In My Name
Fr. Ed Fride
Ed. This article appeard in The Hebrew Catholic #78, pg. 22. All Rights Reserved. Fr. Fride is pastor of Christ the King Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
As we continue to explore the Jewish impact on Christian literature, begun in our discussion of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in relation to the Jewish legend of the Tzohar, the next point of discussion is far more crucial than a possible relation to a fiction work—it concerns the heart of our belief, the Gospel itself. The essential relationship between Judaism and Christianity has been a topic of discussion since the first century. Much has been said in particular about the importance of Christians learning more about Judaism, especially as practiced during the time of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Himself, so that they may more deeply penetrate the meaning of His words.
A classic case in point of this is the content of the Gospel of St. Matthew, 18:20. Frequently, when discussing the Divinity of the Lord Jesus as expressed in the four Gospels, the lion’s share of attention is given to the Gospel of St. John. It is thought that that Gospel is the clearest in terms of expressing belief in the Divinity of Jesus, especially through the clear teaching of the Prologue of the Gospel itself, e.g.: “and the Word was God.” However, I would maintain, that to those who familiarize themselves with the Jewish background of the times, the Gospel of St. Matthew is an even more ringing proclamation of the Divinity of the Lord. Though there are many aspects of St. Matthew’s Gospel that could be explored to demonstrate this, I would like to take 18:20 as a classic example of a clear teaching that is very Jewish in its content, such that its clear statement of the divinity of the Lord Jesus might be missed by someone reading that verse without a clear understanding of what lies behind it.
The first issue has to do with the use by the Lord Jesus of the expression: “in My Name.” For the person today, that is nothing particularly noteworthy. However, from the point of view of the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament it would be an extraordinary usage. In all the Scriptures, no human person ever calls his followers to do something in his name. For the Jew, when it comes to the things of God, there is only one Name, in which things may be done. It is the holy Name of God Himself. That Name is so holy that it is protected by a Commandment, and may not be spoken except with great reverence. The sacred character of the Name of God as understood by the Jewish people, even to today, is a well-documented reality. Jesus breaks with Jewish tradition in repeatedly using His Name in a way that had heretofore been reserved exclusively for the Divine Name.
However, in 18:20, there is another element that is a clear assertion that the Lord Jesus is more than simply human. He states that if they gather in His Name, then He will be in their midst. This transcends human reality. We are limited in space and time; yet here the Lord simply says to His disciples if they gather in His Name, He will be with them. Some might argue that He is only speaking metaphorically or symbolically, and, if you simply take the verse at face value, that might be a reasonable contention. But this is a classic case in point in which knowing the Jewish background of the verse makes it clear what the Lord Jesus is asserting about Himself. Many scholars believe that verse 18:20 is actually a re-working of a previously existing rabbinic teaching from the Mishna. In a section from the Mishnah entitled Pirke Aboth, the following verse appears: “If two sit together, and the Words of the Law (pass) between them, the Divine Presence abides on them.” An analysis of this verse comparing it with St. Matthew 18:20 yields some interesting results. First, consider the parallels:
The Lord Jesus is the word made flesh. In this reworking of the rabbinic verse, the Lord Jesus is equating two gathering in His Name with two studying the Torah. The subsequent parallel result is what so strikingly affirms His Divinity. It equates the divine Presence with His own presence. In other words, just as studying the Torah results in the Divine Presence resting on those two, so too does the presence of the Lord Jesus rest on those who gather in His Name. Some scholars see this reworking of the rabbinic text as a deliberate assertion of the Divinity of the Lord Jesus, and not just an ‘indiscriminant’ divinity, but the very Divinity of the God of the Old Testament.
To hear those words from the lips of the Lord Jesus must have utterly shocked those Jews who heard Him, especially those more educated who were familiar with this passage from the Mishna. They would see it as a double declaration of Divinity. First, because He equates His Name with the Divine Name, gathering men to Himself. Second, because the consequence of that gathering is that His presence would be in their midst, even as the Divine Presence rests on those who study the Law. There would have been no confusion in their minds as to what He was asserting.
However, to the casual reader today, unaware of either the significance of the use of the phrase “in My Name,” or the background behind the reworking of the rabbinic text, the richness of the meaning of this verse and the magnitude of its proclamation of the Divinity of the Son might be lost—a clear argument for the wisdom of gaining greater familiarity with the ‘Jewishness’ of the Gospel!