Johnny Cash’s famous hit, “A Boy Named Sue” pokes fun at the significance of names. Nobody wants a name that makes others laugh at them or that reminds people of a negative historical figure.
I recently preached a funeral for a deacon in our church with the middle name Adolf, a very popular name before World War II. Now no one names a child Adolf or Judas. This is why expectant mothers and fathers-to-be labor over the name of their progeny. When my wife and I were talking about names for our future children, I liked the name Clark for a boy, after my heroic great uncle, but my wife once babysat a Clark that forever secured in her mind the doctrine of total depravity. Likewise, my wife liked the name Autumn for a girl, but I knew an Autumn who would make you cringe whenever you saw her coming.
Names carry a sense of one’s identity. This is why we name children after godly relatives, heroes of the faith, or that remind us of characteristics we hold dear.
Why God Changes Our Names
Yet in Scripture, we encounter a God who changes the names of His people. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul. When God renames people in Scripture, He is doing several things: He is asserting His sovereign authority over that person’s life, giving that individual a new mission to pursue, identifying a clean break from their former manner of life, and emphasizing a new character they will thereafter possess.
Abraham and Sarah were so renamed because they were to become the father and mother of all who believe. God gave Jacob the new name Israel because He had turned him from a “heal snatcher/cheater” into His blessed servant. Simon carries the idea of instability, while Peter means rock; a name change that identified a dramatic difference after Pentecost. Saul became Paul, a name meaning “small”, because the Lord had humbled His arrogant pride when He knocked him off his high horse on the road to Damascus.
Every Child of God Given A New Name
The resurrected Christ promises a new name for all God’s people in Revelation 2:17, when He states, “To the one who conquers I will give…a new name…that no one knows except the one who receives it.” While a person may go through the legal process of acquiring a new name, the Lord God gives each of His children something much more lasting and significant: an entirely new identity and life purpose.
For the child of God, this new identity and purpose begins at conversion, where we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom and adopted into the family of God. Paul describes the new identity of God’s children at conversion in these famous words found in 2 Cor. 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
How to Respond to Our New Names
If you are reading this and have never experienced this radical inward transformation known as regeneration or new birth, you must pray for God to make real to you your spiritually dead condition and show you the beauty of Christ’s person and work on the cross. If you are reading this and you have been born again and God has taken out the old heart of stone and replaced it with a new heart that loves His commands, you must rejoice and tremble. The rejoicing part may seem obvious, but we always need reminding of this.
After the disciples returned from the mission Christ sent them on, they were rejoicing at the authority He had given them to cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead, but Jesus called them to another source of joy. In Luke 10:20, Jesus said, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In the very next verse, Jesus rejoices in the Spirit and dives into spontaneous prayer, praising God for revealing these things to the humble and withholding them from the prideful.
Have you ever heard the expression that someone’s name was thrown in the mud? Because of our sin, we had dragged our own names through the mud. We have all lived in ways that ruined our name and our identity as God’s image-bearers. We have even blasphemed the holy name of God with our lives of selfishness, anger, bitterness, ingratitude, lust, hate, and gossip. Yet in His astounding grace, God has given us a new name through faith in Christ. At the cross, God poured out all His judgment on our sins on Jesus and by the Spirit has given a new and everlasting name to His redeemed people. Now we must rejoice always that the Gospel was received by us through the Spirit’s gift of faith and repentance. Yet our rejoicing must always involve trembling. It is possible to be connected to Christians and rich theological truths and yet fall away from Christ, proving we never knew genuine salvation.
In such cases, Peter and Solomon are right when they say, “the dog returns to its own vomit, and the pig, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire” (2 Peter 2:22). The dog was still a dog and the pig still a pig. We must tremble before the Lord, not in a fearful state of uncertainty concerning our salvation, but in a prayerful dependency that acknowledges our desperate need for preserving grace. God has truly saved all who persevere and all who persevere do so by clinging desperately to the cross of Christ. You and I ought never to think that our conversion has secured for us the freedom to go back to wallowing in the mire.
Rejoice that God has given you a new name in Christ and tremble so that you live in a way that verifies this name change.