In the name of Jesus (part 1)

You probably do it all the time.

When you pray — especially if you’re praying out loud or asking God for something important — you end with something like, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

For some of us, it’s nearly automatic; we say it without thinking. We may even have caught ourselves hesitating mentally: Wait… I started this prayer by talking directly to Jesus. Wouldn’t it be weird to end with, “In the name of Jesus”? Maybe I should say, “In your name”? Or would that be even weirder?

Or we might wonder why we do it at all. At some level, we know that it’s not some kind of incantation: Just say the magic words, and poof! Your prayer will be granted!  But if the truth be told, we may still harbor some vague, unspoken worry that God won’t hear the prayer if we don’t “get it right.”

So why do we pray in the name of Jesus?

The simplest answer, of course, is that Jesus told us to. Three times in his so-called “Farewell Discourse” — his final words to his disciples before his arrest — Jesus tells them to ask for things in his name. Twice he instructs them to ask the Father (John 15:16; 16:23-24). This is what we normally do: pray to Father in the name of Jesus. But he even tells them, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14, NRSV).

Pray to Jesus in Jesus’ name? Isn’t that a bit awkward?

Or is that what he meant?

Part of the problem is that we don’t treat names the same way many ancients did. To many of us, names are little more than labels. We may like the sound of them; we may even choose names for our children that have some special meaning. But we don’t think of names themselves as having any intrinsic power. Even as Christians, it may be hard to understand why Jews consider the name of God too holy to speak aloud, or why most of our English translations of the Bible persist in using the word “LORD” in all caps to signal where the name is being used.

In ancient times, names were thought to carry some of the power and authority of the person named. The name of God wasn’t just a label for the divine, but was itself to be treated with the same reverence. Moreover, the people prayed to God to act for the sake of his name — in other words, to demonstrate his holiness for the sake of his reputation (e.g., Psa 25:11; 31:3; 79:9; 109:21; 143:11; Jer 14:7, 21).

Now there’s something we understand: the link between name and reputation. We may like or dislike our names as labels. Personally, for example, I don’t care for my own name; I can’t count the number of times people have gotten it wrong over the years. But even worse is the thought that others, who know my name, will whisper slanderous things about me. I would want to do something to clear my name.

Similarly, we can get a sense of the authority associated with names by thinking about the practice of name-dropping. If Johnny is someone who commands respect or admiration, we might work his name into a conversation to bask in the reflected glow: “You know, as I was saying to my friend Johnny the other day…” Or, we might drop his name to convince someone to do us a favor: “Psst…Johnny sent me.”

Think, then, what this means for praying “in the name of Jesus.” It’s not an incantation. It’s not a formula. Jesus doesn’t say, “When you pray, make sure you tack on the words ‘in the name of Jesus’ at the end, or I’ll just ignore you.”

After all, even if many of the psalms ask God to act for his name’s sake, many more do not. Did these prayers go unheard? Should we strike them from our Bibles? Of course not.

To pray in the name of Jesus, then, means to pray in his authority and in accordance with his will. And that has implications both for how we pray and for how we understand what’s happening in the book of Acts. More on that in the second part of this post.