Monday, April 29, 2013

Praying In Jesus' Name

What does it mean to pray "in Jesus' name?"  In John 14:12-14, Jesus says:
I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!

So, commonly, Christians all around the world pray to God and end their prayers with the words "in Jesus' name, Amen."  But sometimes we don't get what we ask for.  I know I asked God to give me a million dollars before, and I never got it.  So does this mean that Jesus is a liar?

Well, what if asking for things in Jesus’ name means more than just saying “in Jesus’ name”?  In ancient culture, names were picked for their meaning more than for the way they sounded.  All over the Bible you’ll see that children were given names based on the meaning of the name – for example, when the twin sons Jacob and Esau were born, Esau was given his name because it means hairy; Jacob was holding onto Esau’s heel as he came out, and Jacob means "heel grabber".  So when Mary was told by an angel what to name Jesus, the original language was Y’shua.  Y’shua is like a nickname – a shortened version of “Jehovah shua”, shua meaning “saves”.  So Jesus’ name means “God saves”.  So the first thing we need to remember when we pray “in Jesus’ name” is that we are praying because God saves.

Secondly, in ancient culture a person’s name was more than just what you called them.  A name represented a person’s reputation or character – having a good name in town meant that one was respected and seen in a good way by the people of the community.  The fourth commandment – to honor your father and your mother – had a deeper meaning in Hebrew culture than the way it’s viewed today.  Today we think it merely means to obey your parents.  But in Hebrew culture, if a child lived in a way that was dishonorable, this would give his/her parents a “bad name” – it would damage their reputation.  So to live in a way that honored your parents meant that you were to live in a way that lifted up their reputation – when people see the way you live, they should think “he/she must have had good parents!” 

So when we pray “in Jesus’ name”, we should pray as ones in whom the Holy Spirit lives, and thus as people who are able to pray in His character.  We should seek the things He would seek, and in the way that He would seek them.  When we pray “in Jesus’ name”, we seek to pray God’s will over things on earth, and when you pray in this manner, Jesus WILL do it! 

But how can we do this?  How can we pray in Jesus’ character?  Well, there are many clues – one I’d like to highlight is a prophecy that Matthew claims Jesus fulfilled in Matthew chapter 12:
1     Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.
He is my chosen one, who pleases me.
 I have put my Spirit upon him.
 He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout
 or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
 or put out a flickering candle.
 He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.
He will not falter or lose heart
 until justice prevails throughout the earth.
 Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction.
Isaiah 42:1-4

This passage is a prophecy of Jesus, but I think it's appropriate to see this as a guideline for how we should live.  The word "Christian" was a term coined by the non-Christian population of Antioch as a derogatory term that stuck, and it basically meant "little Christ".  And the reason it stuck is because that's what we're really supposed to try to be.  We're supposed to be little reflections - yes, they are dirty, imperfect reflections; but reflections nevertheless - little reflections of Christ running around showing the world His glory.  So when I read this passage I notice some interesting things.  I notice that in verse 2, the passage puts two things back to back that might seem contradictory to our minds - we are to seek justice...but we're not supposed to shout or raise our voice in public.  How often do we seem to think that, because the cause we are fighting for is just in our eyes, it justifies shouting and raising our voice in public?  And verse 3 is terribly convicting to me, because it tells me that when we seek justice, we're supposed to do so gently, without crushing those who are weak and leaving a trail of damage in our wake.  But also it's terribly convicting because it tells me that we're not supposed to be seeking justice for the wrongs done to us, but justice for others around us who have been wronged.  And I see verse 4 as a promise that if we do this with determination - a determination to seek justice for others with a gentle spirit - we will receive respect.  And another thing that is interesting is that if you look back at verse 1, there are promises as well - the Lord will strengthen us, put His Spirit upon us, and He will find pleasure in us. 

In the past I’ve struggled with the fact that I was not given the things I asked for in my prayers.  But now I realize this is because all my prayers were so selfish.  I want to pray in Jesus’ character.  I want to seek the things He would seek, and pray His will in this world.  So I seek to pray for justice for others – justice for the weak and oppressed.  I seek to pray for justice that is achieved gently, and does not leave destruction in its wake.  I seek to pray loving prayers for healing, restoration, redemption, and peace.  And I believe that if our prayers are characterized this way, our requests will be granted.

But we shouldn't stop there.  The Christian mission does not stop at privately uttering a prayer to God.  We ought to seek to make our very lives a prayer to God.  We ought to live our prayers in the world.  We are citizens of Heaven, and we ought to live as though we were bringing Heaven to earth.  All too often I fear that we are trained by our religious upbringing to see the Christian life as being about pious living, and singing praise songs on Sunday.  But that's not what God wants!  Those things are not for God - they're for us!  Purifying our lives is about removing the things that would prevent us from loving our neighbor and loving God, and singing praise songs is about renewing our spirit - God isn't waiting on the edge of His seat every weekend thinking to Himself "oh gee, I really hope they sing my favorite songs this week!"  Don't believe me?  Take a look at this passage:
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” 
Amos 5:21-24 (MSG)

Wow.  Awkward! 

Justice is really important to God.  All throughout the Bible if you look for passages about justice you'll notice something - God is always talking about how He wants us to seek justice for...whom?  For ourselves?  For the powerful?  For the rich?  No - God wants us to seek justice for the oppressed, for the poor, for the widow and the orphan.  God wants us to seek justice for the powerless - for those who are unable to seek justice for themselves.  In Leviticus 19:9-10, Israel is instructed to leave the crops at the edge of their field unharvested for the poor to gather.  In Deuteronomy 15:11, they are commanded to share with the poor.  Psalms 82:3-4 says to "give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute.  Rescue the poor and helpless; deliver them from the grasp of evil people."  Isaiah 1:17 shows us that when we seek justice, we should be seeking it with the oppressed, the orphans, and the widows in mind, and then this theme is repeated in verse 23.  Later on, in Isaiah 10:1-2, Isaiah pronounces sorrow upon judges who issue unfair laws that deprive the poor, deny the needy, and prey upon the weak.  When Jesus told the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, the King's measuring rod for justice was to examine how those being judged dealt with "the least of these."  I could go on, and point out many other passages where God's sense of justice deals with how the poor, the weak, and the powerless are treated - and Jesus repeatedly turned our idea of who is important on its head during His ministry. 

So how does one develop a sense of how God views justice?  It's so contrary to our own selfish way of seeing things.  In the New Testament, the commandment to love is the most repeated command.  Jesus says in John 13:35 that the world will know we are His disciples by our love.  So the way I see it, when I take that into context with the way the Bible portrays justice, I believe that if our hearts are filled with God's love, our vision of justice will be changed.  We will no longer see justice as treating rich and poor alike - through the eyes of love we will see it as giving special care to the poor, and protecting the powerless, lifting up the sick and the weak and those who are despised by culture.  And if we seek that kind of justice, I think we'll be living in the character of Jesus.

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