Issue #405 -------
July 27, 2009
When you pray, know
before Whom you stand.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a very dear brother in Christ who now resides in Ohio, but who used to be one of the deacons here in Alamogordo where I serve as the minister and one of the elders. Needless to say, everyone here at Cuba Avenue Church of Christ misses this brother and his family very, very much. They were among our hardest workers, and were an example to each of us of just what it truly means to be devoted daily to Jesus Christ. Within his email to me he wrote the following: "This morning, during the Lord's Supper, we had a dear brother offer thanks for the 'fruit of the vine,' and at the conclusion of the prayer he did not utter the traditional 'In Jesus' Name' that we all hear so often. There were several in our congregation who were seemingly offended by this. This evening, after the service was concluded, another brother approached me and wanted my take on this matter. I must admit that I am not sure on this issue. Praying in this manner had always been 'a given,' but I am no longer satisfied that it is truly required. This past Sunday I filled in for our preacher, and I spoke on Traditions. My research for this sermon created more questions than answers for me. This whole prayer thing has shaken me a bit, because it has always been such an accepted way of ending a prayer. Al, I read your Reflections, and I appreciate your viewpoints on all the issues. I especially appreciate your constant challenges to look again at the Scriptures on every issue. I'm not opposed to using this phrase ('In Jesus' Name'), but I'm afraid that too many are using it like some kind of magic charm. I would appreciate any insight you could provide on this."
The phrase "magic charm," used by my good friend and brother, really resonated with me, for I had just recently come across a statement in Dr. A. T. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament that somewhat troubled me, and it was on this same subject. This respected Greek scholar, in discussing the words of Jesus to His disciples in John 14:13, declared that this was the "first mention of His 'Name' as the open sesame to the Father's will." I believe I know what Dr. Robertson was seeking to convey by this expression, but it is truly a rather unfortunate choice of wording given the misguided perception of many disciples today. Yes, many of my fellow believers have relegated the phrase "in Jesus' name" to little more than an oft regurgitated, but rarely examined, required element of the prayer ritual. It has become so much a legal requirement of "acceptable" prayer, that when it is left out in any public setting there is almost an audible gasp from the audience. When I was preaching in Germany back in the early 1980's, one of the men forgot to include the traditional "in Jesus' name" at the conclusion of the prayer. I found out later that one of the dear sisters within our congregation went home and was so physically ill that entire afternoon over this omission that she literally could not return for the evening assembly!! Yes, religionists do tend to take their religious rituals very seriously. In fact, one elderly preacher once informed me that it was his experience from decades of ministering to and working with "church people" that they were much more likely to forgive a transgression against Truth than against Tradition. In over three decades of preaching, and observing my brethren, I must sadly agree with this assessment.
The problem that has arisen over the centuries since our precious Lord set aside rigid, regulated religion in favor of a restored relationship with the Father, is that those He liberated have increasingly sought to return to the bondage of law. Since the "laws" of our Lord are now so few -- love God and love one another -- new laws must be enacted. These have almost exclusively arisen from the countless sectarian traditions that have evolved over the centuries; traditions now regarded by most who embrace them as divine mandate. Those bound to tradition are truly slaves, and, to be perfectly blunt, they are on very, very thin ice spiritually, for Paul declares that those who trade freedom in Christ Jesus for a yoke of slavery to law and tradition have fallen from grace and are severed from Christ [Gal. 5:4]. That is serious, brethren! And, sadly, I have some dear friends, whom I love dearly, who are deeply entrenched in such bondage. I pray for them daily that they may one day experience the joys of the liberty that can be theirs. I have watched them cling desperately to their traditions as though their lives depended upon them, and have sadly witnessed their utter inability to take up the inspired Scriptures and show me where their dogma is clearly proclaimed to be eternal Truth. My heart breaks for them, and I know that each of you know people just like this. We have much work to do, brethren!
