A New Name
Part Four of the Series Struggling With God—
Lessons from the Life of Jacob
October 15, 2006
Last week we looked at the central event in the life of this man Jacob. Jacob was born a cheater, right down to the meaning of his name. He cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and his blessing to the point that Esau wanted to kill him. So he ran away to the home territory of his clan, a place called Paddan-Aram, where he married the daughters of a man who was even more of a cheater than he was, the man Laban. Life under Laban’s thumb was so hard that he fled back to Canaan, where Esau still lived.
By then, Jacob was a wealthy man: two wives, 10 children, servants and vast flocks. Jacob wanted to give enough presents to Esau to turn his anger away. As it turned out, Esau had decided to let bygones be bygones. Jacob didn’t have to fight Esau. Instead, He had to fight God!
That’s what we shared about last week: how God met Jacob by the Jabbok River (that would be in modern northwest Jordan) and wrestled with him there. God was intent on breaking Jacob from his self-sufficiency. Jacob always had an angle he was working, always had a scheme to pull, always had a plan. God wanted to use this man. After all, his grandfather was Abraham, the man God had given this great promise (Genesis 12:2-3):
2"I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you."
For this blessing to come about, Abraham needed a family. Genesis tells us again and again how the promises God made hung on by a thread. Sarah was infertile for most of her life; Isaac nearly died and almost didn’t marry, and in Jacob’s generation, infighting nearly wiped out the line of promise.
But with Jacob, the promise was on its way: when he wrestles with God, 10 of his 12 sons have been born. They will be the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel.
One thing that happened the night that we kind of skipped over last week because I wanted to come back to it today, and that’s the new name God gave Jacob that night. I want to revisit that and expand upon that and show its relevance to us and our faith today.
Let’s start back in Genesis 32 right in the middle of the smackdown by the river. Let’s look again at Genesis 32:24-29:
24So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
27The man asked him, "What is your name?"
"Jacob," he answered.
28Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
29Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.
Now we need to read the context carefully. Here, Jacob’s opponent is simply called “a man.” In Hosea 12, is says that he wrestled God. Jacob affirms that he was wrestling God Himself by naming the place Peniel, “Face of God.” As I said last week, the only way to win when you wrestled with God is by losing! (Remember: “Let the Wookie win!”)
In the midst of the struggle, Jacob realizes that this is no mere human who jumped out of the darkness. This wasn’t just a wilderness thief, because Jacob asks for the “man” to bless him. Pay attention to the dialogue:
"Let me go, for it is daybreak."
"I will not let you go unless you bless me."
"What is your name?"
"Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
"Please tell me your name."
"Why do you ask my name?"
Then he blessed him there.
Twice the matter of names comes up: Jacob’s name—and his new name, Israel, and the mysterious Man’s name, which is never given.
Now, it seems clear to me that the Man is the Angel of the Lord, in Hebrew, ha-malach Yahweh, the mysterious being who comes and goes in a number of places in the Old Testament. Since the word “angel” can mean messenger in general, there’s no barrier to “the angel of the LORD” being God the Son—the Lord Jesus here on earth in a temporary appearing. This mystery was hidden in the Old Testament, so the Man refused to tell his name. Instead, he asks Jacob for his name.
Now, it’s obvious that he’s not asking because he doesn’t know. He wants Jacob to say his name aloud for a reason. Jacob means “cheater” or “trickster.” What a name for a child! He’d done everything to live up to this name. It’s almost as if the Man wanted Jacob to say his name aloud as a way of asking him a question: “Jacob, you say? You really want to go through life known as a Cheater?” Then he moves him on:
"Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
ISRAEL! The cheater was given a new name: Yisrael—He who strives with God. Jacob emerges from that night broken, but victorious; limping, but blessed—and with a new name: Israel.
In Genesis 35:9-15, that new name is again affirmed. Let me read that with a few comments:
9After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again [that is, sometime later than the wrestling match by the Jabbok river] and blessed him. 10God said to him, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel." So he named him Israel.
[This time, the name is given in a purely positive context: it’s almost a coronation name, like a king taking a new name when being crowned.]
11And God said to him, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. 12The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you." 13Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him.
[The new name is part of the blessing promised to Abraham and Isaac.]
14Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. 15Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.
[This was a return to Bethel. The last time he was here, his faith was immature and he tried to bargain with God. His worship and his faith now is mature and true.]
