Thursday, November 22, 2012

What's in a Name?

At the end of his gripping performance in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller's famous play The Crucible, actor Daniel Day-Lewis reminds us of the significance of one's name. Playing the character John Proctor - an historical figure accused of witchcraft during the infamous Salem Witch Trials - he refuses to sign his name to a false confession. The clergy, frustrated that Proctor would be willing to speak a confession but not sign his name to it, demand his signature and question his unwillingness to sign. In response, he screams, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life... How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

If you have seen The Crucible, you will recall how intensely dramatic this scene is. If you haven't, I recommend you watch it. No doubt, many who see the film or play do not understand John Proctor's concern for his name. They would likely reason that it is the man himself, not his name, which defines him. 

In reality, we all take names for granted. We view them more as mere titles for identification than embodiments of important meaning. When people name their children, they often scour baby name books in search of names that are cute or "sound good" rather than names which possess significant meaning. Others choose names based on how popular they are in the hopes that their children will be accepted as "normal." It's no surprise that the same male and female names rank at the top of the popularity lists every year.

When we search the Scriptures, we discover just how important names really are to God. The Hebrews named their children with careful and thoughtful consideration, often based on future aspirations or something related to the child's birth. When Abraham and Sarah named their son "Isaac," which means "laughter," they did so because Sarah laughed when God said she would conceive in her old age. Likewise, Jacob was given his name, which means "supplanter," because he was holding his brother, Esau's, heel when they were born. Unlike many today, the believers of the past did not spend countless hours deciding on names that may not be appropriate; they named their children with appropriate and significant meaning.

The Bible is full of references to the name of God, and we are instructed to praise His name. Why would God care about us praising His name, though, when a name in itself seems to be nothing more than a title to signify what it represents? The answer: a name is the embodiment of what it represents and signifies one's identity.

We praise the name of Jesus Christ because of what the name represents - the fact that Jesus, the anointed Son of God, saves the world. Mary was instructed to name Him Jesus because the name identified Him as the Messiah. We follow Paul as our apostle and his name, which means "humble" or "small," reminds us (as it did Paul) of our evangel of grace. It humbles us, as it did Paul, to know God saves us when we are completely unworthy.

God is especially concerned with His own name. His ineffable name is Yehovah (Jehovah), meaning "My God," and God adds qualifying titles to His name at times to express His attributes. When He wanted to demonstrate His provision, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Jireh" ("My God, the Provider"). When He wanted to express His care, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Ropheca" ("My God, the Healer"). When He wanted to prove His might and protective power, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Nissi" ("My God, the Conqueror"). In each case, God used His name to convey His identity to His people.

There is perhaps no better proof for the significance of names than the many instances in which God changed His servants' names upon a major transformation in their lives that made them entirely different people. Abram's name meant "high father," and when God changed Abram's life in a radical way by making him the father of many nations for his faith, He gave Abram the new name, Abraham, which means "father of many nations." Abraham was literally given an entirely new identity and, as such, was an entirely new person, as signified by his new name. 

Likewise, Jacob was given a new name after wrestling with an angel. His name Jacob, meaning "supplanter," was appropriately changed to "Israel," meaning "God contended." Jacob's new identity bore incredible significance as not only the name of himself, but that of an entire nation. Centuries later, Jesus changed the name of His disciple Simon (meaning "God has heard") to Peter ("rock") after Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

In each instance in which God or Christ changed someone's name, they did so because names are incredibly important as markers of identity. At times, Jesus referred to Peter by his old name, Simon, in order to remind Peter that he was acting more like his former self than the new man whose identity had been rooted in his Savior.

Interestingly, name changes (even legally) are very common today. The majority of the time, women adopt the last name of their husbands when they marry in order to identify themselves with the husband's name and to signify the couple's oneness. Marriage is a sacred covenant, and the tradition of wives adopting their husbands' name is not an accident; it is of God.

God's habit of renaming His servants is not merely a thing of the past. Revelation 2:17 describes the new names that will be given to the faithful in the future when their new identities are fully realized. We would do well to keep this in mind as we attempt to understand the great importance of our names and our new identities in Christ.

I often think of what believers' lives would be like if our names were to be changed after coming to a realization of the evangel. Would we feel like entirely different people if we had different names? Would our actions reflect what our new names would signify? Our identities are connected with our names, and the important thing to remember is that our new identity is in Christ!

At the very least, we should learn to appreciate the importance of names and not take them for granted. Upon studying God's treatment of names in the Bible, we should come to a place of humility in which we praise the Father in thanks for the gift of faith and our wonderful new identity in His Son. We should be thoughtful in our approach to naming things - especially our children - focusing more on significance and meaning than on accepted norms. When we ask the old question "what's in a name?," we discover that the biblical answer is "an awful lot!"

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

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