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Why Did God Change People's Names?

Posted April 27, 2011


Hi B____,

Thank you too, for your question. You ask:

The answer is, yes there is indeed a great spiritual significance to every name given. The changing of a name in scripture in every case signifies a change in the status of that individual. For those with eyes that see and ears that hear, that change is always signifying a type and a shadow of spiritual growth.

Let's look at the three examples you mention to make this point.

Abraham's name was first Abram. Here is Hitchcock's definition of the name Abram.

"Abram - high father".

"High father" is an honorable name, but it is nowhere nearly as exalted as the meaning of the name Abraham. Here is Hitchcock's definition of the name Abraham.

"Abraham - father of a great multitude"

Just how big of a multitude are we to think this change in name was to signify? Here is what God had in mind when He changed Abram's name to Abraham.

Gen 17:4 As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.
Gen 17:5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.
Gen 17:6 And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.

Phrases like these make it sound like Abraham was to become the Father of a whole lot of nations and many kings, but later we learn that Abraham, in type, was to inherit the whole world.

Rom 4:13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

Why does Paul think that Abraham was to be "heir of the world"? Here is a verse which says as much:

Gen 22:17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

Gen 26:4 And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;

Abraham, in type and shadow, was to have children whose numbers were to be "as the stars of heaven", and as the sand which is upon the sea shore, and in Abraham's children all the nations of the earth were to be blessed.

The holy spirit through Paul reveals that we must be in Christ to be counted as Abraham's seed.

Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Gal 3:29 And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

So now we know that the reason for changing Abram's name to Abraham was for the purpose of showing us that "the world", every man who has ever lived, will, "in his own order", be redeemed from death through the true "Father of a multitude". The true "Father of a multitude is Jesus Christ.

Abraham's name was changed for our benefit. It was done so we would later realize the Christ-centric nature of the Word of God.

1Co 15:22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

1Ti 4:10 For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.

1Jn 2:2 And he [Christ] is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now let's look at why God saw fit to change Jacob's name to Israel.

Here is Hitchcock's definition of the name 'Jacob'.

Jacob - that supplants, undermines; the heel
(same as James)

We are all familiar with the story of the birth of Esau and his twin brother Jacob. Esau was actually born first, but Jacob was immediately born holding on to the heel of Esau.

Gen 25:24 And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb.
Gen 25:25 And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.
Gen 25:26 And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob: and Isaac was threescore years old when she bare them.

What does all of this mean? What it meant was that Jacob would, in type and shadow, supplant Esau. Here is the message in the meaning of the name 'Jacob':

Rom 9:11 (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;)
Rom 9:12 It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.
Rom 9:13 As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.

When we see the true meaning of all of this, we understand that just as Jacob replaced or supplanted Esau, so our old man is supplanted and replaced by our new man.

But there is a great and mighty struggle in getting from being a conniving supplanter, who is willing to lie, cheat and steal in order to gain God's blessing, to realizing that God's blessing is given to us, not because of our efforts, but in spite of those self-righteous efforts. That is the message of the changing of Jacob's name from Jacob to Israel, and that is the message of the entire book of Job. Read Job chapters 29, and then go read chapter 40.

Jacob, the man who worked so hard for Rachel, received Leah for his efforts. Then he was given Rachel and then he worked for her. In other words He got what he wanted without working, and was given what he did not want for all of his efforts just as did Job through his incredible trials.

The very same experience is repeated in that harrowing trip from Haran (Babylon), to Canaan, the promised land, the land which, in type and shadow, we have been promised by God.

Right after being saved by Christ Himself from the wrath of his father-in-law, Laban, Jacob is immediately threatened by Esau and an army of four hundred men. Jacob is scared to death for his life, and bows down to his brother Esau, seven times saying "Esau my Lord". In spiritual terms Jacob has been brought to see that he cannot "make war with the beast", Esau, his own twin brother, his own flesh. It is at this point, when it appears that Esau will annihilate Jacob and his entire family, that Jacob comes face to face with Christ, and is forced to face his most fearsome enemy while walking with a limp. Here is that story. Here is why Jacob's name was changed from Jacob, meaning supplanter, to Israel, or "a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed".

