The significance of names

Throughout the Bible, names are significant. As in many ancient cultures, they were intrinsic to a person’s identity and not revealed lightly. Names were given for various reasons: 
  • To reveal which family a person belonged to
  • To show a transformation or highlight a particular part of a person’s character 
  • To reflect a particular event or circumstance (Isaac, meaning ‘he laughs’, was so-called because of the delighted laughter of his parents)
  • To foretell events. 

Changing names 

In various places in the Bible, God purposefully changed peoples’ names. For example, in Genesis he chose to create a nation from the offspring of a man called Abram, so changed his name to Abraham, which means ‘father of a multitude’ (Genesis 17:5).
In the New Testament, Jesus changed the name of one of his closest followers from Simon (‘God has heart’) to Peter (‘rock’) (John 1:42), as he was calling him to build the early church (Matthew 16:18). Each new name reflected a new chapter in the individual’s life and therefore provided a new identity.

Being ‘called by name’

In the Old Testament, God chooses the Israelites to be his people: 
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.’   ESVUK Isaiah 43:1      
Knowing someone’s name speaks of an intimate connection, and this idea is attributed to God when Isaiah 49:15-16 describes God as having the names of his people ‘engraved on the palms of [his] hands’. Christians believe that they too have been chosen and ‘called by name’ (John 10:3) to have a personal relationship with God.

The names of God

In the Old Testament, the Israelites referred to God as Yahweh. This name encapsulated the holiness they believed God to have, and so they never spoke the word aloud – substituting it with ‘my Lord’. When they wrote it down, they did so without the vowels. In modern Bible translations the word is usually translated as either ‘the LORD’ or ‘Jehovah’. 

Derivatives of this name portrayed various aspects of God’s nature. For example:

The names of Jesus

The Light of the WorldAccording to the gospels, when God came to earth in human form, the baby was called Jesus, meaning ‘saviour’, and Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:20–23). These names reflected his destiny. 
Jesus is also called (by himself or others) other names which reflect the role Christians believe he holds:

A name carrying authority

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ followers are called to act in – and be saved by – the name of Jesus (John 14:13; Acts 4:12). For Christians, Jesus’ name is ‘the name that is above every name’. According to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, such is its authority that:
at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.         Philippians 2:10-11 ESVUK     

Other cultural references

  • Texts: In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, is the line: ‘Names are everything’. Modern poet Clifton Snider wrote a poem in 1992 called The Importance of Names and Nikunj Sharma’s short poem Meaning of name also reflects on what role a name has
  • Shakespeare famously questions how a family name can divide lovers in Romeo and Juliet, which includes the lines: ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. / By any other name would smell as sweet’, and ‘O Romeo .. refuse thy name .. I’ll no longer be a Capulet.’ (Act 2, Scene 2)

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