The Biblical Significance of Names, Particularly as it Relates to Prayer and Baptism
Prayer · Baptism
What's in a name? This question has become a cliché in our culture. The significance of a name is found in its ability to confer affluence and reputation. If one has a famous last name, they are treated with respect and honor. If they have a last name that has been associated with ill-repute, they will be disrespected and dishonored. But typically we use names as mere designators to distinguish one person from another. They do not have much significance to us, and any meaning attached to that name is either unknown to the bearer of that name, or the bearer is not concerned with such trivialities. In the West we name our children particular names because the name sounds nice (euphony), or because the name holds certain sentimental value to us. This was not the way they view or use names in the East. Easterners attach a much greater significance to names. The fact that the Hebrew word shem and the Greek word onoma--both of which mean "name"--appear over 1000 times in the Bible should give us an indication of the significance of a name.
To the Hebrews a name was not a label, or a tool to distinguish one person from another; a person's name was viewed as equivalent to the person himself. A person's name signified their person, worth, character, reputation, authority, will, and ownership. In Revelation 3:4 it is said that there were a "a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garmentsÖ." The reference is to the people in Sardis, but they are called "names." Many modern translators, understanding the meaning of onoma, simply translate it as "people." Proverbs says the "name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous run to it and are safe" (Proverbs 18:10). Does this mean there is a large tower in the shape of the letters "LORD" that the righteous run into? No. The point is that the Lord Himself is a strong tower. Other Scriptures also confirm the idea that God's name is equivalent to God's person (Psalm 18:49; 86:12; Malachi 3:16; Matthew 10:22; 19:29; John 3:18).
Speaking and writing in "the name" signified authority (Exodus 5:23; I Kings 21:8); naming something indicated one's ownership of that person/thing (Genesis 1:5, 8, 10; 2:19-20; II Samuel 12:28; Amos 9:12); to forget God's name was tantamount to departing from Him (Jeremiah 23:37); acting in someone's name was to represent them (Deuteronomy 25:6); to blot out someone's name is to destroy that person (Deuteronomy 9:14; II Kings 14:27; Isaiah 14:22; Revelation 3:5); one's name signified their reputation (Mark 6:14; Revelation 3:1), and their character (Ecclesiastes 7:1; Matthew 6:9). Christ is said to have manifested the Father's name, meaning that He has made His person known to humanity (John 17:26). To believe on the name of Christ is to believe in the person of Christ (John 1:12; 2:23). To be gathered in Jesus' name is to be gathered together in His mind, will, and purpose (Matthew 18:20).
With this basis let us examine some passages in which the significance of "name" brings to light theological meaning that is often overlooked. In Acts 4:7 the Sanhedrin asked Peter and John concerning the healing of the lame man, "By what power, or by what name, have you done this?" The response was that it was done by the name of Jesus Christ (v.10). The apostles did not mean that when they said, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk," (3:6), that the phrase itself had any inherent power. It was not a magical formula. It was faith in Jesus' person that healed the man (Acts 3:16).
That the name of Jesus is not a mystical formula is evidenced by the seven sons of Sceva. These men were attempting to cast out devils in Jesus' name, but the people in whom the devils resided jumped on the men and beat them and one of the devils said, "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?" (Acts 19:13-16). Although they attempted to cast out devils in the right name, because they were not believers in Christ, and thus did not represent His person, they were in effect attempting to cast out the devils in their own authority and were unsuccessful. The devils recognized this and would not submit. There is no magic in saying, "in Jesus' name." Humans have no power to cast out devils. When we cast them out "in Jesus' name" we are declaring to be standing in Jesus' place, casting them out in His personal authority, not our own. Paul cast out devils in Jesus' name and they obeyed, not because of what Paul said, but because of Who he represented (Acts 16:18).
There are two important practices the church is commanded to do in the "name of Jesus." These practices--prayer and baptism--have great theological significance, and deserve special attention.
Jesus made some statements concerning prayer that have brought about a misunderstanding concerning how we are to pray. Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it" (John 14:13; See also 14:14; 15:16; 16:23). Shortly after Jesus said again, "Until now you have not asked for anything in my name; ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24). Most have understood these verses to mean that we are to end our prayers by saying, "In Jesus' name" or some similar statement. Although such a practice is not harmful it misunderstands what Jesus was teaching us in these passages. Jesus did not intend for us to actually say the words "in Jesus' name" in conjunction with prayer, but rather to pray in His stead, with His authority, and in accordance with His will.
Some have come to understand that saying "in Jesus' name" seals the prayer, guaranteeing that it will be answered. This is not much different than sorcery, viewing "Jesus' name" as a magical phrase like "abra-cadabra-ala-cazam." To pray in Jesus' name is to pray according to His will, character, and purpose. It is to pray in His stead, and act in His authority as His representatives on earth. It is similar to the notion of power of attorney. We can give someone else the legal right to our name. In this capacity, they can obtain information otherwise unavailable to them, and make decisions on our behalf in our stead.
