This is just for fun today…
Names are an interesting cultural difference between us and the ancients in the book of Acts. For us, names are largely set in stone at birth. Very few people in our culture legally change their names at any point in life, and often that’s seen as a little strange. Most people have a first and middle name and if they don’t like one they simply go by the other.
Back in the days of Acts, things were different. They didn’t have a social security number or a birth certificate on file in a centralized government. The nobles might have, but record-keeping didn’t extend to the masses. People were often given new names by their friends and cohorts which stuck. Other times, especially in the case of Jews, people would change their names to something more appropriate for trade in whatever culture they were in.
Antisemitism isn’t anything new; it happened in the Roman world, too. So, often times a Jew named Shmule might change his name to Steve so that he didn’t stand out so much when trying to sell his wares in a Gentile market. At least the Gentiles might have a shot at pronouncing a Gentile name he chose instead of butchering his given name. I imagine there were more than a few Shmules who went by Gunter in Nazi Germany before they were rounded up.
If you’ve ever met an Asian (predominately the people from China do this) immigrant to the United States, they may have introduced themselves as Frank, or Charles or Howard or something like that. You can rest assured that’s not their name. They either learned through experience or someone told them beforehand that we’d just butcher their names so they may as well choose something that sounds American.
Saul = Paul?
Case in point in Acts: Paul. Many people believe that God changed Saul’s name to Paul like He did with Simon to Peter, but that’s no where in scripture. Saul knew he was called to the Gentiles, and since he probably already went by Paul at times in the Gentile markets where he was born in Tarsus and spoke Greek, he ended up becoming known by a Greek form of his name. After all, Paul is a lot like Saul, but much more Gentile. Saul just wasn’t a name used by the Greeks and Romans but Paul was. Instead of sticking out like a sore thumb with his name, Paul chose to identify himself as something Gentiles could identify with more readily.
Son of Encouragement
Barnabas is another interesting case. Barnabas was not his given name. We know from Acts 4 his name was Joses but the apostles in Jerusalem started calling him Barnabas because the name meant “son of encouragement.” We clearly see from his life in Acts that the name fit, and for whatever reason, Barnabas chose to go by that name over Joses the rest of his life. Or at least, no one else in the church let him go by Joses again, so we know him as Barnabas now.
Why is all this important? In the end, if you’ve never understood this you’ve probably not missed a lot from the book of Acts. What you have missed are some subtle messages we can learn from it, though. Barnabas may have liked his new name given him by the apostles so much that he just went with it. How endearing that must have been to take a new name with your new identity.
Men like Paul were willing to change their name for the sake of the gospel. We forever know him as Paul now because he chose to use a name Gentiles could more easily associate with. “Jewish men were already doing the same thing just to sell in the market, so isn’t the Gospel much more important?” I imagine Paul rationalizing.
We should imitate the bonds of love that graced the early church that would cause them to change a man’s name to honor his character. How well would the church function today if we did such things?
And Paul’s name is one more little thing that should tell us of the importance of sharing the gospel in our lives today. If a name wasn’t going to be a hindrance to the gospel for him, what should we do? What are small hindrances to sharing the gospel in our lives today? Our names probably aren’t keeping us from sharing, but what about where we shop? Where we eat? Where we go to church?
Are there small things you can change this year to be more effective at sharing the gospel?