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Special note on the “name” of the Father

As I discussed in the previous daily note on John 17:8, the “name” (o&noma), and, in particular, the name of God the Father, is vital for an understanding of the person and work Christ as presented in the Gospel of John. I will be discussing the name (and names) of God in some detail in a series of notes and articles to begin in December during Advent/Christmas season. Here, I will focus on the use of the concept, and expression, in the Gospel of John. It should be pointed out, as I have done on several occasions in the past, that names and naming in the ancient world had a very different significance than in modern (Western) society. To know a person’s name was essentially the same as knowing the person. In the ancient way of thinking, there was a kind of magical quality to the name—it communicated and encapsulated the nature and character of the person. The sacredness and efficacy of the name(s) and epithets applied to God is well established in the Old Testament and Jewish religious tradition, especially with regard to the name signified by the tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh). In early Christian tradition, the name Yeshua/Jesus also had an efficacious quality similar, and parallel, to YHWH. Jesus and God the Father (YHWH) could both be called by the title “Lord” (Ku/rio$), almost interchangeably, giving a dual meaning to Scripture passages such as Joel 2:32 (cf. Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). Calling on the “name of Lord (Jesus)” for early Christians was the same as accepting Jesus, trusting/believing in him, and so the common use of the expression “trust in(to) the name of Jesus”, which we also see in the Gospel of John (1:12; 2:23; 3:18). For early Christians, prayer (for healing, etc) was done “in Jesus’ name” (cf. Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26, and frequently in the book of Acts, etc). From the standpoint of the theology (and Christology) of the Johannine Gospel, trusting the name of Jesus truly meant trusting in the person of Jesus—who he is (Son of God) and where he came from (the Father); cf. especially 3:18; 17:3; 20:31.

The idea of Jesus coming “in the name of the Father” (5:43; 10:25) derives from early Gospel tradition and the application of Psalm 118:26 to Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and coming (Davidic) Ruler expected by many Jews and Israelites of the time (cf. Matt 21:9; 23:39; Mark 11:9; Luke 13:35; 19:38; and John 12:13). The association was given a new interpretation by early Christians, and, in the Gospel of John, the meaning has deepened still further. In the Johannine discourses, we find frequent references to Jesus as the one who comes from the Father, sent by Him, doing and saying what he sees/hears from the Father—on this, cf. the recent article on “Knowledge and Revelation in John” and the previous note on Jn 17:8. Moreover, we also find the distinct Christological view expressed that Jesus (the Son) was with (alongside) the Father in eternity (cf. the Prologue, 1:1-18); this is also indicated throughout the discourses, where Jesus identifies himself, in various ways, with God the Father. This is best seen in the “I am” sayings of Jesus, which use the 1st-person pronoun (e)gw/, “I”) + the verb of being (ei)mi)—e)gw\ ei)mi (“I am”). These all-important sayings punctuate the discourses, often most dramatically—cf. 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 24; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 13:19; 15:1, 5; 18:5; and note also the foreshadowing of the expression in 1:20ff; 3:28, and the distinctive use of the verb of being (ei)mi) in 1:1-15. Cf. also 7:33ff and my earlier note on 14:4-7. It has been suggested that the “name” of the Father in the Johannine discourses is actually e)gw\ ei)mi, “I AM” (cf. Brown, pp. 755-6); if so, it still should be understood in relation to the tetragrammaton (hwhy/YHWH, cf. Exod 3:6, 13-15).

In the Gospel narrative, Jesus’ references to the Father’s name begin to gain prominence following the triumphal entry (in which Jesus comes “in the name of the LORD”, 12:13). Soon after, it is mentioned in verse 28:

“Father, honor/glorify [do/cason] your Name!”

This request echoes the opening of the Lord’s Prayer in the Synoptics (Matt 6:9 par), only here it is associated specifically with the impending death of Jesus. This connection between the Father’s name, the divine glory/splendor/honor (do/ca), and the death (and resurrection) of Jesus, is strengthened, expanding and developing throughout the great Last Discourse of chapters 13-17 (cf. 13:31-32; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14, etc). As Jesus (the Son) was sent in the Father’s name, so, too, the Spirit will be sent by the Father (in the name of the Son)—cf. 14:6, 26; 15:26; 16:7. It is in the prayer-discourse of chapter 17, that the name of the Father becomes a major theme, occurring at three points—at the beginning of the main section (v. 6), at the midpoint (vv. 11-12), and again at the end (v. 26). The first and last (framing) references should be considered in tandem:

