“Occasionally, while the preacher is presenting a lesson, someone in the audience will say, ‘Amen.’ Is this practice in keeping with the Bible? If so, what does ‘Amen’ mean?”
The term “Amen” is common to both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and it has a variety of uses, depending upon the context in which it is found.
The Hebrew word, amen, means “surely, indeed, truly.” It derives from a root form, aman, which signifies “to be firm, steady, trustworthy, faithful” (again, the context can suggest which of these shades of meaning is most appropriate in a particular setting). The following is a sampling of the major uses of this important word.
Amen: An Agreement or Affirmation
“Amen” was used as an affirmation, asserting comprehension of, and agreement with, certain laws imposed by Jehovah upon the nation of Israel. Read carefully Deuteronomy 27:15-26. For example: “Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image (an abomination unto Jehovah), the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret. And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen’” (v. 15).
One scholar notes: “Whoever pronounces the Amen to them [the laws] acknowledges awareness of the sentence for the pertinent activities. Thus the speaker judges his/her own guilt in the event such a crime is committed” (H. Wineberger in: Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, Ernst Jenni & Claus Westermann, Eds., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 1997, Vol. I, p. 146).
Amen: An Endorsement of Praise or Prayer
“Amen,” in both Testaments, could be employed as an affirmation of endorsement as a concluding pronouncement in connection with either praise or prayer. Note Psalm 41:13. “Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel, From everlasting and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen” (see also: Rom. 11:36).
One of the gifts granted to the early church was the supernatural ability to speak in languages that had never been learned by the normal educational routine. But this gracious bestowal was subject to abuse. One might possess the gift of a certain language, yet attempt to exercise it in an assembly where no one spoke that particular tongue. Accordingly, under such a circumstance, unless there was a brother present who possessed the gift of “interpretation,” and who could, therefore, convey the message to the assembly, the brother with the language-gift was to remain silent (see 1 Cor. 14:1ff).
It is within this context that the apostle asks this rhetorical question – if we may expand and paraphrase, based upon the textual information. “If one pronounces a blessing (i.e., he gives thanks), under the influence of the Spirit in a language that some do not understand, how will those who are unlearned in that tongue be able to say ‘Amen’ at the conclusion, since they do not understand the words being spoken?” This shows that endorsing a prayer with “Amen” was a practice in the early church.
In this connection we must make this comment. The use of “Amen,” in conjunction with a prayer or sermon, means that the one who utters this word “puts himself into the statement with all earnestness of faith and intensity of desire” (Gleason Archer, Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, Everett Harrison, Geoffrey Bromiley & Carl Henry, Eds., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999, p. 39).
This means that the term must not be used flippantly or in a haphazard fashion. Those who “Amen” a point that they do not even understand, but do so simply from habit, err. Those who caustically “Amen” the preacher – to throw the point back into his face as a matter of protest, trample on the sacred. Amen-ing is serious business.
Amen: The Truthfulness of the Inspired Documents
“Amen” was used on occasion at the conclusion of a letter, the design of which seems to have been to emphasize the integrity of the writing. It would be the equivalent of: “What I have written is the truth!” (see Rom. 16:27; Jude 25).
Amen: The Faithfulness of God
The term is used to stress the reliability or faithfulness of God. Listen to the prophet Isaiah. “. . . [H]e who blesses himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of truth . . .” (65:16), or as the New English Bible renders it: “He who invokes a blessing on himself in the land shall do so by the God whose name is Amen . . .” (see also the ASV footnote). “He is the God of truth, for in the carrying out of all His promises of blessing and threatenings of judgment, He has been successful and has shown that what He has spoken is true” (Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972, III, p. 512).
The “Amen” expression appears to be used of Christ in like fashion in the New Testament. In his second Corinthian letter, Paul refers to the great host of “the promises of God” which have come to fruition in the work accomplished by Jesus. He asserts that these blessings have never been an uncertain matter (a sometimes-“yes” or sometimes-“no” proposition); rather, the Lord Jesus is a definite, “Yes!” to that realization. He is God’s “Amen!” to the hope for the human family (2 Cor. 1:20).
There is a similar point to be made in Isaiah 55:3, where the Messianic promise is called the “sure mercies of David,” or, as it is suggested in the Hebrew text, “the amen-ed mercies of David.” Paul provides the Messianic interpretation in his sermon at Antioch (Pisidia), with special emphasis on the Lord’s resurrection (Acts 13:34). See also Revelation 3:14 where Christ identifies himself as the “Amen,” which is virtually defined as “the faithful and true witness.”
Amen: Spoken by Christ
“Amen,” as found in the Gospel accounts, is employed by Jesus alone. In the Gospel of John, it is always used in the double format, rendered in English by “verily, verily” (25 times). It emphasizes the authority with which Christ spoke, and it takes on the essence of a “thus says the Lord” (J. Millar & N.J. Opperwall, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia – Revised, Geoffrey Bromiley, Ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, Vol. I, p. 110).
It makes for a fascinating study to observe how Jesus used this term to forcefully emphasize certain truths. For example: None of the law of Moses would fail (not a particle) until it was fulfilled (Mt. 5:18). Those who are religious show-offs receive their “full reward” in that praise they elicit from men (Mt. 6:2,5,16). Eternal punishment will be “more tolerable” for those of earlier historical periods, than for those who reject Christ (Mt. 10:15). No one can enter the kingdom of God except but by the new birth, the components of which are the Spirit and water (Jn. 3:3,5), etc.
Hopefully, these comments will assist in understanding the various ways in which the expression, “Amen,” is employed in the Scriptures.