Names are significant in so many cultures and in so many ways. Naming traditions vary widely around the world, and some are incredibly rich. In some parts of the world you are named for the day of the week you were born on. In other places it is your position among your siblings that matters (firstborn, third boy, etc.). Sometimes a child’s name is some creative combination of the names of both parents; or a memory of a lost loved one; or an exact copy of the father’s name, adding “Jr.” or “III” or “IV.” In many places a baby is not named for some time after birth, and by the time the name is given, it is meaningful because of an event, character trait, or behavior that is already evident in the child.
Surnames were traditionally as meaning-filled as given names. Many surnames were originally given because of the person’s occupation. Smith, Cooper, and Kaufmann marked the person as a blacksmith, a barrel maker, or a merchant. Sometimes the name included the father’s name, to show the family lineage. Johnson, Aben, Davidian, O’Connor, and MacDonald indicate that the person was the son of John, Abe, David, Connor, or Donald. Commonly, people also took the name of the place they lived as their surname, or the place was named after them because they lived there.
Changing one’s name is also culturally appropriate in certain circumstances. Many immigrants change their names to make it easier to pronounce or spell in their new country, or even to hide their ancestry. Many women take a new name when they get married, to show that they belong to their husband’s family. In some places people take a new name (usually a Christian name) at baptism, to symbolize their new life in Christ.
Apparently God is also very much in the name business. God frequently sent word in advance of a special birth, with instructions as to what the baby should be named. Joseph and Mary were each instructed to name Mary’s baby “Jesus,” meaning “God saves” (Luke 1:31). Zechariah was told to name his and Elizabeth’s son “John” (Luke 1:13). God also instructed Hosea what he should name each of his children (with Gomer, the prostitute), as well as the meaning behind the names chosen for them (Hosea 1). Hagar was instructed to name her son “Ishmael,” meaning “God hears,” for God had heard her misery and her prayers (Gen. 16:11).
But God was not always so clear or specific about names. Frequently, when angels visited people on earth, they would ask the name of the one talking to them. At times, when asked for his name, the angel would merely say, “It is beyond understanding” (Manoah and his wife; Judges 13:18) or “Why do you ask my name?” (Jacob; Gen. 32:29). When Moses asked God to say who was sending him to deliver Israel, God simply said: “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). Hagar didn’t ask the angel’s name, but simply called him “the One who sees me” (Gen. 16:13).
But when God talked with Abraham, or with the children of Israel, He often began by saying, “I am the Lord God.” When Zechariah was in the Temple and the angel told him about the coming birth of his son, he asked for a sign that this prophecy was true. Instead the angel responded by saying, “I am Gabriel.” Then Gabriel informed him that he would not be able to speak until the child was born.
In Bible times the giving of names was not limited to babies who were recently born. Names were often changed at important life junctures. When Benjamin was born, as Rachel was dying, she named him “Ben-Oni,” meaning “son of my sorrows” (Gen. 35:18). Jacob could not bear this, and he renamed his son “Benjamin,” meaning “son of my right hand.” When Naomi had lost both her sons and her husband, she asked people to no longer call her Naomi, meaning “pleasant,” but to call her “Mara,” which means “bitter” (Ruth 1:20).
God is also in the renaming business. God gave Abram a new name when he made a covenant with him and promised to make him the father of many nations (Gen. 17:5). The new name, Abraham, actually meant “father of many.” Even Sarai’s name, meaning “my princess,” was changed to Sarah, meaning “mother of nations” (Gen. 17:15, 16). Jacob became “Israel” when God wrestled with him and finally blessed him (Gen. 32:28). This was a major step up—from being known as a “deceiver” to “one who struggles with God or who has power with God.” Saul became “Paul” when he was converted, and it really was as if he was a different person. Jesus renamed Peter as well.
In the Old Testament God frequently introduced Himself by different names to the children of Israel, based on their need at that particular moment. In talking about the Sabbath, God reminded them: “I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Ex. 31:13). In laying down the health laws, God explained that “I am the Lord, who heals you” (Ex. 15:26). In giving the moral law, He reminded them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). In Isaiah 45:3 He is “the God of Israel, who summons you by name.” In Isaiah 48:17 He is the God “who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.” In Jeremiah 3:14 He says: “I am your husband. I will choose you . . . and bring you to Zion.”
The name and address is required information when one is mailing a package or dispatching a suitcase at the airport. This is crucial information that shows ownership and allows the item to arrive at its destination even if you are not present to assist. We write our names on many other objects for similar purposes—in case it is ever lost, it can be returned to us. We put names in books, on homework assignments, on laundry that is sent for cleaning.
God does the same with us. If we make our decision to belong to Him, in the end He has promised to write His name on us, so that everyone will know whom we belong to. In His promise to the church in Philadelphia, Jesus makes a naming promise in triplicate that is unbeatable and unmistakable. For those who are saved, He promises, “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem . . . and I will write on them my new name” (Rev. 3:12). What an adoption ceremony! Those who overcome are given God’s name—as a clear sign that we belong to Him as His children. We are given a new address—instead of one on this earth, the old Jerusalem, we are given an address in the New Jerusalem.
More than that, Jesus says that He will write on us His new name. Other places in Revelation discuss this renaming. Revelation 14:1 talks about the 144,000 having the names of God and of the Lamb written on their foreheads. Revelation 2:17 promises that those who overcome will receive a new name that will be known only to the one who receives it. These texts are not fully understood, but there is clear consensus that in this case, the “new” name will not be our name, but Christ’s, and that it will not be totally new, but perhaps a new emphasis of some aspect of His character.
Imagine having a new last name that shows you have been adopted permanently into the family of God! Imagine having a street address in the New Jerusalem! What’s in a name? It tells who we are. It tells where we come from. It even tells where we are going to. What a privilege it will be to bear God’s name and His seal of ownership in that final accounting! But even as we wait for that day, as Christians, we represent God to those around us in a very tangible way. What do people think of God when they look at us? What responsibility comes with bearing this name? Are you living up to the name God has given you?