The word “name” (to onoma) appears in the New Testament text more than 200 times, with several different implications, many of which are poorly understood – largely for cultural reasons. More than 50 of those are merely identifying individuals – as our western culture would expect. A few are simply counting – used as a synonym for “people”, and 15-20, especially in the Revelation, refer to evil entities of some sort, or identification with them. But that leaves us with the vast majority – primarily those referring to the name of God, of the Father, of Jesus, or of the Lord – which are not so easily sorted by dwellers in 21st century western culture. The implications of these must be gleaned from the context, which means that any “conclusions” we may draw are merely conjecture, and open to challenge.
Classically, to onoma referred either to a specific person, to one’s fame or reputation, to someone’s financial account or credit, to one’s ancestors, or to a political or business attachment to some source of authority. (Liddell/Scott). The Arndt and Gingerich translation of Bauer’s lexicon (see appendix) contains a few more anthropological notes: “The belief in the efficacy of a name is extremely old….This (N.T.) period of literature sees in the name something real: a piece of the very nature of the personality whom it designates, that partakes of his qualities and his powers.” It may refer to attributes, ownership, or loyalty. “The use of a name without the attendant loyalty is seen as hypocrisy or deceit.” In a similar manner, millenia earlier, people had been warned against “taking the Lord’s name in vain” – i.e., outside the realm of honor and obedience to him.
A name is often assumed to convey the power of the one named, for good or ill. To “believe in the name” of someone is to certify that he is genuine. To “call on the name” of someone – human or divine – was an attempt to access his power or intervention.
The Gospels are replete with references to Jesus’ having “come in his Father’s name” – as his representative (Mt.21:9 and parallels, Jn.5:43). His deeds of power and compassion are offered as witness to the truth of that claim (Jn.10:25). Consequently, when he sends out disciples “in his name”, or when anyone claims to represent him, similar evidence is reasonably to be expected (Mk.16:17, Lk.10:17, Lk.24:7). Nevertheless, it is also clear that “in the name of Jesus” is NOT legitimately to be used as a pious version of “abracadabra”! False claims of his name are roundly condemned, as is obvious in his categorical rejection of those who claimed a non-existent relationship to him in Mt.7:22, and similarly referenced in Mt.24:5, Mk.13:6, Lk21:8 and 21:8 and 17, and illustrated most dramatically in Ac.19:13-16. This sort of situation does require careful discernment, however: see Mk.9:38 and Jesus’ response in 9:39.
”Calling on” the name of Jesus (Ac.2:21, 4:12, 9:21, 15:17; Rom.10:13, I Cor.1:2, II Tim.2:19), like “trusting/believing/becoming faithful to” (see W.S. #1) his name (Jn.1:12, 2:23, 3:13-17) seems to carry a strong flavor of commitment to him and his cause, and a consequent expectation of obedience. That commitment was assumed to be evidenced by “being baptized in the name of the Lord” (Ac.2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5, 22:16), regarding which Bauer’s lexicon notes: “Through baptism ‘eis to onoma’ [literally into the name] of someone, the one who is so baptized becomes the possession of, and comes under the protection of the one whose name he bears: he is thenceforth under the control of …that one – wholly dedicated to him.”
Associating/acting “in someone’s name” was also assumed to access his power or intervention, as is evident in the various accounts of healings, both when disciples were sent out as Jesus’ representatives during and after his earthly ministry, and as the gathered group of committed followers took on their responsibility as the Body of Christ, ministering discipline (I Cor.5:4, II Thess.3:6) as well as healings (Ac.3:6, 4:7, 4:30, 16:18; James 5:14).
A huge amount of rhetoric has been expounded, (loosely) based upon Jesus’ encouraging his disciples to make requests “in his name.” In the context of this more accurate understanding of the use of the concept of “name”, it should be abundantly clear that he was NOT offering anyone a “blank check”! Instead of a license to append “in the name of Jesus” like an incantation (certified mail, or an insurance policy!) to every prayer or admonition, his statement must be viewed as a caution: Be certain that the entreaty is motivated by, and is completely in harmony with the totality of his being – his personality – his Kingly position – and the work of his Kingdom – before attaching the name of Jesus to anything!
Contrary to many modern assumptions is the observation that there are more references to abuse/persecution “for the sake of his name” (at least 17), than there are to glorious “successes” (a few in Revelation, but not before that!)
Consistently, those who associate themselves with the name of Jesus are reminded of their responsibility to take care to bring no reproach upon that name/reputation! (I Cor.1:10, Col.3:17, II Thess.1:12, I Tim.6:1)
It is “in his name” that praise and thanksgiving are to be offered to God (Eph.5:20 and many other places), and that the unity of the brotherhood is to be maintained (I Cor.1:10).
And it gets even better! The “name” given to Jesus after his triumph over death implies the awarding of a well-deserved title – “above all names” (Phil.2:9) – “above every conceivable rank or power” (Eph.1:21) – “higher than the name of any angels/messengers” (Heb.1:4). The day will come when that truth is universally acknowledged (Phil.2:10) – and “every knee shall bow” in submission to the name of Jesus! May God – and his people – speed that day!
But meanwhile, all who do acknowledge Jesus’ name have a clear assignment: to represent their Sovereign faithfully. Paul expressed this concern to the brethren in Thessalonica (II Thess.1:12): “That’s what we always keep praying for you all: that our God may make you worthy of the calling, and may fulfill (your) every good intention and faithful deed in (his) miraculous power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified among you all, and you in him.” The instructions are simple: (Col.3:17) “And everything – whatever you do, in word or deed, (do) everything in the name of the Lord Jesus …” — as his representatives – by his power – and for his honor!