Often in the Bible we encounter phrases like “in the name of the Lord” or “in my name,” being used in puzzling way. The phrase “in the name of” is one of those Hebraic figures of speech that Christians frequently misunderstand. What does it mean?
Remember that in Eastern, oral cultures a person’s name was connected with the person’s identity, authority and status. When God caused a major change in a person’s life, he often changed his or her name, to show a change in their identity in society. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and Jacob becomes Israel. Likewise, when the Bible speaks of God’s “name,” it often refers to God’s authority, power and identity.
The meaning of the Hebraism “in the Name of”
For the sake of. We see this meaning in Matt. 10:41: “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.” A prophets is given a message by God that he is to relay to the world. Some listeners reject him and some accept his message. A very few will encourage and support the prophet because they realize God has sent him — because of his identity as a prophet of God. Jesus was encouraging his disciples by saying that God would provide for them, and even provide for those who support their difficult work. Of course this line doesn’t mean that somehow by saying the prophet’s name, a person will be rewarded. The word “name” refers to the prophet’s identity and authority as a man sent by God.
We also hear this in John 14:13 – 14: “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” When we end a prayer “in the name of Jesus” we are really saying, please listen to my prayer for the sake of Jesus, who died for my sins. Because of his sacrifice, we can come before the Lord with our petitions and God will listen. Or, you could say that we are praying with his authority when we pray in his name.
The reputation of. To speak of someone’s “name” can also refer to his or her reputation, as it is used today. We hear it used this way in the following passages:
But I withdrew My hand and acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. (Ezek. 20:22)
You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the Name of your God; I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:12)
To swear falsely is to break an oath made before God, which shows lack of respect for God, and causes others to scoff at the God who has such followers. When God’s followers act sinfully, they bring shame on reputation of God.
Think of the TV evangelist sex scandals and how they harden non-Christians from believing in Christ. That is what it means to “profane the Lord’s name.” In contrast, “to hallow God’s name” is to cause God to be honored because of your actions. Jews still use the phrase “to sanctify God’s name” as meaning to give your life for your beliefs.
The authority and power of. A name can signify a person’s authority and power as well:
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. (1 Samuel 17:45)
David came against Goliath, who mocked God, in God’s authority and power, acting as his representative, and God gave him the victory.
Even today in Hebrew “in the name of” can mean “by the authority of.” As I got off the plane on my last trip to Israel, I heard them say over the speakers “B’shem El Al, shalom,” literally “In the name of El Al, peace (greetings).” meaning, “We represent El Al airlines in greeting you.”
Misunderstanding “the Name of the Lord”
Bible readers sometimes so misinterpret this phrase that they violate biblical intent. People think it means that by literally speaking the name of God, they can use it to cause God to answer prayers or confer salvation.
One Christian movement believes that if the phrase “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is not used in baptism, then that person is not actually saved. By leaving out any of the three names, it renders baptism ineffective. Some Jewish Roots ministries place a great amount of stress on pronouncing Jesus’ name a certain way. They feel that saying “Yeshua” or “Yahshua” is critical if we want to have power to answer prayers.
This misunderstanding invokes an ancient belief about names that the Bible refuted. In pagan cultures, the way humans interacted with gods was by manipulating them through magical rituals. Pronouncing secret names was used as a way to coerce the spirits to do one’s bidding. The implicit assumption is that gods were finite and can be forced into doing human bidding. By the power of uttering the correct words, people could cause their will to be done.
Unlike in the rest of the Ancient Near East, we find no instructions in the Torah for using sacred incantations or formulas in the Tabernacle. Just as no engraved image could be used to invoke God’s presence, no incantations could be used to manipulate him.
When we pray, we should always ask ourselves whether we are focusing on the Lord or on our words. If we use the name of God (or Jesus) to conjure him up like a genie, this implies that he is merely a spiritual force who responds to coercion. Instead we should realize that he is a gracious and compassionate God who listens to our sincere prayers, and whose heart is moved to respond because of his great love toward us.