Thursday, 18 February 2016

Praying in the Name

I have done quite a lot of thinking about the idea of Jesus' name - but today I put it into practice with what appeared spectacular results during a flight I took today. Theology in practice - it doesn't prove anything, but as a believer, I am very encouraged with this perspective.

I am no longer a huge fan of flying. Well, that's not quite accurate I suppose. I am a big fan of getting somewhere quicker. What I do not enjoy is turbulence, after a really horrid experience about a year ago, where I thought I might actually die (by the way, thinking about death can be a good practice - the generations of Jewish and Christian belief did not hide this reality of human life, see here also for an interesting cultural slant from Bhutan, some of the happiest people on Earth apparently).

Studying the Bible with more intensity over the last two years has lead me to detect some differences between modern and ancient terminology in Christianity. One of those words is "name".

The ancient world thought more holistically than we do. They were still keen to make some important distinctions to avoid misinterpretation (written almost 2000 years ago, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:27 For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection’, it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. I believe this is such a key verse because it shows how important distinctions always have been. So what of being holistic? Being holistic means keeping the rest of the context in perspective. You don't look at the atoms of a caterpillar's leg and forget that it's a caterpillar's leg. You don't look at the belief apparatus of a specific aboriginal tribesman concerning the afterlife and disregard the wider beliefs held by his people group at this time.

In philosophy we want to be black and white. But particularly in relation to ancient ways of thinking and in many non-western cultures today, that does not work so well. So we have to speak of "senses" when we do detailed word analysis in order to avoid contradiction by sane authors. The example I took in my paper Trinitarian Interpretations was from John 7-8. At one point, John has Jesus saying to his listeners that they do know him and where he is from and then a few verses later he is saying that they **don't** know Jesus (compare 7:28 and 8:19).

What am I trying to say? Philosophy wants to separate what is essential to something and what is not. It is frustrating to have to confess that, while distinctions remain important and necessary as we have seen, the essential and non-essential properties debate does not seem to work out neatly in theology with relation to "Jesus" and "name".

Have you ever noticed how there is not really a word in the Bible for "title"? There is a reason for that. A title can be something utterly exterior or peripheral to one's self-understanding in the West. It can be a 9-to-5 job, one even that you don't enjoy very much, like "Ground-Floor Office-cleaner". It does not matter at all if this role is fulfilled by Tom, Dick or Harry.

The "who" performing the function of ancient and non-Western royal households, however, is hugely significant. King David had a function to govern and lead the people of Judah, then Israel. He did not start this at 9am and finish at 5pm. He became king at a certain age, like all the kings after him, and reigned to his death. His function and his identity completely converge for most of his life.

Hang on - when is he going to talk about Jesus' name and turbulence in flights? Very nearly there! So when we talk about Jesus' name, I am now almost certain, we need to keep not one, but *two* senses in view simultaneously. The first sense is the J-E-S-U-S sense, that is the Tom, Dick or Harry sense. That is not to say that Tom, Dick or Harry don't have meaning, but the names primarily serve to identify them as distinct persons throughout their lives. Jesus was to receive the name J-E-S-U-S. But at some point - and that point can be debated as to precisely when - he was given the name that is the Father's name, which I think might be closest to T-H-E  L-O-R-D (or even anarthrously, "L-O-R-D"). Both of these were his "names", received at various times and could thus be combined for a holistic first-century person into "The Lord Jesus". It is a bit like saying "King David". So when we hear of the cosmic extent of Jesus' authority now that he is seated at the right hand of God, then we can see that he has in first-century eyes assumed a most-unique and Divine position of rule.

So sat in my plane 10 minutes after a smooth take-off, I felt some turbulence kick in. Focussing on this idea, contained perfectly in Philippians 2:9, John 11:7 and Hebrews 1:5 (and elsewhere):

  • Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.
  • Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me.
  • So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

I prayed that this turbulence would stop in the name of Jesus. This was not a prayer in the name of just J-E-S-U-S, but in the name of THE LORD JESUS.  And the turbulence stopped, almost immediately. As I prayed to God, I was acutely aware thanks to His Word, that the "name" of Jesus was not some magical formula, but the attribution and inheritance of supreme power from the Father entrusted to the Son, available to us, once again revealing the Father through the Son.

I felt very grateful for this, and the flight calmly continued almost all the way. On a second occasion shortly before landing, the effects of the prayer were less immediate. I chose to interpret this as a need to simply trust in God and love him, which also helped dissipate the fear.

I don't know if it will materialise, but I am considering doing a book-by-book study of New Testament understanding of "the name" to better understand its usage.

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