What’s In a Name?

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 16:13-16

As an immigrant kid growing up in the US, my family routinely visited INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services). We had to overcome the labyrinth of legal bureaucracy to eventually gain legal residency in the United States.

One unintended result of my INS experience was that I actually learned my name. As strange as it may sound I was not aware of my full name during my early childhood. Everyone in my family called me “Sergito.” In Spanish, the suffix “ito” means the small version of something. Well, I was the small version of my father, Sergio.

In the Bible, names have deep meanings. For example: Elisha means, “my God is salvation,” while Ishmael means, “God will hear.” So when Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say I am?” I think it’s possible that his question was multi-faceted. Jesus’ name alone had a powerful meaning. I like what biblical scholar J.C. Ryle has to say about Jesus’ name.

“The name Jesus means ‘Savior.’ It is the same name as Joshua in the Old Testament. It is given to our Lord because “He saves His people from their sins.” This is His special role. He saves them from the guilt of sin by cleansing them in His own atoning blood. He saves them from the dominion of sin by putting in their hearts the sanctifying Spirit. He saves them from the presence of sin, when He takes them out of this world to rest with Him. He will save them from all the consequences of sin, when He shall give them a glorious body at the last day” –C. Ryle

As a young child, I never paid attention to discover why my family would call my father Sergio, especially since friends and acquaintances called him Jorge (or George in English). Learning how to address people was a confusing endeavor.

After all, half of my community spoke Spanish and the other half spoke English. The Spanish language is quite proper, and culturally, minors show respect for their elders by addressing them appropriately.

English, on the other hand, was the anarchist guide to personal preferences. Some people appreciated being addressed as “Mr. or Mrs.” Others prefer first name rather than last name, and vice versa. Then there are those who would just say, “call me Skipper.”

Figuring out proper name etiquette at times seemed more confusing then interpreting the book of Revelation in the Bible. I often found myself in hot water when I got it wrong, not just in one language but two. All this to say that names are important to people. A person’s name describes the beauty of their character and defines their identity. No one knew this more than Jesus.

When I was seven years old, my family and I neared the conclusion of our immigration process. That’s when the Immigration agent asked me to sign my name. It was the first time I had seen my entire name spelled out: “Jorge Sergio Chavez Rodriguez Junior.” Suddenly everything made sense to me. My father’s first name Jorge was changed to George, (easier for US Americans to pronounce).

Within our family, it was more personal to call him Sergio, which is why I was called Sergito, as a term of endearment. In Mexico, legal documents include surname and maiden names, which from my Mother’s side is “Rodriguez.” And lo and behold, I never knew I was a junior.

When I read the question that Jesus presents to Peter, I have the sense that He is asking, “do you believe what my name implies?” Peter confirms that the disciples indeed believe Jesus is the Son of God. That’s when Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon Bar-Jonah.”

Hearing Jesus’ response, I can’t help but think that Jesus is using a parallel to Peter’s response. In my mind, it makes Jesus more human – as if He’s saying, “just as you say I have a Father, so do you.” A combined translation of, Simon Bar-Jonah translates to – “listening son of dove.” “Simon,” meaning “listening.” “Bar” meaning “son,” and “Jonah,” meaning “dove.”

My love of scripture translates this as, “Simon you have been listening. You carry the name of a prophet: Jonah. It was Jonah who was troubled, but ultimately listened to God and saved an entire nation. Just as the Dove represents the Holy Spirit, soon you too will prophesize to the world at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit (in the form of a tongue of fire) descends upon you.” (Acts 2:14-41).

In that moment, Peter proclaims Jesus as Christ. This is what happens when we connect with the Holy Spirit; our deepest beliefs are revealed and become an unstoppable force that we carry with us throughout our lives.

Learning my full name was a revelation. Sure, not as profound as Simon Peter claiming Jesus is Christ, but it changed the course of my life. I now could claim who I was, who I am to become and hopefully who Jesus is calling me.

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