What Does “Amen” Mean?
And all the people said … “Amen!” The “amen corner” has had an important place in the life of the church throughout the ages. However, it is rare to find such a spot among Presbyterians. We are known as God’s frozen chosen for a reason. It has been said that the Methodists like to shout “Fire,” the Baptists like to shout “Water,” and the Presbyterians like to softly say, “Order, order.” Nevertheless, in spite of the idiosyncrasies of various ecclesiastical persuasions, the function of the word amen far transcends denominational usages in the modern era.
The term amen was used in the corporate worship of ancient Israel in two distinct ways. It served first as a response to praise given to God and second as a response to prayer. Those same usages of the term are still in vogue among Christians. The term itself is rooted in a Semitic word that means “truth,” and the utterance of “amen” is an acknowledgment that the word that has been heard, whether a word of praise, a word of prayer, or a sermonic exhortation, is valid, that is, sure and binding. Even in antiquity, the word amen was used in order to express a pledge to fulfill the terms of a vow. So, this little word is one that is centered on the idea of the truth of God.
The truth of God is such a remarkable element of Christian faith that it cannot be overlooked. There are those who think that truth is negotiable or, even worse, divisive, and it therefore should not be a matter of passionate concern among believers. But if we are not concerned about truth, then we have no reason to have Bibles in our homes. The Bible is God’s Word, and God’s Word is true. It is not just true but is truth itself. This is the assessment made of it by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (John 17:17).
Therefore, when we sing a hymn that reflects biblical truth and end it with the sung word amen, we are giving our approbation of the content of the praise in the hymn. When we have a choral “amen” at the end of the pastoral prayer, again we are emphasizing our agreement with the validity and surety of the content of the prayer itself.
Worship in biblical terms is a corporate matter. The corporate body is made up of individuals, and when an individual sounds the “amen,” the individual is connecting to the corporate expression of worship and praise. However, we are told in the Scriptures that the truths of God are “yea” and “amen” (2 Cor. 1:20), which simply means that the Word of God is valid, it is certain, and it is binding. Therefore, the expression “amen” is not simply an acknowledgment of personal agreement with what has been stated; it is an expression of willingness to submit to the implications of that word, to indeed be bound by it, as if the Word of God would put ropes around us not to strangle or retard us but to hold us firmly in place.
There is, perhaps, no more remarkable use of the term amen in the New Testament than on the lips of Jesus. Older translations render statements of our Lord with the preparatory words, “Verily, verily, I say unto you.” Later translations update that to “Truly, truly, I say unto you.” In such passages, the Greek word that is translated as “verily” or “truly” is the word amen. Jesus does not wait for the disciples to nod their agreement or submission to His teaching at the end of His saying; rather, He begins by saying, “Amen, amen, I say unto you.” What is the significance of this? Namely, that Jesus never uttered a desultory word; every word that came from His lips was true and important. Each word was, as “amen” suggests, valid, sure, and binding.
Furthermore, even in His own pedagogy, Jesus took the opportunity on occasion to call strict attention to something He was about to say by giving it tremendous emphasis. His practice was somewhat akin to the sounding of a whistle and an announcement over a loudspeaker on a ship: “Now hear this, this is the captain speaking.” When that announcement is made on a ship, everyone listens, realizing that when the captain speaks to the entire crew, what he is saying is of the utmost importance and urgency. However, the authority of Jesus far transcends that of a captain of a seagoing vessel. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth by the Father. So when He gives a preface to a teaching and says, “Amen, amen, I say unto you,” our listening ears should be fine-tuned to take note instantly of what our Lord is going to say following the preface, for it is of the utmost importance.
We also notice that Jesus uses the Hebrew technique of repetition by saying not merely, “Amen, I say unto you,” but “Amen, amen.” This form of repetition underlines the importance of the words that are to follow. Whenever we read in the text of Scripture our Lord giving a statement that is prefaced by the double “amen,” it is a time to pay close attention and be ready to give our response with a double amen to it. He says “amen” to indicate truth; we say it to receive that truth and to submit to it.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.