What’s In A Name?

In our culture we tend to name our children names that are pleasing to our ears or names chosen in honor of a favored relative or friend. As my wife and I contemplated a name for our first born, we tried many on for size. Several were ruled out because of associations with similarly named people we had known in our past, ex-girlfriends/boyfriends, the stinky kid in the third grade, a teacher whose name still conjured up dreaded memories; while others were ruled out because the name was too easy to rhyme with something cruel or too easy to make fun of.

In our culture a name is simply a way to identify one person as opposed to someone else. In fact, in Britain upon making a new acquaintance one may ask you, “What are you called?”, as opposed to the more common phrase, “Who are you?” Though we may use these phrases interchangeably, in some cultures they are very different inquiries. To the Jews, especially those in ancient biblical times, a name had much more significance and meaning. While some were named after the family patriarch, ostensibly to carry on the family legacy, many were given very specific names with intentional purpose.

In biblical times, names were often given in order to express something about a person, or to express something through him or her, and not simply as a convenient label to hang around their neck. One reason to choose a particular name was to record some aspect of a person’s birth. For instance, Moses’ adoptive mother chose his name because he was drawn from the water, the sound of his name recalling a Hebrew verb “to draw out” (Ex 2:10). The circumstances surrounding the birth of Jacob (Gn25:26) and also Samuel (1 Sm 1:20) gave them their names. Something of the deeper and more far-reaching implications of naming is seen in the fact that while the names “Jacob” and “Samuel” arise from birthing circumstances, they also reveal in advance the person the child will become: Jacob – the sneaky opportunist (Gn 27:36), Samuel – the man of prayer (1 Sm 7:5–9; 8:6, 21; 12:19–23).

Occasionally one’s name was chosen to express parental reactions to their birth. Isaac means “laughter” (Gn 17:17; 18:12; 21:3–6). Nabal (“Fool”) lived up to the foolish meaning of his name (1 Sm 25:25). 

A name was often given to reveal the nature of the person, his or her purpose, or some other significant  detail of their life. The pre-eminent example of this is Jesus. He was  called “Immanuel” meaning “God with us”. Jesus literally was “God with us” in the flesh (Mt 1:21, 23). Jesus was often referred to as Jesus Christ or simplythe Christ – Christ literally meaning “savior” (“Christ” in the Greek, “Messiah” in Hebrew). Isaiah also seems to have seen his own name as significant to his message- “the Lord saves” (Is 8:18).  Possibly even more interesting to us, the ability of the name to reveal the nature or status of the person who bears it, is well illustrated in the biblical practice of giving new names.

Frequently we see someone receiving a new name after an encounter with the living God. This new name belies some new power, possession, or destiny. Abram, became “Abraham” after his encounter with God. Sarai became “Sarah” and named her long awaited son “Isaac” (meaning “laughter”) after her encounter with God (Gn 17:14, 18:12-15, 21:3). Jacob became “Israel” after wrestling with an angel (Gn 32:28). Jesus re-named Simon, “Peter” (“Cephas” in Greek), meaning “the rock”. A foreshadowing of the “rock” upon which Jesus, the wise builder (Mt 7:24-27), would build the foundation of the Christian church (Jn 1:42, Mt 16:18).  Jesus called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, “Boanerges”, which in the Greek means “sons of thunder” (Mk 3:17). Perhaps most famous of all was Saul, the great persecutor-of-the-church-turned-apostle-and-evangelist whom the Lord re-named “Paul” after his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9, 13:9).

It’s clear to see through even a cursory reading of God’s Word that no one has an encounter with the Commander of the Universe and leaves unchanged. If one claims to have met the risen Savior, Jesus Christ, and yet remains unchanged, it may not have been the real deal. God often gave someone a new name after such an encounter to help define their new reality. Do you need a new name?

While these are just a few of the instances of names and their significance in the Scriptures, there are many more examples throughout the Bible and so much information buried in its pages. I hope this will encourage you to seek it out, study it, and dig deeper. Question everything! Pray that God will give you a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for His Word. He will not disappoint. What’s in a name? Everything!

Follow Up:

  1. How do you define yourself? Does your name encompass who you are in the Lord?
  2. How is your life different since your encounter with Jesus? Do you need a new name to define the new you?
  3. What new name would God give you based on your new life in Jesus?
    If you are unsure, ask a spouse or trusted friend what God might call you, or what characteristics they see in you that your new name would need to encompass. This could be a great discussion!
  4. As you read God’s Word, look for the significance of names. Literally hundreds of names are used to describe God based on a certain characteristic the author is ascribing to the Lord in that moment. Even “Lord” is a title that carries certain nuances and meaning. Each name reflects a subtle difference in His character or providence.

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