In the last verses of Matthew, the account of the resurrection comes to its climax, as does the Gospel. The women have seen the empty tomb and have met the resurrected Jesus. They quickly relay their excited message to the disciples, who then make their way to Galilee, where, as promised, the risen Jesus appears to them. And here they receive part two of their commission in those famous words that became the hallmark of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Many scholars believe that what Jesus says in verses 18-20 are the key to understanding Matthew’s Gospel. Actually, it may be the key to the entire Bible, for in these three verses we see the full scope of the history of redemption brought to bear in one history-altering, cosmic event: baptizing in God’s Name.
Put another way, all of this business from Genesis to Revelation, all of the rising and falling of empires and nations, all of the Bible’s judgments, blessings, and characters, this entire narrative of God’s great work of redemption from Adam to John the Baptist and especially everything pertaining to Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and even two millennia of Church history since, really comes down to this stunning point: Put people into this Name with these words and water. The whole movement and drama of Scripture and world history climaxes in this name-giving. That’s the big deal.
But it doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, as Shakespeare retorted, “What’s in a name?” In North American economics, names are commodities one can buy and sell. For instance, there’s an industry that facilitates the name-changing process. Websites abound and for as little as $20 you can join tens of thousands who have already engaged in self-naming. As one company put it, “It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s cheap.” There are even 2-for-1 discount coupons.
Names are cheap, transferable and for the most part arbitrary and meaningless in the modern mindset. It’s an inevitable result of the mass marketing medium of pop culture in which something as unique as a name is now as cheap as pizza.
In an age when children are named after cars, stars and bars, what’s the big deal about God dispensing His Name with a bit of water?
The answer begins with understanding that in the Semitic, Biblical way of thinking, a name is an organic part of one’s identity. The concept of personal names in the Old Testament included existence, character and reputation. They could in no way be considered cheap because a person’s life was inseparable from their name. Names carried inestimable value because one’s name was one’s life. In these ancient and arguably more substantive cultures, “To cut off a name,” was the same thing as liquidating the person himself (Deuteronomy 7:24 9:14).
In other words, unlike the Western naming processes with a criterion of sounding cool, in ancient Jewish thinking one’s name is synonymous with the very person—with who and what you are, what you say and what you do. This makes the giving of a name extremely significant and deeply meaningful. It is significant enough to say that the history of the world careened in a new direction when God gave out His Name, indeed, when He began plunging people into His own life-giving Name.
Hebrew custom reflected this. Old Testament figures did not readily yield their names to just anyone. To do so was to give a person your very self and to bind them to your personal history—as much as is known about you—through your name. To give someone your name was to give them your person.
Likewise, to receive someone’s name was to be bound to that person through an extremely intimate exchange. To know someone’s name was to carry them with you and to carry their history (all that publicly makes that person who they are) in their name. So much so that when you departed from them you still possessed them because you retained their name. Thus, in speaking their name, you possessed the power to re-present them: their name represented them or better, it re-presented them as it set them before you again. For someone to know your name was for them to carry you, with all your history and character, with them. Consequently, they too would have the liberty and privilege of representing your character and reputation—your person—simply by speaking your name.
This is a far cry from the current, vapid consumer exchanges we see today; like between a wait staff and diners (“Hi, I’m Tracy. I’ll be your server today”). Hebrew custom considered the exchanging of names almost a sacred covenant. It was a profoundly serious contract between persons tantamount to an adoption ceremony or enlarging one’s family through marriage. To exchange names meant taking into your possession the other person’s character and history and bearing the responsibility of honoring, blessing and safeguarding their name. “Take my name and you take me,” says one Jewish proverb because it is impossible to divorce one’s name from one’s person, one’s being, one’s history and one’s character. Thus, Solomon writes, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1), and elsewhere, “A good name is better than precious ointment” (Ecclesiastes 7:1). The Hebrews of old deeply understood the magnitude of responsibility that came with bearing someone’s name and, for that reason, one did not carelessly offer or receive names; like we do at the drive through window or casual meaningless exchanges with the wait staff at Chili’s. The distance between our culture and theirs can be measured by how easily we hold and esteem peoples’ names (I’m sorry what’s your name again?).
The Eighth Commandment speaks directly to this issue of name-bearing: “You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16), that is, against your neighbor’s name. To lie about, betray, or slander your neighbor’s name is to destroy their character, history, reputation… in a word, their very person. This is just as Jesus taught, “Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). Why? Because it murders the person’s character. It slanders their person.
The same bears true today, although perhaps we may not be as aware of the deep significance of receiving someone’s name or the giving out of our own. Consider that our reputation is largely determined by the company we keep. Who we know strongly colors what others think about us because we bear their names with us as part of our personal identity. “You are as the company you keep,” because their name (their character, deeds, and identity) are transposed. Associate with those who are denominated “losers” and human nature correlates — you’re a loser too. Is the company you keep called by the name of, “drunk,” “people-pleaser,” “big-mouth,” “cheater,” “liar,” “unreliable,” “selfish,” “ungodly,” or “idiot”? Then it’s likely that you may bear that name too. This is why our mothers want us to “keep good company” and be mindful of persons with “a bad name.” Our mothers are sensitive to the notion of “guilt by association.” Association of what? Name association.
Ironically, despite present-day cheapness and triteness of names, we all want to bear names with positive connotations. We spend a better part of our lives comparing and accumulating names from which we construct and try to project our identity. We consume identity-conferring names. We wear “name-brand” clothing. We support a name-recognized sports team. We even acquire status depending on the name of the food market we patronize. We think differently about the person who purchases their jeans at Neiman Marcus® as opposed to Wal-Mart®.
