Anytime someone has a baby, the first question (technically the second, right after, “Is it a boy or girl?”) is always: “So…what’s the name?”
Parents agonize over what to name their babies. We scour websites, family trees, and those little booklets next to the candy bars in the checkout line for possibilities; the one we JUST KNOW is “right”. Some people want a name to be unique, going with alternate spellings. Some people want it to be traditional, honoring loved ones from the past. Some people are just happy to find a name that won’t get their kid picked on at recess.
In my kids’ case, we picked “Javan” partly because it was Biblical (even if a bit obscure). We picked “Nolan” partly because it was strong and traditional. We picked “Calvin” partly because it kind of sounded like a hybrid of the other two. Javan’s middle name is Edward; that’s also my middle name, my grandfather’s first name, and it runs in Olivia’s family as well. Nolan’s middle name is John; that name comes from Olivia’s dad’s side. Calvin’s middle name is Benjamin; that’s thanks to yours truly.
I think we all recognize the significance of names. We may legally change our names to get ahead in our careers, or for some other reason (I have philosophical thoughts about this that would make this post far too long). We may choose to go by a shortened version (to this day, I don’t think my mother has ever called me “Ben”). We may love our names, or hate our names; but for better or for worse, we all recognize their significance.
In the ancient world, a name wasn’t just another word, and it wasn’t just a title. A name conveyed something important about a person. It was common to include “son of (blank)” after a name (family history was held in high regard). Names were given to reflect certain characteristics about a person (Genesis 25:19-28). Names are significant enough that in some special cases, God commands parents to give their child a certain name before they’re ever born (Luke 1:13, 31). In other cases, God changes a person’s name at a significant moment in their life (Genesis 17:5, 32:28; John 1:42).
God himself even has a name! God tells Moses in Exodus 3:14 that his name is “I AM WHO I AM” (this strange phrase may get at the idea that God’s identity can’t be exhaustively captured in a name). In the next verse, God adds: “The LORD, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exodus 3:15)
“The LORD” is the Hebrew word “Yhvh” (or, transliterated into English), “Yahweh”. In Biblical studies and theological circles, this name is referred to as the “Tetragrammaton”. Traditional Jews hold God’s name in such honor that they will not utter it out loud. When they come across it while reading the Old Testament, they’re trained to supply another name like “Adonai” or “Elohim”. My Hebrew professors trained their classes to do the same.
In Exodus 34:6-7, God gives his name twice: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but by who no means will clear the guilty…”. God does not seem interested in just giving a word or title; his name contains a much broader picture of who he is.
As God’s revelation of himself progresses into the New Testament, we learn more about him. Namely (see what I did there?), we learn about the Trinity. God is three in one: Father, Son, and Spirit. Theologian Alister McGrath writes:
“The doctrine of the Trinity thus identifies and names the Christian God – but identifies and names this God in a manner consistent with the Biblical witness. It is not a name which we have chosen; it is a name which has been chosen for us, and which we are authorized to use.”
One of the first questions you might ask a stranger with whom you’ve struck up a conversation is, “What’s your name?” We intuitively understand that it’s impossible to truly know someone without knowing their name.
“What’s in a name?” Quite a lot. We can be thankful that we know a great deal about God through his Word. We can be grateful that we know God’s name! We can be in awe of the fact that we can “call on his name” in prayer (Genesis 4:26) and faith (Romans 10:13). We praise The LORD – Father, Son, and Spirit – having been marked by his name ourselves (Revelation 3:12).
In the eternal scheme of things, your name and my name might not be all that important. What matters far more is our trust in Jesus’s name (Acts 2:42).