There’s an extremely annoying and useless debate among some Christian groups that is nearly enough to make me contemplate jumping off a cliff with one of those squirrel suits every time I hear it come up. Here it is:
Some Christians think that when you baptize someone, the following words ought to be said “in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit.” I guess they think this because Jesus said to in some verse. Other Christians think you should say “in the name of Jesus.” Because Jesus is god’s name and so what Jesus really meant in that verse somewhere was that you should say his name since the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit is Jesus.
Now hold on, if I could just bring you back from the brink of insanity after hearing such “debate”, I think I can just about redeem this by explaining further than promptly changing the subject.
So, the smart Christians usually come in at this point and say something like, “hey chaps, it doesn’t matter what you say. You don’t have to say anything in fact! Jesus wasn’t asking you to say some phrase or use some name, he was simply letting you know that god’s authority is behind your inclusion of the nations into the good news and the family of God through baptism! See, the use of the word ‘name’ here is a fairly common way of saying ‘with the authority of’. So go out and invite in all sorts of people. Gentiles, Jews, sinners, Romans, Greeks, barbarians, whoever!” They usually say something like that.
So what does this have to do with Acts 4? Well, smart Christians, while talented at settling debates that very few people care about, are often blind to some of the implications of their conclusions for other, more “settled” passages.
Like a lot of my recent readings, things strangely take the opposite meaning that they used to have once you introduce some cultural context.
“When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead-by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.””
Acts 4:7-12 NASB
Now, this whole section is often reduced to one, all important, irreducible, and undeniable truth. You can almost hear the important voice of a bearded, sunglassed street preacher exclaiming, “ONLY CHRISTIANS ARE SAVED! ONLY THOSE WHO CALL ON JESUS NAME!” Well good sir, we probably don’t agree on what salvation means but to put that aside for a moment, I think this verse means the opposite of what you think.
Peter and John are in a pickle. They just healed a guy and caused a stir. When the official religious deciders bring them in, they have questions. They are the deciders after all. They want to know, “who you are working for?” Read it again in a Russian accent or perhaps German. Now you have the sense of it. So Peter says quite boldly that not only does this healing come by authority straight from Jesus, but so does salvation! Basically Mr priest, you’re not the decider, I’m not the decider, Caesar isn’t the decider, and no council or group is the decider. Jesus is the decider, and it has nothing to do with a particular name or group or religion. It has to do with the fact that God has spoken! Shalom, forgiveness, reconciliation, you’re in. That’s good news right there.
So an explanation usually given to explain a cute little baptism wording argument actually has real power to help us shift from an exclusionary reading of Acts 4 to a daring, in your face, establishment be damned inclusionist reading. Isn’t that neat?
Photo by Marcelo Quinan