Between Heaven and Earth

What’s In a Name?

Some months ago I was walking through the morgue at the hospital. I was there for an autopsy on one of my patients who had passed away. I noticed a covered corpse with a tag on its toe. The tag said “John Doe.” I inquired and discovered that this was a gunshot victim, a victim with no name, unidentified. He had lost his life and lost his name at the same moment. There he was: a lost John Doe.  It seems a tragic end to be in a morgue with no name. 

What is in a name? What is the importance of your name? What does your name mean? And how is it significant? What does my name mean and how is it significant? 

In his book The Meaning of Persons, Paul Tournier delves into the topic of names and their significance in our lives. Tournier believes that a name is more than just a label or a designation; that it is a reflection of a person’s identity and unique characteristics. He argues that a name is a symbol of a person’s individuality and selfhood and that it plays a crucial role in shaping how others perceive and interact with that person. 

A name can carry cultural and historical and familial significance. European families take the father’s name and women take the husband’s name when they marry. In the Hispanic culture, both parents names are part of their formal name. Some people, when they get divorced, turn away from the name that they took before. 

A name can reflect a person’s heritage, religion, or even the parents’ hopes and aspirations for their child. Moreover, a name can also carry a sense of tradition and continuity connecting an individual to their ancestors and to their place in the world. Name can also have powerful psychological effects on the person who bears it. A name can influence self perception and self esteem. And a person dissatisfied with their name may struggle with feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. 

The meaning of your name highlights the importance of the name, showing that it is is more than just a label. A name carries a deep significance, reflecting a person’s identity, heritage, and self-perception. Understanding the meaning and significance of our own name as well as the names of others can help us to better understand and appreciate the unique individuals around us. 

The Bible is filled with names. There are names on every page, even whole pages filled with names—genealogies that we quickly gloss over while we’re reading. At the end of his epistles, Paul puts in dozens of greetings to various people whose names are specifically mentioned. Names are important to God. They are how God knows us. 

That reminds me of a famous entertainer who fell ill and would visit the hospital under a pseudonym. One night before a very serious and major operation, she told her doctor she would like to change her name back to her regular name, because (she said) if she did not survive the procedure and ended up at the pearly gates, she wanted to be sure that God did not mistake her for who she was. 

Names are important to God and they are how God knows us. It’s what the Bible means when it says that we are known by God. Isaiah 43:1 says that God calls us by our name because he has redeemed us. Jeremiah 1:5 says that God knew us before we were formed in the womb. Isaiah 49:1 says: “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother, he named my name.” 

But God apparently wants to change our name. In Revelation 2:17, it says: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will give him a white stone and a new name written on that stone which no one knows but he who receives it.” And in Revelation 3:12: “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will not go out from it anymore. And I will write upon him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven from my God and my new name.” The Gospel message is that God wants us to have a new name, wants us to have a new identity.

The Bible is filled with stories of people whose names were changed, often as a reflection of a significant change in their lives and in their relationship with God. These name changes can be seen as symbolic of the transformational power of faith, the ongoing process of spiritual growth, and the everlasting gift of grace. 

One of the most famous examples of a change of name in the Bible is that of Abram, who was called by God to leave his home and become the father of a great nation. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means father of many nations. This name change was significant because it reflected God’s promise to Abraham that he would become the father of a great people, and it also symbolized the beginning of his faith journey. 

Another example that we’ve discussed before is the name of Jacob, who was known as a deceiver and a manipulator. He was renamed Israel, meaning “he who struggles with God” after wrestling with the angel, symbolizing his transformation and his new identity as a man of God. Maybe one of the most famous changes of name of the Bible is that of Simon, a fisherman who was called by Jesus to become a disciple. Jesus gave him the name Peter, which means “rock.” a name that reflected the new role that Peter would play in the early Christian church as a leader and a foundation of faith. 

The name of Saul (who persecuted Christians) was changed to Paul, the Apostle, reflecting the dramatic transformation that took place in his life when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Saul was a devout Jew who persecuted Christians. but after his encounter with Jesus he became one of the most ardent and influential advocates for Christianity. 