It might also be likened to a police officer who declares, "Stop in the name of the law." He means that he is representing the law, and acting in its authority. God has given us Jesus' name so we can act in His person, in His stead, carrying out His will here on earth in His physical absence.
On a practical level, many view "in Jesus' name" to be the way we let everyone know when we are finished praying. In effect, what is being said is, "And now we're finished praying, let's eat" or "let's move on to something else."
That Jesus never intended for us to say "in Jesus' name" during or at the conclusion of prayer is evident from the fact that there is no prayer in Scripture that records anyone actually saying, "In Jesus' name." This does not mean they were not praying "in Jesus' name," because according to the Eastern understanding of "name," they were praying in Jesus' name by praying according to His will and purpose.
The best example of a NT prayer is found in Acts 4:24-30. The account of this prayer is given from the standpoint of a bystander dictating what was spoken. In this episode, however, we will not find anyone saying "in Jesus' name" at any point of the prayer. If Jesus meant for His church to actually say "in Jesus' name" after our prayers, surely we would find His apostles doing so. The same could be said for the prayers found in Ephesians 1:17-23 and Revelation 22:20. We pray in Jesusí name when we pray in His authority and will, not when we merely utter "in Jesusí name!"
The Scripture connects baptism with Jesus' name on multiple occasions. Unlike prayer, we have Biblical examples where the name of Jesus is verbally spoken during baptism. It seems that in baptism, God does intend for us to verbally speak "in Jesusí name" or some similar formula. The question is why?
The purpose of this article is not to be a polemic for Jesusí name baptism, as opposed to "Father, Son, Holy Spirit" baptism. I will assume that the reader already understands that the Bible teaches baptism is to be administered "in Jesusí name," and not "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." What I want to focus on is the reason we are to be baptized in Jesusí name, and why speaking that name is important. First, however, I would like to deal with the understanding we should derive from Matthew 28:19 in light of the theological significance of a name.
Jesus commanded His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations "baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). We understand Jesusí reference to a singular Ďnameí to be the name of Jesus Christ. I believe we are correct in maintaining this, seeing that the apostles themselves interpreted Jesusí command in this way. But what exactly did Jesus mean by this? Why didnít He just come out plainly and say that baptism was to be done in the name of Jesus Christ? It is often said that Jesus' purpose was to demonstrate that Jesus is the name of the Father, the name of the Son, and the name of the Holy Spirit. I think this is a wrongheaded approach for various reasons. I am persuaded that Jesus was trying to demonstrate that He encapsulates the various ways in which God manifests Himself to humanity (as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
When we encounter Jesus Christ we encounter all of God. His deity is none other than that of the Father. He is the Son of God. And since the Holy Spirit is the way Scripture refers to Godís one holy spirit performing special actions we can just as easily say that we encounter the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ.
Let me demonstrate what I mean when I say Jesus encapsulates our encounter with the Father and His Spirit. Jesus commonly spoke of His relationship with the Father as "I am in the Father, and the Father in me" (John 10:38; 14:10-11; 17:21). The deity of the Son is none other than that of Yahweh Himself, having come down in the form of a servant and in the likeness of men. This is why we find statements like "He that believes on me, believes not on me, but on him that sent me. And he that sees me sees him that sent me" (John 12:44-45), or "He that receives me receives him that sent me" (John 13:20). How is believing on Jesus tantamount to believing in the Father? Is it not possible to believe in Jesus, but not believe in the Father? Or how is it possible to have seen God when one has, in reality, only seen Jesus' physical body? Can't one accept Jesus without accepting the Father? According to Jesus the answer is no. Other similar statements include, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you should have known my Father also" (John 14:6-7), and, "He that hates me hates my Father also" (John 15:23). Not only is Jesus the way to the Father, but the Father can only be known through the Son. It would seem to us that the Father could be known apart from the Son, but according to Jesus it is not possible. Probably one of the best examples is found in II John 9 where John said, "Whoever transgresses, and abides not in the doctrine of Christ, has not God. He that abides in the doctrine of Christ, he has both the Father and the Son." (See also I John 2:23-24). If you accept Christ's person you will have the Father and the Son.
All of these Scriptures relay one common truth: knowing the Father is bound up in knowing the Son. When we have Jesus Christ, we have the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The point of this is not to demonstrate that Jesusí name is the name of the "Father" and "Holy Spirit," although we know that Jesusí deity was that of the Father. What it does demonstrate is that all of the ways in which we encounter God are encapsulated and found in the person of Jesus Christ. This is why the name of Jesus is the name of Matthew 28, rather than God the Father, or Holy Spirit. In essence what Jesus was saying is, "Baptize them into my person, in my authority, for I, in myself, encapsulate the various ways in which you have come to know Godís self-manifestation.
