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  • Writer's pictureRick LoPresti

Behold, thou art called a Jew

The history of the names of the people of God has some important lessons to teach us. Before Abraham, the people of God did not have a specific name, and neither had the Lord Himself revealed Himself through a specific name. God showed Himself to Abraham through the name God Almighty, or in Hebrew El Shaddai (Gen 17:1). He later revealed Himself to Moses through the name we usually say in English as Yahweh or Jehovah (Ex 3:14, Ex 6:3). Then He revealed His New Testament name of Jesus through the angel Gabriel (Mt 1:21, Lk Lk 1:31). Abraham was called a Hebrew (Gen 14:13), which has the base meaning of descendant of Eber, a man in his lineage (Gen 10 & 11, 1Chr 1). Joseph was also called a Hebrew by the Egyptians (Gen 39:14 & 17, Gen 41:12), as were his people (Gen 40:15, Gen 43:12). The Egyptians called the people of God Hebrews in the days of Moses (Ex 1-10). After the Exodus from Egypt, the people of God almost never referred to themselves as Hebrews (Ex 21:2, Deut 15:12, Jer 34:9). That is because this name means "one from beyond or from the other side". This refers to them as foreigners from beyond the Jordan River or even the Euphrates River. After the people took possession of the promised land, it was almost exclusively mentioned as being used by their enemies the Philistines whose land they had conquered (1Sam 4, 1Sam 13, 1Sam 14, 1Sam 29:3). According to lexicographers Strong and Gesenius, this name became a way for the Philistines to say that they were foreigners in a land they did not belong in. It is noteworthy that the name Palestinian is a modern version of the name Philistine. They still see the Jews as foreigners who do not belong in the land.

Another name for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is Jew. Like the name Hebrew, this word has a specific usage and intended meaning. It describes the people as conquered and dispersed from its first appearance in the Bible (2Ki 16:6). Even its root meaning refers to this (Gesenius). From the time of Joshua until the time of Rehoboam which was about 400 years, the twelve tribes of Israel were one nation living in the land formerly known as Canaan. Because of the sins of Solomon, God pronounced a judgment on the nation in the form of division in the days of his son Rehoboam (1Ki 11-12). Ten tribes became the northern kingdom called Israel, and two tribes became the southern kingdom called Judah. Because of their continued sins, both kingdoms were destroyed by their enemies. Israel was destroyed first by Assyria in about 700 BC and the people were dispersed (2Ki 17), and Judah was destroyed and dispersed by Babylon in about 600 BC (2Ki 25). After this, they began to be called Jews, which means people of the land of Judah or Judaea (2Ki 16:6, 2Ki 25:15, Est, Neh, Jer, Zech 8:23). The name Jew also appears in the New Testament, predominantly in John, Acts, Romans, and 1Corinthians. During that time Israel was a conquered colony ruled by Rome.

A third major name for these people is Israelite. The angel that Jacob wrestled with changed his name to Israel, which is defined as a prince who has power with God (Gen 32:28). After that, his descendants were called the children of Israel or Israelites. Today this name is used as Israeli, which is closer to the original Hebrew word. This name appears in the singular and plural forms 22 times. This name represents the people as a unique, chosen, separated people to God and distinct from others from its first usage in Exodus 9:7. When God destroyed the cattle of the Egyptians, none of the cattle of the Israelites died, showing that He was making a clear distinction between the two people. Other references to this name also show its meaning as an indicator of the special status of these people (Lev 23:42, Josh 3:17, Josh 8:24, Josh 13:6 & 13, 1Sam 13:20, 1Sam 29:1, 2Ki 3:24, 1Chr 9:2). 1Samuel 14:21 is particularly interesting. "Moreover the Hebrews that were with the Philistines before that time, which went up with them into the camp from the country round about, even they also turned to be with the Israelites that were with Saul and Jonathan." During the battle between Israel and the Philistines in the days of king Saul, those Israelites that had fled and joined with the Philistine enemy were called Hebrews. Those that were fighting with Saul were called Israelites. Those that chose to identify as conquered were called Hebrews, and those that chose to identify as soldiers in God's army were called Israelites. When those called Hebrews decided to join Saul's army, they forsook the identity they had chosen with the Philistines and reclaimed their identity as Israelites.

There is much talk today about how people identify themselves. This issue applies to Christians as well. The followers of Jesus were first called disciples. The root of this word is discipline. That means to purposefully adhere to a set of teachings, to be someone's pupil or student. A disciple of Jesus is someone who does what He said (Lk 6:46, Jn 8:30-32, Jn 14:15, 1Jn 5:2-3, etc.). The first "headquarters" of the church in the book of Acts was Jerusalem (Acts 1-11). However, due to persecution, the influx of Gentiles into the church, the impending Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and the development of the ministry of the apostle Paul who was based in Antioch, the center of operations shifted there (Acts 11-15). It was in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). This was apparently originally a name given by unbelievers to the disciples, and therefore was probably meant as an insult at first. It only appears in the Bible three times (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, 1Pet 4:16). Later, the disciples embraced it as an honor. This is reminiscent of Peter and John embracing the honor of being identified with Christ through persecution (Acts 5:41), and the cross originally meant by the Romans to be a symbol of shame and extreme punishment becoming a symbol of Christianity, although Jesus is risen and ascended now. The whole world recognizes the cross as a reminder of Jesus dying for our sins. Although Easter and Christmas have their origins in paganism and not the Bible, they too have become universally understood to be reminders of Jesus.

What we call ourselves represents how we identify ourselves. We can choose to identify with sin and call ourselves by names that represent how we are out of alignment with the word of God. We can embrace an identity and mindset of victimhood and defeat. We can accept the negative names others put on us, or we can identify with the only One who lived perfectly, loved us with perfect love, died and rose again, ascended to heaven, and is ready to share His victory with us (1Cor 15:1-4). He invites us to believe in Him, repent of our sins, be baptized by immersion in water in His name for the remission of sins, and to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost with the initial outward evidence of speaking in an unknown language (Acts 2:38, Acts 8:12-17, Acts 10:43-48, Acts 19:1-7), and be His disciples. Then we can identify with Him through His name, His word, and His blood.

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