Overall, the idea of God changing one’s name can be seen as a powerful symbol of grace, transforming our relationship with God. 

In certain parts of India, many girls are called Nakushi, a derogatory name that means “unwanted” in the Marathi language and is given by some parents in rural Maharashtra to unwanted female children in the belief that doing so will ensure that their next child is a boy. These precious girls are labeled from birth with parental disappointment. Every time they hear their name, they are reminded that dad and mom wished that they had been someone else. No wonder that in 2011, when the Indian government permitted them to make a name change, more than 200 young women seized the opportunity and changed their name to one of their own choosing, and were Nakushi no more. 

From birth, we all need a name change, and in the Gospel, that’s what Christ does for us. Ancient Israel knew this well. They knew what it meant be forsaken and desolate, no longer loved or delighted in. But in Isaiah 63:3-5 God says: 

You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
And a royal headband in the hand of your God.

It will no longer be said to you, “Forsaken,”
Nor to your land will it any longer be said, “Desolate”;
But you will be called, “My delight is in her,”
And your land, “Married”;
For the Lord delights in you,
And to Him your land will be married.

For as a young man marries a virgin,
So your sons will marry you;
And as the groom rejoices over the bride,
So your God will rejoice over you.

Who we are, how we look, and what we have done can make us feel that people don’t want us and even that God perhaps doesn’t want us. God’s people, however, received a name change, and that made all the difference. They were forsaken and desolate no more. In the surest and most secure sense, they became the very delight of God. Similarly, in the book of Hosea, God says to Israel that he will show mercy to those who are named “No mercy.” And those not my people will be called “You Are My people” (Hosea 1 and 2). 

As believers, we too have had a name change. We who were not a people are now God’s people. We who had not received mercy have now received it. In fact, “We’re a chosen race,” Peter says, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own cherished possession. (1 Peter 2:9-10). Such is the power of the gospel, such is the power of grace. We have a new name. In Christ, we’re no longer Nakushi. We are not desolate or forsaken or no people. Instead, God says, “You are my people. My delight is in her.” His new name for us is the bride of Christ, for he rejoices over us in love. Being his chosen and cherished we need not feel forgotten, forsaken, unwanted, unloved any longer. 

But how does the change of a name occur? God’s grace is the transforming power that changes everything it touches. This is nowhere more evident than in the way God changes our name through adoption. Adoption by grace, which we talked about some weeks ago, is spoken of in Ephesians 1:5 and it means that God takes us as his own children, not based on anything that we have done or anything that we can do, but purely by his grace. In this process, our names are changed to reflect our new identity as children of God. 

We’ve alluded earlier to several biblical characters whose names were changed. in all of these examples, the name changes reflect a profound transformation that God’s grace brings to our lives. As children of God, we’re no longer defined by our past mistakes or our current circumstances, but by the grace of God and the new identity that he gives us. Through adoption by Grace, God changes our names to reflect the new life that he has given us. 

The Bible is clear that God changes names through adoption by grace. This change in name reflects a profound transformation in our lives as we are transformed by God’s grace into new creations in Christ. Through this process, we receive a new identity as children of God and our names reflect this new reality. We are re-dressed in the robes of righteousness and our names are metaphorically written down, as in Revelation 12:17, on stone which no one knows but the one who receives it. Our name is written down just like the Ten Commandments were written—in stone. 

Revelation 3:5 says: “He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments. And I will not erase his name from the Book of Life. And I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” The fact that this verse reminds us that God has metaphorically written our name in the Book of Life, and that we will be acknowledged by him before the Father and the angels in heaven, indicates a special place that we have in the kingdom of God. 

Another verse that speaks to this idea of our name being written down by God is found in Isaiah 4:3 where it says: “And it will come about that the one who is left in Zion and remains behind in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem.” This verse suggests that those who have had their names written and recorded for life in Jerusalem are considered holy by God. This is a powerful reminder that God not only knows their names, but also has a special plan for our name and writes it down, so that we have a special place in his kingdom. 