  • V. 6: “I made your name (to) shine forth to the ones whom you gave me out of the world”
    —connection with the word [lo/go$] God has given (through Jesus), which believers have kept/guarded (i.e. abides in them)
  • V. 26: “I made known to them your name, and I will make (it) known…”
    —connection with the love which God has for Jesus, and which is in believers

Clearly, this is not a matter of Jesus giving his disciples factual information about the name Yahweh; rather, according to the ancient way of thinking, making the Father’s name known means making the Father Himself known (cf. Exod 23:20-21; Ps 9:10; 22:22, etc). This takes place through the person of the Son, who represents and reflects the Father, and makes Him manifest to believers. The association between the word and love of God naturally brings to mind the “love command” of Gospel tradition (13:34-35, etc), representing the word[s] (lo/go$/r(h/mata) of God which Christ speaks. But it goes deeper than this, for the word (lo/go$) is Christ himself (1:1ff), and, likewise, God’s love is identified with the person of Christ (17:26, cf. also 3:16, etc). This brings us to 17:11-12, where the emphasis is on Jesus keeping/guarding his disciples “in the name” [e)n tw=| o)no/mati] which God gave to him. For the idea of God giving this name to Jesus, cf. the early Christian tradition expressed/preserved by Paul in Phil 2:9-11. In the Philippians hymn, Jesus receives the name following his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of the Father); however, in the Gospel of John, he was given this name even before, and certainly should be so understood in relation to the Son’s pre-existence (and pre-existent glory) shared with the Father. Upon his coming to earth, he was “given” this name, in order to make it known to his followers. It is important to keep in mind the twin aspects of knowing and seeing expressed in 17:6, 26, since, in the Johannine discourses, to know Jesus is the same as seeing; and, if one sees Jesus (the Son) then the believer has also seen the Father. This important chain of logic is best expressed in 14:1-14 (cf. the notes on 14:4-7).

This Johannine understanding of the “name of the Father”, and the relationship between Jesus and the Father, was given a distinctive interpretation in several key Gnostic writings of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. The Gospel of John appears to have quite popular in many Gnostic groups. The earliest NT commentary known to us is the Commentary on John by the Gnostic Heracleon, which, in large part, inspired Origen to embark on his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary. Of the numerous references to the Gospel in the surviving Gnostic texts, two passages are especially relevant and may be cited here—from the so-called Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip (cf. Brown, p. 755):

“Now the name of the Father is the Son. It is he who first gave a name to the one who came forth from him, who was himself, and he begot him as a son. He gave him his name which belonged to him; he is the one to whom belongs all that exists around him, the Father. His is the name; his is the Son. It is possible for him to be seen. But the name is invisible because it alone is the mystery of the invisible which comes to ears that are completely filled with it. For indeed the Father’s name is not spoken, but it is apparent through a Son.” (Gospel of Truth, translation by G. W. MacRae, NHL I.38.6-24, p. 47)

The remainder of the text (39-43) develops the ideas and theology of this passage. The Son speaks of the Father from whom he came forth, and the true believers (Gnostics) respond likewise, recognizing their true nature as having come from God:

“They are the ones who appear in truth since they exist in true and eternal life and speak of the light which is perfect and filled with the seed of the Father…and his children are perfect and worthy of his name, for he is the Father: it is children of this kind that he loves.” (43.9ff)

And, here is a passage from the “Gospel of Philip”:

“One single name is not uttered in the world, the name which the Father gave to the Son, the name above all things: the name of the Father. For the Son would not become Father unless he wears the name of the Father. Those who have this name know it, but they do not speak it. But those who do not have it do not know it.” (translation by W. W. Isenberg, NHL II.54.6-13, p. 133)

A long discussion follows regarding names—hidden and revealed—drawing heavily upon Scripture and various images in the Old and New Testament. It also gives a distinctive interpretation to Baptism and other Christian rituals, using the motif of marriage and the “bridal chamber”. The believer (Gnostic) who “enters” the water and the bridal chamber becomes a “son of the bridal chamber” and will “receive the light”—that is, will experience the mystery, the hidden reality that is revealed in the Son.

Clearly, these Gnostic texts have gone considerably beyond the Old Testament and early Christian tradition regarding Jesus and the “name of the Father”. They draw equally upon ancient religious (and mythological) tradition related to the secret, hidden name of God. The true name and nature of the Deity cannot be spoken or expressed in ordinary human terms. From the Gnostic standpoint, it comes to be known in a spiritual (and mystical) manner—through the saving knowledge (revelation) brought by Jesus to the believer. Through the experience of this revelation, the believer becomes aware of his/her true identity as the offspring of God.

In the references above, “NHL” refers to The Nag Hammadi Library (in English), James M. Robinson, General Editor (Brill: 1978). References marked “Brown” are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29/A.

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