In these United States, deriving personal identity by name association long ago reached a point of vulgarity and has now become inescapably commonplace in our consumerist monoculture. For instance, Americans prominently placard the name or names of the university they attended on the back windows of their vehicles so that you have an idea of who they are when they are driving. The idea is tantamount to saying, “I’m not an ordinary commuter like you. I’m a Harvard Crimson,” or, “Esteem me as you should esteem USC.” The t-shirt, sweatshirt, bumper-sticker and baseball cap industries thrive for this reason and this reason only: to project self-image by name-association. It is everywhere and it’s inescapable. Even the most inane things are determined by name recognition. One does not drive a car. One drives a Hummer or Hybrid or some other self-projecting name. You cannot even sit on the Amtrak Coaster train without being named: coach, business, first class. Oddly, it just may be that we prefer this, since it puts the power of identity-making, of naming and of self-justifying, in our hands and left to our efforts and abilities. Consumerism just may be the religion of anti-grace. It seems to have been with us at Babel. It certainly is with us at Best Buy®.
Jesus offers the antidote to the religion of self-making through name consumption: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
In Eden, our primal father, Adam, was created and named by God as one, “in His image” (Genesis 1:26). In naming Adam, God expresses His Fatherhood and Lordship over Adam. Adam is, in the words of St. Luke, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). As such, Adam was created to bear God’s Name through his vocation as vice-regent of God’s earthly kingdom. In God’s Name he cultivated and exercised dominion in the garden-kingdom. Bearing God’s Name and being in His image are the same thing in Holy Scripture.
It is significant that in Genesis 1:1-2:3 the deity is known as Elohim, but once man enters the scene and is addressed by his God, the personal covenant Name of Yahweh is used from then on. Man stands in relation to God through a covenant in His Name, but conditionally so. Adam was never confirmed in that Name by entering into God’s eternal rest. Almost as soon as God gave Adam His Name to bear, both he and Eve forsook the Name of Yahweh and took another upon their lips when they, and indeed we, became vassals of one who goes by an unholy name.
This loss of God’s Name or image comes out in Genesis 3:22. Unfortunately, it is totally obscured in our English translations. Most texts read, “Then the Lord God said, Behold, the man Holy Spirit become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” But Genesis 3:22 does not say that upon sinning and violating the covenant Name, Adam actually became more like God. Rather, it says that man has become like a “lonely one” as a result of eating the forbidden fruit. It properly reads, “And Yahweh Elohim said, ‘The man has become like an alone one, from it to know good and evil.’” Being rendered alone, or exiled into loneliness, in the Bible’s way of thinking is synonymous with being rendered nameless. And being nameless or having one’s name cut off is the same thing as being accounted dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Thus, Genesis 3:22 offers a jarring contrast to the verse, “Yahweh Elohim said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’” (Genesis 2:18). The one who was created not to be alone by bearing the Name of God is now the nameless, lonely one, even though Adam and Eve are together.
Upon the entrance of sin into world, man would be a nameless nomad, incapable of bearing God’s holy Name and alienated from imaging-forth the divine likeness due to sin. This is why we go whoring after names, new names, name brands and the like. It is idol building. We lost God’s Name and so we simply fashion a god after our own liking or we make a god out of fashion and wear it as our name. It’s all chasing after the wind and grasping oil, which is why modern naming is so trite and hollow.
Notwithstanding, the remaining whole of Scripture is consumed with Yahweh working toward the re-giving of His Name to man; which is nothing other than the self-giving of God to humanity. The Bible truly is a book about God’s gracious plan and actions to re-Name a kingdom people long alienated from His holy and fatherly presence. The drama of Scripture is about God renaming us by bringing us into His image-bearing family once again.
Renaming begins with Abram who becomes Abraham in God’s gracious covenant. Jacob is renamed Israel, “the prince of God.” So too, David becomes King David. You see by renaming us God remakes us and restores us to Himself to share in His quality of life that is eternal. This promise wasn’t just to these Biblical pillars of faith, but to the likes of you and me, for your children and mine. Isaiah confirms this when he writes in 56:5, “I will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a Name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting Name which shall not be cut off.” Or again in 62:2: “And the Gentiles shall see Thy righteousness, and all kings Thy glory: and shalt be called by a new Name, which the mouth of the LORD shall name.”
Scripture tells not only of God’s good will to re-name, but also in doing so to save us and make Himself present at the same time; cleansing us from sin and restoring to us our full image bearing likeness by restoring to us—in a permanent, irreversible fashion—the Holy Spirit. And all this takes place in a miraculous rite that brings the fully revealed Name of God to bear on us personally: Holy Baptism. There not three names, but just as it is in the Greek and rightly so in English, the one Name of God, the Name by which He is called and fully revealed, the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This Name and therefore God Himself is gifted to us; remaking us anew by first destroying our old name, our old life, by drowning it in the life-altering waters of Baptism.
Each and every name-changing metaphor from Scripture and our modern world are present in Baptism: whether it be adoption where you take on the name of the adopting father, marriage where you take on the name of your spouse, and/or birthing a child where you name the one born to you. All of this is right here in Baptism, where not only is God’s Name put on us, but we are actually plunged into the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Greek preposition is better rendered in English not “in,” but “into” the Name of God. Not done so much, “on behalf of this name,” but resulting in a new life “in and with and through this name.” This is to say that Holy Baptism brings you into the Triune life of the living God, while the sacred consumption of the Eucharist brings the living God into you.