The belief that our name is being written down by God can also have a powerful impact on our relationship with Him. Knowing that God has a plan and a purpose for our lives, and that we have a special place in his kingdom can help us to feel more connected to him, and develop a deeper sense of trust and faith in him. It can also inspire us to live our lives in ways that honors him and reflects his love and his grace to others.

The belief that our name is written down by God is a powerful and significant metaphor found throughout the Bible. It reminds us that we are not alone, that God has a plan and a purpose for our lives, and that we have a special place in his kingdom. It can be a source of hope and encouragement for those who are facing difficult times and it can also inspire us to live our lives in a way that honors God. The belief that our name is being written down by God can be a foundation for our faith. There is a way for us to visualize, in a real way, God’s saving grace. 

How then are we known by God? He knows of us before we were born, but we all must be born again. That new identity is this adoption by grace. We get a new name, and that name is written in stone. So the expression in the judgment—”I don’t know who you are, I never knew you, I don’t know where you are from”—these are all metaphors. It means that to be truly known by God, you must be part of the family of God—adopted, re-named, permanently ensconced, your name set in stone.

It means that you have accepted the adoption, you’ve accepted membership in the family of God, you have not turned your back on grace, you’re part of the family.

You can demand, it seems, to have your name erased. But if you don’t demand emancipation from God, you’re in the family. It is written in stone. It’s really interesting that only two things in the entire Bible are written in stone: the Ten Commandments and your name on the white stone book of life. Such is the power of grace. Such is the importance of your name to God, such is the permanence of stone. 

In the entire scriptures, there are four allusions to God’s writing, two being the Ten Commandments (he broke one tablet and made another). The other two are the writing in stone of your name, and Jesus’s writing in the dust (John 8:6). 

How do you feel to have your name written by God in the same way that he wrote the Ten Commandments? If your name is written in stone, can it be erased? Does God’s writing your name negate your free will? What is the significance of God’s wanting to change your name? Is it possible to know someone who is not in your family as well as you know someone who is in your family? God says that when you’re adopted, you’re part of the family, and he’ll be there with those who gather, in Jesus’ name, two or three together. God is in the business of showing up at family meetings. 

What is the significance of your name? And of your new name written in stone? Does the fact that it’s written in stone say more about you and the decisions that you’ve made? Or does it say more about God and his graciousness? “Whatever you’re doing, do it in the name of Jesus,” Colossians 3:17 says. What is the significance of God’s knowing your name?

C-J: I have used four names in my life. I was born Connie Jo Converse. I got married and I became Connie Scavo. At the age of 12 I told my parents I was no longer going to be Connie Jo. It was just Connie, or I wouldn’t respond. And when I joined with other veterans, I became CJ. 

I think how I identified myself and taking ownership of pieces of who I saw myself to be were connected with that. I was only married a year, and I said, I want my name back. I don’t even know who Connie Scavo is. It hurt him. But I needed that. With my parents, I didn’t want to be identified as a country hick… Connie Jo, Betty Jo, Bonnie Jo, etc. As a professional I would sign Connie J Converse on my correspondence. People who know me really well  have nicknames for me. 

I think it’s what we want others to see and what others do see about us and where I was at a place in my life of trying to find out “Who am I?” In Christ, it has always been Connie: “What are you doing Connie? Where are you Connie?” But all those other pieces are there too.

Now, I use “CJ” most of the time.  It has been used in my family of origin for many years. I use it when working with or spending time with military veterans. When someone uses that to solicit a response from me, it tells me they know me very well. Not because of the history we shared, but what was revealed during that time and it is respected. Veteran’s understand this intuitively.  A name is a very important part of who we are. The labels attached to it matter. Our history shapes us, there is always sacrifice during this process.

Donald: Name is identity, no doubt about it. It becomes who you are. It’s an important piece of who you are as a person, and you’re using it every day all day. 

