January 9: Baptism (Acts 2:38 etc)

Baptism in the Name of Jesus

Having considered the command by Jesus to disciples to baptize in the “Great Commission at the close of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 28:18-20, cf. the previous note), it is worth looking a bit more closely at the references to baptism being performed “in the name of Jesus”, as this represents a unique early Christian development of the dunking/washing ritual. There are five such references in the book of Acts—2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16.

The Name

Ancient Near Eastern cultures treated names and naming in a quite different manner than modern Western society. The name had a dynamic, magical quality, effectively embodying the character and essence of the person. This was all the more true with regard to religious belief—to “call upon” or to invoke the name of a deity was fundamental to ancient religious practice and identity (Gen 4:26b, etc). The invocation and use of a divine name also had to be done with great care—there was considerable power involved, and danger if handled improperly; this is the situation which underlies the famous command regarding the name of YHWH/Yahweh (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11). In addition to its use in religious ritual, the divine name would be invoked in oaths, treaties and other agreements—both for the purpose of guaranteeing truthfulness and fidelity, and also to bind the oath or agreement, etc, under the power of the god. There would be divine blessing for the one who fulfills and agreement, but divine curse or punishment for the one who violates it. Indeed, there was believed to be theurgic power and efficacy in the name, which could be invoked over just about any area of daily life.

The Name of Jesus

For early Christians, it was specifically the name of Yeshua (Jesus) which was central to religious belief and practice. Already in the earliest layers of Christian tradition, the belief in Jesus’ deity—as the Son of God who is now seated in glory at the right hand of God the Father (YHWH)—was well-established. All aspects of Christian religious life took place according to the name of Jesus. This is expressed clearly in the book of Acts; note the following examples:

In the Gospels, there are number of sayings and teachings by Jesus where he refers to “my name”—Mark 9:37-39; 13:6 pars; [16:17]; Matthew 18:20; also Luke 24:47. Especially significant is the teaching in the Discourses of John, cf. Jn 14:13-14, 26; 15:16, 21; 16:23-26; also 3:18. The emphasis there is on believers requesting of God the Father in Jesus’ name. Also important is the related idea that Jesus himself has come—i.e. speaks, works and acts—in the name of the Father (Jn 5:43; 10:3, 25; 12:28; 17:6, 11-12, 26; cf. also Mk 9:37; 11:9 pars; Matt 23:39 par).

Baptism in Jesus’ Name

The central, intiatory act of baptism, marking one’s conversion and entry into the Community of believers, in the early Christian period was performed specifically “in the name of Jesus”. Given the religious importance and significance of this (divine) name (cf. above), this is hardly surprising. However, it is important to note that is especially prominent in the earlier Christian tradition (as recorded in the book of Acts), and is less commonly attested in later periods. Here are the key passages, where baptism is said to be:

    • Acts 2:38—”upon [e)pi/] the name of Yeshua into/unto a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance]” (Note: some MSS read “in” [e)n] instead of “upon”). This follows precisely the formula in Luke 24:47.
    • Acts 8:16—”into [ei)$] the name of the Lord Yeshua”, after which they receive the Holy Spirit (v. 17)
    • Acts 10:48—”in [e)n] the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed”, after having received the Spirit prior (vv. 44ff)
    • Acts 19:5—”into [ei)$] the name of the Lord Yeshua”, parallel to believers trusting in(to) [ei)$] Jesus (v. 4)
    • Cf. also 1 Cor 1:13, 15—”into the name of…”

Acts 2:38; 19:5; 22:16

We can see how this detail expands the meaning of baptism by considering three of the references in Acts. In each instance, we find a distinct development from the earlier/original context of the dunkings performed by John. First, consider the wording by Peter in 2:38:

“You must change your mind(set) [i.e. repent, metanoh/sate] and be dunked [baptisqh/tw], each (one) of you, upon the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto (the) release of your sins…”

If we were to omit the italicized phrase, the wording would be virtually identical to the description of John’s baptisms in Mark 1:4 par. The dunking/baptism signified a “release” (a&fesi$) of sins, when accompanied by repentance (lit. a “change of mind”). How this would would function, in the new early Christian setting, is indicated by the prescriptive language in 22:16:

“And now, (for) what [i.e. why] are you (waiting) about to (act)? Standing up, you must be dunked [ba/ptisai] and wash your sins (away) from (you), calling upon his name.”

