The Name Game

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For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, let’s take a look at the life of Peter.  Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.

Josef Stalin, the brutal dictator who ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 through his death in 1953, was into titles. 

His fawning public relations department dubbed him Great Leader, General Secretary, Father of Nations, Brilliant Genius of Humanity, Great Architect of Communism, and Gardener of Human Happiness.  Since there is credible evidence that he arranged for the deaths of 40-50 million of his fellow countrymen, that last one seems particularly ironic. 

Stalin was also into personal acclaim.  Every year on his birthday, the museums in Moscow were emptied out so they could be filled with his presents – although it’s hard to know what to give the autocrat who already has everything. 

On one occasion, he arrived unannounced at a crowded theater.  Everyone jumped to their feet and began to applaud.  The applause continued for a full five minutes.  Then a problem arose.  Who would be the first person to sit down?  As it turned out, an elderly gentleman finally took his seat.  Stalin made sure he was arrested the following day. 

The Soviet Union bent over backwards to make Stalin look heroic.  He was the “new man” that communism had promised the world.  His mistakes were blotted out from public records.  His legacy of genocide was scrubbed clean.  Sanitizing the past is a common tactic of repressive governments. 

We sometimes do the same thing at the funerals of our loved ones.  “He was a great guy,” we insist, choosing not to mention the aspects of his character that made us want to run down the street screaming or apply for a change of identity. 

As author and pastor Adam Hamilton points out, that could have been the strategy of the early church when it came to Peter.

They could have cleaned up his life story.  After all, Peter was already off the scene when the four Gospels were originally circulated in the second half of the first century.  It was known that he had been martyred in Rome during the persecution instigated by Emperor Nero.  According to a well-founded tradition, he had also been crucified.  But he insisted that he be crucified upside-down, since he felt unworthy to die like his master.  There seemed to be excellent reasons to “Stalinize” Peter and treat him as a hero of the faith.  Why not edit out the parts of the Gospels where he looks like a bumbling fool?

The answer appears to be that Peter himself insisted those embarrassing moments be recorded for all time.

We have strong hints that Peter was closely associated with Mark, the author of the second Gospel.  Mark’s 16 chapters can be understood as the personal reflections of the man who was quite possibly Jesus’ closest friend.  The astonishing thing is that Peter comes off looking worse in Mark’s Gospel than any of the other three. 

We know precious little about his background.  What we do know suggests a humble beginning. 

As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, Peter was almost certainly a young man when he met Jesus.  Hollywood has typically cast the disciples as thirty or fortysomething males searching for spiritual significance at mid-life.  Peter is usually assumed to be the oldest of the bunch.  We can imagine a casting director reaching out to Robert Duvall. 

But it’s far more likely that the Twelve were what we would call high school or college-age kids.  Their formal schooling had ended with Bar Mitzvah at age 13.  Their brightest peers would have already approached the most highly regarded rabbis and said, “May I follow you?”  If a rabbi nodded his consent, they would pack up their things and follow him.

Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, James and the others were the academic leftovers.  Since they had no future in study or contemplation, they would pursue a family trade.  

Incredibly, Jesus came to them.  “Follow me.”  No self-respecting rabbi would ever stoop to doing his own recruiting, especially among the “expendables.”  But Jesus, from the start, seemed to know that these young men were the ones who would move the needle of spiritual history. 

Peter was a fisherman.  Fishing in the Sea of Galilee was not easy. 

Teams of fisherman, working at night, would drop a dragnet or seine between two boats.  Then they would move forward, pulling the net around a school of fish.  Gathering up the net and its contents required brute strength.  Fishermen were not expected to be witty conversationalists or brilliant at arithmetic.  But they definitely had to be strong.

It’s interesting that both Stalin and Peter had suitably imposing nicknames.

The Soviet dictator was born Josef Besarionis Djughashvilli.  As he entered the ranks of the communist elite he decided to rename himself Stalin, which means “Man of Steel.”  Short of stature and always insecure, he pushed his way forward with a tough-sounding name.    

The Galilean fisherman was born Simeon bar Jonah – Simon the son of John.  Simon was a common name in ancient Israel.  There are nine different Simons in the New Testament alone. 

At a critical moment, however, Jesus changed Simon’s name.  In the process he changed all of his tomorrows.  “Blessed are you, Simon son of John… And I tell you that you are Peter [petros in Greek, which means “rock”] and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:17-18). 

Stalin’s name was a bludgeon.  Peter’s name was a blessing.  

Peter’s heartfelt trust in Christ somehow became the foundation for every positive thing that has ever happened in your relationship with God. 

Notice that Peter didn’t name himself.  That was Jesus’ prerogative. 

We may still be waiting to hear what name the Lord intends to bestow on each of us.

But whatever it may be – Encourager, Teacher, Peacemaker, Protector of the Weak, Fighter for Justice, First to Volunteer, Last to Give Up or Give In – it will be superior to any title you can ever receive in this world. 

And living out your own name-of-blessing will definitely move the needle of spiritual history.