|Volume 24 Number 12 December 2022
Louis Rushmore, Editor
Into what “name” are persons to be baptized? Is there a contradiction between Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38? Furthermore, must one administering baptism to another say the words of Matthew 28:19 or the words appearing in Acts 2:38?
First, let’s view the two passages under consideration. “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” (Matthew 28:19 NKJV). “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’” (Acts 2:38). Indeed, at a glance and admittedly, the two Scriptures read differently regarding the “name” into which one must be baptized. However, I submit to you that, nevertheless, both passages teach the same thing. This will become clear as we continue.
Secondly, we’ll treat the third question first, regarding what words the administrator of Christian baptism must say in connection with baptizing someone. Notice that both biblical references instruct what one must do rather than what one must say. It is an agreeable tradition to say aloud into whose name one is baptized, but such a thing, though instructive to bystanders (if there are any), is not a biblical specification. It is not necessary to recite biblical words at the time of the baptism for it to be valid. “Rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV) includes being able to and willing to distinguish between harmless (maybe even helpful) human traditions or customs and biblical instruction.
In the context of Acts 2, the phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ” was not a liturgical formula, but a way of distinguishing Christian baptism from the baptism of John the Baptist (cf. Acts 19:1-5). Matthew 28:19 shows that awareness and acceptance of the Holy Trinity is also necessary. Hence, in context, Peter mentions the Holy Spirit: “Repent, and be baptized… and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” God the Father is included in the next verse as well: “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Moreover, fairly explicit trinitarianism is present in Acts 2:32-33, in the same sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear.” (Armstrong)
The earliest Christians were baptized “in the name of” Jesus (Acts 2:38). This was not a verbal formula prescribed by the apostles to be spoken at a baptism, but was the basis for the baptism. … if a person is baptized with the conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, our Savior and that he is coming again to deliver us, he is baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” whether those words are pronounced over him or not. Baptism in the name of Jesus is a fact, not a liturgical formula. The same may be said of the phrase in Matt. 28:19 “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is not a formula that must be said, but a statement that this baptism is proclaimed and ordained by the very Godhead itself until the end of time. (sourcelight.net)
Thirdly, often the word “name” implies “by the authority of.” Strong’s concordance notes that “name” or onoma in the Greek can refer to “authority.” Abbott-Smith Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words and Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament [Moulton-Milligan] also observe that onoma can imply “authority.”
The baptism is to be done “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit means the combined authority of the Godhead. To be baptized into this is to be brought by baptism into actual subjection to the combined authority of heaven. To be baptized into the name of these three brings one into covenant relation with the Godhead. Baptism is, therefore, not only a sacred act of obedience, but it brings one into the fullness of the blessings of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Boles)
Fourthly, the three persons of the Godhead are not at odds with each other (John 10:30; 17:22; 1 John 5:7). Therefore, there is no functional difference between baptizing someone in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit versus baptizing someone in the name of Jesus Christ.
In summary, in the first place, penitent (Luke 13:3) believers that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ or Messiah (John 8:24) are to be baptized by the authority of the Godhead (Matthew 28:19). This baptism was similar to the baptism of John the Baptist in purpose (“repentance for the remission of sins,” Mark 1:4; cf., Acts 2:38) and identical in form (i.e., immersion, John 3:23; cf., Colossians 2:12). Yet, the differences between the two baptisms are enough to nullify contemporary baptism in the name of or by the authority of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-5). Therefore, Acts 2:38 represents Christian baptism to be in the name of or by the authority of Jesus Christ – distinguishing true baptism that saves (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21) from the baptisms of John the Baptist or of anyone else or of any organization other than our Lord’s church (Acts 2:41, 47).
In the second place, Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38 do not contradict each other, but on the contrary, they complement and reinforce each other that Christian baptism is authorized by the Godhead – each of which three divine persons are one in deity and in mind. The reference in Acts 2:38 to being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ merely adds emphasis of and distinction from the baptism of John the Baptist (and all others).
In the third place, Matthew 28:29 and Acts 2:38 teach what we are to do rather than what we are to say when a Christian baptism occurs. Acknowledging aloud the purpose of baptism or the authority by which it is administered may be instructive and thereby helpful to others who may be present, but such is not a matter of biblical specification. Likewise, the custom of singing hymns prior to or after a baptism is harmless and perhaps useful, though not a scriptural requirement. Lifting one hand heavenward by administrators of baptism is also a merely human practice rather than a divine directive. We must be aware of differences between cultural adoptions and biblical mandates.
Abbott-Smith Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2014.
Armstrong, Dave. “Baptismal Formula: Trinitarian or in Jesus’ Name Only.” Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. 5 Apr 2018. 10 Nov 2022. <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2018/04/baptismal-formula-trinitarian-or-in-jesus-name-only.html>.
Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, 2010.
Boles, H. Leo. A Commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew. Electronic Database. Gospel Advocate Company, 1989.
Complete Word Study Dictionary, The: New Testament. Revised Edition. Electronic Database. Chattanooga: AMG International, 1993.
Sourcelight.net (no longer discoverable on the Internet).
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. Electronic Database. Thomas Nelson P., 1985.
Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament [Moulton-Milligan]. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2015.