The Name That Opens Heaven
Why God Will Hear Our Prayers
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Before I was old enough to remember, I learned to pray in Jesus’s name. What a gift. Praying in his name is a reality simple enough for a child to acknowledge, and yet profound enough to keep saints in awe for eternity. Like learning to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”
And of course, when we teach young children such simple and profound truths (which we must), familiarity may breed neglect as they grow. So it is for any of us with the dear truths we repeat. At whatever age, we might make “in Jesus’s name, I pray, amen” into a throwaway closing at the end of our prayers, instead of the precious and massive theological reality it is.
For two thousand years, Christians have been praying in Jesus’s name, and for good reason. But when was the last time you paused to ponder why?
In the Name of Jesus
Jesus himself instructed his disciples to “ask the Father in my name” (John 15:16; 16:23, 26). The apostle Paul spoke of Christians as those who “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2), and give thanks “to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).
Praying in Jesus’s name is just one act among many in a whole life under the same banner: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). Unsurprisingly, in the book of Acts, we see the earliest Christians making the name of Jesus explicit in all they did — whether baptism (Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5), or healing and exorcism (Acts 3:6; 4:30; 16:18), in all their teaching and preaching (Acts 4:18; 5:40; 8:12; 9:27), even risking their lives and embracing imprisonment and death in his name (Acts 15:26; 21:13).
Such living, and performing various actions, for the world to see, in the name of Jesus has a particular end in view: to glorify him. To honor him. To act in Jesus’s name is to act for Jesus’s fame. To aim to make him known and admired and appreciated and enjoyed, as he ought to be. But what about when we turn Godward in prayer? How is prayer, in directing our words Godward, instead of our actions toward fellow humans, distinct from other acts undertaken in Jesus’s name?
Five Reasons We Pray in Jesus’s Name
Praying in Jesus’s name aims at his glory, and the Father’s glory in him. “Whatever you ask in my name,” he says, “this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). When we pray with others, and they hear our prayers, invoking Jesus’s name redounds to his fame, his praise, his glory. Our prayers honor Jesus when we appeal to his Father in conscious reliance on Jesus — because of who he is, what he has done for us, and what he promises to be for us forever.
Hebrews 4:14–16 (and its expanded reprise in Hebrews 10:19–23) draws that glory out even more, giving us at least five specific reasons, among others, to consciously take up the name of Jesus when we pray to our Father.
1. As human, he sympathizes with our weaknesses.
We pray in the name of one who shares in our humanity. He is our brother in nature, and the weaknesses this nature carries. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). To identify fully with us, “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17).
When we pray in Jesus’s name, we pray in the name of a fellow human. Not one who began as human, but one who is the eternal second person of the Trinity. Without subtracting any of his divinity (as if that were possible), he added to himself our full humanity, to identify with us. We pray to God Almighty through the singular mediation of the God-man, who as fully human is able to sympathize with us in the weaknesses of our humanity.
2. As a sufferer, he knows human pain.
Again, he “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Hebrews 2:18 makes the connection between temptation and suffering: “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Jesus not only took to himself our full humanity, but also the unavoidable reality of life in a fallen world: suffering. And he not only suffered, as human, in the ways most of us do, but he embraced unusual suffering, even to the odious, shaming execution of the cross.
Jesus is our fellow sufferer (Hebrews 2:9; 5:8; 13:12), and Hebrews 2:10 says his suffering was “fitting.” Why? Because we humans suffer. We all eventually know our own seasons of suffering, if not whole lives of various sufferings. Normal human life is well acquainted with suffering and grief, and so is Jesus. It is often our sufferings that prompt us to pray, and we pray in the name of one who knows what it’s like to suffer.
3. As our sacrifice, he paid all we owed.
Hebrews 10:19 claims, “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.” He took our humanity, and shared in our suffering — to the point of shedding his own blood — that he, being without sin, might “make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Jesus is our substitute. He died the death we deserved for our sin.
To make propitiation means to satisfy the wrath of God we deserved because of our rebellion against him in our sin. The righteous wrath Jesus propitiated as our substitute was the punishment that we deserved. Without his sacrificial action, and our claim to his blood to cover our sins, we would have no warrant for approaching the holy God in prayer. And so, when we pray in Jesus’s name, we acknowledge not only his fellow humanity and suffering, but also his blood shed for us as our substitute.
4. As our forerunner, he opened heaven for us.
If his sacrifice on the cross is the most remembered aspect of Jesus’s name (his substitution), the next might be the most overlooked: his ascension, procession, and session. So far, what we’ve highlighted about Jesus has been “down here”: his humanity, his suffering, his sacrifice. But how do our prayers get from down here to “up there” in heaven where God is? How are we actually restored to God?
Jesus not only died, but three days later, he rose from the grave, he ascended to heaven, he processed, as our human pioneer, into the very presence of his Father, and he sat down at God’s right hand. In doing so, he opened a way for us and for our prayers. Jesus, in full resurrected and glorified humanity, ascended bodily into heaven and cut for us a path into the very presence of his Father. He has opened heaven’s door, and pioneered our way to come in his wake.
He “has passed through the heavens,” Hebrews 4:14 says. He is “a forerunner on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:20). There is a “new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain” (Hebrews 10:20). The reason we can “draw near to the throne of grace” is that the human Christ — our brother, who has suffered with us, and who died for us — also has drawn near for us. We can draw near to the Father in prayer because the risen Jesus has drawn near to him in person.
And in claiming the name of Christ, we do so in confidence. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). Apart from Christ, we sinners have no claim on the ear of God in prayer. But in Christ, we have access so secure that we come with chastened boldness and humble confidence. In him, Paul says, “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Ephesians 3:12).
5. As our priest, he brings us to God.
We pray in Jesus’s name because in him “we have a great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14; also 10:21). Just as the high priest alone could enter the very presence of God in the earthly tabernacle (and only once a year), so Jesus is greater, entering God’s own presence in heaven. And he gives us this superior access, bringing us with him — and without end, not just once a year.
“We can draw near to the Father in prayer because the risen Jesus has drawn near to him in person.”
The calling of a priest is to bring his people to God, which Jesus does not only as a representative, but now also in prayer, and one day soon in person. Jesus brings us to himself, and with him to his Father. Put so well by the apostle Peter, Jesus “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And as Paul writes, “through him we . . . have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).
Let Us Pray
When we Christians pray in Jesus’s name, we do not invoke some kind of magic spell or incantation that makes our prayers effective. “In Jesus’s name” is no mere tagline, added at the end of our prayers to make them Christian. We pray in Jesus’s name because he is our brother, our fellow human, our fellow sufferer, our sacrifice and substitute, and our pioneer into the presence of God. And we pray in Jesus’s name because he is our great high priest who alone brings us to God and will most certainly do so for all eternity.
Praying in Jesus’s name is not about merely saying the words. It’s about why and how we pray altogether — and why and how we have any relationship with God whatsoever.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.