written by: Blythe Freshwater
“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet).
In our culture’s search for significance, we millennials and Gen Z’ers often find ourselves struggling with the concept of identity. What makes us who we are? What defines us and gives us significance? Some people attempt to find their identity in societal opinion, personal achievement, or stereotypes, but this is inevitably a recipe for disaster, disappointment, and disillusion. Each person might try to place their identity in something outside of themselves, but at the most basic level, your identity is what you are named. That’s how people identify you, right? So, what is the importance of your name? For some, it may be that your parents gave you your name because of a relative, or because they liked how it sounded. Perhaps they gave it to you knowing that it had a certain meaning that they hoped you might one day incarnate. But what makes a name so special, how does it give us an insight into the heart of God, and what does that mean for us?
Research shows that every person’s favorite word is their own name. Dennis Carmody of the National Library of Medicine says that “There are several regions in the left hemisphere that show greater activation to one’s own name, including middle frontal cortex, middle and superior temporal cortex, and cuneus. These findings provide evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others.” When doing these tests, the researchers found that certain areas of the participants’ brains lit up when they heard their own names spoken.
Whether or not you actually like your name, it does hold significance to you. From birth, our names have been tied to our very existence. It is how people know who you are… and it is how you know who you are.
In Scripture, Hebrew culture assigned names with specific and significant meaning. A person’s name was more than just an identifying marker; that person embodied many of the characteristics dictated by the name. For example, although we would translate the Hebrew word עֵשָׂו (E’saw) just as “Esau,” to the Hebrew people, that word literally meant “hairy.” I can imagine Rebecca saying, “Hey, where’s Hairy? He’s late for dinner again!” Likewise, the word יַעֲקֹב (Ya’aqov), which we translate as “Jacob,” simply meant “holder of the heel,” or “cheater.” As they were little boys, Rebecca may have encouraged Jacob, “Stop teasing your brother, Cheater!” People’s identity in the Hebrew language was inextricably linked to their name.
Thus, name changes also signified crucial crossroads in a person’s life. For the patriarch to have his name changed from “Abram” to “Abraham” meant that he not only went from “high father” to “father of a multitude,” but his identity changed from a sad reality, as he was constantly reminded of his inability to bear children, to a rich promise, as he was reminded of the hope God gave him that he would bear children that would “outnumber the stars” (Genesis 22:17).
It’s clear that the people in Scripture considered names to have remarkable weight, but the real question is why? I would say the answer, which should give us some encouragement and remind us where our identity comes from, has to do with authority.
See, no one doubts the authority of an inventor to name his (or her) newly created product. You want to call that fluffy cat-hair-catching, mess-removing, sanity-saving mop a Swiffer? Go ahead. That erasable whiteboard marker is an Ex-Po? Sure, why not? In the Garden of Eden, one of Adam’s first tasks was to name each creature that passed before him, and thus each one received their identity from their “lord” who had been given dominion over them (Genesis 2:19).
Likewise, we receive our identities not from society, our parents, or our accomplishments, but from our Lord, our Creator (or Inventor). I do not mean our physical names, like Luke, Billie, David, Annie, Alan, or Samantha. No, the names about which I speak are those which are given to every person, the names which are given to us by our Creator and Redeemer. If we have found salvation in Christ, we gain a new identity. “The old has passed away,” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “and the new has come.” The names he calls us are
- Beloved (Song of Songs 2:16),
- Child of God (John 1:12),
- Friend (John 15:15),
- Redeemed (Romans 3:24),
- Fellow Heir with Christ (Romans 8:17, Galatians 4:7),
- Holy Temple (1 Corinthians 6:19),
- New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17),
- Warrior (Psalm 89:19),
- Image of God (Genesis 1:27),
- Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20),
- Treasure (Deuteronomy 7:6),
- Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (Psalm 139:13), and
- Masterpiece (Eph 2:10).
These titles should encourage us, despite the lies the world tries to throw our way—that we aren’t valued or worth the time of day. Christ says differently.
These names, these new identities, however, come with a realization of change. When Christ saves a person, he completely transforms their identity. We go from being “Slaves” to being “Children of God.” We go from “Depraved” to “Delighted in.” We go from “Enemy” to “Friend.” We go from “Rejected” to “Redeemed.” Christ does not just say, “Oh, good, they believe in me. Great. Now I’ll just leave them like they are.” He takes us from a place of destruction and redeems us.
Over time, His Holy Spirit sanctifies us and makes us more and more like Him. So, if we have a new identity as a Christ-follower, we should embrace it and reject our old self, like it says in Ephesians 4:22-24: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” So, if you are in Christ, don’t live like you’re a slave anymore. Don’t allow yourself to be bound to sin, for you are truly free indeed. Sin has no hold on you; you are forgiven, you are redeemed, you are beloved. That is your name. That is your identity.