“In Jesus’ name we pray.”
Ever wonder why we say that to end our prayers? What does that even mean—“In Jesus name”?
For those first disciples of Jesus, it meant the world would never be the same.
The culture into which Jesus stepped is often referred to as the Second Temple period, referring to the temple that was rebuilt after the Judeans returned from exile in Babylon.¹ Aside from the temple reconstruction project, there were other distinctive developments that occurred upon the exiles’ return—things that certainly shaped the culture that Jesus lived and operated within.
If you read Ezra and Nehemiah (and Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi), not only will you get a view of what the Judeans had to face when they returned from exile, but you will also get an idea of what took place: Ezra and Nehemiah facilitated a
revival reform. The people gathered and listened to Ezra as he read from the “the Book of the Law” (Neh 8), the people repented, and they resolved to observe God’s commandments. They, and others with them, also initiated what could be considered a “purging” of not only foreign customs and practices, but also foreign people who followed those customs (Ezra 9-10).²
To be sure, they had good reason to reform. Both of these books indicate that the people knew that it was precisely their disobedience to God’s commandments that got them kicked out of the land in the first place. After all, when Moses spoke the word of Yahweh to the people, he was very clear about the consequences of breaking faith with him (Deut 28:15-68; 30:1-10).
One of the things that eventually resulted from this refocus on Yahweh’s instructions was the establishment of a system of education intended to teach the people the ways of God. This, coupled with the local synagogues that were established, eventually established a more sophisticated system of rabbinic schools, which meant in part that the study of God’s law (Torah) thrived, especially in and around the land of Israel.
These developments created what we know as the Rabbi—Disciple relationship.
Certain scribes, or teachers, were deliberate in acquiring disciples who would learn not only how to read, memorize, and understand God’s word, but even more important, they learned how to live or walk it out in everyday life (known as halakhah). Eventually, some of these disciples would become Rabbis themselves and perpetuate the process of education by teaching their own disciples the yoke of their Rabbi.³ In this way, a particular Rabbi’s way would carry on from generation to generation.
To be clear, this was more than a mere intellectual pursuit. A disciple’s aim was to become like his teacher in every way possible. This not only included the way his Rabbi thought and taught about life and how to live it, but also the character with which he engaged his day-to-day experiences. What type of affections did he have toward his neighbors? How did he treat those who wronged him? How did he prioritize his time? And so on.
When a Rabbi thought a disciple had reached a certain point in his development, the Rabbi would give his disciple the authority to “speak in his name.” In this context, if a particular disciple-turned-Rabbi would speak or teach in the name of his Rabbi, it was received, or thought of, as if that particular Rabbi’s Rabbi had actually said what was spoken. This was the case because a Rabbi’s “name” (or anyone’s name at that) was not simply a word by which people knew him: it referred to his character—his essence—his entire being.
A disciple’s aim was to become like his teacher in every way possible.
This is the idea behind many of the places in the New Testament where Jesus talks about speaking or doing things “in his name.” For example, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” (Mark 9:41). In another place, Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
Again, to speak in your Rabbi’s name in Jesus’ day meant that (1) you have been trained up to be like your Rabbi so much so that (2) you have been given your Rabbi’s authority to speak and do as he would speak and do, that is, in his “name.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, we see a lot of exchanges between Jesus and other religious authorities. As you read, you can begin to pick up on how much these religious leaders were concerned with and interested to know by what “authority” Jesus was conducting his ministry. In one place, they asked him plainly, “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” (Matt 21:23). This was their way of asking who Jesus’ Rabbi was. Although Jesus surely had a Rabbi instruct and guide him during his younger years, we see in the Gospels that the “name” Jesus was speaking in—or the authority he had—was his Father’s (see John 10:25).
In light of all these things, read again Jesus’ last words in Matthew:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20 NIV)
When the disciples spoke in Jesus’ name, it was as if Jesus’ was still on earth doing his ministry. That was the effect it had. People were healed, the good news was proclaimed, captives were set free, the way of Jesus was passed down from generation to generation, the Kingdom was made known on the earth.
In Jesus’ name, may it continue.
1. This temple was remodeled, if you will, by King Herod. The first Temple was the one built by Solomon, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
2. This purging phenomenon will come up again in a later post.
3. A “yoke” was a Rabbi’s particular system of (1) understanding, (2) living out, and (3) teaching God’s law. See Matthew 11:29.