May 10, 2024

The Many Names of God

7 Min Read

The Bible ascribes many names and titles to God. In Scripture, the name or title of a person often says something important about the person’s character. In our culture today, we don’t name people on the basis of outstanding characteristics or attributes. But in the ancient world, naming a person after a desired attribute was commonplace. In Israel particularly, a name often had tremendous significance and gave deep insight into one’s character.

Sometimes when a person underwent a life-changing trauma, his name would be changed. We remember, for example, how Jesus assigned a new name to Simon at Caesarea Philippi after the great confession when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that [I am]?” They responded, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon gave this magnificent confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then said to Simon, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!” He called him by name. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock I will build my church.” The rock on which Christ would build His church was the rock of Peter’s confession. The church would be built on the foundation of Christ’s entire life, His whole ministry. Thereafter Simon was called Peter (Matt. 16:13–18).

Perhaps the most dramatic name change in the Old Testament took place when Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Today there’s a nation called Israel; it isn’t called Jacob. It is called Israel because it traces its roots to the twelve tribes that came from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. What Are the Names of God? Let’s look briefly at that moment in history when Jacob’s name was changed.

He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” (Gen. 32:23–30)

This event at Peniel records a struggle, a conflict, between a human being, Jacob, and a representative from God Himself. The angel of the Lord came down from heaven and met Jacob where he was, and the two engaged in conflict. This was not the best out of fifteen rounds, three minutes a round with a rest of one minute in between. This wrestling match went on all day and all night. In the course of this combat between Jacob and the angel, Jacob pleaded with this representative of God to bless him. The angel permanently injured Jacob’s hip, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life so that he would never forget this moment. Jacob said, “Bless me.” The angel asked, “What is your name?” Why did the angel ask him his name? Do we think that the angel of God didn’t know the identity of the one with whom he had been locked in mortal combat for the whole night? He knew his name. But he was asking for Jacob to surrender. By revealing his name, Jacob was, in a sense, placing himself in a position of subordination to the one to whom he revealed his name.

That idea goes all the way back to creation. When God created humans, He placed them in the garden and gave them dominion over the earth. A responsibility attended that assignment to work and keep the earth: to name the animals. With the naming of the animals, the task of classification, which is at the heart of science, was begun.

In science, we group things together, and then we look at their differences and break the individuals up into subgroups. We distinguish between flowers and animals, and then we distinguish among the different kinds of flowers and among the different kinds of animals. When you go to the doctor and say that your stomach hurts, the doctor goes through a checklist in his mind, and he examines you. He has to come up with a diagnosis before he can treat you. The doctor knows the many possible causes of a stomachache. You could have indigestion; you could have stomach cancer. He knows that indigestion and stomach cancer have certain points of similarity, but the doctor must discern the differences to make the correct diagnosis. That’s science—careful analysis of the reality around us.

God gave authority over the earth to Adam and Eve, including naming the animals. Who named Adam? Adam did not name himself, but God named Adam, indicating God’s authority and dominion over His creature. When parents have a child, they name the child, indicating the authority they have over the child. That was the custom in Israel, except on very rare occasions.

One of the most remarkable incidents in the New Testament took place when an angel came to Zechariah in the temple and announced to him that his barren wife, Elizabeth, was going to have a baby and that this baby would be the herald, the forerunner, of the Messiah (Luke 1). This was the annunciation by Gabriel of the impending birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah was struck dumb. He was not able to speak for the entire nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Finally, when her term was finished and the baby was born, the family and friends gathered around and asked, “What are you going to name this baby?” Everyone looked at Zechariah because it was the custom for the parents, and particularly the father, to name the child. Gabriel, however, had told Zechariah that the baby’s name would be John. God took back to Himself the right to name the baby because this child was going to be in a special relationship of obedience to God. (The same thing happened with the birth of Jesus. The angel told Mary what the baby’s name would be because this child was the child of God.)

When Zechariah’s family gathered around on this day, they were probably making all kinds of suggestions and speculations about what the baby’s name would be. Zechariah, still mute, asked for a writing tablet. He wrote, “His name is John” (Luke 1:63). The instant he did that, his tongue was loosed and he was able to speak again, because he had shown his subordination and obedience to God.

Something similar is going on in the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel. So when Jacob asks for the blessing, the angel says, “What is your name?” We actually have something like that in our culture. When we had wrestling matches as kids, one way that a match would end was for one of the contenders to yield and give up. Often, someone had to “say ‘uncle’” for the match to be over. That’s a bit like what the angel is saying to Jacob in asking, “What is your name?” It’s as though he were saying, “Say ‘uncle,’ because this match is not over until you give up, until you acquiesce and surrender to my power and authority, and the way you’re going to show that is by telling me your name.” So Jacob tells him his name. Then the angel states, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob.” He essentially says: “I’m going to give you a new name because God has the right to give a new name. In this combat, in this struggle that we’ve gone through here, I have touched you and I have changed you—permanently. Yes, there’s continuity with who you were before this meeting and who you will be ever after, but there’s also radical discontinuity now for the rest of your life, so your old name is no longer appropriate.”

The old name, which means “deceiver,” suited him because of the crooked, hypocritical, devious tricks he pulled on his own family. Jacob is over. From now on, his name will be Israel, the one who wrestles with God. What a beautiful name. The rest of the Old Testament is the history of a nation that never stopped wrestling with God, that never stopped contending with the Lord—and not always in the positive sense that Jacob does here. So the angel of God pronounces the blessing of God on His servant. With that blessing, the angel gives Jacob a new name. The newly named Israel responds to the angel, “Please tell me your name.” The angel, however, doesn’t give his name. Jacob is looking for a draw. If he can’t win this battle, at least he can break even: “I’ll tell you my name; you tell me your name.” The angel refuses. He will not give Israel a tie.

As we look at the various names that God is pleased to give Himself, we will learn much about who God is. Even the distinction between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit tells us something about the character of the members of the Godhead. It tells us about the character of the Father, whose character it is to be the Father; and about the character of the second person of the Trinity, whose character is to be the Son; and about the character of the third person of the Trinity, whose character is to be the Holy Spirit.