Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
(Acts 5:41-42 ESV)
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible (1831) says, “The Name, probably, by this time, distinguished both the author of salvation and the sacred system of doctrine which the apostles preached.” Clarke goes on to say that some of the most ancient copies of Acts (I won’t bore you with where the sources come from) say “his name” and some say “the name.” Our modern translators favor “the” precisely because of the presupposition that it wasn’t long after the Resurrection that the Church began to adopt this kind of shorthand to describe a whole lot of stuff – far more than just “Jesus.”
We also need to remember that the early church being commented on in Acts is largely centered on Jerusalem. We don’t hear a lot about what went on in the churches in Antioch or Ephesus, for instance. And certainly the Apostles had just appeared before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The high priest said to them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” So clearly, “The Name” had a greater dimension than just implying the person of Jesus.
But to give the whole experience a bit of background, the Jewish leaders the Apostles met with that day certainly knew the idea that to teach in a name meant more than teaching about the person himself. They had The Name of YHWH, the Lord, the name that was so holy you should not even pronounce it aloud. And they had been teaching in that name for centuries.
Just before they were beaten, Acts 5 tells us that a leader of the Council named Gamaliel made a very logical defense for not forbidding the Apostles to carry on their evangelistic work. Gamaliel, by the way, was the grandson of Rabbi Hillel (one of the greatest of the rabbis), and was himself greatly respected as a teacher and logician. It was he who had trained Saul of Tarsus, among many other bright young men of the day.
Gamaliel’s defense boils down to this: if this work isn’t of God nothing will come of it. The leader has been taken away, let’s see if the movement survives its leader. At the end of World War II, there was a great deal of concern that Nazism would flourish in all its most ugly forms after Hitler became a martyr for the cause. But like most snakes, once the head was cut off, the body wriggled for only a brief moment and then died completely. Hitler had been such a spellbinder that most Germans woke up sometime in 1945 or ’46, shook themselves and said, “Was that real?” The presence of the Death Camps was the only dose of reality average Germans needed.
Gamaliel thought, “Jesus is dead. If the reports of his Resurrection are false, this will all die out quickly. Still, the Council thought it best to beat them. To simply release them would be to admit they had no case against them.
But The Name was not just a system of teaching or an ideology. Something so profound as to be foundation-altering had happened to the lives of the Apostles and the others who were becoming part of The Way. The Name, The Way. This was not just a “big idea.” This was personal encounter.
The extent to which your faith is based on personal encounter with Jesus himself is the extent to which your faith will hold up under pressure. There are certainly many other kinds of pressure other than persecution to which your faith may cave. There has been a mass exodus from most churches in the past 25 years, and many people who have left church don’t have a really good reason why. They simply lost interest. They lost interest because our churches weren’t preaching The Name. We were preaching enthusiasm, yes. But we weren’t giving people an encounter with Jesus himself that would stand up to life.
You who believe in Jesus, go back and review what the early church did. You’ll be amazed. Read Acts, chapters 2-4. Then ask yourself why they did what they did. The only acceptable answer is found in the Gospels. The only acceptable answer is that they – and all of the thousands who believed in the early days of the church with them – each believed they had met Jesus personally.