In the congregation I formerly pastored, I had the privilege of shepherding a brother who worked as a police officer in the Philadelphia police department. He once graciously took me to eat at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, which serves as the union lodge for the whole police department of Philadelphia.
The lodge had a lounge where FOP members could eat and drink along with their guests. It was a newly built, modern restaurant complete with a police motorcycle hanging from the ceiling. During our time there, the off-duty cops were coming in and out of the building. This man would stop and talk to them about police work, with me lingering at his side.
The whole experience was delightfully surreal. It gave me a peek at what it might be like for me to grow out a magnificent Tom Selleck mustache and be one of the boys in blue.
However, there was no way that I was entering that lodge to eat lunch if I had just showed up by myself. I came as this man’s guest. He had to present his card to the hostess before we could enter. The FOP lounge is not just another commercial restaurant. It is a space specifically built for members of the FOP and their guests. My PCA clergy card would not pass muster for entry. It was this man’s presence and his presence alone that granted me access to that space.
It can be quite the treat to be able to go someplace where you otherwise wouldn’t be able to step foot because you are with someone who has special access to that space. There are lots of memorably enchanting places you can experience in this world if only you know the right person who can gain you special entry.
We may easily forget that the reality of Christian prayer is based on this principle.
Mature Christians are intimately acquainted with the concrete ways in which the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ form the basis of our life of salvation in Him. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that even mature Christians do not give much thought to how Christ’s ascension does the same.
Prayer is one of those things we know we are supposed to do as Christians, but perhaps it may not be something we stop and think about. We don’t consider what exactly it is we are doing and why we can even do it.
But one of the most important things for us to understand about what it means for us to pray as Christians is this: of all the special places in creation to which we might have access because of our connection to someone, the most precious is the access we have to the heavenly throne room of God because of our connection to Jesus.
Christian prayer is an action through which we have special entry to God’s heavenly presence because Jesus always stands there at the right hand of God and we can come through Him as His special guests. Christian prayer is about using our connection with Jesus to gain access to a space we would otherwise be unable to access on our own.
One of the places in Scripture we most clearly find this connection between Christian prayer and the ascension of Jesus is the book of Acts. Some scholars have argued that a better title for the book than “the Acts of the Apostles” would be “the Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus.” He is the agent acting throughout the narrative of the book to accomplish for His people on earth things that He alone can effect from His exalted position in heaven.
The gospel of Luke ends with a brief account of Jesus’ ascending to heaven. Yet, when Luke begins his second volume, he opens by rewinding to give us another account of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. And that is surely not just because Luke wants to be repetitive. It is because Luke wants us to read everything that happens in the book of Acts in light of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. We cannot really understand the events of Acts without understanding how they are connected to the exaltation of Christ at the right hand of the Father.
Other places in the New Testament inform us that one of the things Jesus is doing in His continuing work for His church as He is in heaven is interceding for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 1 John 2:1). While Luke does not use explicit vocabulary in Acts to say that Jesus is interceding for His people in heaven, he nevertheless tells us that implicitly in one of the scenes in the book of Acts.
In Acts 7 Stephen bears courageous testimony that leads to his martyrdom. As Stephen is about to be dragged outside the city to be stoned to death, Luke informs his readers in Acts 7:55 that Stephen is given a vision of heaven to see the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. This position of Jesus standing on the right hand of God is an image that communicates that Jesus is there standing as the advocate and intercessor of Stephen before the throne of God.
As we consider what it means for prayer to be an indispensable component of the basic pattern of the Christian life, we must first recognize that our praying activity is predicated on the reality that Jesus stands in heaven as our intercessor who prays for us.
This is the fundamental reason that we are called to offer our prayers to God in the name of Jesus. When we are first taught to pray, we are taught to always end our prayers by saying something along the lines of “in Jesus’ name.” It is easy for those closing words to become perfunctory and meaningless, something that we say without much thought as to what exactly we are saying when we end our prayers “in Jesus’ name.”
Yet, we end our prayers that way based on good, biblical reasons. In John 16:23, Jesus tells His disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
The special significance of the name of Jesus is a recurring theme in the book of Acts. Indeed, when Ananias is told by Jesus to go and find Paul in Acts 9:14, Ananias simply refers to Christians as those “who call on your name.”
Calling on the name of Christ is the most basic act of our salvation. On Pentecost, Peter quotes from the book of Joel in a quotation that ends, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21, emphasis added). Luke tells us repeatedly in Acts that the name of the Lord is the name of Jesus. Hence, later, when Peter stands and preaches to the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:12, he tells them that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (emphasis added).
To call upon the name of Jesus is to call upon the One who has ascended to heaven and is standing at the right hand of the Father; it is to call upon the only name through which we can have saving access to God the Father.
There is no other way for us to have our prayers reach the presence of God other than through the name of Jesus, who is the only intercessor who stands on our behalf in the Father’s heavenly presence.
The significance of Christ’s ascension to heaven climactically changes the shape of prayer in redemptive history. From Acts forward, God’s people now pray to God through the name of Jesus, the One who has been made both Lord and Christ, and who is Himself praying for us in that exalted state. And thus, the efficacy of Christian prayer flows from Jesus’ own heavenly prayer.
We can intercede on earth because He intercedes in heaven. We can supplicate on earth because He supplicates in heaven. We can enter into God’s presence on earth because He has entered once and for all into God’s presence in heaven. The whole of our praying life in these last days (Heb. 1:1ff; see Acts 2:17)—both individually, in private prayer, and collectively in corporate worship —is predicated on the reality that Jesus is the One who prays for us in heaven.
When we end our prayers “in the name of Jesus,” we are recognizing the reality that in our prayer we can enter a special space—not the space of a union lodge or the bridge of an aircraft carrier or even the Oval Office, but the special space of God’s heavenly throne room, and that because we call upon the name of Jesus.
Christian prayer is an action through which we are able to have special access to God’s heavenly presence, because Jesus always stands there at the right hand of God, and we can come through Him as His special guests.
It is no accident, then, that when we read Acts 1, after the disciples have watched Jesus ascend into heaven, that the very first thing we see them do is go back to Jerusalem, shut themselves in the upper room where they were staying, and pray (Acts 1:14).
The disciples of Jesus intuitively recognize that if Jesus has ascended to heaven, they need to be busy praying to Him as He is in heaven as their intercessor so that He might act on behalf of His church.
If Jesus truly has ascended to heaven to the right hand of the Father, how can we not be a people devoted to prayer? It is one of the most practical things we can do as Christians.
Prayer recalibrates our perception of the world. It helps us see afresh the reality that God’s kingdom has broken in to the present world order as Jesus the King sits enthroned at the right hand of God wielding the power He has been granted in His exaltation, a power that extends across the entire scope of history and the cosmos, a power Christ wields for the sake of us as His people (Eph. 1:22–23).
Prayer to God in the name of Christ reminds us of that reality. It reminds us that the most important and practical thing we can do is petition God in the name of King Jesus who has been made Lord of all. When we fervently and faithfully pray in the name of Jesus, it reminds us that even when we are not praying, we have a King standing in heaven who is always praying for us.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 18, 2020.