (v. 25). According to Luke, “after eight days He was circumcised and named Yeshu‘a, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21). So even before His birth, the name Yeshu‘a testified to Jesus’ God-assigned rescue mission.

The infant Yeshu‘a’s role as Yahweh-Rescuer was confirmed at the Jerusalem temple during the purification ritual for mother and baby when the family was approached by “a righteous and devout man named Simeon” to whom the Holy Spirit had given insight into the identity of the infant Yeshu‘a (Luke 2:25–35). What Simeon did and said prophetically linked infant Yeshu‘a to God’s rescue plan. Holding Yeshu‘a in his hands, Simeon offered a prayer that can be paraphrased, “Now, God, my eyes have seen, in this infant Yeshu‘a, your coming yeshu‘ah rescue!” (v. 30).

“Rescue” in the Old Testament

Yeshu‘a’s contemporaries were repeatedly reminded of His role in God’s rescue plan by Bible passages that included various forms of the Hebrew “rescue” word. Note, for example, the Song to Yahweh sung by Moses and the Israelites after their miraculous crossing through the sea: “My strength and my might is Yah; and He has become, to me, rescue” (Hebrew yeshu‘ah, Exod. 15:2, echoed in Isa. 12:2). A later song, anticipating the return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem, echoes this theme: “In that day will be sung this song in the land of Judah: [our] city is strong to us; [Yahweh] makes rescue (yeshu‘ah) our inner and outer walls” (Isa. 26:1). In these and other Old Testament passages, the Hebrew “rescue” word in various forms reminded Jesus’ contemporaries of His role as Yeshu‘ah.

“Rescue” in the Psalms

The Norwegian saying “A dear child has many names” may help prepare readers for what follows in this section, where several grammatical forms of the Hebrew word behind Yeshu‘a occur. The Psalms served the Jewish people as both hymnbook and prayerbook, employing forms of the Hebrew “rescue” word about 60 times to call on God and to praise Him for rescue.

God, the ultimate Rescuer. “Say to my soul, I am your Rescuer (Yeshu‘ah)!” (Ps. 35:3);7 “O God my Rescuer (teshu‘ah)” (Ps. 51:16); “He will send from heaven and rescue (yasha‘) me” (Ps. 57:4); “From [God] comes my rescue (yeshu‘ah) . . . my Rock and my Rescuer (yeshu‘ah) . . . for certain [He is] my Rock and my Rescuer (yeshu‘ah) . . . God my Rescuer (Yesha‘) and my glory” (Ps. 62:2, 3, 7, 8); “God our Rescuer (Yesha‘)” (Ps. 65:6); “among the nations your rescue (yeshu‘a) will become known!” (Ps. 67:3)”; “God our Rescuer (Yeshu‘ah) . . . God to the rescue (mōshā‘ā)! (Ps. 68:20, 21); “They cried out to Yahweh; from their distress He rescued (yāsha‘) them” (Ps. 107:13, 19); Yahweh my Lord, the strength of my rescue (yeshu‘ah) (Ps. 140:8).

No other effective rescue. “Worthless is rescue (teshu‘ah) by a human” (Pss. 60:13; 108:13); “your rescue (yeshu‘ah), O God, puts me high above harm’s way” (Ps. 69:30).

God keeps His promises to rescue. “God will rescue (yāsha‘) Zion!” (v. 36); “your rescue (teshu‘ah) Yahweh, just as you have spoken” (Ps. 119:41).

Urgent cries to Yahweh for rescue. “From men of blood rescue (yāsha‘) me!” (Ps. 59:3); “rescue (yāsha‘) with your right hand and answer me!” (Ps. 60:7); “rescue (yāsha‘) me, God!” (Ps. 69:2); “bend your ear toward me and rescue (yāsha‘) me!” (Ps. 71:2); “command my rescue (yāsha‘)!” (v. 3); “help us, God our Rescuer (Yesha‘)!” (Ps. 79:9); “come to rescue (yeshu‘ah) us!” (Ps. 80:3); “just show your face and we will be rescued (yāsha‘)!” (v. 4); “rescue (yāsha‘) your servant who trusts you!” (Ps. 86:2); ‘rescue (yāsha‘) the son of your handmaid!” (v. 16); “Rescue (yāsha‘) us, Yahweh our God!” (Ps. 106:47); “rescue (yāsha‘) with your right hand!” (Ps. 108:7); “rescue (yāsha‘) me in keeping with your lovingkindness!” (Ps. 109:26); “The inner me is nearly consumed waiting for your rescue (teshu‘ah)!” (Ps. 119:81); “to you I belong! Rescue (yāsha‘) me!” (v. 94).

Who can expect Yahweh’s rescue? “He will hear the cry [of those who fear Him] and will rescue (yāsha‘) them” (Ps. 145:19). “I hope for your rescue (yeshu‘ah), O Lord” (Ps. 119:166); “I await your rescue (yeshu‘ah,) Yahweh” (v. 174).

Sadly, because of unbelief, some are unable to access God’s rescue: “They did not believe in Elohim, they did not trust His rescue (yeshu‘ah)” (Ps. 78:22). One group is clearly excluded from Yahweh’s rescue: “out of reach for the wicked is your rescue (yeshu‘ah), because they do not seek your statutes” (Ps. 119:155).

Yahweh, Rescuer of both great and small. “You, Yahweh, give rescue (teshu‘ah) to kings” (Ps. 144:10); “You rescue (yāsha‘) the children of the poor” (Ps. 72:4); “the lives of the needy He rescues (yāsha‘)!” (v. 13); “He stands at the right side of the needy to rescue (yāsha‘) him” (Ps. 109:31); “The Lord is exalted, but He regards the lowly . . . you reach out your right hand to rescue (yāsha‘) me” (Ps. 138:6, 7); “He beautifies the lowly with rescue (yeshu‘ah)!” (Ps. 149:4).

