Recently, someone asked me what the proper thing to say at baptism is: “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” or “in the name of Jesus”? Both phrases are used in the New Testament. First, let’s examine what the phrases mean, and then deal with the question.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) uses the phrase “baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The Greek word, eis, that I have rendered “into,” is probably translated as “in” in your Bible, although the ESV and NIV give a footnote citing “into.” The phrase, “eis to onoma/into the name,” was used in the Greek business word to indicate entry into an account bearing the name of its owner. Cottrell commenting on this phrase writes:
Its use in Matthew 28:19 indicates that the purpose of baptism is to unite us with the Triune God in an ownership relation; we become his property in a special, intimate way. (Baptism: A Biblical Study, p. 17)
The same kind of construction is also used in Acts 8:16 and Acts 19:5, where it is “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” with the same ownership kind of meaning.
The phrase, “baptized in the name (en to onomati) of Jesus Christ,” is used in Acts 10:48. The Greek word “en” is often translated as “in.” This phrase can mean while naming or calling on the name and in some cases, at the command of, by the authority of someone. The standard Greek lexicon (BAGD, p. 572) suggests in these verses the idea is to be baptized while naming the name of Jesus Christ. Baptism is a calling upon Jesus. Ananias says to Paul, “And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16, NASB). Most people confess Jesus prior to their baptism, and so call on His name. If the meaning is by the authority of someone, then it means that someone is baptized by the authority of Jesus (that is at his command).
Each of these phrases reveals aspects of baptism. Baptism is an appeal. Baptism is the place where we enter into a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we become His. Baptism is done at the command of Jesus. These two phrases do not contradict each other. They reveal aspects of baptism.
But what should we say at baptism? The truth is that nowhere in the New Testament are we instructed to say certain words while baptizing someone to make the baptism valid. The baptizer could be silent, although most of us choose to say something that reveals the meaning of baptism. It is the purpose and meaning of baptism that is important and not the formula of words spoken. Both phrases are biblical. It is only the familiarity of traditional usage that makes one phrase seem more appropriate than the other. But we need to understand that Matthew 28:19 and Acts 10:48 are not proscribing a spoken formula. The phrases do not contradict one another; they both reveal aspects of baptism.
BDAG = A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2000)