What's in a name?

John 1:42, Matthew 16:18

2 August 2009

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


An easy question to start: does anyone know who Harry Webb is [Cliff Richard]? Reginald Dwight [Elton John]? Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong [Dido]? Jennifer Anastassakis [Jennifer Aniston]? Maurice Micklewhite [Michael Caine]?

In celebrity life, a name change seems to be more the rule than the exception. People's names matter — your name is your identity, and you want that identity to be right. So up and coming celebrities will choose themselves names that suit their aspirations.

This morning we will be looking at some name changes, but our case is a bit different. In our case each name is chosen and given by God.

A name change is significant

It's well known that people's names are often important in the Bible. So when Adam calls his wife Eve, it's significant and we should pay attention. When Rebekah gives birth to twins and names one of them Jacob, Deceiver, it's significant. Or when Isiah names his son Maher-shalal-hashbaz, there is a good reason for it. And when Hosea's wayward wife bears a son and the Lord says to name him Lo-ammi, Not My People, a heart-wrenching point is being made.

So we should be interested in people's names in the Bible. And we should be especially interested when people's names are changed, because it is always very significant.

For example, we find Abram and Sarai renamed Abraham and Sarah right after God renews his covenant with them, to make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations.

We find Jacob renamed Israel right after he had spent a night wrestling with God. He encountered God, and as a result God changed his name. He was no longer Jacob the deceiver, but Israel, the one who wrestles with God.

And when in Hosea, his son Lo-ammi, Not my People, is renamed by God, You are my People, it signals a turning point in the book, and in relationship with God.

It works the other way as well. The Babylonians understood very well the significance of names. So when they came and conquered Jerusalem and took its people into captivity they were careful to change their names as well, so as to completely cut off their former identities. We see this at the beginning of the book of Daniel. Daniel, meaning God is my Judge, is renamed Belteshazzar which honoured the pagan god Bel, instead of Israel's God. And the same went for his three friends: Hananiah was renamed Shadrach; Mishael, Meshach; and Azariah, Abednego.

So name changes in the Bible always mark very significant events, and often flag up big changes in relationship with God.

Perhaps the nearest analogy we have today is with marriage, when it's still customary, at least in English speaking countries, for a woman to change her surname to that of her husband.

Whatever you think of the patriarchal and practical implications of that, it does mark a very significant event. The change of name is a very public statement of a change of relationship, a commitment to a new life. The old single life is put behind; the new name marks the start of a new joint life.

In the same way, when God changes people's names in the Bible, it marks the start of a new relationship, or a new phase in relationship with him.

A name change for Simon

So, in view of all this, what are we to make of our text in John chapter 1?

Jesus looked at him and said, You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas (which, when translated, is Peter).ref

Andrew, Simon's brother has just met Jesus, and the first thing he does is to find Simon and tell him "We have found the Messiah". And he brought him to Jesus.ref

And the first thing Jesus does is to change Simon's name: "You will be called Cephas" (which, when translated, is Peter).ref

This is all a bit baffling until we remember that Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, but when the Gospels were written down, they were written in Greek. And of course, we read them in English. So John gives us both the Aramaic and Greek forms of the name. The Aramaic word "Kepha" and the Greek "Petros" (which we anglicise as "Peter") both mean "Rock".

Jesus is saying to Simon son of John: I am changing your name. From now on you will be called Rock. Or "Rocky" if you must.

But we must understand that this is more than simply a nickname. Jesus isn't saying to Peter, "Oh, I've got another disciple called Simon in mind. I'll tell you what, let's call you Peter so we don't all get confused." There was another disciple called Simon — Simon the Zealot — but that's not why Jesus renamed Simon son of John.

We can see that in the reading from Matthew chapter 16 where Jesus re-confirms the renaming of Peter: I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my churchref.

Peter will be a rock not only by name, but by nature as well. He will be foundational in the church that Jesus is planning build.

When Jesus renames Simon it's not simply a nickname. Simon has met God face to face, and God did what God does: he changed his name. As Peter he now has a new relationship and a new purpose in his life.

So, what was "Rocky" about Peter? What did Jesus see in him that prompted him to call him a rock?

Well, frankly speaking, Peter isn't portrayed as very solid at all in the gospels.

