Jesus once asked, “What do you think of the Messiah/Christ?”
The Pharisees answered Him formally with public opinion, without committing themselves. Jesus challenged them to think matters through so that they could know what the place of Christ was in human society (Matt 22:42–45).
How should believers think of Jesus? How should we be identifying Him in worship? The New Testament has the answers to these questions.
For most part, the apostolic authors profiled themselves as servants of Christ Jesus. That is, they proclaimed that they were in a relationship with Jesus, instead of referring to Him by His divine office.
Paul described himself as a “servant of Christ Jesus” (Rom 1:1), “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1), “an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal 1:1), “servant(s) of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:1), “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim 1:1), “a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ” (Titus 1:1).
James described himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 1:1), while Peter said he was “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:1) and “a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1) and Jude identified himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (v.1) and John simply as “the Elder” (2 Jn v.1; 3 Jn v.1).
Fellowships of Saints
In the beginning, the Church met from “house to house” apart from their mass gatherings in the Temple courts (Acts 2:46). It is unlikely that the Temple was the place for their distinctive activities of praying to God in Jesus’ name (Jn 14:6, 13–14; 15:16; 16:23–24) and “breaking bread” (the observance of the Lord’s Supper), as they would not have got permission from the Temple authorities to do their own thing. However, like everyone else, they could use the courts as a place to connect with one another and keep a track of what was going on in their community. It would also appear that the Temple court served as a forum for presenting religious thought (3:12; 4:1; 5:25).
As the community of believers grew and spread to other cities, they continued to meet in homes (Rom 16:5; Col 4:15). There was no plan to build dedicated places of worship. This fulfilled Christ’s vision for His Church, that they would be a people who would not worship in designated holy places (such as Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim), but would worship in spirit and in truth (Jn 4: 21–24). Theirs was not a formal, ritualised worship, but worship that was informal and intimate.
The descriptions of the people of the faith fit this image of being an intimate group bound only by their love of the Lord:
- “loved by God and called to be His holy people” (Rom 1:7)
- “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be His holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord” (1 Cor 1:2)
- “God’s holy people…the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1; Col 1:2)
- “God’s holy people in Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:1)
- “the church…in God the/our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th 1:1; 2 Th 1:1)
- “God’s elect…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with His blood” (1 Pet 1:1–2)
- “those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours” (2 Pet 1:1)
- “who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude v.1).
Next we consider what the apostles said in greetings. Here’s what Paul said:
- “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:2; 2 Th 1:2)
- “Grace and peace to you from God our Father” (Col 1:1)
- “…in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you” (1 Th 1:1)
- “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2)
- “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Saviour” (Titus 1:4)
Peter greeted them with “Grace and peace…in abundance” followed by “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Pet 1:2–3). Next time Peter wrote, “Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet 1:1–2).
John wrote, “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son” (2 Jn v.3).
Jude said, “Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance” (v. 2).
Finally, we consider the closing ascriptions of glory to God and/or benedictions given:
- “Now to Him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ… to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Rom 16:25, 27)
- “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen” (1 Cor 16: 23–24)
- “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14)
- “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen” (Gal 6:18)
- “Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Eph 6:23–24)
- “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen” (Phil 4:23) “Grace be with you” (Col 4:18; 1 Tim 6:21; Titus 3:15)
- “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Th 5:28; 2 Th 3:18)
- “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all” (2 Tim 4:22)
- “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen…Grace be with you all” (Heb 13:20–21, 25)
- “Peace to all of you who are in Christ” (1 Pet 5:13)
- “To Him be glory both now and for ever! Amen” (2 Pet 3:18)
- “To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen” (Jude vv.24–25)
Language in Fellowship
These passages of the greetings and benedictions represent the way the churches of the New Testament period took the name of Jesus in the context of fellowship. What is noticeable is that almost without exception there is no reference to Jesus as “God, the Son” in invocation and/or benediction.
