This time, I want to consider two related ideas. The first is the teaching that Jesus gave His followers spiritual authority to act “in His name.” The second is baptism, because that is one of the things we are to do in His name. Christians are sometimes confused by these ideas. I hope to help clarify them, at least a little, as we seek to live out our faith.
Let’s jump right in with some verses about acting “in Jesus name” then we’ll look at what it means to do so. For the sake of time, we’ll look only at a representative, not an exhaustive, list.
In Matthew 18:5, Jesus said: “Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”
In Matthew 18:20, He said: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
In Mark 9:39, He said (of a man who had been casting out demons in His name): “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me.
In Mark 9:41, He said: “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.
In John 14:13-14, He said: “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”
It is clear from these verses that Jesus intended that His followers should do things “in His name.” This raises some questions. What does it mean to do that? Are there limits on it? How do I know when I’m really doing something in Jesus’ name and when I’m just using the words in a superstitious, or thoughtless, way?
Here are a few simple examples of how people act in the name of someone else. In monarchies, a policeman acts in the name of the king or queen (in republics, in the name of the government). Parents may leave younger children in the care of responsible older ones who act in their name. Agents act in the name of their clients who grant them the authority to act on their behalf, for their benefit. So when Jesus told His disciples to meet together, to receive others, to show kindness, or to make requests in His name, He gave them the force of His authority to act on His behalf in carrying out His will.
Here’s a little thought which will keep us from abusing this. In the examples I gave, the person acting in someone else’s name does so in the absence of the authority. The queen is not present when the policeman questions your behaviour. The parents are not present when the older child tells the younger one it is time to go to bed. The company owners are not present when their salesman negotiates a deal. BUT, Jesus is present when we act in His name. This should keep us from being frivolous or self-serving.
Once people find verses like John 14:14 where Jesus said, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it,” they want to know if there are any limits on what they could ask for. I would say “no” as long as they understand that when they ask in Jesus’ name, they are doing so for His benefit. When I put my older children in charge of the younger ones for an hour or so, I don’t expect the older ones to abuse that authority by making the younger ones become their personal slaves until I return.
Similarly, whenever Christians act in Jesus’ name, it is to accomplish His purposes — not to enrich themselves or increase their influence. It is to partner together with Jesus in fulfilling His purposes here on earth. We should act “in the name of Jesus” with great care and caution. We are easily misled by our own desires. Rather than rubbing my hands with glee when I see the Lord offer the privilege of acting with His authority, I tremble in holy fear. Who am I to bring the spiritual power of the name of Jesus into a situation — I, who am by nature foolish, sinful, and selfish?
That’s not to say that we should shrink from acting in Jesus’ name when we have confidence that we are doing so legitimately. Here are some examples from the New Testament of the apostles using the name of Jesus.
In Acts 3:6, Peter said to a lame begger: “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”
Then in Acts 4:10, he affirmed it to the religious authorities this way: “let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole.”
In Acts 4:29-31, we read of an answer to prayer: “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
In Acts 9:15, the Lord told Ananias to go to Paul and restore his sight, with these words, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
In these passages we see people doing God’s work in the world in the name of Jesus. We find healing, powerful preaching, signs and wonders, a commission to serve, and the ability to bear great suffering promised and evidenced. Any scriptural command — given by Jesus — may be carried out fearlessly, though wisely, in the name of Jesus. And this brings us to the second area I want to address today: Baptism.
Baptism is a Christian rite in which new believers are dipped in water as a public witness to their faith. There are different traditions regarding the age of the person being baptized and the method used — some sprinkle or pour water on the person rather than immersing the person in the water. This is not the time to discuss these things. Rather our focus is on the command that Jesus gave to His disciples to do it.
We find this at the end of Matthew’s gospel in a passage commonly called “the great commission” in which Jesus left His parting instructions with His disciples.
Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and spoke to them [that is, His disciples], saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
I have never heard anyone suggest anything other than that, in this passage of Scripture, Jesus was commissioning His disciples to act on His authority and spread His message around the world, to baptize those who believed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to teach them to live the life of faith as Jesus had instructed His disciples. Then we find those encouraging words “lo [look] I am with you always even to the end of the age,” reminding us that we are not doing all of this in Jesus’ absence but, rather, in His presence. He is with us until the end.
This is so clear that it’s hard to find variations in the understanding of these words. Yet some misunderstanding has arisen. In some parts of the world, almost no one knows about it and it is next to inconceivable. In other places, it is a divisive issue that tears at the fabric of Christian fellowship. What follows here, is my understanding of the issue and how I resolve it for myself.
The problem arises when we get into the book of Acts and read how the apostles carried out this commission. Here are the verses.
Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In Acts 10: 47-48 we read of Peter, at the home of Cornelius and his family, saying: “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.”
Then in Acts 19:1 And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
In these verses, it seems, at least superficially, that the apostles did not baptize new converts “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” as Jesus commanded, but rather “in the name of Jesus.” That leaves us with a question: Should we follow the command of Jesus or the practice of the apostles?
But that makes an unfair assumption. I don’t believe the apostles ignored Jesus’ command to baptize believers “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These words would have been still ringing in their ears having been spoken just weeks earlier. They hadn’t forgotten or decided to make an adjustment and baptize “in the name of Jesus” without reference to the Father and Holy Spirit.
The misunderstanding arises from the use of the word “name” in these passages. Matthew recorded that Jesus gave what we might call “the formula” for baptism — the specific words which were to be spoken as the new believer was dipped into the water. What we read in the book of Acts as the disciples were following Jesus’ instructions, was not the “formula” they used as they baptized converts, but affirmation of the authority they had to do so.
In these passages, there is no suggestion of a formula. In Acts 2:38, Peter told the people to “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” In Acts 10:48, he commanded them to “be baptized in the name of the Lord.” And in Acts 19:1, Luke records that the Christians in Corinth “were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” There is no consistency here. We have “the name of Jesus Christ,” “the name of the Lord,” and “the name of the Lord Jesus.” So, no, I don’t think that the apostles were baptizing people in the name of Jesus, the Son of God, without reference to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
What we have recorded in Acts is that the apostles were baptizing under the authority He had given them when He said: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things…” and so on. There is no reason to suspect that the apostles took it upon themselves to change the command of Jesus. There is every reason to believe that they did exactly as He had told them to do, with His authority, to fulfill His intentions for all believers.
What if, perhaps to your surprise, you realize that when you were baptized, it was done “in the name of Jesus” without the inclusion of reference to the Father and the Holy Spirit? May I suggest that grace is in order? If you are deeply convicted about this, you may want to be baptized again, according to the words Jesus gave in the great commission. But everywhere we see Jesus in action in the gospels, we see His concern with the hearts of people. If your intent, when you were baptized, was to identify with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection and you have attempted to live wholeheartedly for Him, I don’t think that your being baptized again would change a thing.
What matters most is not the words that are said, but the intention of new believers to identify with the Lord and live the rest of their lives for His glory, in His name.