What's in a Name?
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“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So says Juliet Capulet to Romeo Montague in William Shakespeare’s lyrical tale of star-crossed lovers. Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called “Montague,” not the Montague name nor the Montague family. Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, renounces his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to “deny [his] father” and instead be “new baptized” as Juliet’s lover.
But that begs the question: Is a name simply an artificial and meaningless convention? Certainly, if you started calling roses “skunk blossoms,” they would be no less beautiful and smell just as fragrant. But when you start talking about personal names, then it starts getting personal! In the Old Testament, names were chosen carefully to reflect the character of the person or their relationship to God. Jacob was born “the cheater”; God later gave him the name Israel, “He strives with God.” Family names can carry a lot of weight or baggage. If you come from the Bush or Kennedy families, it’s just expected that you’ll one day seek political office. One current presidential candidate likes his name so much he has it put on almost everything he builds, buys, and sells. But how many people do you think kept the surname, Hitler, after Adolf departed from this world?
So, names can be important. But no name is more important than Jesus’ name. Jesus, the name given by the angel, which means “the Lord saves,” for “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). When called before the Council, St. Peter confesses, “Let it be known to all of you… that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified… this man is standing before you well…And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12).
St. Paul tells us Jesus humbled Himself by dying on the cross. “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father” (Philippians 2:8–11). No wonder Jesus is able to promise: “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).
John Kleinig tells a story from World War 1 that illustrates the power of Jesus’ name in our prayers:
Two unrelated British soldiers, who looked like identical twins, served together in the same unit with the same rank. They came from the opposite ends of society. One came from a good family, was married with a young son, and had a share in his family’s business. The other came from a broken family. The two soldiers became the best of friends. The young man with a good family spent much of his time telling the other about his wife and family. He even told his friend that if he was killed, his friend should take his name and to use it to impersonate him. That is exactly what happened. The man without any family and prospects in life swapped places with his friend who died. The soldier who impersonated his friend gained much more than a new name. He also received membership in a family with loving parents and siblings, a loving wife and son, part ownership of the family’s business, and the social status that went with it. All this became his at the death of his friend by his friend’s word and the gift of his name.[i]
Jesus has done something far greater than that by His incarnation and sacrificial death. He involves us in what Luther calls the great exchange. In His Baptism, Jesus takes on our sin and guilt, our death and damnation; in our Baptism, Jesus gives us His place with God the Father and His status as the only Son of the Father. He takes our sin and disobedience, and credits us with His righteousness and obedience. He gives all that He is and has to us. We get a new self and life from Him.
As part of our new identity, Jesus gives us His name and the privilege of praying to God the Father in His name. Jesus explains what He means by this in John 16:23-24, 26-28:
In that day you will ask nothing of Me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full… In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.
Here, Jesus is speaking to His disciples on Maundy Thursday. There are two things that Jesus does for His disciples this night before His death. For one, He gives them His Supper, the new testament of His very body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of their sins. Although they will not see Him face to face, He will still be with them to the end of the age in His Word and Sacrament. As we speak of often, this is how Jesus is present with His people even today. This is how He comes to us with forgiveness, life, and salvation—in His means of grace.
Here, in our text, Jesus reinforces another gift: the gift of prayer in His name. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” Until He returns in glory, this is how we converse with our Lord. He comes to us in Word and Sacraments. We go to Him in prayer.
Jesus speaks about two different ways of praying. There was the old way of praying in which people had no direct access to God the Father and His grace. Since the disciples had no access to the Father, they asked Jesus to put their requests to Him. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples will be able to pray in a new way that is symbolized at His death by the splitting of the curtain of the temple. Jesus says that after His resurrection, He won’t have to pray for them any longer. He won’t be a third party standing between His Father and the disciples because they will be so closely united with Him in faith that their prayers will be His prayers. Jesus’ disciples will use His name and faith in Him to approach the Father directly in prayer together with Jesus.
The most remarkable thing about this new way of praying is that it overcomes our fears about our performance and acceptability. God the Father hears our prayers as if they come from the mouth of Jesus; He is just as pleased with us and our prayers as He is with Jesus and His prayers. He listens to us as we are in Jesus, dressed up in Him and all His qualities. This means that we can now approach our heavenly Father as if we were Jesus Himself and claim all His blessings for ourselves. It also means that our heavenly Father regards and treats us just like His beloved Son. He loves us and hears us as He loves and hears His Son. We are, in fact, as inseparable from Jesus as the head is from the rest of the body. God the Father does not consider us as we are in ourselves, but only as we are in Jesus.
Luther explains what praying in the name of Jesus means:
I am justified in saying: “I know that my heavenly Father is heartily glad to hear all my prayers, inasmuch as I have Christ, this Savior, in my heart. Christ prayed for me, and for this reason my prayers are acceptable through His.” Accordingly, we must weave our praying into His. He is forever the Mediator for all men. Through Him we come to God. In Him we must incorporate and envelop all our prayers and all that we do. As St. Paul declares (Romans 13:14), we must put on Christ; and everything must be done in Him (1 Corinthians 10:31) if it is to be pleasing to God.
But all this is said to Christians for the purpose of giving them the boldness and the confidence to rely on this Man and to pray with complete assurance; for we hear that in this way He unites us with Himself, really puts us on a par with Him, and merges our praying into His and His into ours. Christians can glory in this great distinction. For if our prayers are included in His, then He says (Psalm 22:22): “I will tell of Thy name to My brethren” and (Romans 8:16–17) “It is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” What greater honor could be paid us than this, that our faith in Christ entitles us to be called His brethren and coheirs, that our prayer is to be like His, that there is really no difference except that our prayers must originate in Him and be spoken in His name if they are to be acceptable and if He is to bestow this inheritance and glory on us. Aside from this, He makes us equal to Himself in all things; His and our prayer must be one, just as His body is ours and His members are ours.[ii]
In keeping with this teaching of Jesus, we normally address our prayer to God the Father. We may, of course, also pray to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. But that’s not the normal way. We commonly conclude our prayers to the First Person of the Trinity by saying that we pray “through Jesus Christ” or “in the name of Jesus.” We thereby acknowledge that we pray together with Jesus who intercedes for us and leads us in our prayers. We use the name of Jesus and our faith in Him to approach the Father with a good conscience without fear of condemnation or rejection by Him.
This teaching makes us bold and confident in prayer for two reasons. We need not be anxious about whether God is pleased with us or whether He will give us a favorable hearing (1 John 3:21-22; 4:13-15). We need not worry about what to pray for, or how, because Jesus covers us with His righteousness and perfects our prayers. Our performance does not matter; what matters is Jesus and our faith in Him as our intercessor. What matters is His name, His Word, His promises!
What’s in a name? Everything, when it comes to prayer. The power of prayer is not found within us; it is found in Jesus’ name, according to His Word and according to His holy will. To pray in Jesus’ name is to trust that the prayer will be answered because Christ has died for you. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray with Jesus. Even now, He prays for you until He comes again.
Therefore, dear friends, rejoice: you can be sure that the Lord hears your prayers for Jesus’ sake… because Jesus brings them to His heavenly Father on your behalf… because you are God’s beloved child… because Jesus died and rose for you. You have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Kleinig, John W. (2008). Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today. (p. 168-169). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
[ii] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s Works, vol. 24: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 24, p. 407). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.