In Acts, we hear a new phrase: “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Peter uses it twice at the beginning of the book. He says to the crowd*, “Repent and be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ…” 2:38. A little later, while walking with John to the Temple, he says it again, ordering the lame man to get up and walk, “in the name of Jesus Christ” (3:6).
To our ears, it may sound like a normal thing to say. Many of us may end our prayers, “in Jesus’ name,” but this is the start of a new day, a new day that was happening among the Jewish people. You might suppose Peter would say part of the Shema: “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever” before he would change everything up to a simpler identifier.
Perhaps Peter reflected on this idea similar to John does at the conclusion of his gospel when he writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Or maybe he was thinking about what Jesus said during Passover only a few weeks before, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). Peter may be remembering the opening of Jesus’ ministry. Then, at Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptizer says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The baptismal episode would, of course, fit with the present scene of Holy Spirit interactions in Acts.
We do know that invoking the name of Jesus becomes a common practice among the early church. Luke often references its use as it accompanies baptism as in Acts 8:12, 10:48, and 19:5. Some even think Jesus’ name holds magical powers, which seems a proper connection given the miracles being performed. Philip, one of seven new believers chosen in Acts 6, begins to move the gospel message outside of Jerusalem after Stephen’s stoning. In Acts 8, he is in Samaria. He encounters Simon the magician, who is performing magic, wooing and wowing the crowds with that day’s sleight-of-hand tricks. At the hearing of the gospel, and no doubt the exhibition of its power, Simon converts and Philip baptizes him, “in the name of Jesus”. We don’t know how many Philip baptizes, but word gets back to Peter and John that the message is gaining traction in Samaria. This is so joyful that the two make a journey to see it for themselves. Unfortunately, it looks like Simon, still the magician, is waiting for them –
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (8:18-19)
Simon wants to know the deeper magic. He wants to see what’s going on behind the curtain and take hold of the same power. (Don’t we all?) He doesn’t realize that the name of Jesus isn’t a spell that can be bought or some chant that tricks the Holy Spirit into appearing. Peter says to him,
“You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (8:21-22)
To Simon’s credit, he sincerely asks Peter to pray for him, though we don’t know what happens next. He may have left, as the rich young ruler does, disappointed and self-concerned, or perhaps he grew into maturity.
Another example happens to Paul in Ephesus, a city known for its magical arts. On this occasion in Acts 19:11-20, we see several traveling showmen (Jews who were sons of a chief priest) trying to use the name of Jesus to cast out an evil spirit. In an effort to cure the man, they say, “in the name of Jesus whom Paul proclaims, come out.” The evil spirit seems to understand what power the men are trying to harness because it answers back, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” It' gets worse for these frauds. The demonic man jumps onto the would-be magicians and beats them to a bloody pulp. Luke then offers this commentary -
When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. (19:17)
The beat-up magicians also provide the context for many to not only come to faith in Jesus but also turn from their former beliefs. Luke tells us that they confess their sin and bring sorcery scrolls to be burned publicly.
As a side note, this passage is interesting given the note that even the handkerchiefs and aprons touched by Paul are taken to the sick in Ephesus and healing occurs (19:11). Ephesus also is the first place where Paul is so disparaged by the response in the synagogue that he rents a lecture hall to share the message of Jesus (19:9-10).
We could also reflect on how Paul addresses the Incarnation in Philippians 2 when he says of Jesus,
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:9; also see Eph. 1:21)
This majestic picture of Jesus is certainly gleaned from Isaiah when the prophet says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).
One final thought. Don’t you find it interesting that in the Torah, God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3 and Deuteronomy 9:5, for example)? It’s something Jesus reiterates when the Sadducees confront him about the resurrection of the dead in Matthew 22:31-32. “Have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Now, as we read ahead in Acts and beyond, God is not defining himself by people who follow the truth. We never hear, “Listen up! This is the God of Peter, James and John.” Rather, it is the people that define God by the name of Jesus. And Paul rightly reframes the Shema, the prayer he would intimately know and love, saying it every morning and evening as a devoted Jew, to place Jesus as Lord. In I Corinthians 8:6, he says,
For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
And also in Ephesians 4:4-6:
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
*Jews were gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (or the Feast of Weeks), a time to celebrate God’s goodness in supplying their needs and in giving of the Torah. Grecian Jews would know the feast as Pentecost, celebrated 50 days after Passover.