Naming a child has been a pretty hot topic in the VanderPloeg house over the past few months. There have been debates and lists, and then the lists get narrowed down till eventually every name is scrapped, and then we start over again with another list, and on this went. When a child is born we don’t just call it anything, we carefully pick out a name. Sometimes names are chosen because they have a heritage within a family—it is a name that has been passed down among the generations. Sometimes we pick names based upon meanings—the name means something that we like. Sometimes names are chosen just because we like how it sounds. And sometimes names are chosen because they are trendy or popular. But whatever the reason why we pick the names we do, the point is there is a reason.
The same thing is true of the Bible but in a much more focused way. Names were given for a reason. Now most of the things I’ve mentioned already can be crossed off the list. Names in the Bible were not given for popular or trendy reasons. And names were not given because the parents just happened to like the sound of it. No, in the Bible we see that almost all of the time names are given to people based upon the meaning. Sometimes the Bible tells us what the meanings of those names are, but often it doesn’t. For instance, the book of Hebrews tells about the great high priest Melkizadek—the righteous king. The name Melkizadek literally means in Hebrew “king of righteousness.” Or we read in the gospels that the angel instructed Mary and Joseph to name the Christ-child “Jesus” because he would save his people. The name Jesus literally means in Greek “savior.” But most of the time the Bible never clues us in to what the name means.
However, for the people of Old and New Testament Israel this was extremely important. Just about everybody back then knew and understood the meaning of the names. That’s very different than what we have in our culture today. Now, I could tell you the meanings of the names of my own kids. Laura and I didn’t necessarily choose names for our children based strictly upon the meaning, but I still know what those meanings are. But if we went around the room here and started asking if everybody here today could explain the meaning of everybody else’s name, I just bet you that we wouldn’t get too far. For the most part, we don’t give names strictly based upon the meaning, and we certainly do not know and understand the meaning of everybody’s names. But as I said, that was not true of the people in the Bible. They knew and understood the meanings of the names.
The point is this. Names in the Bible mean something. Names in the Bible tell us something about the identity of each person. Names in the Bible give us a clue to what that person is like, they tell us something about them, they reveal to us something about their identity. Names in the Bible are certainly much more than simply telling us, “What do I call you?” Names in the Bible answer for us, “Who are you?” or “What is your identity?”
Quite often we skip right over that, because in our culture we just simply do not think of names in that way. But if we are to be good students of God’s Word, then we should pay attention to these kinds of details. Oh, maybe the meaning of every single name of every single character in the Biblical narrative should not concern us. But here’s what I would like to do. We’re going to look at four specific examples of names in the Bible. We’ll take them one at a time over the next four weeks. And what we particularly want to look at are examples from the Bible where God changes somebody’s name. You see, if all this stuff that I’ve been talking about so far is true—if names in the Bible are important because of what they mean—then whenever we find an example in the bible where God comes and changes somebody’s name, well, we better be paying attention to those names because something monumentally important is going on.
So as we read in the passage for this morning, the first example that we will look at is the disciple Simon being renamed by Jesus to be called Peter. And we will ask what the importance of this name change for Peter is, and we will ask how Peter’s name change is important for us today as well.
To understand the significance of what Jesus is doing here with Peter we need to begin with the questions that Jesus asks at the beginning of the passage. He begins by asking his disciples, “Who do people say the son of man is?” And Jesus follows up by asking the disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” You see what Jesus is asking? It’s a question of identity. Jesus us asking his disciples if they understand yet who he is?
But notice the distinction that Jesus makes by asking this as two separate questions. The story illustrates for us that there are some people in the world who know of Jesus and speak well of the kind of man that Jesus is, but they miss the point of who Jesus really is. By associating the identity of Jesus with that of the great prophets, these people are acknowledging the greatness of Jesus. But that answer alone falls short of truly embracing in full belief the real identity of who Jesus is. Peter answers that question from Jesus and hits it perfectly. He says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” The gospel writers proclaim throughout that Jesus is the Christ, but this is the first time in Matthew’s gospel that someone besides the narrator speaks this confession of Jesus as the Christ. According to Matthew, it is the first time that the disciples acknowledge to Jesus that his true identity is the long-awaited messiah—the anointed one of God.
Peter says, “You are the Christ.” Christ is a Greek word. It literally means “anointed one.” It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah, which also means “anointed one.” But of course, they are not just words, they are names. And this “anointed one” was a name that all of Israel would have held in high regard. All the prophets of the Old Testament were pointing forward to the anointed one. All Israel was awaiting the salvation that the anointed one would bring. And here we see in Matthew’s gospel that for the first time Peter dares to take a step of assurance and say to Jesus that he is this long-awaited anointed one from God that would bring salvation to all people.
I imagine that the question had to be bouncing in their heads for quite some time. The disciples had seen the healings and the miracles. They must have been asking and wondering among themselves, “Is this it? Is he really the one? Could it be that this is the anointed one that all the prophets foretold?” Others were wondering the same thing as well. Just a few chapters back we read of John the Baptist’s disciples coming to Jesus and asking, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect another?” Many people were filled with questions about who Jesus was, but no one dared to go the final step of declaring it. They must have all been wondering about it. But it is Peter who works up the nerve to say out loud what everybody else was thinking.
And so he says it. You are the Christ. The Messiah. The anointed one. Peter and the disciples got it. Other people missed it. For many of the other people in Israel, Jesus was not doing what they expected the anointed one to do. They were waiting for someone to politically free them from the Romans. They were waiting for another great earthly king who would take the nation of Israel to the status level of “world super power.” Like Jonah, many Israelites wanted a Messiah that would crush and annihilate their enemies, not forgive them. Jesus was not what they thought the anointed one should be. So they missed it. They missed his true identity as the savior of the world.