Gen 32:6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.
Gen 32:7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands;
Gen 32:8 And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape.
Gen 32:9 And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the LORD which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee:
Gen 32:10 I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands.
Gen 32:11 Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.
Gen 32:12 And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.
Gen 32:13 And he lodged there that same night; and took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother;
Gen 32:14 Two hundred she goats, and twenty he goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams,
Gen 32:15 Thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and ten bulls, twenty she asses, and ten foals.
Gen 32:16 And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by themselves; and said unto his servants, Pass over before me, and put a space betwixt drove and drove.
Gen 32:17 And he commanded the foremost, saying, When Esau my brother meeteth thee, and asketh thee, saying, Whose art thou? and whither goest thou? and whose are these before thee?
Gen 32:18 Then thou shalt say, They be thy servant Jacob's; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau: and, behold, also he is behind us.
Gen 32:19 And so commanded he the second, and the third, and all that followed the droves, saying, On this manner shall ye speak unto Esau, when ye find him.
Gen 32:20 And say ye moreover, Behold, thy servant Jacob is behind us. For he said, I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept of me.
Gen 32:21 So went the present over before him: and himself lodged that night in the company.
Gen 32:22 And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
Gen 32:23 And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.
Gen 32:24 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
Gen 32:25 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
Gen 32:26 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
Gen 32:27 And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
Gen 32:28 And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
Gen 32:29 And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.
Gen 32:30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.
Gen 32:31 And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

Only now, while leaning upon his staff in a physically weak and crippled condition, given Him by our Lord Himself, is Jacob in any position to face his own flesh and blood brother, Esau. But he does face Esau, and he does so knowing that he is helpless of himself and completely worthy of death for what his own efforts have gotten him.

Gen 33:3 And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

Jacob learned this lesson only by being "alone with a man", Christ, and by being given a limp, being given to realize that God's strength can only be realized through weakness of our flesh.

2Co 12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

So Jacob, the supplanter, became Israel, a prince who prevailed with God, but only through realizing his own helplessness and weakness and his own inability to save himself.

Finally let's look at why Saul of Tarsus had his name changed to Paul. It might just be for the very same reason that Jacob had to endure the trials that led to his change in name.

Here is Hitchcock's definition of the name 'Saul'.

Saul - demanded; lent; ditch; death

Why does Saul mean 'demanded'? It is because the people of Israel wanted to be just like everyone around them and have a king reigning over them. They did not want God, through judges, directing their affairs.

1Sa 8:1 And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel.
1Sa 8:2 Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abiah: they were judges in Beersheba.
1Sa 8:3 And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.
1Sa 8:4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
1Sa 8:5 And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.
1Sa 8:6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
1Sa 8:7 And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.

The people "demanded" a king, so the Lord gave them a king whose name would remind them that it was their own self-willed, demanding ways that placed this king over them. That is the very meaning of the name 'Saul', and that way of being great in our own eyes and serving ourselves leads to death, which is another meaning of the name 'Saul'.

Now let's look at the meaning of the name 'Paul'.

Paul - small; little

Here is where we learn of this change of name. We are not given any of the details of when this change took place. We are simply advised that it had taken place.

Act 13:1 Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
Act 13:2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.
Act 13:3 And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
Act 13:4 So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus.
Act 13:5 And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister.
Act 13:6 And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus:
Act 13:7 Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God.
Act 13:8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.
Act 13:9 Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him,
Act 13:10 And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?

So Saul was changed from a man who was demanding that Christians either repent of what he considered to be heresy or die as heretics, to a man who realized that he had no right to demand anything and who wanted only to ask "Lord what would you have me to do?" In other words, he went from being great in his own eyes to being small in his own eyes. The exact opposite is what happened with King Saul. King Saul went from being small in his own eyes to thinking he was a very great man. Let's contrast the experiences of these two 'Sauls'.

1Sa 15:16 Then Samuel said unto Saul, Stay, and I will tell thee what the LORD hath said to me this night. And he said unto him, Say on.
1Sa 15:17 And Samuel said, When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the LORD anointed thee king over Israel?
1Sa 15:18 And the LORD sent thee on a journey, and said, Go and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they be consumed.
1Sa 15:19 Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the LORD, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the LORD?

When we are not "little in our own eyes", we "do not obey the voice of the Lord".

Now let's see what happened to Saul of Tarsus.

Act 9:1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
Act 9:2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
Act 9:3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
Act 9:4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
Act 9:5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
Act 9:6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
Act 9:7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
Act 9:8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
Act 9:9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

Christ told Saul that in persecuting His disciples, Saul was actually persecuting Christ Himself. The overwhelming presence of Christ caused Saul to understand that he was in no position to demand anything of our Lord, and instead he asked or "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?"

In other words, Saul realized just how little he was in the presence of our Lord. and when we see him again in chapter 15, his name is changed from 'Saul', meaning 'demanding' and being puffed up with his own self importance, to 'Paul', who is "little" in his own eyes, and wants only to know "Lord what would you have me to do?"

It is only those who realize their own helplessness to save themselves who will be used by a God who tells us that His strength is made perfect only in our weakness.

2Co 12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

I hope and pray that this all serves to demonstrate to you that there is a real valuable spiritual lesson behind all the names and changes of names in the scriptures, and every change in name reflects another valuable step towards seeing that "all things [really] are of God" and that our flesh has absolutely nothing of any value to our Lord and our Creator.

Your brother in Christ,

Mike