The new name marked a new era in God’s work in Jacob’s life. We have many people in this congregation who have received a new name. Most women still take their husband’s last name as a way of marking the new beginning represented by their marriage. We also have many immigrants here who chose a new name when they came to America—also a mark of new era in their lives.
Someone who gave me great insights into the faith early on was the great Chinese evangelistic Nee Tuo-Shing. “Tuo-Shing” is most often translated as Watchman, so in the west he is known as Watchman Nee. But it wasn’t his birth name: that was Nee Shu-Tsu. He took the name “Tuo Shing” (Watchman) when after he sensed God’s call to be an evangelist. The new name was a mark of the new era in his life.
Renaming is common in the Bible. Apart from Jesus, the two main personalities of the New Testament are Peter and Paul. “Peter” is translation of a new name Jesus gave Simon bar-Jonas: Cephas in Aramaic or Petros in Greek, meaning the Rock. “Paul” was the adopted Roman name of a Jewish man who was born as Saul.
New names aren’t all that uncommon in the Bible. Sarai became Sarah; Abram became Abraham; Jacob became Israel; Joseph bar-Levi became Barnabas. And in each case, it was because God saw them not just as they were, but as they could be.
Jacob was a cheat, but God saw him as he could be: one who strives with God and overcomes. To overcome with God is to so struggle with Him to the point that God touches us and transforms us and we truly become new people. This comes into sharp focus in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes,
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Does God have the power to change lives? You bet! The restoration of His creation is the great theme of God’s work down the years.
There is a great scene in The Passion of the Christ that has no basis in Scripture, but I love it anyway. Jesus is bearing the cross, staggering through the streets of Jerusalem. At one point he and his mother come face to face and Jesus says something so wonderful that the first time I saw it, it made we well up with tears and jump for joy at the same time. He whispers to her amid all His pain and says, “Mother, behold I make all things new.” Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what I think was going through the mind of Jesus as He went to the cross. His sacrifice there made it possible for all things to be made new. It would start unseen, in the hearts and lives of people those who put their trust in Him. One day it will lead to a New Heaven and a New Earth, as the Bible promises, “I make all things new.”
Mel Gibson (God bless him, I hope he makes a full recovery) didn’t pull that line out of the air. It’s a quote from Revelation 21:5: “I am making everything new!”
And the new name is a token, a promise of newness of life. There’s a wonderful passage in Isaiah 62:2-4, where God uses the idea of a new name to show His promises to His people:
2The nations will see your righteousness,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
3You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD's hand,
a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
4No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah [My Delight is in Her],
and your land Beulah [Married];
for the LORD will take delight in you,
and your land will be married.
Deserted. Desolate. All alone. But now loved and accepted. That’s the Good News of Jesus in a few words. Go to a New Testament passage like Ephesians 2. At vs. 11, we read:
11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)--12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
“In Christ”: that’s our new name. That’s why we are sometimes called “Christians.” Jump down to vs. 19:
19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household…
Jacob knew what it was like to know that God had special plans for him, but not to actually know God. He knew what it was like to be a “foreigner” in God’s household.
But one night, God touched him, changed him and gave him a new name. Like a newborn child, Jacob didn’t understand it all, but he knew that all things changed—that he was a new person, a new creation, a man with new hopes and new plans and even a new name. He knew this all came from God and that the rest of his life would all be about loving and serving the Lord. Was he Jacob? Yes, but his Jacob history would no longer define who he was. He was Israel now.
In ancient times, stones were sometimes used as invitations. If you received a white stone, you knew you were being invited to a joyous occasion. And if that white stone had a name, it would be a special name, a kind of code name indicating your status as a love one.
Jesus says something so beautiful in Revelation 2:17:
To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
What’s your name? Remember that God asked Jacob what his name was. God is asking you the same question today. We answer, and then the Lord says, “I have a new name for you. It’s a secret. But it’s wonderful. It’s the name that I thought of when I created you, before your parents picked a name for you. It’s a name of newness and joy and hope and life. It’s a name My Son paid for by His death on the cross.”
Do you know for certain that Jesus is the Lord of your life, that all your sins and forgiven? Have you received from God the hope only He can give?
There are several baskets of white stones around the sanctuary today. (No names on them—only God knows the names!) Before you leave today, I want to encourage you to go and pick out a white stone today as a reminder of the love Jesus has for you—His invitation to come to His celebration. One of these baskets is up here, and if you want to come and join Jesus’ forever family, let me encourage you to come here, to this basket, as way of showing your love for the one who went to the cross for you. He wants you to be part of His family starting today!