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Insight #157 — What’s in a Name?

Shakespeare said: “That which we call stinkweed, by any other name would smell as sweet. ” You say he said, “a rose”? But why not call it stinkweed? Shakespeare said, “by any other name.” And he prefaced this famous remark with the query, “What’s in a name?”

Well, there is plenty in a name, Mr. Shakespeare. Try “what’s in a name?” at your bank or pharmacy. We all know there is plenty in a name — until it comes to religion. Then people say it doesn’t make any difference what you call yourself or call your church as long as you follow Jesus. Really?

What if some names are man-made and others are God-given? What if Isaiah predicted: “I [God] will give them an everlasting name… a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name… ” (Isa. 56:5; 62:2). These verses about a new everlasting name are in a setting that predicted God’s “everlasting covenant” (55:3; 61:8) and the inclusion of the “Gentiles” or “nations” (Isa. 42–66).

For some people, the new name of Isa. 62:1-2 is given in verse 4: Hephzibah or Beulah. But Hephzibah was hardly distinctive. How about Manasseh’s mother (2 Kings 21:1)? Nor was Beulah new. It is the Hebrew word for “married,” and it is translated “married, marries, marry” the three other times it is used in verses 4 and 5.

Fast forward to the first century. Jesus came and established the new covenant: “This is my blood of the new testament” (Mark 14:24). His blood ushered in the promised everlasting covenant (Heb. 13:20). As for the Gentiles, following the conversion of Cornelius, the apostles “glorified God, saying, Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). The new everlasting covenant was in. The Gentiles were included. The time was right to introduce the new everlasting name.

Just eight verses later, the sacred text says, “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Why in Antioch? Because it was the first city with many Gentile converts. There was nothing new about such terms as “disciples,” “brethren,” “priests,” and “saints.” But “Christian” was a brand new name, identifying its wearers as followers of Christ and belonging to Christ.

Some people defend man-made names saying “Christian” is in the Bible only three times. But how many times are these names in the Bible: Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Lutheran, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Conservative, Liberal, Preterist, Historicist, ad infinitum? Three times is much better than zero.

Those who minimize the name Christian say it was given to the disciples by the heathen in derision. However, the word “called” in this text is not the usual word for “call,” kaleo, which is used 138 times in the NT. The word “call” in Acts 11:26, chrematizo, is only used 9 times, and is translated, “warned of (from) God” (Matt. 2:12; 2:22; Acts 10:22; Heb. 11:7); “admonished of God” (Heb. 8:5); “revealed” [by the Holy Spirit] (Luke 2:26); “spoke” [God on Mt. Sinai] (Heb. 12:25); “called” [by God’s law] (Rom. 7:2-3); and “called” (Acts 11:26). That sounds like a divine calling to me. Considering 1) the Greek used, 2) the prophecies by Isaiah, and 3) the context of Paul and Barnabas teaching the church, it surely looks like it was God who called them Christians via the teaching of Paul and Barnabas. Thus was fulfilled: “The Gentiles shall see your righteousness… and you shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name” (Isa. 62:2).

What’s in a name? Christ is in the name. If you can improve on Christ, you can improve on the name Christian. If you add to it, you actually take away from it. As for me and my house, we want to be known as Christians, nothing more, and nothing less.