Like my beloved brother in Christ Jesus who now lives in Ohio, I have absolutely nothing against people practicing their various traditions. Indeed, the vast majority of what I myself do on Sunday mornings in our "worship assembly" would fall under the heading of Tradition. And that is fine. Traditions are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It is what we make of these traditions that can potentially lead to either great harm or great good in the Body of Christ. I personally recognize my traditional practices for what they are ... and what they are NOT ... and in my ministry urge others to do the same. They are not divine precepts; they are simply human preferences. Thus, I shall always seek to treat them accordingly, and am determined never, ever to make them tests of faithfulness, conditions of fellowship, or requirements for salvation. I'm now free in Christ to enjoy full fellowship with other faithful children of God who practice traditions that differ from my own. I will NOT make their practice, or my own, an "issue." My only concern is -- are they in relationship with the Father through the Son? If they are, then we be brethren. Though different, we are the same; though many, we are one. There is great unity in diversity within the One Body, a Truth that sends the legalistic patternists into a rage every time they are confronted with it, for it calls upon them to surrender their demand for uniformity to their own party perceptions and practices. This they refuse to do ... thus, the fragmenting of fellowship among spiritual siblings continues (primarily over "weighty matters" about which the Bible is utterly and completely silent). Oh, how our Father must grieve over us at times!
But, let's narrow our focus and return to the matter of this phrase "in Jesus' name," a phrase with which we are all very, very familiar, for it is invariably (especially in Churches of Christ, although not exclusively so) affixed at the end of each and every "acceptable" prayer unto God the Father. Indeed, it's become so much a part of our prayer ritual (if I may use that term) that its absence is detected immediately, and often with a deep sense of spiritual, emotional and even physical discomfort. We are so conditioned to this phrase, that when it is left off it generates a strong reaction both within and from us. I myself have to admit that when someone forgets to add this phrase ... I notice that fact immediately. Which is just evidence of how deeply entrenched this traditional wording has become for a great many of us (as have many other traditions). And therein lies the danger.
We have become guilty of taking something good -- a simple statement that we are offering this prayer unto the Father in the name of Jesus Christ -- and elevating it to a place it was never intended to be. The phrase does indeed represent a biblical truth -- one taught by the Lord Himself, as we shall see -- but that phrase itself is NOT some magical mantra that must accompany every uttered prayer for said prayer to reach the throne of God. I have actually heard some say that this phrase is the "stamp on the envelope," and that without this "stamp" the prayer is not deliverable. Hogwash!! It is not the words themselves that are efficacious, it is the truth behind those words (whether those words are ever expressed or not). Dr. Marvin R. Vincent, in his classic work Vincent's Word Studies, quoted the theologian Meyer, who stated, "The express use of the name of Jesus therein (in prayer) is no specific token; the question is of the spirit and mind of him who prays." Which is exactly the point. To invest power in the phrase itself is to create some "magical incantation." The Expositor's Bible Commentary states, "The phrase 'in my name' is not a talisman for the command of supernatural energy. Jesus did not wish it to be used as a magical charm like an Aladdin's lamp" [vol. 9, p. 146]. It's clearly not the biblical equivalent of "open sesame," although some seem to think so.
It is somewhat interesting, in light of the prevalence of this phrase today at the conclusion of most prayers, that there is no evidence within the early Christian writings of the first several centuries after Christ that any prayer employed this phrase. Indeed, as a prayer "form" it seems to be unknown for many hundreds of years. Thus, one will have a difficult time, at least historically, demonstrating that the early church found the use of this phrase spiritually significant. With the rise of formalism and sacramentalism, however, regulated ritual came to be viewed as highly relevant to one's approach to God. What was said, and how it was said; what was done, and how it was done ... and when and where and by whom ... all took on tremendous importance, with any deviation whatsoever bringing an almost instant rebuke from the "church powers that be." The Reformation sought, at least in some measure, to redirect the focus away from such legalistic ritualism, reintroducing the people to the joy of relationship with the Father by grace through faith, apart from such restrictive regulation. In 1647, for example, the Westminster Assembly completed and adopted the "Westminster Larger Catechism," which was a rather lengthy list of 196 questions and responses helping to define the significant aspects of one's faith and practice. Question #180 dealt directly with the matter before us in this issue of Reflections: "What is it to pray in the name of Christ?" In the response it is noted that our Lord's injunction is NOT complied with "by bare mentioning of His name, but by drawing our encouragement to pray, and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer, from Christ and His mediation." In other words, these people took steps to reverse the false notion that the words themselves were some magical incantation, and sought to refocus the people of God upon the realities underlying that phrase. More and more disciples are coming to realize this distinction. www.GotQuestions.org, for example, addressed this problem, declaring, "Saying 'in Jesus' name' at the end of a prayer is not a magic formula. Genuinely praying in Jesus' name and for His glory is what is important, not attaching certain words to the end of a prayer. It is not the words in the prayer that matter, but the purpose behind the prayer."
