Peter the 'rock': What's in a name?


In the passage above, we see three things are going on. We see Jesus talking about the church, Simon's name is changed to "Peter" and Jesus talks about the effect that the church will have on something called the "gates of hell".

So, yes, this is a three-parter, so it will be easier to read.

We have already taken care of the "gates of hell" part HERE (please click). And we'll take care of the charge of the church later.

For now though, let's just stick with names.

Jesus tells Peter that "upon this rock I will build my church." In the second part of the passage we see Jesus add, "and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (the church)". Note that, in the previous verse (Matthew 16:17), Jesus had called Peter "Simon son of Jona", which was the name Peter was born with. But Jesus also is quoted as calling him Simon Barjona ("Bar" means "son of" Jona) and also Cephas (John 1:42).

The phrase “son of Jona” identified Simon as a different Simon than all the other Simons by this family connection. This functioned very close to a last name. Today, our last names use the same distinction. John Smith identifies John as a part of the Smith family.

The Jews have a tradition since ancient times of naming people according to their characteristics (perceived or real), and they can have more than one name. Think of other names as "nicknames", or better yet, "descriptors," telling of other characteristics that emerge over time.

One classic example of such name characteristics is in Genesis 17:3–6, and the story of Abraham's name. His birth name wasn't Abraham. It was "Abram." No. "ha" in it. "Abram" just means "father." But when God said he would become a father of "many nations" it was changed to "Abraham". The "ha" is actually God breathing into the name of Abram and making it change to a supernatural name from Above.

There are several cases where God changed someone's name:

  • Abram's wife was changed from "Sarai" to "Sarah" (Genesis 17:15-16).
  • Jacob had his name changed to Israel (Genesis 32:26 – 30; 35:9 – 10).
  • Solomon was called Jedidiah (beloved of the Lord) because God loved him (2 Samuel 12:24 – 25), though it is not clear that God had his name changed and he was always afterwards called Solomon.
  • Pashur was called “Terror on Every Side” by God (Jeremiah 20:1 – 6).

God also has a name for those who follow him (2 Chronicles 7:14). We are called by His name. And there is also this: There is a reward promised for believers, which is to be given a new name (Revelation 2:17).

According to, "Sometimes a person was identified by his tribe, such as “Aaron, the Levite” (Exodus 4:14), which differentiated that particular Aaron from the Aarons in other tribes. In the same way, Jesus was called Jesus of Nazareth to indicate His hometown (Matthew 26:71; John 18:5). Others in biblical times used their occupations as a functional last name, such as “Simon the tanner” (Acts 10:6). “Tanner” wasn’t his last name, but a way to distinguish him from other Simons in the area who had a different occupation.

"Judas Iscariot’s name was given to him to designate his native place, Carioth, or Kerioth, a small town in the tribe of Judah. Matthew, one of the Twelve and author of the gospel bearing his name, refers to himself as “Matthew the tax-collector” (Matthew 10:3), which reveals not only his occupation, but the astounding fact that even someone as lowly and despised as a tax collector could be chosen by Jesus to become His follower."

God has nicknames for us too. Gideon was called "a mighty man of valor" even though he felt afraid and weak (Judges 6:12). 

Why did Jesus change Peter's name? Well, he didn't change it. He just added another descriptor to his disciple's life. Instead of being just a son of Jona, he would also become the one to lay a foundation for belief in Christ for the Jew and Gentile.  You can see in Matthew 16:13-16 that Peter was the only one to whom the Holy Spirit revealed Jesus as the Son of the Living God. You could say that the Holy Spirit's revelation to Peter classified as an encounter with God, and that it was at that very supernatural moment that "Simon" literally became "Peter", as Jesus declared in Matthew 16:18.

Jesus was speaking in faith and prophetically as He pronounced that, because He had not yet been crucified, and Peter had not yet denied his Lord three times (Matthew 26:34). This fact also adds a deeper layer of meaning to Luke 22:32, when Jesus gives Peter some final instructions during the Last Supper. Note that in that passage, Peter had denied his Lord, and Jesus referred to Peter as "Simon." But also note that Jesus' reference was personal - it wasn't "Simon, son of Jonah". It was just "Simon." A single soul.

Also note that the angel at the tomb of Jesus didn't say, "Simon", but rather, "Peter" in Mark 16:7, "But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you."