What's in a Name? 4 Times God Changed a Person's Name

Contributing Writer
What's in a Name? 4 Times God Changed a Person's Name

Many times, a person’s name holds special meaning. Children today might be named after family members to show respect or to honor their memory. After marriage, a woman usually changes her last name to signify the beginning of the next chapter.

In Biblical times, names were even more intentional, often saying something about that person’s character or their situation. For example, King David’s name means “beloved”, and he was known as the man after God’s own heart.

As a young girl, I was fascinated with names and their meanings. A favorite book on my shelf was A Dictionary of Common Names. So when I started reading through the Bible, I was impressed with how accurate names of people matched their personalities or station in life.

Later on, I began to notice accounts in both the Old and New Testaments where God changed someone’s given name. What, I wondered, would lead God to take this drastic step? I found that in each case, God wanted to instill a new vision for that person’s life, or a new role He wanted them to play in His Kingdom.

Here are 5 people in Scripture who received new names from God:

Photo Credit: GettyImages/miflippo

Abram and Sarai: Becoming parents of a child and a nation

We first read about Abram, a rich landowner who lived in Harran, in Genesis 11. Abram had most everything he could want, except a child. His wife, Sarai, was barren. But God’s will has a way of overriding any human limitations, and He clearly commanded Abram in Genesis 12:

“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you…” (Genesis 12:1-2).

Abram pulled up stakes and left his home, travelling to a land he’d never seen before. Along the way, God gave more details about His promise, knowing the cry of Abram and Sarai’s heart was to have a child. During another conversation, Abram asked God directly, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless.” God’s answer left no room for doubt, “…a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir” (Genesis 15:4).

Their names changed when God made a covenant concerning their future. God spoke this over Abram, and it concerned Sarai as well:

You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram,your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.  I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you” (Genesis 17:4-6).

“God also said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Genesis 17:15-16).

In both cases, God chose to refine their names. For example, Abram means “exalted father,” and in Harran as well as on his journey, he played a fatherly kind of role for immediate family such as his nephew Lot. As Abraham, or “father of many nations,” he seeks to fulfill his role of protector to God’s larger family. Sarai, whose name means “princess” becomes Sarah, “my princess,” and grows into a woman who trusts God’s promises rather than scoffing at them in disbelief.

Photo credit: Flickr/Ted

Jacob: From deceiving to devout

Jacob’s birth just seconds after his twin Esau illustrates how accurate his name was. The baby whose name meant “to grasp the heel of” came out literally holding onto his brother’s foot. Coming of age, Jacob’s goal seemed to be getting what Esau was entitled to as the eldest, living out another definition of his name: “supplanter”, or “one who replaces another.”

Many years later, Jacob is about to face his brother after all his trickery, and is afraid Esau will be seeking revenge on him. Genesis 32 tells what happened as he prepared for the meeting:

“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” 

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Genesis 32:22-28).

This new name commemorates Jacob engaging directly with God. But the blessing Israel receives begins a change in him. Over time, he lets go of his need to gain for himself and instead acknowledges the Lordship of God over his life, taking on the stature of patriarch.

Photo credit: Wikimedia/Public Domain: Gustave Doré

Simon: Standing firm for Christ

Imagine going from being one of many fishermen on the sea of Galilee to a pillar of Christ’s church. That is the life change that Peter experienced. His name change came from the Lord Himself. Simon means “he has heard” or “to listen,” probably a good description for someone who spent most of his time out at sea. But everything changed the day his brother Andrew brought Him to meet Jesus.

“Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1:42).

Peter didn’t have any idea at that moment what an amazing role God had in mind for him. But he knew enough to obey Jesus’ call to join Him. A fuller explanation came later on.

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).

Jesus considered Simon worthy of a tremendous honor, one he would have to grow into. As Peter, he experienced failure and forgiveness, then learned the power of being known and accepted completely by his Savior. Eventually, he lived up to his new name, “rock,” by preaching boldly and helping to build Christ’s church on earth.  

“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd…” (Acts 2:14).

“Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose (Acts 9:32-34).

Though He has definitely led me through different seasons in my life, God hasn’t ever bestowed a new name on me. But learning about how He has done that for others reminds me of several important truths:

  • God is in control of my life
  • God knows me intimately and loves me completely
  • God has specific work for me to do
  • God desires to move me out of my past and into a greater future
  • God wants me to keep my eyes fixed on Him and His plans

No matter what name I may be known by in the world, I want to represent His well.

Photo credit: Wikimedia/Public Domain: Pietro Perugino

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included Paul, who was known as Saul before his conversion. His name, however, was not directly changed by God, so the section has been removed.  

Heather Adams is an author, speaker, and singer living in Connecticut. Heather’s passion is to equip and encourage believers to seek more of God’s truth and to experience more of His joy each day. Her book, “Bow Down: The Heart of a True Worshipper” is a practical, 30-day devotional about worship. Worship Walk Ministries, her blog, offers weekly Scripture passages and insights to ponder. Heather shares her home with her family, an English setter named Marcie and Galaxy, the most curious cat she’s ever met. You can connect with her on her website: heatheradamsworshipwalk.com