There is just one instance of Jesus being identified in greeting as “the Father’s Son” (2 Jn. v.3). That was because John was battling the Gnostic heresy which said that Jesus was not the equal of God, and was only a demigod. It was in that context that John assertively proclaimed that Jesus was God (Jn 1:1) and that the glory of God was revealed in Him (v.14). In his first letter he declared that anyone who does not accept that Jesus was the Christ and was God in the flesh (2:22–23) was no less than an antichrist (4:2–3).
They did not greet each other in the name of “God, the Son” even though in their preaching and in theological statements in their letters they proclaimed that Jesus was God’s Son. For instance, Paul affirmed that the gospel was “regarding His Son, who as to His earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by His resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:3–4). That was a theological affirmation of who Jesus was and is.
Significantly, the Early Church’s confession was “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3). In that affirmation, the Church simply acknowledged the divinity of the one they called “Jesus”.
When addressing Christians or pronouncing greetings or blessings in the name of Jesus there was no sacred formulation as practised in many churches today:
- Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
- The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
- The blessing of God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit
Jesus did command that baptism was to be administered “in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). However, it is questionable whether He was giving a “baptismal formula”. The book of Acts says that people were baptised “in the name of Jesus” (2:38; 10:48). If Jesus had meant them to use a formula, it is highly unlikely that the early disciples would have departed from such a clear teaching of Christ, and that too, so soon after Jesus was resurrected (just fifty days later on the day of Pentecost).
The truth is Jesus didn’t teach any rituals to His disciples. While He fulfilled the law, He virtually dismantled the whole religious system that had been built around the law. He instituted no rites and offerings. So it is unlikely that He meant that baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit was to be reduced to a sacred formula.
To be baptised in the name of Jesus meant that they identified themselves as followers of Jesus, just as John’s followers were baptised as his followers, and the Pharisees had their own disciples (Mk 2:18). It was an initiation rite. However Jesus said that when people were baptised they were to be taught all that He had taught and the reference to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit must, therefore, be seen as a definition of the content of His teaching. There was to be no denial of the Father, who was known through Creation, and the history of His covenant dealings with Israel, and there was to be no denial of the Holy Spirit who would come in place of Christ to encourage and empower them for their mission. The Father and the Spirit were to be held in honour just like they honoured Him.
By all means, let’s keep the Trinitarian formula for baptism, but less formally. Why not say, “We baptise you in the name of the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit”?
A New Reformation
When we refer to Jesus in prayer or blessing as “God, the Son” what happens is that we distance Him from ourselves; we diminish the warmth and compassion of the one who allowed us to call Him by a human name. Think about it: when you pray personally do you address Jesus as “God, the Son”? Why don’t you? Isn’t it because when you pray you want to feel the intimacy of calling Jesus by name? Then, why pray in church in a way that distances Jesus from us?
The kind of language used in liturgy developed when the shepherds of the Church began to lord it over the church (1 Pet 5:3), forcing the Church into the mode of requiring a special class of people to perform rituals. It gave up the essential doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Pet 2:9–10; Rev 1:5–6). The sharp divide between the people (laity) of God and the priestly class had to be buttressed by introducing sacred formulae that only the priestly class could chant.
The fallout of this is seen in the fact that people in liturgical churches are hesitant about praying in public. It is as if they believe that when praying in public, they ought to sound like their church’s prayer book. On the other hand, in non-liturgical churches, new believers (even converts from other faiths) revel in the newfound liberty in Christ—that they can talk to God personally and intimately, as though they are talking to their Father—and, they are.
At various times in the history of liturgical churches (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) there have been attempts to reform. Most of these attempts to reform have ended as rewriting prayers and rituals in somewhat modern language without losing any formalness. However, as long as they only change the language of prayer, without engaging hearts in a love affair with Jesus, the coldness of formality will remain in place.
Teach people to take the name of Jesus. Tell them that Jesus is really their friend, and God is really their loving Father. Help people to lose their fears. Let them know that God who embraced humans by becoming and being human will not be offended if they don’t get their grammar right. Tell people that God will welcome conversing with them even when they make a mess of things praying.