Why Does God Change Peoples’ Names?
When we name a child, we often choose a name we like, or one we associate with something special. My daughter, Dawn, was named for a childhood friend. My son, Joshua, was named after the biblical hero because I thought the name sounded strong and masculine.
In the Bible, though, names had deep significance and were carefully chosen. In the Hebrew culture, a person’s name was closely related to his or her very existence. [Because of this, they thought God’s name could not even be mentioned aloud.]
Sometimes the chosen name was related to an aspect of the child’s birth. For example, when the aged Sarah and Abraham had a son, he was named “Isaac,” (which means “laughter”) because Sarah laughed when God said she would conceive.
Often a name was chosen to represent who or what the parents expected their child to become. For example, “Ruth” means “friend,” and the biblical Ruth certainly proved to be an excellent friend. Zacchaeus, the tiny tax collector Jesus called out of a tree, didn’t exactly live up to his parents’ hopes. His name meant “pure,” a trait rarely attributed to tax collectors!
If names had such significance, why would God change them? Sometimes, though, God changed people’s names later in life. A brief study of some biblical folks whose names were changed reveals that their name change corresponded with a life change, one that would make them entirely different people. A prime example of this was when the name of Saul, who was known for persecuting Christians, was changed to Paul, the disciple of Jesus. In Greek, “Paul” means small. God changed his original kingly name to one more fitting for a servant of God.
In some cases, the change God made did not immediately result in a life change. In fact, sometimes the idea of such a transformation seemed absurd. In Genesis 17:5, when God changed Abram’s (“High Father”) name to “Abraham” (“father of many nations”), it seemed highly unlikely that this childless man, whose age was a little short of a century, would ever become what his new name implied. But God apparently names people as though the meanings are already true, then proceeds to “make it so.” (Romans 4:17)
Jacob was born holding his twin brother Esau's heel so, logically, his name meant "holder of the heel" or "supplanter." Later, after he spent an exhausting night wrestling with God, he got a new name. In Genesis 32:28, God says Jacob would instead be known as Israel (“God contended”) “because he struggled with God and men and won.” It must have been an unusual victory because he had been in the process of running away from his angry brother and, after his wrestling match with God, had to continue fleeing with a permanent limp.
In John 1:42, Jesus changed Simon’s ("God has heard") name to Peter ("rock" or, more properly, "stone"). Again, the name seems incongruous because this “rock” wasn’t so strong when Jesus was arrested -- Peter ran for his life. But Jesus knew the changes in store for this big fisherman, and named the man accordingly. It’s interesting that Jesus occasionally called Peter “Simon,” even after He had changed his name. I assume this was because Peter sometimes acted more like his old self than the rock God had called him to be.
Why should you care about people whose names were changed? Perhaps the most interesting name change in the Bible is one yet to come. Revelation 2:17 indicates, if you are a believer, Jesus has given you a new name, too! It’s a secret name, and it’s one neither you nor anyone else has ever heard applied to you. That may be because the name wouldn’t make sense to you now, but when you arrive in your eternal home you’ll be thrilled to have it.
This promised name will be engraved on a white stone--a concept far from new. Long ago God directed the high priests of Israel to wear a breastplate containing the names of the 12 tribes, engraved on 12 precious stones. It seems fitting that God, who made all His followers priests, should also give them a stone engraved with the name of one of His children.
It’s also quite significant that the stone bearing your new name will be white. In ancient times, the Romans awarded a white stone to a person on trial who was acquitted, while a black stone went to those who were condemned. White stones were also given to the winners of the Olympic games, and these stones bore their names. Your white stone will be evidence that you are free from the penalty of sin and are more than a conqueror in Jesus.
Details about your new name... The new name will have deep meaning, too. First, it is your adoptive name. Anyone who is adopted takes the name of their adoptive family as their own. Your new name is the evidence that you have become a member of God’s family, with all the rights and privileges involved. It is proof of your union with God in Christ.
Next, it will explain what you were created to accomplish. Like Abraham’s “father of many nations,” our name will tell everyone in our new family what our purpose was – and will continue to be – in heaven. By the way, I’m really hoping mine will involve writing in some way, as I’m convinced that was my original purpose!