Reading Time: 8 mins

What's in a Name?

Reading Time: 8 mins

The drama of Scripture is about God renaming us by bringing us into his image-bearing family once again. And it would take “a name above all names” to accomplish it.

In the last verses of Matthew, the account of the resurrection comes to its climax, as does the Gospel. There the victorious, resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and gives them the second of their great commissions in these momentous words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

What Jesus says in Matthew 28:18-20 seem to present the key to understanding not only Matthew’s Gospel, [1] but perhaps the entire Bible. For in these three verses we see the full scope of the history of redemption brought to bear in one history-altering, cosmic event: baptizing into God’s Name.

Put another way, all of this business from Genesis to Revelation; all of the rising and falling of empires and nations; all of the Bible’s judgments, blessings, and characters; this entire narrative of God’s great work of redemption from Adam to John the Baptist; and especially everything pertaining to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and even two millennia of Church history since, really comes down to this stunning point: “put people into this Name with these words and water.” The whole drama of Scripture and world history climaxes in some name-giving. That’s the big deal.

But it doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, as Shakespeare retorted, “What’s in a name?” In North American economics, names are commodities one can buy and sell. For instance, there’s an industry that facilitates the name-changing process. Websites abound; and for as little as $19.99 you can join tens of thousands who have already engaged in self-naming. It’s an inevitable result of the mass marketing medium of pop culture that names are cheap, transferable, and for the most part arbitrary and meaningless in the modern mindset.

The whole drama of Scripture and world history climaxes in some name-giving.

In an age when children are named after cars, stars, and bars, what’s the big deal about God dispensing his Name with water? Jesus grandly announced that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him (Matt. 28:18). And this is what he was doing with it? Name-giving? 

The answer begins with understanding that in the Semitic, biblical way of thinking, a name is an organic part of one’s identity. The concept of personal names in the Old Testament included existence, character, and reputation. They could in no way be considered cheap because a person’s life was inseparable from their name. Names carried inestimable value because one’s name was one’s life. As one author described it, in these ancient and more substantive cultures, “To cut off a name” was the same thing as liquidating the person himself (Deut. 7:24; 9:14).

In other words, unlike the West’s criterion of “cool-sounding” in the naming processes, in ancient Jewish thinking one’s name was synonymous with the very person—with who and what you are; what you say and what you do. That made the giving of a name extremely significant and deeply meaningful; significant enough to say that the history of the world careened in a new direction when God gave out his Name, indeed, when he began plunging people into his own life-giving Name.

Hebrew custom reflected this. Old Testament figures did not readily yield their names to anyone. To do so was to give a person your very self; to bind them to your personal history—as much as is known about you—through your name. To give someone your name was to give them your person. 

To know someone’s name is to carry them with you; to carry their history (or all that publicly makes that person who they are) so that when you departed from them you still possessed them because you retained their name. Thus, in speaking their name, you possessed the power to re-present them in order that they are set before you again. And for someone to know your name was for them to carry you—with all your history and character—with them. Consequently, they, too, would have the liberty and privilege of representing your character and reputation—your person—simply by speaking your name. To possess another’s name, then, could be for good or ill, to elevate status or demean it. 

Hebrew custom considered the exchanging of names almost a sacred covenant, a serious contract between persons tantamount to an adoption ceremony or enlarging one’s family through marriage, because to exchange names meant taking into your possession the other person’s character and history and bearing the responsibility of honoring, blessing, and safeguarding their name. “Take my name and you take me,” says one Jewish proverb. Thus Solomon writes, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches” (Prov. 22:1); and elsewhere, “A good name is better than precious ointment” (Eccl. 7:1). 

Luther’s Small Catechism makes much about the eighth commandment speaking directly to this issue of name-bearing: “You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16), that is, against your neighbor’s name. To lie about, betray, or slander your neighbor’s name is to destroy their character, history, reputation — in a word, their very person. Jesus taught as much, “Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22).  Why? Because it murders the person’s character.

Ironically, despite present-day cheapness and triteness of names, we all want to bear names with positive connotations. And so we spend a better part of our lives comparing and accumulating names from which we construct and try to project our identity. We consume identity-conferring names. We wear “name-brand” clothing; we support a name-recognized sports team; we even acquire status depending on the name of the food market we patronize. We think differently about the person who purchases their jeans at Neiman Marcus as opposed to Walmart.

Jesus offers the antidote to the religion of self-making through name consumption.

In these United States, deriving personal identity by name association long ago reached a point of vulgarity, and now has become inescapably commonplace in our consumerist monoculture. For instance, Americans prominently placard the name or names of the university they attended on the back windows of their vehicles so that you have an idea of who they are when they are driving. Swag industries thrive for this reason and this reason only: to project self-image by name-association. It is everywhere and it’s inescapable: even the most inane things are determined by name recognition. One does not drive a car; one drives an Audi or Tesla or some other self-projecting name. You cannot even sit on Amtrak without being named: coach, business, first class. And it just may be that we prefer this, since it puts the power of identity-making, of naming, of self-justifying in our hands. Consumerism just may be the religion of anti-grace. It seems to have been with us at Babel.

