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What’s in a Name?

May God, who has caused his Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem. I Darius have decreed it. Let it be carried out with diligence. Ezra 6.12.

It is 520 BC. The exile in Babylon is at an end and work has begun on the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But the work is under threat because the Persian governor of Judea thinks it is unauthorised, so he writes to Darius in Persia seeking instruction. Darius replies by making a decree that the work is to go ahead, and this morning’s reading consists of just one verse from that descree; and it is a verse I was drawn to because of the way Darius refers to God’s “Name”.

In our twenty-first century world, a name is just a sign of identification and a means of distinguishing one person from another; but in the ancient world it was so much more than that. It had substance and power and, in the case of God, was part of his very being. Thus, when God is giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, he tells him: “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him” (Exodus 23.20).

The “Name” there is clearly nothing less than the presence of God himself. And Moses understood that. Forty years later, when the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, he tells them: “Then to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name — there you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to the LORD. And there rejoice before the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 12.11-12). Once the Name dwells somewhere, it is the God who bears the name that dwells there in some substantial, powerful, real way. God’s Name is almost God’s alter ego.

And the Name can be on individuals as well as in a place. God says: “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.’ So they will put my Name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” Numbers 6.23-27. Through the blessing, the Israelites were to enjoy the presence and peace of God resting upon them and surrounding them.

Clearly, the Persian king, Darius, understood this concept too, for he believed that God had “caused his Name to dwell” in the temple that was being rebuilt in Jerusalem and, that being so, he was not going to hinder the work.

Something of this surely lies behind Jesus’ promise that “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18.20). It is when Christians consciously and deliberately step together into “the Name” — make Jesus their focus and the ground of their meeting — that they enjoy his real presence in some substantial, powerful way.

And something of all this lies too behind the necessity for Christians to offer prayer “in the name of Jesus”. It is not a formula, not an incantation that somehow makes a prayer “work”. It is rather that my prayers must be from within the presence and power of Jesus … must be in accordance with his character, full of his spirit, flowing out of his grace and compassion. If they are, they will be answered. “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” says Jesus. “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 4.13-14). Because to truly “ask in his Name” is to ask from within the godhead — it is to ask as the Son to the Father, and we know that the Father always hears the Son.

Name of all majesty,
fathomless mystery,
King of the ages
by angels adored;
power and authority,
splendour and dignity,
bow to His mastery —
Jesus is Lord!

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