The problem is not so unique I think. Old Testament Israel was not the only ones to miss the true identity of Jesus—that he is the Christ, the anointed one of God. You see, I think if we are all perfectly honest with ourselves here today we have to admit that there are times when we too want Jesus to be something for us that he isn’t. We too—from time-to-time—want Jesus to be something for us that does not match his identity as the anointed one who came to save the world.
I know we could spend our time here this morning reading a passage like this and then start pointing fingers around. We could look at modern day examples like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons as religious groups who have a misunderstanding of who Jesus really is. But that would be too easy. That would miss the point. Jesus aims this question at us. And it’s our job here today to do the hard work of examining our own lives and finding those hidden places where we have not confessed Jesus for who he really is.
What does this look like? Maybe some of you know that last year I worked part-time as a chaplain at Bronson Hospital. More than once I worked with families in the ER and trauma unit who were facing a crisis of some sort of medical emergency. Often there would be families who had strong Christian faith and belonged to churches that provided great support. But still I hear people say in situations like that, “I just thought that because I believe in Jesus that these kinds of things would not happen. I thought that Jesus was supposed to protect us from this kind of thing.” You see, when it comes down to it, we all have moments when we slip into thinking that it is God’s job to make our lives happy. And when we do that, we miss the true identity of who Christ really is.
Or consider this. I’ve spoken with married couples who have been experiencing struggles in their relationship. And somewhere in the conversation one of them says, “I thought that my wedding day was supposed to be the happiest day of my life and everything after that was supposed to be happily ever after. I thought that our Christian marriage would be a happy marriage and that conflicts like this would not happen in our relationship.” And couples often wonder then, if my marriage experiences conflict and things aren’t always happy, does that mean that my marriage isn’t a Christian marriage? Well, the truth is that a good marriage relationship takes hard work and commitment. And there are some days where that hard work isn’t always fun. God never promises us that it would be.
Or maybe consider a Christian business owner who has a successful year. And it is very good and appropriate for this business owner to thank God for the blessing of a viable and thriving business. But why would we want to thank God for this blessing? Is it because this blessing provides us with financial independence and security? Is it because this blessing from God allows us to live comfortable lifestyles? You see, many times we fall into thanking God for our material blessings because those blessings allow us to live a comfortable—if not lavish—lifestyle. But let us not forget the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12. God says to Abraham, “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and all people on earth will be blessed through you.” You and I are part of the new covenant community of God. You and I carry on that pattern of blessing originally given to Abraham and made complete in Jesus. You and I are recipients of God’s blessing so that we may be the servants of others for Jesus’ sake. We too miss the true identity of Jesus when we fall into the pattern of thinking God’s blessing is meant for us to live the highlife and keep all to ourselves.
In our text this morning, Peter gets it right. Peter answers the question of Jesus by proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ. He got the identity right. And Jesus answers him by cluing us all into the fact that this answer that Peter gives is an answer that comes to Peter from God himself. We see it there in verse 17. What does that tell us? It means that understanding who Jesus really is—understanding his true identity as the anointed one—is not some sort of puzzle that is left for us to figure out. God himself gives us the answer. The Holy Spirit in our hearts guides us to a true and right knowledge of our savior. Even though we still live in a broken world; even though we still suffer the effects of sin in our lives; even though we fail to look to Jesus as we should from time-to-time, we can yet have confidence and assurance that the Holy Spirit will always bring us to a right relationship with our savior and Lord. This is exactly what we see illustrated for us in Peter’s answer to the question of Jesus.
Then we see in what happens next how Matthew brilliantly echoes the event. Peter confesses the identity of Jesus, “You are the Christ.” And Jesus responds by redefining Peter’s identity, “You are the rock.” The name Peter means rock. Jesus goes on to explain a bit of this new identity to Peter. He says, the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Quick geography lesson here. Where does this story take place? Verse 13 begins by telling us this all happens in Caesarea Philippi. Where is Caesarea Philippi? It is a town on the northern edge of the sea of Galilee; it is a pagan town. The town is set at the base of a large cliff. And in this cliff is a giant cave with a spring that flows out of it. The pagans had a large temple there built to the ancient Greek god Pan—who was depicted as half man half goat. And the pagans believed that Pan would go into the cave every winter and travel to the underworld—the realm of the dead. Then every spring he would come back up from the underworld through the cave. And it was Pan’s coming out of the cave every spring that would cause the spring vegetation to begin growing. And the pagans in Caesarea Philippi called this cave the gates of Hades.
And Jesus then borrows on this imagery and tells Peter that his identity as the church—the covenant community of God—is so strong in Jesus, that none of these other pagan religions will outlast or overcome the Christian church. None of these wrongheaded ideas about who Jesus was or who other people thought Jesus ought to be were going to be able to stand in the way of the true identity and purpose that Jesus came into the world to establish. And with Peter, Jesus extends that sure and true identity of his salvation into a community of believers that will never be overtaken.
This covenant community of believers continues yet today. The promise of Jesus that his church would be firm and secure through all kinds of trials remains a promise for us as well. When Jesus took Simon and changed his name to Peter, he was given a new identity. And Peter’s new identity as the rock-solid foundation of the church is an identity that follows down through the ages to us today.
Yes, we must admit we are broken sinners. But we must also never forget that we are forgiven. And we must always live in assurance that our identity in Christ is as his church—his covenant community by which God himself reaches our with grace to a lost and hurting world.