"Whatever you ask in my name," Jesus said, "I will do it" (John 14:13). Some people seem to think that Jesus is giving us a blank check — we can ask for anything at all, and he will sign his name to it and pass it along to the Father, and it will be done — guaranteed.
We all know that this doesn’t work — and it’s a good thing it doesn’t! Some people pray for rain at the same time as their neighbors pray for sunshine. The home seller prays for a high price, the home buyer prays for a low one.
If God had to answer every request he was given in the name of Jesus, the world would be chaotic, driven by the whims of well-meaning but foolish people. Even if humans could all agree, we simply don’t have the wisdom to be telling God how to run the universe.
So what did Jesus mean?
Whatever we ask
"I tell you the truth," Jesus said, "my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name…. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete" (John 16:23-24). Does this mean that we fill out the request form, and Jesus signs it and sends it to his dad? "Hey, Dad, I’ve got a buddy here who wants a million dollars. How about doing it as a favor for me?"
No, that is not the way it works. Jesus is not a middleman who stamps his signature on our request, pretending that our request is really his. He says: "I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you" (verses 26-27). We have permission to go to the Father directly, because God loves us just as much as he loves his own Son. (Does that thought astonish you as much as it does me?)
Hebrews tells us that Jesus gives us permission to go to God directly. We do not need a middleman. So what does it mean to ask in the name of Jesus?
Let’s imagine that we are in an ancient palace. The king is sitting on his throne, his prince at his right hand, dozens of guards at attention, hundreds of loyal servants waiting for orders so that every decree will be carried out immediately.
And now imagine that we go into the palace, and the guards immediately make way for us, knowing that we have permission to approach the king. They swing aside, snap to attention and give us the royal treatment. We walk into the throne room, bow before the king, bow before the prince, and then tell the king: "In the name of the prince, I ask you for a better job and a nicer home."
Maybe my palace protocol is a little rusty, but it seems a little odd for me to speak "in the name of the prince" when the prince is sitting right there. Maybe this is not what it means to ask "in the name of Jesus."
More than pronunciation
Some people think that Jesus was talking about pronouncing his name in a certain way. They believe we have to get his name right — like a secret password — before the request will get through the heavenly filters. But when ancient peoples talked about someone’s "name," they were not worried about the right pronunciation — they were referring to a person’s status or importance.
We can see that in the book of Hebrews. It begins by telling us that Jesus has inherited a better name than the angels have. The name in that context seems to be "Son," but the precise word isn’t really important — the point being made is that Jesus is superior to the angels. He has a higher status, a greater glory.
When we talk about the superior name of Jesus, we are really talking about his superior importance. When we pray in the name of Jesus, we are not dealing with a special word — we are dealing with a special person. When we pray in his name, we are praying according to the way that he is — according to his nature. Our praise and requests should be something that fits his character.
Let’s use another analogy. Suppose that a police officer says, "Stop in the name of the law" — it means that the officer has the force of law behind the command. But suppose that same officer asks for a bribe: "Give me $20,000 cash in the name of the law." Using the words "in the name of the law" does not automatically give the officer legal support, does it? When the officer says "in the name of the law," he is supposed to be acting within the rules of the law.
In the same way, when we use Jesus’ name, we are not obligating him to support our own whims and desires. Rather, we are saying that we are already in accord with what he wants. We are saying something that he has authorized us to say.
Rather than forcing him to conform to our wishes, "in his name" means exactly the opposite: We are conforming to his wishes, we are acting within his will. When we speak on his behalf, we need to make sure that we are saying something that he would agree with.
When we say "in Jesus’ name," we are conforming to the words of the Lord’s prayer: Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Let it be done in my life. If my request is not according to your will, then feel free to change it to what it needs to be. "In Jesus’ name" is our affirmation that, as best we know, our request is within his will.
Let your requests be known
However, if we have to pray according to God’s will, what’s the point of praying? Isn’t he going to do his will whether we ask for it or not? Doesn’t it go without saying that if we ask God to do what he already wants to, that he will do it?
But God is the one who is telling us to pray. In his wisdom, God has decided to do certain things only in answer to prayer. Sometimes this is so that we will learn, in the process of prayer, what his will is, and whether our request is for selfish purposes. We don’t always understand what God’s will is, and praying can sometimes help us come to a better understanding.
But I suspect that on many things, God’s will is not set in stone. God may not have decided, for example, which person we should marry — but he has already decided how we should treat the person we marry. He requires that we choose the person, and choose each day how we will interact with that person. Prayer can help us here, too.
Prayer changes us — but it also affects what God does. Since he has decided to do certain things only in answer to prayer, he decides what to do based in part on what we do, on what we need in the situations we have chosen, and on what we ask him to do. He has the power to carry it out, the compassion to help us in our needs, and the wisdom to know what is really best for us.
"In everything," Paul says, "by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6). Whatever is on your heart, whatever it is that you want, ask God for it.
Jesus has given us the authority to ask — but it is a request, not a command. We can trust God to answer in the best possible way, at the best possible time. But whatever we do (prayer included), we are to do it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). When we do that, we can be confident that we are praying in Jesus’ name.