Yahweh is the One who is, Who Was, and Who is to Come
On Sunday, in Exodus 3:14, we saw the Name.
This marks a new event in the storyline of the Bible — it’s new not because the Name wasn’t used previously (we see “the Lord” several times in Genesis) — but it’s new because this is the first time that God explains his name. This is the first time that God makes his name known — or “enacts his identity.”
This episode in Scripture has fascinated Jewish and Christian scholars for centuries, and there is no shortage of commentary on how we might understand its meaning. One key element is the connection of Yahweh to the Hebrew verb “to be.” In fact, this connection is so ubiquitous that the ESV footnotes it. If you read the ESV, you might have noticed this explanation of “the Lord” at the bottom of the page:
The word Lord, when spelled with capital letters, stands for the divine name, YHWH, which is here connected with the verb hayah, “to be” in verse 14.
As far as I know, that’s the most substantive footnote in the ESV — but it’s because the connection is so important. In the sermon, I explained a further connection between Yahweh and the verb hayah. If you take the verb hayah in its past, present, and future forms, and if you overlay those three words, it becomes this new word “Yahweh.” That is, imagine the three words in Hebrew “I was” / “I am” / “I will be” — when those Hebrew characters are combined, it forms this composite word “Yahweh.” It is really amazing. The idea of past, present, and future existence and presence is embedded into the divine name.
Now, I discovered that insight from a Jewish rabbi’s commentary on Exodus. Nobody is more careful with the divine name than Jewish scholars, and he sold me on the connection. It is simply there and evident.
But do you know who the best commentators on the Hebrew Scriptures are?
Yep, it is the New Testament authors.
So we should ask: did any of those earliest Christian readers of Exodus catch that?
Okay, let’s consider the apostle John. Take the book of Revelation. Notice something in his opening greeting, Revelation 1:4,
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
These introductory greetings (or salutations) are not unusual in the New Testament. They were common in Jewish letters, and Paul continues that same practice, except that he makes it explicitly Christian. Paul says: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That becomes the default Christian salutation in the New Testament (see Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2).
John does the same thing as Paul, but he uses a different designation for God the Father. Did you see it in Revelation 1:4?
It’s “Grace to you and peace from HIM WHO IS and WHO WAS and WHO IS TO COME …”
And that’s not the only time John does this in the book of Revelation.
1:4 — the One who is and who was and who is to come.
1:8 — the One who is and who was and who is to come.
4:8 — the One who was and who is and who is to come.
11:17 — the One who is and who was.
16:5 — the One who is and who was.
This is not to mention the wonderful phrase “Alpha and Omega” in Revelation (see Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Christian scholar Richard Bauckham explains,
The biblical name of God YHWH was sometimes vocalized Yāhôh and so transliterated into Greek (which has no consonant ‘h’) as IAω (Iota, Alpha, Omega). (The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 27–28).
[That is, to be clear, the Greek literal rendering of Yāhôh (because there are no h’s in Greek) is Iota, Alpha, and Omega.]
Greek Jews understood that the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet within the divine name was symbolic to the meaning of the name in Exodus 3:14. The divine name in Greek (like in Exodus 3:14–15) carried the idea of beginning and end, first and last — which is exactly the point that John extrapolates in Revelation!
In other words, in summary, John’s understanding of God is deeply formed by Exodus 3:14–15. We can better grasp the book of Revelation — and New Testament theology in general — if we keep Exodus fresh in our minds.
And there’s more …
When John renders the future idea of God’s existence and presence, he diverges from the verb “to be.” Notice that he says “who is to come” rather than “who will be.” Now, that is different from Jewish readings and the Targum and all that. This is Christian through and through.
God will not merely “be” in the future, but he will come in the future! Just like he has come in the past, in the fullness of time, Jesus Christ born of woman (Galatians 4:4), he will come again, consummating his salvation, completing the better and final exodus.
For the Christian, we understand that Yahweh is not only sovereign, having no beginning or end, existing outside of his creation, but he is present, entering his creation by becoming like his creation in order to save us. Amen, come Lord Jesus!