What does it mean to call upon the name of the Lord?
The expression first occurs in Genesis 4: 26, following the birth of Adam’s son Seth and his grandson Enosh: “Then people began to call on the name of Jehovah”. The chapter breaks in Scripture are not inspired, and there is an intended contrast between the sons of Cain in chapter four, and the children of Seth in chapter five—where this verse properly lies. It does not mean all the Sethites were godly, but it does imply that a movement began in that line of those who wanted to approach God. Enosh means weak or mortal, and is in striking contrast to the self-sufficiency expressed by Lemech the descendent of Cain in vs. 23-24. The Sethites realised their need of God.
Four times Abraham is recorded as calling upon the name of Jehovah (see Gen. 12: 8; 13: 4; 21:33; 26: 25), and in three of these, this was done in association with an altar he had built. There was thus a defined way in which to approach God based on sacrifice. Later King David declares “I will call upon Jehovah, who is to be praised … And he heard my voice out of his temple” (2 Sam. 22: 4, 7) and, on another occasion, “Give thanks unto Jehovah, call upon his name; Make known his acts among the peoples. Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him; Meditate upon all his wondrous works. Glory in his holy name” (1 Chron. 16: 8-10). The immediate cause of calling on God might be personal distress but the result is worship since God always works for His own glory.
When we come to the NT, we find Peter quoting from Joel 2: 32: “And it shall be that whosoever shall call upon the name of [the] Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2: 21). Paul refers to the same Scripture in Rom. 10: 13. In both cases, the Greek word translated Lord is the equivalent of the Hebrew word used in the OT for Jehovah—and so the Jehovah of the OT is the Jesus of the NT. Other Scriptures make this clear. For example in Acts 22: 14 reference is made to how Paul heard a voice out of the mouth of Christ (compare v8), and it is on this One that Paul is instructed to call: “Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name” (v 16). No Jew would object to another Jew calling upon Jehovah, but for a Jew to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in the same way would (in their eyes) be blasphemy.
Salvation is the result of calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus (see Acts 2: 21; Rom. 10: 12, 13, 14), but such calling continues beyond conversion and is characteristic of true Christianity. As we have seen already from Acts 9: 14, 21, those of the Christian way (see v2) were marked by calling on that name. The same truth is evident elsewhere. In 1 Cor. 1: 2, the companies of the Lord’s people are summed up as “all that in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours”. Later, when apostolic doctrine and practice was being abandoned, Timothy was exhorted to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2: 22). The language clearly implies that prayer and worship was being addressed to the Lord by both those pure in heart, and those not pure—and a separation was to be made between the two.
The Father is also called upon by the Christian (invoke in 1 Peter 1: 17 is a translation of the same Greek word rendered called upon elsewhere)—and, indeed, prayer in the NT is generally to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Eph. 5: 20 etc.). However, to make (as some do) all collective prayer exclusively to the Father is to strain 1 Cor. 1: 2 and 2 Tim. 2: 22 beyond reasonable limits. Are we to suppose that those who, as individuals, were characterised by calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus, declined to do so when gathered together? When “the Spirit and the bride say, Come” (Rev. 22: 17) that is a collective and audible response to Christ. In the Lord’s Supper, it is the Lord who is before our minds (anamnesis—for the calling me to mind—see 1 Cor. 11: 24), just as He was the central focus of attention for the disciples when the ordinance was inaugurated on Passover night. As before His people in this objective way, it is inevitable that the lips will give expression to what is in the mind and heart. Those who say we do not read of an instance where the Lord Jesus was actually addressed in collective prayer overlook the fact that the same is true of the Father. Acts 4: 23-30 is not an exception to this because God is addressed there, not as Father, but as Master, and Christ as “thy holy servant Jesus” (v27, 30; not child as the AV erroneously gives it). The setting is clearly Jewish and is in keeping with the transitional nature of the book of Acts. There are later accounts of “when ye come together” (1 Cor. 11: 18) but the details are brief—probably intentionally so in order to frustrate those who would replicate them in a merely formal way.