What does it mean to pray in the name of Jesus?
Indeed, what does it mean to do anything in the name of Jesus?
In the previous post, I argued that the words “in the name of Jesus” should not be treated as some kind of religious formula for getting a prayer “right.” To pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in accordance with his will and authority.
Look again at John 14, for example, which we quoted last time. There, Jesus says, “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” (vss. 13-14). At first blush, it might sound odd or awkward for Jesus to tell his disciples to pray to him in his own name.
But we have to include the verse that comes just before: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (vs. 12).
In context, Jesus is speaking to a group of men who are distraught because he’s announced that he’s leaving them. He’s trying to give them a vision of what’s coming next. They will be carrying on his mission. They will be acting under the authority of his name. And they will be doing all this with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Or consider what Jesus says shortly thereafter: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name” (John 15:16). The disciples are commissioned to bear eternal fruit, and that commission is the context in which they pray to the Father in the name of Jesus.
Thus, let’s scrub any notion that we need to use a certain formula to get God to act on our behalf. The question is not whether we’re using the right words when we pray; the question is whether we’re praying in accordance with what God wants, in accordance with our vocation as those who have been chosen to carry on the mission of Jesus.
All of this is relevant to what otherwise might get passed over as a minor detail in the book of Acts.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, Peter and John were heading into the temple for prayer, when they encountered a beggar who had been born lame. The man asked for money, but Peter gave him a miracle instead. “I have no silver or gold,” Peter told him, “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6, NRSV). Peter pulled him to his feet, and the man promptly set to capering about, praising God.
“In the name of Jesus Christ.” In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, Peter preached a sermon that left people feeling disoriented and desolate: We’ve killed the Messiah! What are we going to do? “Repent,” Peter answered quickly, “and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (vs. 38).
Thousands were baptized in the name of Jesus. Indeed, there was no other name in which their sins could be forgiven; no one else had died for them on a cross. A man who had never walked was healed in the name of Jesus; before him, no one else had performed such a prophetic sign.
At the risk of belaboring the point, the name of Jesus was not being used as some kind of spiritual hocus pocus (interestingly, some believe that the origin of that phrase is a corruption of the Latin for “This is my body,” and thus poking fun at the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation).
Lest there be any doubt, read the story of the sons of Sceva in Acts 19. Not Christ-followers themselves, they tried to cast out an evil spirit in the name of “the Jesus whom Paul proclaims” (vs. 13). The spirit’s response is classic: “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” (vs. 15). Then the possessed man jumped on the seven brothers and thrashed them. The would-be exorcists fled in terror, naked and bloodied.
Hocus pocus indeed.
What we are meant to understand is that the book of Acts represents the fulfillment of what Jesus had already promised the disciples: they would do even greater works than Jesus himself had done. But they would do them in his authority and power, as a continuation of what he had begun.
They would do them, in other words, in his name.