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Indirect ways of naming God in Matthew

Indirect ways of naming God in Matthew

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

In his preaching Jesus used many typically Jewish ways of speaking. The Gospel of Matthew was composed for Jewish readers. Small wonder then that this Gospel preserved many sayings of Christ in the characteristic Jewish form. We will take our examples from Matthew’s Gospel, though they can also be found in the other Gospels.

The Jews had great respect and fear of God’s Holy Name.

Had not God commanded them:

“You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain”. (Deut 5:11)

Indirect names for God

Taking this commandment literally, the Jews avoided pronouncing God’s Name at all times and in all circumstances. Instead, they used indirect ways ot speaking about God.

Matthew’s Gospel The Meaning
“To test him the Pharisees asked him to show them a sign from heaven“. (Mt. 16:1) The Pharisees asked him to show them a sign from God.
“Jesus asked them: ’The baptism of John, from where was it? From heaven or from people’?“ (Mt 21:25) Jesus asks them to state clearly whether John’s baptism was God’s institution, or a merely human institution.
“If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him.“ (Mt 7:11) ’The Father who is in heaven always means: ’the Father who is God’, ’the divine Father’.
“From that time Jesus began to preach saying: ’Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’.“ (Mt 4: 17) ’The kingdom of heaven’ always means: ’God’s kingdom’.
“Jesus said: ’Hereafter you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’.“ (Mt 26:64) Christ announces that he will sit at the right hand of God. (compare Lk 22:69)
’When the Son of Man will come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his throne of glory’ (Mt 25:31.) Jesus announces that at the last judgement he will come in a manifestation of his divinity and he will sit on God’s throne.
“The Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every person according to hisor her deeds.’ (Mt 16:27) At the last judgement Jesus will judge all humankind with a clear manifestation of the divinity he shares with the Father.
“Hallowed be Thy Name’. (Mt 6:9) May you, O God, be praised!
“The crowds shouted: ’Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest’!“ (Mt 21:9) The crowds give praise to Jesus as the Messiah (who comes in Gods’ Name ). And they give praise to God.

From all these examples we see that Jesus too employed the indirect way of speaking about God. Instead of saying ’God’, he would use words such as: “Heaven“, “Power“, “Glory“, “Name“, and the “Highest“. The Jewish audience Jesus was addressing, would immediately grasp the full meaning of such expressions.

Constructions that imply God

There was another way in which the Jews used to avoid God’s Name while speaking: by putting the sentence in the passive voice. If, for instance, a father wanted to bless his daughter at marriage he would not say:

“May God give you many children!”

“May God protect your health!”

“May God grant you many days of happiness!” and so on.

He would say:

“May many children be given to you!”

“May your health be protected!”

“May many days of happiness be granted to you!”

In the second form, “God” is not mentioned in so many words. But, because of the passive voice, the Jews would immediately understand that “God“ was meant to be the author, and that his Name had been omitted out of reverence and respect. Such a passive is called a theophoric passive: i.e. a passive which in its meaning carries God as the author.

Christ used this way of speaking quite often and it is in Matthew’s Gospel once more that we find many examples of it:

Matthew’s Gospel The Meaning
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt 5:4) God will comfort those have sorrow in this life.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be given mercy!” (Mt 5:7) God will be merciful to those who are merciful.
“In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Mt 6:7) The pagans think that God will hear them because of the many words they use in prayer.
“Seek first his kingdom and his holiness, and and the other things will be added to you.” (Mt 6:33) If you make it your first concern to do God’s will and to live as a saint, God will add the other things.
“Judge not, that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you pronounce, you will be judged.” (Mt 7:1) “If you do not condemn others, God will not condemn you. God will judge you with the same judgement you pronounce on others.”
And the measure you give will be the measure given to you.“ (Mt 7:2) God will be as generous to you, as you are to others.

In the following example one should notice how characteristically Jewish the phrase is. To ‘loosen’ and to ‘bind’ means to declare something forbidden or allowed; ‘in heaven’ stands for ‘with God’; moreover, there is the theophoric passive; finally, the statement is repeated twice (both negatively and positively).

Matthew’s Gospel Meaning
To Peter: Mt 16:19; to the Apostles: Mt 18:18. “Whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loosen on earth, shall be loosened in heaven.” “Whatever you forbid, God also forbids. Whatever you allow, God will allow.”

John Wijngaards

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