I said I would look at the idea of calling on the name of the Lord Jesus in order to round off a little flurry of posts on the relation between Jesus and God in the context, particularly, of Luke’s narrative in Acts. The aim is neither to undermine nor defend Trinitarian orthodoxy. It is to try to imagine how the apostles and the early churches located the risen Jesus, not simply in relation to the Father but as part of a story that was being told.
In the minds of the apostles Jesus was the “Son” sent to Israel who had been rejected and killed by the leaders of the people and their Roman overlords, but who had been raised from the dead and elevated—in a more or less literal fashion—to the right hand of God in heaven.
This resurrected Messiah or “Son of God” was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus, bringing him in line with the Jerusalem apostles (Gal. 1:15-16; 1 Cor. 15:8-9). He was also revealed in more visionary experiences at critical junctures—for example, to Stephen on the point of death, as the Son of Man who had likewise suffered but had been vindicated by God (Acts 7:55-56; cf. 18:9).
These visions confirmed not only that Jesus was not dead but that he had been granted, in response to his faithfulness, an exceptional status at the right hand of God.
The elevation of Jesus was interpreted principally through the lens of Psalm 110:1. The climax to Peter’s Pentecost sermon is determinative in this regard:
For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:34–36)
The psalm differentiates between the “LORD” who is YHWH and the “Lord” who by virtue of his resurrection and ascension is greater than David, who has been made “Lord and Christ” by YHWH for the sake of Israel, as long as there are “enemies” to be resisted and overcome.
The thought, therefore, is that the God of Israel has given to his Son the authority to act on his behalf as judge and ruler—not only with respect to Israel, as it will turn out, but also with respect to the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.
This delegation of authority accounts for the reapplication of Old Testament YHWH texts to Jesus, but the christology remains firmly within the boundaries of the Jewish kingdom narrative. What makes Jesus remarkable is that, unlike David, his body did not see corruption (Acts 2:29-32); death was not the end but the beginning of his rule; he would reign, therefore, as YHWH’s anointed king throughout the coming ages, until the last enemy is destroyed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28).
It is a further part of this story that Jesus was given the promised Holy Spirit and that he then “poured out” the experience of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost to empower the prophetic-eschatological community of his disciples (Acts 2:33). So we have the basic components of Trinitarian belief (even without a Wisdom/Word christology) but in narrative-apocalyptic relation to each other. It was the later church, it seems to me, that collapsed this narrative into metaphysics once the apocalyptic vision had served its purpose.
I suggested that this narrative-apocalyptic model entails two channels of communication. Prayer (proseuchē, proseuchomai) is always addressed to God as a continuation of normal Jewish practice, but a channel of communication is also open between the apostles and the Lord Jesus in heaven. Much of the communication happens in visions, but they also speak to him directly and expect to get a response—for example, through the casting of lots (Acts 1:26). Paul tells the Corinthians that he had “pleaded with the Lord” on three occasions that the thorn in the flesh, his messenger of Satan, would leave him (2 Cor. 12:8). He is not praying to God here, he is communicating with the risen Lord, the suffering and vindicated Son of Man, who got him into all this trouble in the first place:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9–10)
Calling on the name of the Lord Jesus also has to be understood as part of this story. It is simplistic—and seriously misleading—to argue that expression identified him directly with the “LORD” on whose name people called in the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament the phrase occurs in two main contexts:
- people call upon the name of YHWH, often in a particular place, as the initiation of, or as an act of, cultic worship and thanksgiving (e.g., Gen. 4:26; 12:8; 21:33; 26:25; Ps. 105:1; 116:17; Is. 12:4; Zeph. 3:9);
- people call upon the name of YHWH when they need divine intervention (e.g., 1 Kgs. 18:24; 2 Kgs. 5:11; Ps. 99:6; 116:4; Lam. 3:55; Joel 2:32).
New Testament usage seems to be determined by the second of these categories, and again Peter’s Pentecost oration sets the pattern.
- It’s not stated explicitly, but presumably Peter expected the Jews who heard him to be saved from the judgment coming upon Jerusalem by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:21, 37-40).
- Paul called on the name of the “Righteous One” when he was baptised (Acts 22:16).
- Believers are more or less by definition people who call on the name of the Lord (Acts 9:14, 21; 1 Cor. 1:2).
- Paul extends Peter’s application of Joel 2:32 by insisting that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek in this regard: ‘For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”’ (Rom. 10:13).
Paul’s reference to the saints “who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2) might be mistaken for an example of calling on the name of the Lord in the context of worship and thanksgiving. But the thought is really eschatological: to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus is to look forward to the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ”, when he will be revealed and will deliver them from the wrath to come (1 Cor. 1:7-8; cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10).
So the early believers did not think that in calling on the name of the Lord Jesus they were really calling on the name of YHWH. They thought that they were calling on the name of the one who had recently lived and died among them, who had been raised from the dead, and who, as their Lord and Messiah, as their saviour and king, had been given the authority and power to safeguard a remnant community, which would survive the coming “day of the Lord”, when there would be “wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” (Acts 2:19–20; cf. Matt. 24:29; Mk. 13:24-25).
As you can see, it’s all thoroughly apocalyptic. The metaphysics has to wait.