Does God need to write things down? Why would he? Is that just Man’s way of thinking about it? Obviously, if you’re on earth, writing is a very important element of communication. But in heaven, who’s going to know me? What are our relationships in heaven? Are they new? Or are they the ones we take with us from this earth? 

It’s really an identity issue. But there are lots of people called Donald, plenty called Donald Weaver, and even quite a few Donald Weaver MDs.

David: There are at least two other perspectives on name. One is Daoist: The very second line of the Dao De Jing (the Daoist “Bible”) says: “The name that can be named is not the real name.” If Man names something, it’s bound to be wrong. Man cannot know ultimate Truth. 

The other perspective is Shakespeare’s. In Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2, Juliet asks: 

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

That is almost the same as the Daoist perspective. Name is not significant, not important. What matters is character, the inner person.

Reinhard: First, I want to correct what I said last week about a conflict that happened once in Indonesia. That particular conflict was not a bloody conflict—the government was able to calm the situation. There have since been other conflicts between Christians and Muslims that did result in many deaths. 

But back to today’s topic: When Moses asked God at the burning bush “When people ask me about you, who shall I tell them sent me?” God replied: “Tell them: ‘I Am’ sent you.” To me, our name is only a means of identification. Our being, our soul, is what God is interested in, I think. 

Name is just an identifier. When business people meet, they Google each other’s names to find out what sort of people they are, what is their background, what activities they are involved in, things like that. We don’t name ourselves—our parents name us in accord with their culture. In heaven, there may just be one culture. 

An old close friend from my home town, a Pentecostal pastor, used to make an annual visit to Sarawak province in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo for an evangelical gathering of Malaysian and Indonesian Christians, In 2013 the Malaysian High Court decreed that the Christians in Malaysia must not use the name Allah to refer to their God. The Malay translation of the Christian Bible uses the name Allah for God. All the Bibles would have to be reprinted.

At the gathering, my friend preached that Malaysia would be punished, and indeed, within a year two Malaysian passenger planes were to be lost: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying over the southern Indian Ocean, and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by Russia-controlled forces while overflying Ukraine.

I asked my friend if these were the punishment he had preached. “Maybe” was all he would say. I do think that when Man tries to interfere in people’s belief in God, God will intervene in some way. The Malaysian government called for national unity and prayer and eventually, in March 2021, the Malaysian High Court set aside the former ruling as unconstitutional. 

The name of God is really important to the people who worship him, and interfering with their beliefs is going to invoke God’s intervention.

Joyce: Even in the garden of Eden, God gave Adam the job of naming the animals, so they’d be known. People used to know the meaning of names, a long time ago, but few do now. Your name literally meant something to people—it was more than just an identity label. I don’t know what Reinhard means or what Donald means. But years ago, they actually meant something with reference to a person’s character.

David: I wonder why any man since the Fall would be named after Adam or any woman would be named after Eve, given the character of the original Adam and Eve?

C-J: In Egyptian hieroglyphics, names are put in a cartouche with a sentence or a definitive statement about them. The cartouche of an unpopular pharaoh might be chiseled away and be over-written, or just left blank. I think that in the context of what we’re speaking it implies transformation: “You were, but now you are, even if you have not fully materialized that breath going out.” 

When God breeds the Spirit in us as children, if we should come to the Lord young, in our formative years, we are not complete. And even as adults, our relationships continue to evolve and mature professionally, within our family structures within our communities, etc. So we are never really finished before God, because to me, the relationship I have with God is one of an expectation that I will mature and have a deeper relationship.

I think that should be expressed in the be-here-now also. “I’m working on you because I have a mission for you Connie, I have a purpose in your life. And before you can be given that assignment, you need to know these things, you need to practice this, in order to be prepared to go and do whatever I ask you to do.” To me, that is such an exciting element to my relationship with the Lord and humanity. What are we doing? What are we doing here now? Why are we gathered together at this point in time? What is our mission?