So, exactly where did this notion come from that one must attach these specific words onto the end of a prayer? I don't think anyone knows precisely who initiated this practice, or when, but the "reasoning" for the practice, from the NT writings themselves, is fairly simple to discern. The practice stems from a misunderstanding and misapplication of our Lord's statement in John 14:13-14 (as well as a few other similar statements in this same gospel record). In an intimate dialogue with His closest disciples, Jesus responds to several of their questions and concerns. In John 14:5, Thomas asked, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?" This brought about the response that we often quote -- "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" [vs. 6]. Then Philip says, "Lord, show us the Father" [vs. 8]. To this our Lord responds, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" [vs. 9]. Our Lord's emphasizing His intimate connection with the Father, to whom He will soon be returning. At that time He would serve as their mediator and intercessor, concepts they may not have fully understood then, but which they would come to appreciate more fully later. In this context He said to them, "And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it" [vs. 13-14]. It is based upon this statement, and a few others similar to it [John 15:16; 16:23-26], that some have formulated the phrase "in Jesus' name" to be forever and universally affixed at the conclusion of all prayers.
The assumption, of course, is that Jesus was prescribing a formula for prayer that must be scrupulously followed if one's prayer is to be heard and acted upon in a positive manner. Many make that same assumption with respect to the so-called "Lord's Prayer" [Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4]. Yet, most discerning disciples today realize that our Father is not impressed with formalized, formulaic utterances, but rather with hearts fully devoted to Him expressing themselves via the avenue to the throne opened for them by His Son. Our access to the Father is by virtue of the "name" of His Son -- "the name which is above every name" ... and at which "every knee shall bow" [Philp. 2:9-10]. The concept of one's "name," as understood by the children of Israel, was that it represented the very character of that person; his or her very being; their essence. It encompassed all that they were, all that they stood for, and all that they sought to accomplish in their lives. Thus, "a good name is to be more desired than great riches" [Prov. 22:1] ... and "a good name is better than a good ointment" [Eccl. 7:1]. Our access to the Father, in every way (prayer being only one), is because of who Jesus was/is and what He accomplished on our behalf, all of which can be incorporated within this Jewish concept of a "name." Therefore, in part, praying to the Father in the name of Jesus represents an awareness on our part (whether the words are ever expressed within the prayer or not) that our access to Him is due to what His Son achieved for us in His life, death, resurrection and mediation.
We must also point out at this juncture that such use of His name in our prayers acknowledges (or should) our willingness to order our daily lives (every part of our being) in compliance with His will. To petition the Father is truly to ask that HIS will be done in our lives, not a pleading that He intervene and accomplish OUR will. Therefore, to pray in the "name" of Jesus is to pray with the understanding that what I am seeking from the Father is fully within the parameters of His will and to His glorification. We often overlook this critical aspect of prayer, but Jesus made it clear in the very passage under consideration here --- "And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" [John 14:13]. Is the Father glorified in the Son if we ask for money or fame? Is He glorified if we pray to call down a curse upon our opponents? Petitions that are self-centered are simply not prayed with a proper comprehension of praying "in My name." In reality, they are little more than prayers prayed in our own name. I cannot help but think of the Pharisee, in one of our Lord's parables, "who stood and was praying thus to himself" [Luke 18:11]. In marked contrast, we are to pray, "Thy will be done!" [Matt. 6:20], as per the example of Jesus Christ Himself: "Not My will, but Thine be done!" [Matt. 26:39, 42; Luke 22:42].
"In prayer we call on Him to work out His purpose, not simply to gratify our whims" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 146]. "Prayer must be made in His name, which excludes all sinful and arrogant petitions" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 490]. "It follows from this that personal petitions are not contemplated here, except as far as they are for the glory of God" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 506]. Dr. Alvah Hovey stated, "The things which He will therefore do at their request will be those, and it may be those only, which tend to manifest the grace and glory of the Father" [An American Commentary, John, p. 286]. David Lipscomb wrote, "Asking as a member of His Body, we must ask in accordance with His will" [A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 225]. But, the prominent Greek scholar, Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, in his celebrated work, "The Expositor's Greek Testament," has perhaps stated it best: "The name of a person can only be used when we seek to enforce his will and further his interests" [vol. 1, p. 824].
