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Baptism in What Name?

Jesus told the apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). When the apostles preached, they commanded people to be baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). Was there a difference? Is there a contradiction?

A Question
Did the apostles, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit in their preaching, do what Jesus told them to do? Surely we would all answer yes. If so, these expressions must just be two different ways of saying the same thing or perhaps two different ways of viewing baptism; otherwise, the apostles were disobedient!

An Explanation
In the first century, one’s name was not simply a designation for him, as it is with us; it indicated the person himself. To act in someone’s name, therefore, was to act in connection with him. What connection? Bear with me through some technicalities.

When Jesus said to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, He used the preposition eis, which means “into.” Therefore, we are baptized into a relationship with deity—all deity. Acts 8:16 says the Samarians were baptized into [eis] the name of the Lord Jesus but does not specifically mention the Father and the Holy Spirit. Acts 19:5 says the same thing of the Ephesians. Are we to conclude that their baptism had no effect on their relationship with the Father and the Spirit? No, it is merely a condensed statement.

When Peter preached to the Jews on the day of Pentecost, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. . .” (Acts 2:38), he used a different preposition, epi. It typically means “upon,” although our English translations still render it “in” in this verse. Baptism is not only into Jesus, it is on the basis of Jesus: on the basis of who He is and what He had done  for us. This idea, too, is included in the phrase in the name of Jesus.

Peter used still another preposition when he taught Cornelius to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). This time he used en, which is by far the most common preposition in the New Testament, one that can suggest a variety of relationships. But surely Peter was not teaching these Gentiles to do something different than what the Jews on Pentecost or the Samarians or the Ephesians did, or what Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:18-20.

These variations in expression are just that: variations. They may or may not be significant. They may emphasize one idea a little more than another, but despite their nuances, they are all just different ways of saying the same thing.

An Observation
Nothing in any of these references suggests a liturgical formula, specific words that must be recited to validate one’s baptism. These phrases simply reflect the basis and purpose of baptism. Apart from divine instruction, being immersed in water as a religious rite would be useless. But when it is done in obedience to Jesus, meeting a condition He sets forth for our discipleship and salvation, baptism reflects our faith in Him, in His atoning death, in His resurrection, and in His lordship.

“Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).

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