Do you realize how many characters in the Bible received a new name? Abram becomes Abraham, his grandson Jacob becomes Israel. God instructs the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute and commands him to name his children “Jezreel” (the name of a town Israel had massacred), “unloved,” and “not my people.” But God redeemed Jezreel and changed the name of “unloved” to “beloved” and of “not my people” to “my people.” Jesus gives Simon the new name of Peter, meaning “rock.” And to Levi, the shame-ridden tax collector, He gives the new name of “Matthew.”
What strikes me in the reading today is inconsistent name-calling. In Genesis 12 God makes a covenant with a man named Abram, a ridiculous covenant with an impossible promise attached. Abram immediately responds in obedience! God says go, and he goes. But it’s not until Genesis 17 that God gives him his new name, Abraham. To Jacob (meaning “usurper/deceiver”) God gives the new name Israel the night he wrestles an angel at Peniel and limps away a different and humble man. But in the very
last chapters of Genesis we read yesterday and today, we continue to see a going back and forth between the two names, God sometimes calling him “Jacob.” Why the inconsistency?
It clicks for me as I’m reading through the Bible in 2015 and turn today to Matthew 17 in the midst of these Old Testament passages. Jesus comes down the Mount of Transfiguration where His true identity has been illuminated (literally) and His disciples have failed to do the very thing He has commissioned them with power and authority to do – cast a demon out of a young boy. They ask Him later why they were unsuccessful, and I’m reminded of the church without the Holy Spirit. There is a reason the Risen Christ told the apostles gathered in the upper room to wait there until they had received the Holy Spirit – because without Him, they wouldn’t be able to engage in the mission of Jesus and succeed. This is who they are meant to be. This is their true identity, the fullness of who they can be in Jesus once He has all of them. Bingo.
God gives us a new name. Sometimes like Saul we are radically and immediately changed (Paul) and we do an instantaneous 180°. Other times we must grow into our new names. Personally, I can think of some names I gave up long ago, and I’m grateful that by the grace of God I have lived into the new name and think little of it today. There are other names, however, which I still struggle to live into. Like Jacob I wrestle. This doesn’t mean they aren’t my identity. It just means I struggle to accept them yet.
So, what’s in a name? Well, it depends on who gives it to you. If God . . . then, everything.