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What about baptism “in Jesus’ name”?

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
—Matthew 28:18-20, NIV

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
—Acts 2:38a, NIV

The question is, when we baptize people, shall we say, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins,” or should we say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”?

Notice in Acts, there is no occasion where one person says to another, “I baptize you in Jesus’ name.” Every time Acts mentions a baptism in Jesus’ name, the phrase characterizes the baptism, it does not record what the baptizer said. It means the baptism was in Jesus’ name, under the authority that Jesus gave them. It was the way they distinguished what sort of baptism they were doing. They were not performing a Jewish baptism for a convert to Judaism, nor were they performing John’s baptism for repentance, they were doing the baptism that Jesus commanded. Jesus’ commandment for doing baptisms is in Matthew 28:19.

Therefore the phrase “baptism in Jesus’ name” means nothing more and nothing less “Christian baptism,” but the words in Matthew 28:19 are what the baptizer says during the baptism in Jesus’ name.

All churches, east and west, that have a continuous existence that began on or before the year 1500 have that position, and all ancient Christian documents agree that it was done that way. The practice of baptizing by saying “I baptize you in Jesus’ name” is very recent. Since that is not the way the ancient church baptized, older churches do not recognize that sort of baptism as correctly done.

To review, the essential elements of a baptism in Jesus’ name are as follows:

If these three conditions are met, then the baptism is valid in all churches.

Now let us imagine a situation where two friends are baptized by the same preacher on the same day in the same baptistery. In both cases, the preacher intends to perform a valid Christian baptism. In both cases, they are immersed three times.

When Bill is baptized, the preacher says, “I baptize you in Jesus’ name,” but when Betty is baptized, the preacher says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Now many years pass. Betty and Bill decide to become members of the Greek Orthodox Church, which by the way has existed continuously since the apostle Paul founded its original congregations. Both Betty and Bill remember their baptism with crystal clarity. The church accepts Betty as a baptized Christian, but they require Bill to be baptized, because his baptism did not include the words in Matthew 28:19.

What does Jesus consider a valid baptism? You have to make up your own mind. However, I think it is best to do what the ancient church did and submit to baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

There are cases when a person isn’t sure they are baptized, usually in cases when they were baptized as an infant and there is no certificate, or the person can’t remember how the preacher did it. If that is the case for you, you cannot be baptized again, because the promises of God are irrevocable. But you can ask for a conditional baptism in which the baptizer says, “If you are not already baptized, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The Scriptural Witness Reexamined

So far, we have only been concerned with modern views. Have we really read Scripture closely enough? From my reading in the Orthodox Study Bible, I think we have not.

The Baptism of Jesus

There are three accounts of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22.

John says that his baptism is with water for repentance and preparation. He also says that when Jesus comes, He will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John hints that there are two parts to Christian baptism; water and the Spirit, and that is exactly what happens when Jesus is baptized.

Jesus underwent John’s baptism, even though He had no sins to repent. Jesus says that His baptism is to fulfill all righteousness—that is, to make things fair. His purpose was to undergo every experience that we have, so that we cannot accuse Him of requiring us to do things that He is unwilling to do Himself. So Jesus goes under the water, but then something else happens: the Holy Spirit descends like a dove.

We cannot say that the Holy Spirit part of Jesus’ baptism supersedes the water part of John’s baptism, because Jesus undergoes both. We cannot separate them, because Jesus is redeeming our bodies as well as our spirits. That He demonstrated at the Ascension, when He took His glorified body into heaven.

Therefore there are two parts to Christian baptism—or at least there should be—the water for repentance and the Holy Spirit for empowerment.

The Baptism of the Believers at Ephesus

We see this also in Acts 19:1-7. Paul arrives at Ephesus, the second-largest city of the Roman Empire, and a great metropolis. There he encounters 12 believers. They have only been baptized in water for repentance. Paul completes the baptism by adding the second part: he lays hands on them so they can receive the Holy Spirit.

Baptisms in the Ancient Church

In the last hundred years, a number of texts from the ancient church have turned up, and they have been authenticated. The one that interests us here are the letters of Egeria. Egeria was a Spanish Christian of the fourth century who traveled the entire Mediterranean basin and wrote letters to the folks back home to describe Christian rites as she observed them. Of course, no one thinks these letters do not have the force of Scripture, but they do serve as a witness of the practices of the ancient church.

In Egeria’s correspondence we discover that ancient baptism had two parts: water and anointing. The water was baptism for repentance, and was in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19. The anointing was for the gift of the Holy Spirit and was in the Name of Jesus. In that second part, the bishop of the church anointed them, laid hands on them, and breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” as Jesus did to His disciples in John 20:22. The purpose was to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them in their Christian life.

Today we realize that in the western Church, baptism and confirmation are simply two halves of the same rite, and the mainline churches are beginning to put the pieces back together. In the Roman Catholic Church, this takes the form of the Rite of Christian Education for Adults, which is presently being phased in. It calls for baptism by immersion and anointing with the laying on of hands for the Holy Spirit.

Two Baptisms in One Rite?

So perhaps we all have the wrong idea. In a sense, there are two baptisms in one rite, insofar as there are two parts to Christian baptism, the water and the Spirit. The first part is in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; it is baptism in water for repentance. The second part is anointing and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant about being born of water and of the Spirit in John 3:5.

Ancient World Views and the Sacraments
What is a Sacrament?
How Many Sacraments Are There?