The Jesus Prayer as a summary of the gospel

It is striking how the Jesus Prayer (see previous post) is able to pack so much content into so short a form:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

Per-Olof Sjögren describes the prayer as “a summary of the whole gospel”, of “the whole content of the Bible”:

Besides being a direct prayer to Jesus it contains also teaching about him, about his work of redemption, his dignity as king, his deity, and his loving mercy. (The Jesus Prayer, p.17)

Bp Kallistos Ware reaches a similar conclusion in his book The Orthodox Way, where he devotes a couple of pages (pp.68f.) to looking at what the prayer “has to tell us about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and about our healing by and in him”. Ware describes the two “poles” or “extreme points” of the prayer as follows:

“Lord … Son of God”: the Prayer speaks first about God’s glory, acclaiming Jesus as the Lord of all creation and the eternal Son.

Then at its conclusion the Prayer turns to our condition as sinners – sinful by virtue of the fall, sinful through our own personal acts of wrongdoing: “… on me a sinner”

Thus “the Prayer beings with adoration and ends with penitence”. These “two extremes of divine glory and human sinfulness” are reconciled by three words describing Jesus and the good news he brings for sinners:

  • Jesus: as Ware puts it, “this has the sense of Saviour; as the angel said to Christ’s foster-father St Joseph: ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins’.”
  • Christ: this means the Anointed One, anointed by the Holy Spirit, the one whom the Jewish people awaited as “the coming deliverer, the future king, who in the power of the Spirit would set them free from their enemies”.
  • Mercy: this word “signifies love in action”, writes Ware, who continues by observing that:

    …to have mercy is to acquit the other of the guilt which by his own efforts he cannot wipe away, to release him from the debts he himself cannot pay, to make him whole from the sickness for which he cannot unaided find any cure. The term “mercy” means furthermore that all this is conferred as a free gift: the one who asks for mercy has no claims upon the other, no rights to which he can appeal.

Thus, within the space of 68 characters or fewer – short enough to be Twittered, with room to spare – the Jesus Prayer is able to summarise “both man’s problem and God’s solution”, namely the Jesus who is “the Saviour, the anointed king, the one who has mercy”.

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13 Responses to The Jesus Prayer as a summary of the gospel

  1. Pingback: The Jesus Prayer

  2. Kletos Sumboulos says:

    A question for you regarding the Jesus prayer. What are your thoughts on mercy vs. grace. I’ve mentally rewritten the greek as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, by gracious unto me, a sinner.” Am I making too much of the distinction between mercy as not getting what you deserve and grace as gettting what you emphatically do not deserve?
    Also, I’ve started to pray the “Jesus prayer” as a petition when asked to pray – i.e. immediately to say the prayer with “…have mercy upon Aaron, a sinner.”

  3. John H says:

    Am I making too much of the distinction between mercy as not getting what you deserve and grace as gettting what you emphatically do not deserve?

    Possibly. 🙂

    It’s interesting that “mercy” is used in older translations as a synonym for what some modern translations render as “steadfast love”: hesed, the covenant love of God for his people – which is what I think Ware has in mind when he defines mercy as “love in action”.

    So I’d say that defining “mercy” as “not getting what you deserve” is too narrow – allowing modern English usage to foreclose the wider semantic range of the word, even in English.

    He remembering his mercy / hath holpen his servant Israel – the Magnificat being just one example of how the historic/liturgical use of the word encompasses what you’re saying when you substitute “grace”.

  4. Kletos Sumboulos says:

    Thank you, friend. In silent prayer, one need only know what one means by a word, the full depth and breadth of it. I think if I were teaching the prayer to others I would be careful to talk as you just did. I think mercy may have a more punative connotation here. Kids play the game “mercy” in which they rap each others knuckles until one says “mercy” (never my favorite childhood game.) Thanks again.

  5. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Chrysostom’s prayers for day and night

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The quality of mercy

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  8. Jeff Alexander says:

    The Jesus prayer can degenerate into a focus on praying a prayer instead of praying to the living Christ who is there so close. The prayer becomes an end in itself and we are left distant from the Savior – my experience. I now guard myself from that and I aim now to commune with Jesus and the words are a vehicle not an end. “Unto to thee Oh Lord do I lift up my soul” Psalm 25. I simply say “Lord Jesus” though the other words often come. I’m still very much of a beginner in the art of prayer.

    Blessings! Jeff Alexander

  9. MikeF says:

    Wonderful post – just found your link from Peter Ould’s blog. Excellent summary – and “short enough to be Twittered, with room to spare” will stick in my mind for a long while…

    Happy New Year!


  10. I was enchanted to learn that the greek for mercy – eleison – has resonances of anointing, healing, using olive oil as a salve (there’s another resonating word). Mercy as an english word has connotations of avoiding punishment, a much colder, harsher thought. I got this from “Jerusalem Prayers” by George Appleton, a prayer book that I treasure.

  11. Pingback: “Tuning the heart” with the Jesus Prayer | Curlew River

  12. Pingback: A monk’s advice on reciting the Jesus Prayer | Curlew River

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