Our theme this year at the Cuba Avenue Church of Christ here in Alamogordo, New Mexico (and we try to have a major focus expressed as a theme each year) is "Making His Will Mine In 2009." The hope, of course, is that this theme will carry over into the remainder of our lives as well. We are not only to live within the parameters of His will, but we are to daily strive to promote His will in the world about us -- "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" [Matt. 6:10]. If this is our reality in our daily lives, then our prayers to God will truly be within the scope of His Name. I have no problem whatsoever with incorporating this great Truth within the words of a prayer (whether at beginning, middle or end of that prayer ... or all three). If such wording is precious little more than vain repetitious regurgitation of ritualistic formulas, however, then we are doing ourselves no real favors. Indeed, we have fallen into the same rut as the Gentiles of whom Jesus spoke, saying that they used "meaningless repetition" in their prayers ... "Therefore, do not be like them!" [Matt. 6:7-8].
Yes, by all means, continue to use the phrase "in Jesus' name" in your prayers. I would not discourage anyone from using it. Nor would I condemn anyone should they choose not to. Nowhere in Scripture is such a formula prescribed. It is nothing more than a tradition of men. If you DO choose to use it, however, be sure you understand what it is you are saying. Otherwise, it becomes utterly meaningless, both to you and to those who may hear your prayer. Although Paul's focus is on a somewhat different issue, I nevertheless think the following instruction is good advice for the present situation (at least in principle) -- "So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind ... otherwise, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say 'Amen' to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?" [1 Cor. 14:15-16]. Let us pray with understanding, my brethren. Indeed, let us do all that we do with understanding. This means we must place every practice upon the table for intense examination in light of God's Word and in light of common sense, for, frankly, much of what we do has precious little of either to commend it. It's time to take the blinders off, brothers and sisters, so that we may fully perceive the distinction between Truth and Tradition. We have confused the latter with the former far too long, and the resultant state is certainly not to the glorification of the Father in the Son!
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
Dear Brother Al, I discovered on the Internet the debate you had with Thomas Thrasher seven years ago on the eternal destiny of the wicked --- The Maxey-Thrasher Debate. Very interesting!! For several years I struggled with the traditional teaching on hell. It just didn't fit the character of God that we find portrayed in the Old Testament and in Jesus (if you've seen Me, you've seen the Father). Yes, He is swift to punish, as we see in the OT, but NOT with torture. Nor does the endless torture of men who can never, ever DIE fit the best summary statement in the NT --- Romans 6:23 ... "For the wages of sin is DEATH, but the gift of God is eternal LIFE in Christ Jesus our Lord." So, to be brief, I appreciated your thoroughness in expressing the biblical viewpoint on this subject.
From a Minister in Tennessee:
Brother Al, Thank you for including me as one of your friends on Facebook. I hope you're doing well, and I continue to appreciate your sharing your heart in your weekly writings! God has given you such noble words to share with your readers! I wanted to share with you one of the funniest comments I've ever heard from an elder. You may know Ken Dye (used to preach at Broadway in Lubbock, TX). Ken is one of my best friends, and some time ago was appointed an elder where he serves on the church staff as one of the ministers (West End in Nashville, TN). I was on a trip to Nashville the following week and so I stopped by Ken's office. I congratulated him on becoming an elder, and I asked, "How's it feel to be an elder after all these years of serving the church full time?" Ken grinned and then said, "I've only been an elder 3 days ... and already I hate preachers!!" Have a good rest of the week, brother, and keep up the good work!!
