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Ellsworth Kalas ~ Jesus, the Name High Over All

Our twenty-first century world thinks of itself as the Graphic Age. We create pictures so easily and transmit them so immediately that some argue that words are almost unnecessary.

Our culture may therefore be somewhat upset to realize that we have no pictures of Jesus. Of course we have thousands — probably millions! — of artists’ conceptions, but the best that can be said for these images is that they demonstrate the expanse of artistic imagination, and that there is something very beautiful in the tendency of these artistic renderings to reflect their ethnic sources, so that we have Italian, Flemish, Scandinavian, American, Oriental, and African images of Jesus, to name just a few.

But in truth the Scriptures give us no physical description of Jesus, unless perhaps we think of the prophet Isaiah; and that picture has more to do with our human reaction to our Lord’s person rather than his actual physical features. We don’t know if Jesus was short, tall, or average, whether slender or muscular. The Bible doesn’t tell us the color of his eyes or the texture of his hair.

But we do know his name. The apostles knew it, as Peter made emphatically clear at Pentecost when he challenged the crowd by declaring that he was speaking for “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 2:22). Indeed, the apostles were so sure of this name that Peter and John dared to say that “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The enemies of the faith knew the name, too, and knew that this name was the primary issue; thus after flogging the apostles, “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” I get the feeling that the apostles found this legal order amusing, because “they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40-41). And of course they only spoke Jesus’ name more, and spoke it more boldly.

So it’s not surprising that the first generation of Methodists sang the name of Jesus. I venture that none of those hymns sings it better than a hymn of Charles Wesley’s which first appeared in 1749, in “Hymns and Sacred Poems.” At that time it was titled, “After preaching in a church.” Here’s the story. Charles reported in his Journal on 6th August, 1744, that he had preached in a small church at Laneast in Cornwall, urging the people to repent of their drunkenness and be converted. Then Charles asked, “Who is he that pleads for the devil?” One man stood up to challenge Wesley, and Wesley rose to the occasion with power and vehemence.

We understand, then, what Wesley meant when he wrote “Jesus! The name high over all, / in hell or earth or sky; / angels and mortals prostrate fall, / and devils fear and fly.” A nineteenth century British historian noted that “several well-authenticated instances are known” of this hymn “having been used by godly persons to exorcise the devil.” Wesley said that this name is dear to sinners because “it scatters all their guilty fear, / and turns their hell to heaven.”

We ought to sing it more! Sing it, indeed, until we re-discover the power of this Name. Sing it until, as Charles Wesley urged, “Happy, if with my latest breath/ I may but gasp his name, / preach him to all and cry in death, / ‘Behold, behold the Lamb!’”