On not being enslaved to a mere cultural practice


The large majority of Christian prayers I have heard over several decades, from formal prayers in large church settings to informal ones in private homes, have concluded with some variation on “. . . in Jesus’ name, amen.” That phrase may be somewhat altered to something like “. . .through Christ our Lord, amen” or to longer elaborations—from simple statements such as, “We ask these things in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, amen” to the glorious formularies found in the Episcopal prayer book, e.g., “All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ. By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.”

All of which is perfectly fine. My intent here is not to criticize simply because I see something questionable in the body of Christ—by that standard both you and I could generate hundreds of pages of useless, vain disparagements. My desire rather is to shine a spotlight on a major practice/tradition that, although completely acceptable in itself, merits discussion solely because people are often enslaved to it. It’s possible to be enslaved to all sorts of good things—e.g., talking in “Christianese,” ministering, preaching, doing good works. Our aim should be to act and speak and think at all times in complete freedom, not because we are unconsciously constrained by our culture to act/speak/think in a particular way.

Many people clearly are enslaved to verbal formulas. In our church we occasionally have periods during which people are invited to pray aloud, a hand microphone being passed to anyone who wants to participate. Frequently, even though all sorts of prayers have already been offered explicitly “in the name of ” our Lord, nearly everyone will end their prayer with, “. . . in Jesus’ name, amen.” One individual, who frequently prays from the pulpit during more formal worship services, typically offers quite wonderful, spontaneous petitions; then this person appears to have run out of things to pray—for inevitably there is a brief pause followed by an incredibly fast, virtually mumbled, “injsnamamn.”

The metaphor that presents itself to me is of a computer keyboard used to create an email message. I type the entire message and then, after hesitating for a second to be sure I actually want to transmit it, I click <Enter> to launch it on its way. “In Jesus’ name, amen” has become modern Christians’ <Enter> key. It’s as if we haven’t really sent our prayer off to the heavens until we press that key at the end.

Before continuing with the more important treatment of the phrase “In Jesus’ name,” I want to address the practice of saying Amen. I will do that simply and quickly. There is no compelling reason to use the word Amen to end our prayers! In scripture, it is used primarily to communicate something like, “Yes! That is right!” Admittedly, it can be a nice signal to let everyone know that the prayer is over, but apart from that we appear to use it because “That’s the say we’ve always done it.” Which is a poor reason to do anything.

It might help us to think more clearly about spiritual dynamics if we would consider not saying Amen to complete our public prayers, but simply would stop speaking when we’re finished. There’s nothing wrong with saying Amen, of course, and I often do it, but it’s probably good for us to be forced to consider why we do things. If people need a signal to let them know it’s time to open their eyes, my question would be, “Why do you close your eyes in the first place? It’s nothing but a tradition with no particularly rational basis.” (It’s clearly not so you can concentrate in order to talk to someone—i.e., God—whom you can’t see; if that were the case, you would close your eyes when you talk on the telephone, and I strongly doubt that you do that.)

Although no one would admit to consciously having such thoughts, I believe many of us unconsciously see “in Jesus’ name” or its various equivalents as something akin to magic. Without those words stuck onto our prayer, we imagine our prayer just won’t “take”; use them, and our prayer quickly ascends to God’s throne.

The concept behind name in the ancient Near East was far more complex than a bit of magic. A person’s name was largely seen as being close to the equivalent of that person himself or herself—hence the endless biblical encouragements to give praise to the name of Yahweh, and later to exalt the name of Jesus. It’s probably more of a linguistic tradition than an important theological point. Doing something in the name of someone else, in the ancient Near East, was to stand in that person’s authority, to be a personal representative of that person, to act in that person’s stead.

I suggest we often place way too much importance on what actually were customs of ancient Semitic languages, inappropriately translating those human customs into major theological doctrines/practices instead of acknowledging their human and historical origins.

The importance is in the reality, not in the sound waves that may or may not issue from a person’s mouth—as illustrated by Peter’s simply commanding the dead girl, “Tabitha, get up!” (Acts 9:40) and Paul’s commanding the lame man, “Stand upright on your feet!” (Acts 14:8-10). Neither apostle included “in the name of Jesus” in his statement. It’s possible, of course, that they did and Luke (presumed writer of the book of Acts) didn’t bother to record it. Even if that is the case, however, it can’t be insignificant that it wasn’t mentioned. Use or nonuse of the phrase “in the name of” clearly wasn’t a big deal for Luke.

