It only takes a few words to produce dramatic theology. In the short letter we know as 3 John, the apostle is writing to a beloved friend, Gaius (v. 1). He commends Gaius for ministering to fellow believers who were strangers because “they have gone out for the sake of the name” (v. 7). John doesn’t use the phrase “in Jesus’ name” or “the name of Jesus”; it’s simply, “for the sake of the name.” Why this phrase? Is John trying to keep a secret?
John isn’t trying to be cryptic. He’s actually drawing on an Old Testament expression. When understood in that original context—and the context of his other writings—John’s odd wording amounts to a powerful statement on the deity of Jesus.
The Name in the Old Testament
In Deuteronomy 12:5, God instructed the people of Israel that—when they got into the promised land—He would show them the place where they were to worship Him. God described that location as “the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name.” God wasn’t talking about writing His name on a town or a building. He was referring to where the tabernacle—and ultimately the temple—was to be stationed. But He wasn’t talking about writing “Yahweh” on that either. Nothing of the sort is ever recorded in Scripture. Rather, God was talking about the place where He would choose to meet Israel personally—His very presence.
The description “the name” actually refers to the presence of God. This presence was at times visibly evident through the so-called “glory cloud” (e.g., 1 Kgs 8:10–11). At other times the name came in human form. For instance, in Exod 23:20–23, God tells Moses that He is sending an angel to bring Israel to the promised land. God warned Moses that this angel would pardon no transgression since “My name is in him.” We learn from Judg 2:1–5 that the angel did indeed lead them to the land. But how could God’s name be in an angel? The answer is that “the name” referred to the very presence of God—His essence. This is confirmed in Deut 4:37. Here, we read that—instead of the angel being credited as the one who would bring Israel to Canaan—it is God who brought them there “with his own presence.”
Jesus Has and Is the Name
Before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prays: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). The Gospels are clear that the name given to Mary’s child was “Jesus”—and that is not God’s name. The idea is that the very essence of the Father was in Jesus. They were one.
For John, ministering “for the sake of the name” meant spreading the news of Jesus. By using this simple phrase, he linked Jesus with the name of the Old Testament—the very presence of God Himself. God’s name had come “in the flesh” (John 1:1–3, 14; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). It now abides in us—the children of God in the form of the Spirit (1 John 3:24; 4:4).
All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).