Names are very important in the Bible. Children’s names often reflected a physical characteristic of the baby or a hope the parents had for the coming child (Genesis 25:25, 1 Samuel 1:20). Often the name became a fitting description of the child as they grew up.
When Jacob was born, he came out of the womb grabbing the heel of his twin brother Esau, so he was given the name Jacob because it resembles the Hebrew word for “heel” (Genesis 25:26). The name can also mean “deceiver”, a trait which defined much of his life as he grew. Esau mentions this when Jacob stole his birthright and blessing saying, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times (Genesis 27:36).”
God often changed a person’s name when making a covenant with them or when announcing something significant He was calling them to do. After the wresting match between Jacob and the angel of God, God changed his name to Israel, meaning “he strives with God”. It was a turning point in Jacob’s life and God gave him a new name as a result.
This is seen in the New Testament as well. The angel Gabriel commanded Mary to name her son Jesus because the name means “God saves”. Jesus gave Simon the new name Peter after he confessed that Jesus is the Christ. Peter means “rock” and his confession that Jesus is the Messiah is the rock that Jesus built the church on (Matthew 16:18).
There is a misconception that once Saul the pharisee was met by Jesus on the road to Damascus that his name was changed to Paul. Jesus first appeared to Saul in Acts 9:4 and he continued to be called Saul until Acts 13. There is nothing dramatic about the new name, just a brief statement: “But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit… (Acts 13:9).”
Why is there nothing dramatic for Paul? The fact is that Saul was already known as Paul. Paul is the Roman form of the Hebrew name Saul and Acts 13 marks the beginning of Saul’s mission work to the Gentiles. It makes sense that he would be more commonly referred to as Paul since he would minister primarily to Gentiles. It would be like an American person named John being known as Juan in a Spanish-speaking country today.
Paul did not get a new name, but he might have appreciated one. Before his encounter with Jesus, he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it (Galatians 1:13).” It took years for people to stop running from Paul the persecutor and trust Paul the apostle.
You might feel the same way and ask God to give you a new name and not be associated with the person you once were. The good news is that if you are in Christ, you have something better than a new name, you have a new identity. Paul himself knew this saying, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).”
Praise be to the sovereign God who has given us eternal life and a new identity in His Son Jesus.