The guys Jesus chose to be His disciples have always fascinated me. The first two who were called into His posse were Andrew and John, friends who were just following a freak in the wilderness who was dressed in camel hair while eating locusts and honey (John 1:35-42). Sounds pretty strange and not very promising. Then Andrew decided to go find his brother Simon (the fisherman) and brings Him to Jesus. You might miss what happens next if you’re not paying attention.
The text in John’s Gospel reads like this: “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).”
You’ve got to admit, this is a strange way to meet someone. Jesus doesn’t ask any questions about what he does for a living or about his family. Nope, the first thing Jesus does is to change Simon’s name to Peter (which means Rock). Later Jesus would point out his name had an even deeper meaning. Jesus told him the Church would be built on the “rock” of his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)
Jesus gave Simon the name Peter before he did anything. He had not gone out on any bold endeavor for the Kingdom of God. It came before he got out of the boat and tried to walk on water, before swearing to never abandon Jesus, and before his sermon on Pentecost resulting in 3,000 conversions. It even came before his confession that Jesus was the Son of God. He did nothing to merit this name change—Jesus just renamed him.
Of course it is true that Peter eventually leads the early church, preached with great boldness, and in the end, was crucified upside-down. But most of the time Peter was just like a rock in the worst ways. He slept like a rock when Jesus asked him to pray (Mark 14:37-42) and he sunk like a rock when he tried to walk on water (Matthew 14:28-31). And then there are those times when Peter was not as solid as a rock. Three times he denied even knowing the man who gave him this new name (Luke 22:54-62). He even cowered and compromised before the Judaizers when the Gospel was at stake (Galatians 2:14).
And yet, before any preaching or denying, before any dying or compromising—Jesus gives him the name “Peter” and that’s who he is because that’s who Jesus says he is.
God renames people. He does it all over scripture. Abram becomes Abraham, Sari becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, and so on. God is a renaming God. He’s a God who takes one thing and makes it another. He does this with us as well.
He has taken us sinners and named us saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). He has taken us who were His enemies and named us His children (John 1:12). He has taken us the ungodly and named us His Righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is who we are now.
Maybe you don’t feel like that’s true of you. I know much of the time I don’t feel like it’s true of me. I’m sure people even look at me and come away disagreeing with what God has named me. And if you’re anything like me, I’m sure they do the same to you. Sometimes it’s in whispers you barely hear. Sometimes it’s in emails and phone calls. Sometimes it’s simply in a stern look of disapproval. It’s easy to agree with them. After all we’re still sinners no matter what God has said, right?
Yes, that’s true—and it was true of every other person ever renamed in scripture as well. They didn’t earn the name before they got it and they didn’t get it because they were going to live up to it. Every name is freely given, because Jesus lived up to them all (Romans 8:1-4). And He has been given the name above all names (Philippians 2:9-10).
God is full of surprises but He is never surprised by our sin. When he changed Simon’s name to Peter, He knew how Simon would fail to live up to his name. He knew there would be sinking beneath the waves. He knew there would be sleeping instead of praying. He knew all about the denial and compromise. But that changes nothing. Simon’s name is now “Peter” because Jesus says so.
We call ourselves “Christians” and we put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves (and others) just trying to live up to that name. We put the label “Christian” on something when it’s good and “secular” on it when it’s bad. If those are the rules we’re all wearing the wrong nametags.
But despite what you may have heard, those aren’t the rules. We’re not Christians because we’re crushing it as “fully-devoted Christ-followers.” We’re Christians because Jesus took everything that’s true of us as His, and gave everything that’s true of Him as ours. All our sin for all His righteousness. He swapped nametags with us.
Yes, Jesus knew what He was getting when He renamed Peter and He knew what He was getting when He renamed you and me. He has named us Saints, Friends, Children, Heirs, and the Righteousness of God—and this good news remains forever (1 Peter 1:25), or His name isn’t Faithful and True (Revelation 19:11).