When I was growing up, I was involved in a lot of different activities. I played sports. I belonged to clubs. I worked jobs. I went to school. These were all great experiences, and these experiences help to inform decisions I make today and the way I live my life. However, they are not who I am.
You’ve probably heard a lot people say that we are merely a sum of our experiences. Lord, I hope not. If my identity is tied up in the events of my past, then I have no hope of overcoming how that past has affected me. But if my identity is tied to something greater that transcends the tragedies, failings, and baggage of my past, then victory is something to be hoped for, after all.
In Matthew 16, the issue of identity comes to the forefront in a conversation between Jesus and His disciples. Up until that point, they had been called to follow Him, participate in His ministry, and witness incredible miracles, but they had not yet been challenged to respond to Him directly. He asked them who people thought that He was. A variety of answers were given, but none that correctly identified Him. Then He looks at the one called Simon, and asks pointedly, “Who do YOU say that I am?” How Jesus handled Simon’s response speaks powerfully to the way in which He desires to work in our lives.
In Biblical times names meant something. Someone’s identity was often tied up in his name, even to the point of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Simon’s name meant “one who hears.” And yet, deep down, Simon was more then just a hearer of Jesus. He was made to be a doer, a leader. His name, and therefore his identity, did not reflect who God had created Him to be. And so the solution was simple. He needed a new name.
What is so powerful about this passage is that it is not until Simon confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and God’s answer to our sin that he received his new name. It is that confession that opened the door for Jesus to change Simon’s name, to give him his true identity, and to reveal the purpose he was created for. Simon became Peter, and the hearer became the doer.
Names don’t mean what they used to. People often choose baby names for pretty superficial reasons. While all names have meanings, those meanings are novelties, at most. And so this passage seems strange to us because we would never think our name needed to be changed. However, the name Jesus longs to change in our lives is not what is on our birth certificate but what is written on our hearts. It is name that reveals who we truly are in the eyes of God.
If you are struggling to discover who you are, it is not because you need to experience more of life. Your choices do not define you. Your relationships do not define you. Your career, your bank account, and your past do not define you. You are defined by the identity of the God who created you. This is a reality worth running to, because it demonstrates the unconditional love of God that says that nothing you have ever done can get in the way of the life He has created for you. Understanding that identity begins with your answer to a simple question: “Who do YOU say that I am?”