Appropriate responses to Yahweh’s rescue. “Let those continually declare, ‘God is great! because they love your rescue (yeshu‘ah)” (Ps. 70:5); “My mouth recounts, all day long, your rescue (teshu‘ah)” (Ps. 71:15); “raise a shout for our Rock-Rescuer (Yesha‘)!” (Ps. 95:1).

Psalm 91, an extended declaration of Yahweh as Protector, Shelterer, and Rescuer of His people, closes with His promise to grant those who remain attached to Him a vision of His coming Rescuer: “With a long life I will satisfy him, and I will enable him to see my Rescuer (Yeshu‘ah)!” (v. 16).

As the Jews of Jesus’ day sang and prayed these and related psalms, they were pointedly reminded of Yeshu‘a’s special role in God’s rescue mission.

Yeshu‘a in the Passover psalms

The most intense and sustained Psalms rescue message was delivered by those that were sung and prayed during Passover, Israel’s sober commemoration of their ancestors’ rescue from slavery. Tension between Yeshu‘a and the Jewish authorities peaked during His final visit to Jerusalem. They were preparing to “deal” with Him as His influence over the people approached the tipping point. There could not have been a more significant occasion to encounter the Yeshu‘a/Rescuer message embedded in those Passover psalms, starting with “I was brought low and He became to me rescue (yehōshiy‘a)” (Ps. 116:6).8 This and the following Yeshu‘a references would have come across loud and clear in hundreds of Passover gatherings across Jerusalem and surrounding areas the evening of the Last Supper.

The formal blessing spoken over one of the Passover cups included the declaration: “the cup of rescue (yeshu‘ah) I will raise, and on the name of Yahweh I will call” (v. 13). Passover meal leaders then recited the prophetic fifteenth verse: “Precious in the eyes of Yahweh is the death of His holy ones.”

The Passover’s closing hymn, Psalm 118, resounded with rescue: “My strength and my song is Yah; He has become to me the Rescuer (Yeshu‘ah), the sound of rejoicing and rescue (yeshu‘ah) in the tents of the righteous” (vv. 14, 15). It is followed by the pointed declaration, “you have become, to me, Rescuer (Yeshu‘ah)!” (v. 21). The hymn continued with an intense rescue appeal: “We plead with you, Yahweh, Hosanna!” (hōshiy‘a-nah, “rescue us now!” v. 25). This rescue appeal in the Passover’s closing hymn came only weeks after Jesus’ followers surrounded Him shouting hōshiy‘a-nah, “rescue us now!” during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:9; Mark 11:9, 10; John 12:13).

Passover celebrants then sang the closing line of that final Passover hymn: “tie the sacrifice offering with ropes to the horns of the altar” (Psalm 118:27). Jesus would have been deeply moved by these words as He sang them that night.

Jesus the Rescuer

Even Pontius Pilate testified, perhaps inadvertently, to Jesus as rescuer when, during the hearing in the Praetorium, Pilate called out to “Yeshu‘a/Rescuer” and asked Him, “Are you King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). A major role of a good king would be rescuing his people. Pilate repeatedly referred to Yeshu‘a as “King of the Jews”
(vv. 37, 39; 19:14, 15, 19). Finally, he publicly declared “Yeshu‘a/Rescuer of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in the inscription he ordered placed on the cross (v. 19).

Suggestions for practical application

Songs, choruses, artwork, and multimedia presentations can be inspired by these Jesus-Rescuer texts and applied to our daily lives. Personal, family, and group devotions could be enriched by contemplating one example a week of the intimate immediacy of Jesus-Rescuer throughout the Scriptures for a whole year. Fifty-two Jesus-Rescuer Bible passages could be included in a year-long weekly devotional book or blog or social media campaign.

Congregational worship could be enriched by a sermon series focusing on Jesus the Rescuer, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Songs and poems could be selected or composed to accompany and enlarge this sermon theme. Communion service reflection on Jesus could include the singing of Psalm 118, where Jesus’ rescue mission is explicit.

Appropriate Jesus-Rescuer texts can be applied by ministers or chaplains to persons they are caring for, claiming Jesus as Rescuer in peoples’ life situations.

  1. The Old Testament also refers to a few other persons named Yᵉhōshu‘a.
  2. See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, study ed., trans. M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 448, 449.
  3. That Joshua accompanied Moses when he went up the mountain is clear from Moses’ instruction to the elders placed in charge of the Israelites while he and Joshua were away: “Wait here for us until we come back to you” (Exod. 24:13, 14; see also Exod. 32:17)
  4. All Scripture quotations are the writer’s own translation.
  5. His name appears in this shortened form in Nehemiah 8:17.
  6. The Hebrew language was in regular use by Jesus and Palestinian Jews of His day. See Steven Thompson, “Gustaf Dalman, Anti-Semitism, and the Language of Jesus Debate,” Journal of Religious History 34, no. 1 (March 2010): 36–54.
  7. Chapter and verse numbers for Psalms passages follow those of the Hebrew Bible, which differ in some cases from those of most modern translations.
  8. We know the content and order of this Passover service, thanks to a second-century CE Jewish document known as the Mishnah. The section known as Order Mo‘ed in tractate Pesachim preserves the Passover order of service from Jesus’ day.

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Steven Thompson, PhD, is a former principal of Newbold College of Higher Education in Bracknell, United Kingdom, and a lecturer in theology at Avondale University in Cooranburg, New South Wales, Australia.

December 2023

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