What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
— Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2
In these well-known words, Juliet expresses her frustration that she and Romeo must be kept apart because he is a Montague, and she, a Capulet. Their family names should make them sworn enemies. But why should names matter? Wouldn’t Romeo still be the same person even if he bore a different name? “George,” perhaps?
Maybe. But the Bible seems to have a different perspective.
The significance of one’s name was once much greater than it is now. God has many names in Scripture, not the least of which is the one considered by Jews as too holy to be uttered (signified in English translations by “LORD” in all caps). And as we’ve seen, even in just the first chapter of John’s gospel, we already have several names for Jesus. That includes his favorite name for himself: Son of Man (John 1:51). All of these names say something about the bearer’s identity and character.
But parents today seem less concerned about meanings than how their children’s names will sound. Pity the prophets, who were instructed to give their children names like “Not-loved” (1:6) and “Not-my-people” (1:9) to signal God’s displeasure. Isaiah was even told to name his son “The-spoil-speeds-the-prey-hastens” (Isa 8:1, NRSV), to prophesy the coming of the mighty Assyrian army.
One wonders what the other kids called the poor boy when he reached middle school.
It’s noteworthy, then, that the very first time Jesus meets Andrew’s brother Simon, Jesus assigns him a new name: “Cephas” (John 1:42), which means “rock.” This is the only place in John (indeed, in all of the gospels) where the name is used, though Paul uses it frequently (e.g., 1 Cor 1:12; Gal 1:18). The rest of the time, John uses the name we’re most familiar with: Peter.
Simon. Simon bar-Jonah (“son of Jonah/John,” Matt 16:17). Peter. Simon Peter. These names all refer to the same person. He used to be defined by his relationship to his father. But Jesus has given him a new identity: The Rock. Later, Jesus explains the significance of the name: Peter is the steady and sure one upon whom Jesus will build his church (Matt 16:18).
And as soon as Jesus says this, Rocky messes up.
It would be too simple to say that Peter gets it all together later, after Pentecost, when he receives the Holy Spirit. Yes, he preaches the gospel mightily and thousands come to Christ at once (Acts 2:14-41). Yes, he is able to perform acts of healing reminiscent of Jesus himself (Acts 3:1-10). And he no longer runs from trouble: he continues to proclaim Jesus even if he has to suffer for doing so (Acts 5:41-42).
But he still messes up now and again, as when he gives in to social pressure and breaks fellowship with the Gentile converts in Antioch, earning him a public rebuke from Paul (Gal 2:11-21).
So it goes. Not everyone receives a new name upon meeting Jesus. But we do receive new identities. To some extent, those identities are aspirational; they define not only who we are in Jesus, but who we are becoming, who we will be when our sanctification is complete.
We will mess up. That’s for certain. But the glorious grace of it all is that while we slouch toward tomorrow, God can and will still use for his kingdom purposes, just as we are today.