Kiran: Before newly elected US congressman George Santos was exposed as a liar and cheat, nobody cared about his name. But once unmasked, his name became synonymous with lying and cheating. I’m no different from him—it’s just that I didn’t get caught. But in the eyes of God there is no hiding, there are no secrets, God knows everything about us. 

On the day of judgment everybody will be exposed, our names becoming synonymous with our sins. And if the grace of God touches our name and changes it to something like my beloved, or (as in the case of Moses) my weakest one, or like Abraham, the most faithful, that’s what it is about. That’s what getting a new name means. My identity is like Jacob’s—a deceiver. But now we call him the one who wrestles with God.

I’m so embarrassed when I think about how much I ignore about myself. But on Judgement Day, if God opens up my brain, and then charts all my thoughts for everybody to see, it will be embarrassing. My chart will look terrible. But the grace of God can change that and bestow a new identity. I look forward to that, because I don’t want to be the way that I am.

David: It seems to me name is not the issue. What we (and Scripture) are really talking about is a change in character, as in the case of Jacob. His character was steeped in deceit but then he changed to became somebody who connects with God, albeit in a struggle. A connection—any connection—with God is all that matters. 

Maybe we’re reading too much into the biblical references. Even Saul’s becoming Paul was about a change in character. The name itself is irrelevant. It’s the change in character, in disposition, that matters.

Michael: I didn’t name myself. My parents named me; and when God renames me it’s still not my choice of name. Do we grow into the character of the meaning of our names, of how society views the name? Jacob seems to have been an example of someone who was what his name said. 

My point is that it seems we have much less free will than we would like. It’s not me who decides what my name is or what it will become in the book of God. 

Donald: When I worked with students, their charts mattered to me more than their names. The name only identifies the person but the chart reveals character attributes of the person. Adventists won’t eat pork but will eat beef. Pork seems disgusting but only because we’re told it’s disgusting—it has nothing to do with reality. There are other reasons why we don’t eat pork, but my point is we classify things as being okay or not okay. 

What happens to the name of someone who is cremated? We accept cremation as an appropriate option upon death, but what happens to the identity and character of a pile of dust? 

C-J: I think we’re talking about the human condition in this place in time, but when we talk about God, it’s about spirit. And that energy never goes away. It just changes its intention or its form and how it functions. Energy is in a constant state of flux, like the human condition. Because of circumstances around us, we can say: “I do not do these things. It’s etched in stone,” but everything around us changes and if you are subjected, for a sustained intense period of time, to blows from a hammer, it will have an impact on you. If you are immersed in chaos, you will not be so much on solid ground. If you are sensorily deprived, you will not know up from down. 

So this relationship that we’re talking about with God and with one another—you are my cousin by birth, but my relationship with you is spiritual—I’m very mindful of that. You’re not just a resource and a gateway. I’m very sensitive to what I see you are in spirit, and how I want that relationship to mature, and that I don’t want to do harm at a spiritual level. 

Everyone here has a responsibility as people who are mindful about the spiritual domain, even if we practice or put labels on that idea of spirit, we are all respectful of the unique things we each have to bring. To me, that’s the presence of the Divine. 

Don: Is anyone aware of any culture where you can name yourself (going back to Michael’s question)?

Kiran: In India, up to about age three or four, kids would be called by a nickname, but then they would be given formal names that accorded with their observed behavior and character.

David: It’s very easy in the US to change your name legally.

Robin: You can even change your gender, in this country!

Donald: Sometimes I can tell who I’m talking to based upon how and what they call me. Some people used to call me Donnie. Name is just a form of identity. My chart is what’s really important. God’s not looking at my name. My name is only like my social security number. It’s only a way to get to my chart.

Kiran: Nobody names their child Hitler or Saddam. Name is not just identity—it also associates with a person’s character. 

Rimon: I have difficulty accepting that God only names the chosen ones. 

Don: I think he chooses everyone and gives everyone the opportunity for adoption.

Rimon: I’m glad to hear that!

Don: We’ll pick it up again next week.

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