Jesus offers the antidote to the religion of self-making through name consumption: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 

In Eden, our primal father, Adam, was created and named by God as one “in his image.” In naming Adam, God expresses his fatherhood and lordship over Adam: Adam is, in the words of Luke, a “son of God” (3:38). As such, Adam was created to bear God’s Name through his vocation as vice-regent of God’s earthly kingdom. In God’s Name he cultivated and exercised dominion in the garden-kingdom. Bearing God’s Name and being made in his image amount to the same thing in Scripture.

It’s significant that in Genesis 1:1-2:3 the deity is known as Elohim, but once man enters the scene and is addressed by his God, the personal covenant Name of Yahweh is used from that point on. Man stands in relation to God through a covenant in his Name. But conditionally so. Adam was never confirmed in that Name by entering into God’s eternal rest because almost as soon as God gave Adam his Name to bear, both he and Eve forsook the Name of Yahweh and took another upon their lips when they – and indeed we – became vassals of one who goes by an unholy name.

The loss of God’s Name or image comes out in Genesis 3:22. Unfortunately, it’s obscured in English translations. Most texts read, “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man Holy Spirit become like one of us, knowing good and evil.’” But Genesis 3:22 does not say that upon sinning and violating the covenant Name, Adam actually became more like God. A better and parallel construction of the Hebrew says that man has become like a “lonely one” as a result of eating the forbidden fruit. A preferred rendering reads, “And Yahweh Elohim said, ‘The man has become like an alone one, from it to know good and evil.’” Being rendered alone, or exiled into loneliness, in the Bible’s way of thinking, is synonymous with being nameless. And being nameless or having one’s name cut off is the same thing as being accounted dead in our trespasses and sins (cf. Ephesians 2:1). Thus, Genesis 3:22 offers a jarring contrast to the verse, “Yahweh Elohim said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’” (Gen. 2:18). The one who was created not to be alone by bearing the Name of God, is now the nameless, lonely one, even though Adam and Eve are together. 

Being rendered alone, or exiled into loneliness, in the Bible’s way of thinking, is synonymous with being nameless. And being nameless or having one’s name cut off is the same thing as being accounted dead in our trespasses and sins.

Upon the entrance of sin into the world, man would be a nameless nomad, incapable of bearing God’s holy Name and alienated from imaging-forth the divine likeness due to sin. This accounts for why we go whoring after names, new names, name brands and the like. It’s akin to idol building. We lost God’s Name and so we simply fashion a god after our own liking or we make a god out of fashion and wear it as our name. 

Notwithstanding, the rest of Scripture is consumed with Yahweh working toward the re-giving of his Name to man; which is nothing other than the self-giving of God to humanity. The Bible truly is a book about God’s gracious plan and actions to re-name a kingdom people long-alienated from his holy and fatherly presence. The drama of Scripture is about God renaming us by bringing us into his image-bearing family once again. And it would take “a name above all names” to accomplish it.

Renaming begins with Abram, who becomes Abraham in God’s gracious covenant. Jacob is renamed Israel, “the prince of God.” So, too, David becomes King David. You see, by renaming us, God remakes us and restores us to himself to share in his quality of life that is eternal. But this promise wasn’t just to these biblical pillars of faith, but to the likes of you and me, for your children and mine. Isaiah confirms this when he writes, “I will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a Name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting Name which shall not be cut off” (Is. 56:5). Or again in Isaiah 62:2: “And the Gentiles shall see Thy righteousness, and all kings Thy glory: and shalt be called by a new Name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name.”

Then came the Name-Bearer: Jesus. “You shall call his name, Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt.1:21). This, too, is the name by which he would be called: “The Lord our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). “And they shall name him, Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). Yes, God with us; the Name with us. So much so that the image-bearing, the name-bearing is total and perfect: “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” he says (John 14:9). The one, then, who bears the Name and the image as the Last Adam also possesses the authority from heaven to bestow or confirm the Name and all the life therein upon all nations.

Scripture tells not only of God’s good will to re-name but also in doing so to save us and make himself present at the same time, cleansing us from sin and restoring to us our full image-bearing likeness by restoring to us—in a permanent, irreversible fashion—the Holy Spirit. All this is accomplished by the Name-Bearer, Jesus. Jesus engages in divine self-donation in a miraculous rite—Holy Baptism—that brings the fully revealed Name of God to bear on us personally. There are not three names, but just as it is in the Greek and rightly so in English, the one Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This Name and therefore God himself is gifted to us; making us anew by first destroying our old name, our old life, our old reputation, drowning them in the life-altering waters of baptism. We now walk in this world wearing the family name like an unremovable jersey: “For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).

Each and every name-changing metaphor from Scripture and our modern world are present in baptism. Whether it be adoption where you take on the name of the adopting father; matrimony where you take on the name of your spouse; birthing a child where you name the one born to you—all of this is in baptism, where not only is God’s Name put on us, but we are actually plunged into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Greek preposition is better rendered in English not “in” but “into” the Name of God; not done so much “on behalf of” but resulting in a new life “in and with and through this name.” This is to say, that Holy Baptism brings you into the Triune life of the living God, while the consumption of the Eucharist brings the living God into you.
[1]  Cf. P. F. Ellis, Matthew: His Mind and His Message, pp. 22–25; and, D.A. Hagner, 33B: Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, p.881.