What’s in a name?

I recently finished Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is endlessly quotable. The plot centers upon the idea of escaping one’s namesake. As the jovial Samuel Hamilton sums up: “I’ve never known whether the name is molded by the child or the child changed to the name. But you can be sure of this—whenever a human has a nickname it is proof that the name given him was wrong.”  

The importance of names is ubiquitous to every human civilization. Our family name connects us to the world historically and culturally. In some societies, first names are given at a certain age to reflect personal characteristics or an individual’s occupation. When first meeting a person, introductions begin with sharing names.

In many cases, a name can become synonymous with one’s entire existence. From birth to the current moment, we have spent our whole lives constructing and refining our identity. Our accolades, possessions, characteristics, and actions become tied to our names, and these essentially become interchangeable. 

Names are likewise critical to our Christian faith. From a biblical perspective, the name of the Lord is a wonderful gift; the Creator of the universe has revealed Himself to us by name. We therefore need not know Him as some impersonable cosmic force—a truly deep act of love. In God’s revealed titles, we learn more of His character, His proper name, and His personal name. 

The Psalmist repeatedly draws on His name for strength, salvation, truth, comfort; to know His name is to not be forsaken (Psalm 9:10). Peter, by the Holy Spirit, remarks to the elders in Jerusalem that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). To take His name in vain is a sin against Him (Exodus 20:7). 

God’s many titles and names are integral to understanding His character. But what of our identities as humans—what do our names reveal? 

The answer lies not in our earthly names given at birth but in our heavenly name, revealed only to Him that gives it (Revelation 2:17).  

No longer are we directly given these new names in this life, but, in the Book of Revelation, the Spirit tells the churches that each will be given a white rock with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it (Revelation 2:17). One possible interpretation of this verse emerges from the ancient Roman practice of rewarding athletic champions a white stone that granted passage to the royal banquet. This new name could represent the Spirit’s conforming of believers and the entirety of their identity into the pure righteousness of Christ (Romans 8:29). 

But, like any biblical renaming, our new name reflects not our own deeds or attributes but those of God and our relation to Him. For example, the Scriptures are filled with name changes. Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Jacob turned into Israel. Simon was given the name Peter, and Saul went by Paul. In most cases, the names are given directly from God and reflect internal character changes or the ultimate outcome of that individual—Abram, meaning “exalted father,” became Abraham, or “father of many nations,” displaying God’s covenant and his place in God’s plan for mankind. 

In my twenty one years of life, I have not been delivered a new name. I have received countless nicknames—many against my will—but never a godly name that reveals my special place in His redemptive plan. Practically living out my life as a Christian with a new God-centered identity has been flawed, and my shortcomings have caused me tremendous guilt. So many times have I valued making a social connection over a sacred conviction. Reciting “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” feels untruthful when I act differently depending on the crowd or day (Galatians 2:20). But looking to those whose names He has changed has helped.

John the Baptist sums up the call of a Christian in terms of our identity: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:31). John the Baptist recognized the divinity of Jesus and rightfully desired to exalt him, but, in doing so, his influence had to be lessened to magnify Christ more fully. He recognized Christ as Lord and sought not his own influence and power, but the magnification of Christ.

Similarly, one could look to Saul’s conversion and subsequent preaching as Paul. Dubbing himself the “Hebrew of Hebrews” and other powerful titles, Paul humbly deemed all of these earthly titles as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8). In fact, Saul’s name had a regal connotation, as it came from the first king of Israel. Instead, the name Paul literally means “small,” derived from the Latin “paulus”.

Note, however, that this change was not directly God-given but circumstantial, as it is merely the Latin rendering of the Hebrew name. Though we are not told exactly why Paul prefers his new name, the best glimpse of his motives is shown by his remark: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9). To abandon his earthly possessions for God’s mission, the apostle Paul truly embodies the mission of Christ even in name! 

As we go forth and share the gospel with new friends and strangers, I pray every handshake—or Corona-elbow-bump—can be tied to a name that reflects our divine identity and not our earthly. I pray everything tied to my name will mirror His righteousness, rather than a worldly or self-constructed righteousness. One of our biggest tools in evangelism is a name that cries out Christ’s death and resurrection. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

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