The Jesus Prayer
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This short sentence, commonly called the Jesus Prayer, is one of the oldest and most widely practiced forms of prayer in the Christian Church particularly in the Eastern tradition. Various forms of this prayer were used as early as the 5th century AD. It’s short, easy to remember, and I have been tremendously blessed by it in my own prayer life. This deceptively plain prayer houses a great amount of truth and theological weightiness and expresses that truth succinctly and in a way that is immediately accessible to all Christians, regardless of theological orientation or depth of biblical knowledge. Let’s explore this prayer word by word.
The first word that we encounter is Lord, kyrie in the Greek rendition of this prayer, which has the connotation of master. By naming God as Lord, we are recognizing his authority as the ruler of the universe. Like us, ancient Israel, our spiritual family, were to know and worship God as their Lord. In Exodus we read of the following exchange between God and Moses:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations (Exodus 3:13-15 ESV).
In this text, we may see that the acknowledgment of God as Lord is not only a recognition of him as our master. The Hebrew word adonai, corresponds to the Greek expression kyrie. Adonai was commonly used as a substitute for YHWH, the covenantal name of God. When Moses asks for God’s name (can you imagine saying to the supreme king of everything, “what’s your name?”), he receives the reply, I AM WHO I AM. In the English Standard Version of the bible, these words are capitalized, indicating that this is God’s revealed name. Another way of translating this name is I AM WHAT I AM, or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. This emphasizes the being and existence of God, not only in the present but also in the future. Time and creation began with I AM, the Eternal One, and in him they are sustained. God also reveals to Moses the second part of his name, YHWH, The LORD, the eternal king. God explicitly states that this is his name and that this is what we are to call him. Thus, bound up in the expression kyrie are notions of God’s eternal existence, his eternal reign over all creation, his authority over us, and his direct influence upon our world. When we name God as Lord, we confess his status as our king.
Next, we name God as Jesus. The name Jesus is the Latinized version of God the Son’s name after his incarnation, Yeshua. Although the name Jesus is imminently familiar to us as Christians, we do not often consider what it means to refer to God in this way. First of all, using the name Jesus focuses our attention on one particular person in the Godhead, namely, the Son. As any good Trinitarian theologian will tell you, the Father is not the Son, and the Spirit is not the Son, but yet all are one God. We know from scripture that the LORD is one, so while our previous discussion of YHWH may have applied to all three members of the Godhead, the name of Jesus only applies to one. Already we can observe some wonderful Trinitarian notions in the Jesus Prayer! Jesus is the name of God the Son and him incarnate. In the Old Testament, the Angel of the Lord (e.g. Genesis 22:11-15) is sometimes identified as God the Son, but he is never referred to as Jesus. This is because the name Jesus specifically identifies the historical human incarnation of God the Son. Furthermore, we still name him as Jesus because he is still incarnate! God the Son took on flesh and took it on permanently. The glorified incarnate Jesus who rose out of the tomb is now with the Father, interceding for us before the throne. This is the person we acknowledge and address when we invoke the name of Jesus.
We are sometimes prone to use the word Christ as if it’s Jesus’ surname. (“Excuse me, Mr. Christ? You have a phone call on line 1…”) In reality, Christ is a title. Our word Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which is itself a translation of the Hebrew word messiah. This word messiah means “anointed one,” the one who would bring salvation to Israel and crush the head of the Serpent, as God promised to Adam and Eve. That messiah was Jesus, the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy thousands of years in the making. This title of Christ expands upon the name of Jesus, for God the Son did not only become man. Rather, he became the Son of Man, the covenantal redeemer who would fulfill the promises of the covenant and bring God’s people unto himself. By adding the title Christ to the name of Jesus we are identifying a specific, historical man as the prophesied savior, Jesus the Messiah.
“…Son of God…”
We have already briefly touched on this, but the phrase Son of God reinforces the fact that Jesus the Messiah is indeed the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Many recognize Jesus as a prophet and perhaps even a messianic figure. For example, he is acknowledged in Islam as a prophet, but not as the Son of God. Mormonism recognizes Jesus as a source of salvation, but also teaches that he was created by God; rather than professing that Jesus is the Trinitarian Son of God, Mormonism professes that he actually became a god. Both of these views acknowledge the historical Jesus and recognize his status as a prophet or as the messiah, but do not uphold his status as God’s one and only Son. This is a critical aspect of our understanding of who Jesus Christ is. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks a very important question:
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Matthew 16:15-17 ESV).
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. We can talk about Jesus as a rabbi or a prophet, and we can even acknowledge him as the prophesied messiah. But if he is not the Son of God all is for naught and our faith is in vain. Christ’s sonship is a vital element of our understanding of who he is and it is expressed here in the Jesus Prayer in our recognition of Christ as God’s Son.
“…have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We now move away from the names of Jesus and into a petition for mercy from our savior. Of course, the immediate truth to be gleaned here is that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one from whom we must obtain mercy! The word used here in the Greek version of the prayer is ἐλέησόν, have mercy, which also appears in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus heals Bartimaeus of his blindness:
And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:46-47 ESV)
The idea here is that like Bartimaeus, we know that there is something wrong. We are sinful to our core, completely ruined by the Fall, unable to repair our souls and rightly relate to God. So, we begin to cry out, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Like the blind man, we shout louder and louder, begging for Christ’s mercy:
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way (Mark 10:48-52 ESV).
Though our sin may cause us to despair, Christ hears our cries. He says, “Take heart, get up, I have called you.” This is a call we dare not refuse and one that we joyfully answer! Christ heals our souls, vindicates our faith, and reminds us of our covenantal calling as a redeemed people: “Therefore, go… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is the pattern of Christ’s ministry to us. We fail, he restores us and nourishes us, and then he sends us out again to run and tell the other beggars where to find the Bread of Life. Truly, he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.
All of this is bundled up in a tiny prayer. In just a few small words we can express powerful, world-changing truths about who God is, we can acknowledge his role in our lives, we can appeal to the goodness and mercy that he has promised us, and we can be encouraged in our pilgrimage knowing that YHWH, our God, the Covenant Redeemer, will never fail us.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. AMEN.