The entire Old Testament is full of examples of prayer and encouragements to pray. In the gospels, Jesus builds upon that foundation by establishing the importance of praying in His name:
"I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it" (John 14:13–14, New International Version).
"Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete" (John 16:24, NIV).
So what exactly is Jesus saying? Are we supposed to finish every prayer by saying, "in Jesus' name, amen"? Does it mean something else?
What does it mean to pray in Jesus' name?
In the early nineteenth century, police in England addressed fleeing criminals by shouting, "Police! Stop in the name of the law." Even if they couldn't see the officer, the offender understood who was telling them to stop—and by whose authority. This officer was here to enforce the law under the authorization of the crown.
It's very similar to the experience that Peter and John have before the rulers, elders, and scribes in Jerusalem:
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?"
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead" (Acts 4:5–10).
In an era where powerful people couldn't send an email or make a telephone call, they dispatched their orders through people given the authority to speak in their name. When those ambassadors gave orders, they they did so with the authority of the person in charge.
All authority in heaven and earth
When Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, He began by establishing his authority:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:18–20, NIV).
Why is it vital let the disciples know that universal authority now belongs to Him? Because He's come back from the dead and established His deity. He's now transferring that authority to them as they're being dispatched around the world to speak on His behalf. They are now emissaries empowered to speak for Christ.
But remember, he points out that he has authority on earth and in heaven. And he invites us to use that authority in prayer!
Imagine that you wanted to take out a bank loan, but you didn't have the collateral. The bank needs to know that you're going to cover the loan, so they demand a co-signer. This is a person who provides security for the loan in case you can't pay it back. It's very similar to the role Jesus plays in our prayers.
I can't come into God's throne room and start asking for things based on my own authority and righteousness, but Jesus co-signs my prayers. The authority He's earned is extended to those He has redeemed. It's not necessarily something we invoke by saying the words "in Jesus’ name," it's ours through faith when we're His.
Has Jesus written us a blank check?
Many groups have taken the Jesus' words and twisted them. They suggest that if we're praying in Jesus name and not seeing results, it's because we're doing something wrong. After all, they argue, Jesus promised to do anything that we ask in His name.
Is that true? Are Christ's words a blank check in prayer?
No. Not exactly.
Understanding ancient education
Ancient near-eastern teaching incorporated a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole. When they wanted to reinforce the importance of an idea, they'd do so in a very strong, unnuanced fashion.
You see this a lot in Proverbs. Take Proverbs 22:6 as an example:
Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
When you read this, it seems clear as day. But is it a promise that if you raise children right, they'll never rebel or make bad decisions as adults? No. It's not a promise; it's a principle. And the way near-eastern people would put an exclamation point on an important principle was by overstating it. Jesus does this, too.
When talking about temptation, he makes an alarming series of statements.
"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell" (Mark 9:43–47, NIV).
Obviously, Jesus isn't really suggesting that we cut off our hands and feet or put out our eyes. He wants to communicate the severity of sin, and He does that by suggesting the most unimaginable remedy. This hammered home the point in a memorable fashion for an audience that was mostly illiterate. They would go home with this lesson etched into their minds.
The importance of authority
When Jesus says that anything you ask in His name will be given, it's not a carte blanche promise. It's a principle. Praying in Jesus' name and authority is so central that Jesus speaks in the strongest possible terms.
We know that God isn't going to answer any prayer spoken in Jesus' name. If you ask God to approve of your sin, it's not going to happen. Things prayed in Christ's authority have to align with God's will.
There are a lot of factors that influence prayers, but Jesus wants us to know that coming to God as ambassadors with His authority has an enormous impact on the potency of our prayer life!
When has God answered a prayer for you? Share your story in the comments.