Over the next few weeks we're going to looking at a few episodes from Peter's life. Next week we'll look at the the occasion when he tries to walk on water at Jesus' bidding, and he begins to sink, crying Lord, save me!. I guess he didn't exactly sink like a rock, but it's not exactly a solid performance, is it?

Then we'll be looking at the passage in Matthew 16 that I read earlier, straight after which Jesus turns to him and says "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men"ref.

Peter has deeply misunderstood Jesus' plan to die, and tries to argue him out of it. So here Peter is not so much like a foundational rock, but a stumbling block to Jesus.

Again, the week after that we will find Peter denying Jesus just before his death. Three times he told a blatant lie, he called down curses on himself and he swore to them, "I don't know the man"ref. But it wasn't the lies that mattered so much as his betrayal of his friend and his Lord: abandoning him at the last. Some rock.

In other episodes we find Peter constantly falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prays his heart out. We find him babbling with fright at the transfiguration. We find him rebuked by Jesus for cutting off someone's ear with a sword. And so on and so on.

After a while you might begin to think that Jesus was being a bit ironic when he named Peter Rocky. Something like Eddie the Eagle Edwards, if you remember him: Britain's favourite ski-jumper who did anything but soar like an eagle.

What did Jesus see in Peter? Knowing that all this was to come, what was it that prompted Jesus to declare Peter a rock?

Well, the passage in Matthew 16 is key. Despite all his human failings, Jesus could make Peter rock-like because he knew and trusted one thing. When Jesus asked his disciples "who do you say I am?", Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God".ref

And it is this statement that prompts Jesus' famous words, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my churchref.

Humanly speaking, Peter was far from solid. But he did have one solid, unshakeable belief: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That was enough. With that foundation Jesus knew that he could build on Peter a church that would shake the world.

So when Jesus first met Simon, he knew what was coming. He knew exactly what kind of man Simon was. Yet he named him Peter, the Rock, a name which has stuck for two thousand years.

It's highly significant that Jesus did this when he first met Peter. Peter did not earn this name for himself, but Jesus first gave him the name, and then gave him the ability to live up to it.

And that's how he always deals with us. Jesus always takes the initiative. we never deserve what he gives us. But it doesn't stop him giving. That's what grace means: God's goodness to undeserving people.

A new name, a new start

A question to finish: Do you ever wish you had a new name?

Do you sometimes long for a completely new start? A new identity in which all your failings and disappointments and bad circumstances are left behind and you can start again with a clean slate?

Sometimes a complete change of identity might seem like the only way out. For someone with huge debt, or a criminal record, or whose misdeeds have been spread all over the Internet, leaving the old name and the old life behind might seem very attractive. Moving on without any consequences. A new name and a new start. It happens all the time in crime thrillers, doesn't it: fake passports, fake ID, an anonymous life.

But not many of us, I guess, are in the position where we feel we need to do something so drastic. How wrong we are.

Because, of course, God has a record. He has a list of our debts. He sees and knows every misdeed, every unclean thought in our minds and hearts. And they are all in his book against our names, waiting to be read out in judgement against us on the last day.

How can we escape? If only we could have a new name! We need to appear before God with a new name so that when God turns to the page, he doesn't find all the old junk filed against our old name, he finds the page blank with no charge against us. A clean record; the old record against us lost forever.

It's fanciful; it's unjust; frankly it's clutching at straws. But this is exactly what Jesus promises us.

In the book of Revelation, in its unique symbolic language, Jesus says this: To him who overcomes... I will give a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives itref.

In the ancient world, jurors at a trial would vote with stones: black for guilty, white for innocent. Jesus says that at our trial before God we will be declared innocent. Not because we are innocent, but because we will be tried under a different name, a name with no record attached to it. We will be given a white stone, with a new name on it. All our failings, all our crimes against God, will be lost forever, recorded against the old name. Our record will be clean.

How do we get this new name that we need so much? In just the same way as Simon became Peter. If we encounter Jesus for ourselves, if we continue to trust that he is the Christ, that he is the only one who can save us, then he will give us a new name and a new start.

Peter was just as fallible as you and I, and yet Jesus made him the rock on which he built the church and gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus gave him a new start, time and time again, which he signified by giving him a new name.

If we keep on trusting that only Jesus can save us, then, like Simon Peter, he will give us a new start and a new name. And how badly we need it.