One of the most shocking events in human history is when, within the radically monotheistic faith of Judaism, some people came to believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth was the divine Son of God. Not shocked? Why not? It may be because we are so culturallly removed from those who first came to accept Jesus’ divinity. As 21st century Americans we have been influenced by eastern thought. Just turn on Oprah for instance, and you’ll likely hear someone espousing the eastern/monistic/pantheistic idea that we are all gods or somehow a slice of the Divine essence. And while we might shake our heads, not many of us would even gasp at witnessing such as claim made on TV. Not so however, for the 1st century Palestinian Jew.
God had spent centuries pounding into their heads that He, Yahweh, was the only true God and that all other supposed “gods” were at best imaginary or at worst demonic. They knew that God was not to be identified with any part of His world. He was transcendent, other, and separate from what He had created. He didn’t give birth to the universe out of Himself or fashion it with some preexistent substance. Rather, He brought it into existence by His mere word or declaration. So, how, in this context, did Jesus’ Jewish hearers come to believe that this carpenter from the armpit of Nazareth was Author of the known universe? Well, for one thing, Jesus claimed that he had the right to change a person’s name.
There are undoubtedly many places in the New Testament Gospels where we see Jesus directly claiming to have equality with God the Father (Jn 8:19, 58; 16:15). While these words of Jesus are clear indicators of who He thought himself to be, we far more often encounter Jesus’ indirect claims to divinity. And I would suggest that though these indirect claims are equally as powerful as his direct claims, we miss them by gazing through the eyes of a 21st century American. For instance, there’s a puzzling interaction that Jesus had with Peter in which he changed his disciple’s name from Simon to Peter (Mt 16:15-18).
HERE’S THE SIGNIFICANCE
For a Jew, changing names was something that only God could do. Why? You see, a name was not an arbitrary title, but a designation which pointed to a person’s true identity. Consider the Old Testament. Think about which OT characters had had their names changed. Do you remember the circumstances that surrounded their name modification? I think of the moment when Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Jacob became Israel. Each of these name changes spoke primarily to the plans which God had for the individuals. A name was a person’s identity, and an identity was a person’s vocation or calling. But only God can give one his or her life’s calling. It is for this reason that an orthodox Jew would have been excommunicated had he legally changed his name.
Further, a name change communicated ownership of the one bearing the new name by the one who bestowed it. The first duty of Adam after being given “dominion” over the earth was to name the livestock, birds, and beasts (Gen 2:19-20). This, no doubt, is what the Babylonian chief official had in mind when he changed the names of his Jewish captives Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan 1). Similarly, through more promising for us, we read in the book of Revelation that in the end God will give to each one of His people “a new name…known only to him to receives it” (Rev 2:17).
So, think about how Peter and the other disciples heard and understood what Jesus was indirectly claiming through the changing of Simon’s name to “Peter.” Jesus believed that he had the same right to reassign a person’s name—and therefore a person’s life calling and destiny—as did Yahweh in the OT. This understanding of Jesus’ bold claims and actions makes much more sense of the reaction elicited from his audience so much of the time. “Who does this man think he is?” “By what authority do you do these things?” were the common responses that followed so many of Jesus teachings and actions. Why? Because his hearers understood that he was claiming, by his actions, prerogatives which God alone possesses; whether that was forgiving sins, pre-existing the patriarchs, juding a person’s eternal destiny, or giving a Jew a new name. But the most staggering thing, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that so many of his contemporaries came to believe that he had the authority or the right to do what he did. Clearly his character backed up his claims. And so, just as his generation did, ours too must ponder the same sorts of questions—“Who is this…?” (Mk 4:41).
1. What other characters in the Bible experienced an sort of “name change”? Which one of the Gospel writers had a name change by Jesus?
2. How was their life different after experiencing God?
3. How has God “changed your name” through altering your identity, calling, and vocation?