March 4, 2009

In our day, names tend to be doled out at the whim of parent’s wishes and cultural fads. We name a child what sounds good to us, and what sounds good to us is shaped by what kinds of names seem relatively familiar to us. That’s why every third girl in my classes in school was named “Stephanie,” and why my sons play with so many girls named “Madison” now. When you hear the names “Harold” or “Rupert,” you assume you’re dealing with someone of an older generation, and no one expects to find an elderly woman named “Tiffany” these days. In a generation, there’ll be lots of nursing homes filled with men named “Conner” and women named “Emma.” Those names will sound as old as “Milton” or “Gertrude” sounds today.

Sometimes a child is named after a family member or a cherished friend, but even then the options are limited by custom. A dear old uncle named “John” is more likely to be honored with a namesake than an uncle named “Ebenezer” (though “Ebenezer” is a great biblical name, and I hope it comes back).

In the world of the Bible, though, a name spoke something of who you are, or at least who your parents expected you to become. Esau is named that because he’s born red and hairy (Gen 25:25). Jacob gets his name from wrestling with his brother in the birth canal (Gen 25:26). Both grow into their names—with Esau acting like a beast for red stew (Gen 25:29-34) and Jacob wrestling with God (Gen 32:22-32).

A name is important to one’s identity. And that’s why in the story of our fathers and mothers God keeps changing people’s names.

After all, the people of God never considered themselves “sons of Terah,” or even “sons of Abram.” They were sons of Abraham, a name that means “father of many nations” (Gen 17:5). That name seemed nonsensical at the time for this childless homeless man. It seems almost a mockery to call his barren old wife a “princess”—as the name “Sarah” means (Gen 17:15). The children of Israel, furthermore, were children of Israel. That identity reflects another name change, when the one whose name meant “deceiver,” Jacob, wrestled with God on the riverbank. God names him “Israel,” because he has struggled with God and men and won (Gen 32:28). It sure doesn’t seem as though Israel has won—on the run from his angry brother, limping away from his encounter with God.

But God names the things as though they are, and then makes them that way (Rom 4:17). The same thing’s happened with us.

Our God tells us he’s not ashamed to be named the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—he’s identified himself as such for millennia (Heb 11:16). More importantly, he’s identified himself as the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Let’s remember that “Jesus” is a new name. The Word of the Father is not properly called “Jesus” until he is so named. And he is named “Jesus” by a Galilean carpenter, probably without the equivalent of a grade-school education, who believes what he hears from an angel. The name tells a story: “He will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

Think for a moment about how even in the name of Jesus, God is showing he is not ashamed of you.  This name is the one God promised Abraham he’d uplift. The very glory of God itself resounds through the universe when “at the name of Jesus” every knee is bowed (Phil 2:9-11). Even the demons, when they shriek out “Jesus of Nazareth…We know who you are,” must tremble at the fearful promise of that name—and must recognize that he is his Father’s son. On the great and terrible day of the Lord, Satan himself will be forced to, through demonically clenched teeth, mouth the same word the angel once spoke to Mary, the name everyone of us in Christ has cried out to for salvation: Jesus.