Why Are We Baptized in Jesus’s Name?

Name and Claim

When Peter, preaching at Pentecost, told the Jews that the man they murdered was risen and reigning, many were flabbergasted and asked what they ought to do. “Repent,” said Peter, “and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). It is easy to miss the full force of this. Peter was prescribing not a formal gesture of regret for the crucifixion, but total renunciation of independence as a way of living and total submission to the rule of the risen Lord. For Jesus’s name carries Jesus’s claim, and undergoing baptism is, for those who have reached years of discretion, a sign that the claim is being accepted.

Paul shows this when he says that at the Exodus the Israelites “all were baptized into Moses”—that is, as the NEB paraphrases, “received baptism into the fellowship of Moses”—by obediently following their God-sent leader where the cloud led, through the divided sea (1 Cor. 10:1ff.). Paul shows it more clearly still when he reminds his converts that they do not owe him exclusive loyalty, nor should they fight for his honor, since they were not “baptized in the name of Paul” (1 Cor. 1:13). The implication is that baptism to Paul was, among other things, an enlistment ceremony, publicly transacting a pledge of loyalty whereby one undertakes to be, as the Prayer Book puts it, “Christ’s faithful soldier and servant” for life.

Growing in Christ

J. I. Packer

Late theologian J. I. Packer gives readers a road map for studying the essentials of Christian faith, with quick, in-depth explanations of essential topics including the Apostles' Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

What does this pledge involve? The Bible idea which makes it clearest is Jesus’s own picture in John 10 of himself as shepherd, and his followers as his flock. The good shepherd, says Jesus, precedes, pastures, and protects his sheep (vv. 4, 9, 11ff.), and following where he leads is the whole of the sheep’s task (vv. 3ff.).

A recurring New Testament theme is of Jesus as pioneer, blazing the trail to glory for us—which is the good shepherd leading the sheep home.

Again, a classical way of viewing Jesus’s ministry is in terms of the three anointed offices of the Old Testament: prophet, priest, and king. As prophet, whose teaching about God is wholly from God, Jesus is the good shepherd guiding, by showing the way to life. (For Jesus’s teaching, read the Gospels.) As priest, set between us and God to secure our joy of fellowship with God, sacrificing himself for our sins and now helping us from heaven, Jesus is the good shepherd saving the sheep at the cost of his life (John 10:11, 15, 17ff.; for Jesus’s priesthood, read Hebrews). Then as king—lord of our circumstances, consciences, and conduct—Jesus is the good shepherd keeping his sheep from evil of all kinds. (For Jesus’s kingdom, read Revelation.)

For Jesus’s name carries Jesus’s claim, and undergoing baptism is, for those who have reached years of discretion, a sign that the claim is being accepted.

So everyone baptized in Jesus’s name must become Jesus’s follower. He must attend to Jesus as God’s messenger—“This is my beloved Son . . . listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). He must trust in Jesus as God’s mediator—“Come to me . . . and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). And he must obey Jesus as his master—“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). You and I were baptized; do we live thus?

The New Society

Nor is this all. By acknowledging Jesus as our shepherd we affirm identification with his flock—the community for which “Jesus people” is the perfect name, the Christian church. They are our compatriots, fellow-nationals, for “we . . . are citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20 NEB); they are our brothers, with us in God’s family, for “you are all brethren” (Matt. 23:8); and they are limbs with us in the ministering organism that is Christ’s body, for “all of us are the parts of one body” (Eph. 4:25 NEB) and “you are all one person in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NEB).

So baptism has social implications. Involvement in the “body life” of mutual sympathy and service for Christ must be the rule for all the baptized. (See, on this, Rom. 12:4ff.; 1 Cor. 12:4ff.; Eph. 4:7–16; 1 Pet. 4:10ff.) Isolationism in church—sitting apart, not getting acquainted, dodging responsibility, and so on—is often condemned as denying the meaning of the Lord’s Supper; we need to see that it denies the meaning of baptism too, and just as drastically. Is that clear to us now? And are we making it a matter of conscience that by active love of our fellow-Christians we should show that we know what our baptism means?

This article is adapted from Growing in Christ by J. I. Packer.

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