From the standpoint of biblical theology, moreover, I believe it’s important to boldly and humbly and gloriously acknowledge exactly what our God accomplished for us in Jesus. He really loves us! Jesus’ blood takes away the sin of the entire world (John 1:29). Jesus has been raised to God’s right hand, with authority above all earthly and demonic powers (Ephesians 1:20-22), and we are there with him (Ephesians 2:6-7). God has made Jesus “the head over all things for the church” (Ephesians 1:22).

In sum: we are completely saved by Jesus’ blood, and he is ruling heaven and earth in large part for us; we are totally, unambiguously reconciled to God and in fact are his adopted children (Romans 8:15-17). Because we are “in” Jesus the Messiah, we are at the right hand of God with Jesus.

That means, my friend, that as adopted children of God we have incredible spiritual authority. When our minds and hearts are in the right place, we can encounter the entire world—everyone we meet, everything that happens to us or happens around us—with the blessing and the power and the glorious presence of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah. Ideally, in our hearts/minds we consciously cover everyone we meet—whether they’re family members with whom we spend many hours, or they’re sales staff we see for thirty seconds at the convenience store—with a gracious blessing: “I am an authorized ambassador of the King and Savior of the universe; and I bless you, I proclaim grace and healing and peace to you!” We need not say it out loud—it would be highly inappropriate to do that in 99.9% of circumstances. But we are privileged to convey that blessing. And that is acting, that is living, in the name of Jesus!

Do you truly imagine that you have to tack “in the name of Jesus” or the equivalent onto any statement or thought in order to start it on its way to your Father’s ear? Of course not! Let your day be filled with silent but joyous thanksgivings and petitions:

Thank you for those beautiful tulips! The sound of children on the playground two blocks away is always a joy, Father, thank you for that. The famine in Sudan is worsening, Lord, please have mercy and bring both rain for the crops and peace! Thank you for my daughter! Thank you for my son! Thank you for my wife/husband! Let your healing power constantly flow into Jennifer, Lord, as she is incredibly in need of your touch! Thank you for electricity! Wow, we always have hot water in our house, what a blessing—thank you! Touch that man, Lord, he seems so sad. I’ve been immunized against horrible diseases that devastated human populations not long ago—thank you, Abba! Lift David’s depression, my Lord, drive the darkness from him forever. These Brussels sprouts are delicious—thank you, Father! Bless Karen as she counsels Philip, Lord, he desperately needs your healing! Hello, Mr. cardinal, I bless you for sharing your joyous song with our neighborhood! It’s so incredible—I have a car to drive wherever I need to go, and enough money to buy gas and keep it running; that is such a blessing and I am SO rich—thank you, thank you, gracious Father!

I assure you that no “magic words” are necessary to speed such thoughts on to your heavenly Daddy. You are his child. You have 24/7 access. The access came at literally infinite cost, through the precious blood of the Lamb of God who was slain for you. Keeping that overwhelming fact always before you, of course you do everything in the name of Jesus! You are his representative in this world. You are, in Paul’s words, God’s ambassador to/within this present age (II Corinthians 5:20). The very idea that you have to tack a particular phrase onto any statement that you happen to be addressing to your Father is, to put it mildly, rather silly.

If you need to use certain words as a reminder to yourself or to others, of course, that’s fine.

I am in no way saying you should not use “in the name of. . .” phrases—I frequently use them.

It’s just that they are not necessary as you are genuinely and humbly standing in your exalted position as an adopted child of the King. Use such language when it seems appropriate, but do not use it because you feel you have to use it!

I admit that I am particularly fond of the sometimes extraordinarily long phrases that end many prayers in the Anglican/Episcopal liturgies; but those prayers are as much proclamation as they are petition, and I cheer their message on to the ears of any nonbelievers or deeply hurting believers who may be present. But I find myself smiling indulgently (and, no doubt, with inexcusable pride and arrogance and intolerance on my part) at the multitude of “injesusnameamen” prayers I hear in many evangelical church services and even in the small prayer meetings we host in our own home.

The important thing is that we are living in Jesus’ name, in his authority, in the reality of his life, no matter what vocabulary we use, and that in the end we will see that name exalted so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow the knee and proclaim Jesus as Lord forever.