Jesus intended for us to baptize believers in His name. But what exactly does this mean? Why is it important that we baptize into any name? Is it a purposeless ritual? Is it a magical formula? I do not believe so. There is a theological reason why we are to baptize in "Jesusí name."
Baptism is no mere "outward sign of an inward work" as many Evangelicals are proclaiming today. Baptism performs a spiritual work in the believer. It is part of the new-birth experience (John 3:5; Titus 3:5). Romans six explains the spiritual work that is accomplished at baptism. Here Paul explained that in baptism, one is identified with Jesus Christís death, burial, and resurrection. We die with Christ in baptism, and in such a capacity, we become dead to the ruling-power of sin in our lives
Paul anticipated from his previous emphasis on justification by faith apart from works that the Romans might believe they should keep sinning in order to receive more of God's grace (6:1). Paul countered such an idea on the basis of our identification with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection by means of the rite of baptism (6:2-4). At baptism we become unified with Christ, and in God's eyes experience death and resurrection with Christ (6:4-7). Paulís argument is that what Christ did for us at Calvary becomes effective in our lives by being identified with Christ through baptism. Death did not have mastery over Jesus, so neither will it conquer us. We too will rise from the dead (6:5-7). Having died with Christ, sin no longer controls us, but rather righteousness (6:6-7, 10-11, 14, 17-20). If, after we have died to sin we yield to the ruling-power of sin it is because we choose to do so (6:16).
How does the above truth transpire in the life of the Christian? How do we identify with Christ in this capacity? According to Paul, it is by being baptized "into Christ," or "with Him," an obvious allusion to Jesus name baptism (6:3-4). The significance of being baptized "in Jesusí name" is that we are actually being baptized into the person of Jesus Christ, to receive the benefits of the redemption He accomplished for us. Saying, "In Jesusí name" is no magical formula, but it is symbolic of what is transpiring in the water as the believer exercises His faith in the spiritual work that God is doing at baptism. As Paul said, "And [you] having been united with him [Jesus] in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead" (Colossians 2:12). Naming the name of Jesus over a baptismal recipient is like using the power of attorney. We are acting in anotherís stead. In this case, we are acting in, and identifying with the work of Jesus Christ at Calvary.
Some have used various Scriptures as proof-textsfor Jesusí name baptism that, when interpreted according to the theological significance of a name, are found to express something quite different than proof for Jesus name baptism. One such verse is Colossians 3:17. Here Paul told us that whatever we do, we are to do so "in the name of the Lord Jesus." It is reasoned that since baptism is something we do, this is proof that baptism should be administered in Jesusí name. Paul did not have in mind for us to say, "in Jesus' name" in everything that we do or say. The meaning here is that we are to live our lives as to Jesus Christ Himself, acknowledging Him. What we do and say should be in accordance with His character, purpose, and will.
Another passage commonly cited as a proof that we are to baptize in Jesusí name is Acts 4:12: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." Others see in this verse that the spoken name of "Jesus" itself has the power to save us. What makes salvation effective is not the pronunciation of the Messiahís name, but faith in the Messiah. His name is not mystical. There is nothing about His name that has the ability to save in and of itself. The focus here is Christís person, not His name per se. What Peter meant in Acts 4:12 is that there is no other person in whom men can find salvation other than Jesus Christ.
When one is baptized in Jesusí name they take the name of Christ upon them in baptism, showing that He is their Lord and that they belong to Him. Paul made it clear that one is baptized in Jesusí name to show that they are a disciple of Jesus. This is witnessed in I Corinthians 1:12-15. Here Paul recounted that various believers were claiming to be followers of either Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Jesus. Paul, angered by the fact that the church would claim to be followers of men rather than of Christ asked if they were baptized into the name of Paul, or if Paul had been crucified for them. This rhetorical question would only make sense if we understand the name one is baptized into to indicate that this is the person the baptismal recipient follows as their teacher and master. Baptism is an identification with someone. Christian baptism is an identification with Christ, and with the victory over sin and death that He accomplished for us at Calvary. Being baptized in Jesusí name results in a spiritual work, not because Jesusí name is a magical formula, but because we are putting our faith in Him, being identified with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection, and allowing Him to become the owner of our temple of flesh.
This brief study opens up a whole new world of meaning to the Bible. Passages we might have passed over before now come alive with insight. The concept of the name is so significant in the Bible, and yet this Eastern concept is so hard for us to grasp because our culture's view of a name is so much different. Let this new understanding shed light on the many passages we could not mention, bringing to the forefront of your minds an awareness of Biblical concepts that were heretofore untapped.
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