From a Minister in Tennessee:
Dear Bro. Al, "Thou Excellest Them All" was a wonderful article!! I met my wife to be in the summer of 1961, and we were married on June 22, 1962. We knew each other for a year, but I spent six months of that time in South America. I had a wild and crazy time in high school and my first two years in the Air Force. I was actually a pagan when we married, but became a Christian on October 21, 1962, shortly before I left for Southeast Asia. We have now been married for 47 years, with four children, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandson. Other than my faith in Jesus Christ, my dear wife is the best thing that has ever happened to me! She led me to faith in Christ! She is my heart and soul; my strong right arm; the best part of my ministry. It has been a wonderful ride with God as my pilot. And God is not through with us yet. All of my children are Christians and my sons are both ministers. My grandchildren, those who are of age, are Christians. I have served as a preaching minister for 42 years, and began a new ministry here in Tennessee in November, 2008. "Preachers never retire ... they just go out to pastor!"
From an Elder in Kentucky:
Dear Bro. Maxey, A few months ago I signed up for a free email newsletter edited by Jeff Keller called Your Spiritual Journey. In his twice weekly newsletters Jeff writes articles to help people on their own spiritual journeys. On July 17th he wrote one about Conditioned Responses. I could not help but think of you as I read his article. I know that from time to time you get emails condemning you and your Reflections; tirades in which the writer demands that you "stop sending me such junk!" Jeff Keller also gets similar emails at times. Check out his article. I think you will find it enlightening. By the way, I love you and your writings. There is nothing else quite like it!! I really enjoyed the latest one about you and Shelly.
From a Minister in New Jersey:
Dear Brother Al, Your wife Shelly is truly a "fisher of men." She not only knew how to catch one ... she knew how to clean and dress him!! May God's blessings be upon your union for many years to come!
From a Reader in Texas:
Dearest Al and Shelly, Thank you so much for your many faithful years together!! You have encouraged and inspired me with the work ya'll do. What a joy to be able to celebrate this special time with you via your latest Reflections. Thank you for sharing!
From an Elder in Texas:
Brother Al, Thank you so much for these words of encouragement!! Reading the words of a man who really sees the value of a godly wife is so important to me. In fact, your Reflections motivated me to send a note of special thanks to my wife who is currently in Virginia visiting her mother. Like you, I shudder to think where I would be without her beside me.
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
What a beautiful story of love, Brother Al. I could say "Amen" a thousand times over! My own history and conversion is very similar in principle to yours, although somewhat different in detail. Yes, indeed, Thank God for His mercy!!
From a Reader in Hawaii:
Aloha Al, That was a wonderful Reflections. By the way, Shelly hasn't changed at all, but who is that goofy looking guy with her?! Happy anniversary to you both.
From a Reader in Colorado:
Forgive me, Brother Al, but I laughed out loud when I opened your last Reflections and saw your wedding picture! Not that I was laughing at you, but it brought to mind a picture taken of ME ten years ago when I was 6'2" and 155 pounds. I'm still 6'2' ... hey, one out of two ain't bad!! Seriously, on that day (my wedding day), just like you, I was blessed beyond what I could ever imagine or believe. God was taking care of me even though I had embraced at that time a very deistic view of His involvement in our lives. May you and Shelly rejoice during many more anniversaries!
From a Reader in Barbados:
Bro. Al, I have not responded to any of your Reflections in a long time, but I have been reading them. I am particularly inspired by your latest one, however ("Thou Excellest Them All"). Your story is perfect testimony of how our God keeps two people together as one when the two see each other as God's gift to one another. I believe this issue of your Reflections can inspire those men and women who just might be growing a little weary in and of their spousal relationships, and my fervent prayer is that it will do just that. Be blessed and be encouraged, Bro. Al ... you, your wife, and your family ... and please do not come down, for you are doing a great work [Nehemiah 6:3].
From a Reader in California:
Bro. Al, I just finished reading the Reflections article about how you met your wife, and it is a beautiful story. Thank you for being so candid about your life before you got married. Not many people will do that. In fact, many of the people I've spoken with in the church who have had a chequered past (like I did) will not share their story with others. When I first met my wife-to-be, I was a $50 a day cocaine user!! She kept after me to stop, so I cut back to weekend use. After two years of dating I asked her to marry me, and she told me the only way she would was if I quit drugs altogether. I did, and am convinced that she saved my life. God's plan for our lives works in ways that are truly awesome. I've talked to many people over the years who say they have sinned so badly that God would never save them, but after they hear my story and see how my life has turned around, they feel differently. So, thank you, Brother Al, for this wonderful story of how you met Shelly, and thank you for being so candid about your life. As you and I know, a caterpillar can turn into a beautiful butterfly.
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