Here, it is expected that the believer would “call upon Jesus [i.e. his name]” while he/she was being dunked in the water, providing one of the only indications in the New Testament of how the early ritual would have been performed. Also, more clearly expressed is how the dunking effects the “release” (or putting away) of sins—the water “washes away” a person’s sins, bringing cleansing. Thus, in its basic form and significance, early Christian baptism differed little from the baptisms by John; this helps to explain the narrative detail in Acts 19:1-7, where baptism serves to distinguish believers in Jesus Christ from the followers of John. There are in fact two key points of difference: (1) that baptism is performed “in the name of Jesus”, and (2) that it involves the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. The second point is what is being emphasized in 19:2-6 (and will be discussed in the next daily note); however, the first is also and important part of the contrast that the narrative establishes:

“And Paul said, ‘Yohanan dunked with a dunking [ba/ptisma] of a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance], saying to the people that they should trust in the (one) coming after him—that is, in Yeshua’. And (hav)ing heard (this), they were dunked in the name of Yeshua.” (vv. 4-5)

Thus, the dunking still signifies a repentance and cleansing from sin, but now it is joined with a confession of one’s trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus as the Messiah. The point of the contrast between Jesus and John is Messianic, with the key title “the one coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$, cf. my earlier note) being applied to Jesus, not John.

The early Christian Development

These references in Acts demonstrate how important the name of Jesus was to the early Christian understanding of baptism, and that it fundamentally signified belief in [ei)$] Jesus. Matthew 28:19 uses the same idiom of baptism “into [ei)$] the name of…”. It was also said of John’s baptism that it was “into [ei)$] a change-of mind [i.e. repentance]” (Matt 3:11, cf. Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38), where the preposition ei)$ indicates purpose or result. Elsewhere in Gospel tradition, John’s baptizing is described as being “of [i.e. for, leading to] repentance” and “into [ei)$] release [i.e. forgiveness]” (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4), i.e. for the purpose of (and resulting in) the forgiveness of sins. There are two key aspects of the use of ei)$ (“into”) with regard to baptism:

    1. It reflects trust/faith in(to) JesusMatt 18:6 par; Acts 10:43; 19:4-5; 20:21; 24:24; 26:18. The idiom is especially frequent in the Gospel of John: Jn 2:11; 3:16, 18, 36; 4:39; 6:29, 40; 7:31, 38-39; 8:30; 9:35-36; 10:42; 11:25-26, 45, 48; 12:36-37, 44, 46; 14:1, 12; 16:9; 17:20. The parallel use of e)n (“in”) at Jn 3:15; 8:31 strongly suggests that the expressions “trust in” and “trust into” are virtually equivalent (cf. Mk 1:15; Acts 18:8). Also generally synonymous is the phrase “trust upon [e)pi] (the Lord) Jesus”, cf. Acts 3:16; 9:42; 11:17; 16:31.
    2. It signifies entrance into the Community and spiritual/symbolic union with Jesus. This theme is developed considerably by Paul in several of his letters, where we find the phrase “dunked/baptized into (the) Anointed {Christ}”. The key verse is Galatians 3:27—”as many of you (as) have been dunked into (the) Anointed, you have sunk in(to the) Anointed [i.e. put him on as a garment]”. The emphasis is no longer on the name of Jesus, even though Paul still uses this language (cf. 1 Cor 1:2, 10ff; 5:4; 6:11; Col 3:17; 2 Thess 1:12; 3:6, etc); rather, it is on the person of Christ. In Romans 6:3-4, baptism is interpreted as symbolizing the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus (cf. Col 2:12). Cf. also 1 Cor 10:2; 12:13—the latter reference specifically emphasizing baptism into one body (the Community as the body of Christ) and in one Spirit (Eph 4:4-5).

On the first point, early Christians were careful to ensure that the baptism ritual was tied to a confession of faith in Jesus; this explains the interpolation at Acts 8:36, with verse 37 being added by copyists (and preserved in a number of manuscripts and versions) to avoid any misunderstanding. The second point is more closely related to association of baptism with the Holy Spirit, and it is this aspect of the ritual that we will examine in the next note.