Beginning with the birth of Seth’s son Enosh we hear of “calling on the name of the Lord” to communicate a growing sense of relationship with God. Upon Enosh’s birth the scriptures say that “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” During Abraham’s wanderings in Canaan, we hear of calling on the name of the Lord as the form of worship. Wherever Abraham went he called on the name of the Lord when he built an altar. Thus from the beginning of redemptive history God’s name, or at least calling on God’s name, is understood as a relationship between God and humanity.
This is beautifully expounded in God’s meeting with Moses in the burning bush. In Exodus 3 beginning in verse 13 God has a conversation with Moses about God’s name. First his name is “I AM WHO I AM,” indicating that God’s true essence is being itself–and even beyond human comprehension. But then he brings it down to earth and explains:
“Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
So in this text is dictated succinctly how we are to understand God’s name. First his name is I AM. His name is himself, not just his title. Then, he is for his people. He is the God of our spiritual fathers. That is his name and that is who he is. Thus God’s name: HE IS and HE IS for us. This is succinctly the gospel. When God speaks of proclaiming his truth in the context of the Old Covenant he speaks of proclaiming his name (Ex 9:16).
This is made even clearer in Chapter 6:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'” Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”
While Abraham called on the name of the Lord in worship God did not reveal his name to him; he promised an intimate relationship with Abraham’s descendants, but he did not realize that promise to Abraham. But now that God is ready to redeem his people from the land of Egypt and make them a people for himself he reveals his name as the LORD (YHWH) and expounds upon it: “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” Again, God’s name is in reality the gospel: it is the good news of the salvation of his people. It is in itself the proclamation, as God says to Pharaoh: “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”
Following the Exodus God then establishes his covenant with the people of Israel at Sinai. In the Ten Commandments he commands that his people should not take the name of the LORD in vain; that it is holy. Indeed, this follows from the proclamation to Moses that I AM WHO I AM, setting God’s name apart from all other things, defining it as the most holy of anything that humans ever hear or know. But he does not leave his name in that fearsome status, he then graciously gives his name to his people in Numbers 6:
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
Here God goes a step further than before and applies his name to his people for their blessing. This is a precedent that will be seen throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s name is holy because it is his very being. Not only is it his being in the abstract, but more precisely when God reveals his name to his people it is a revelation of the gospel: it is what and who God is for them. And he gives himself to his people by putting his name on them.
This is beautifully portrayed when the birth of Samson was announced to his parents in Judges 13. The “angel” announces that the child who would be born to Manoah’s barren wife would in fact save Israel from its oppressors. This is a picture of Jesus who would be born later; the news that is being told to Manoah and his wife is a proto-gospel or a gospel type. The angel is the bearer of that gospel. When asked what his name is he answers “Why do you ask my name, seeing that it is wonderful?” and he does not give his name. Another way to look at this is to say that his name is Wonderful–as is the news he brings. The name is in fact the news: God is doing wonderful things for his people. Here again, the name is the abbreviated gospel. Even if we understand “Wonderful” not to be his name but rather an adjective describing his name, it begs the question: why is his name wonderful for Israel? The answer to this question is the gospel.
When David has in his heart to build a temple for God, he is told to wait and let Solomon build the temple. During this discussion and the subsequent building of the temple God speaks of this temple as the place where he will put his name (I Kings 8:16-30). Indeed he placed his very presence in that temple in the Holy of Holies. But the way that God describes his presence with his people in the temple is by saying that he will put his name there.
In Psalm 115 the psalmist places even salvation in the God’s name: “Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” Calling on God’s name is in fact to call on his salvation. To have God’s name is to have God and his saving presence. In Isaiah 43:6,7 God’s sons and daughters are those who are called by his name. Those who are to be saved by them are ones who will “know my name” (Isaiah 52:6).
Lest we think at this point that God’s name is a rubber stamp that gives someone unconditional communion with God, we must pay heed to the sobering voice of Jeremiah in 7:11-14:
“Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.”
While God’s name is salvation to a people who receive him it is anything but salvation for those who have been given his name and yet rejected him in their hearts and actions. God’s punishment of the Israelites is not in spite of his name, it is because of it. God’s name is pure and holy and it must be defended. But what does it mean that God’s name is holy? We don’t put it in a shrine, or write it in special ink on holy paper. No, God’s name is the relationship, revealed successively through time according to his plan, that God desires to have with his people. His name is that relationship in the Godhead that he extends to his people through his covenants. His name is himself, his character, and love. So if those who bear his “name” only in a declarative sense and not in their actual relating to God, then they reap their own fruit; they do not obtain love and joy and peace and all the gifts that are the bounty of God. They get punished and cast out.
God does this precisely so that he can accomplish his plan for the fullness of time by purging his people of lies and sending his Truth, his Name in human form. If God’s name were only his reputation over and against anyone else, then destroying humanity wholesale would be the way to protect the holiness of his name. But because his name is the relationship, being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for their salvation, then defending his holy name means punishing his people in order that they might be restored to him in that relationship of love. This is how closely God has tied his own self to the fate of humanity: the holiness of his own name depends on saving them.
Fast-forward to the New Covenant. There is an anointed Savior to be born and he will come from God. And his name is “Emmanuel” or “God With Us”. Given the prophetic implications of God’s name as his saving presence with his people, we can understand: Jesus is quite literally God’s salvation with man. His name is who he is for his people. This God With Us is then baptized into Israel’s repentance by John the Baptist. Again God truly becomes solidary with his people and binds himself to the fate of his people. In the waters of baptism he, declared to be God’s Son by the voice from heaven, takes onto himself the sin of Israel by submitting to her same baptism.
Jesus then speaks of his name as God speaks of his name to the Israelites. In Matthew 18:20 Jesus says “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Clearly Jesus’ name is Jesus’ presence. This is not in a sort of incantation or a summoning of Jesus merely by speaking his name. If we understand that God’s name is who God is for his people, then God’s name is his relationship with his people. Thus to be gather in Jesus’ name is to be gather in the context of and for the purpose of relationship to him by faith, as were Abraham Isaac and Jacob to the God whose name had not yet been fully revealed.
Thus when Jesus teaches us to pray he begins with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” This opening petition bases our prayer to God on our relationship with him: his name. This begs the question: on what basis do we claim to have God’s name?
When Jesus left his church with his baptism, he commands that it be done in his name–the name of the Trinity. The Gospel of John records Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer shortly before he was crucified. In it Jesus prays: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Clearly God’s name is still understood to be God’s relationship with his people, given to Jesus in his own name, and extended to the disciples with the gift of Jesus’ name. He further explains the gift of his name in verse 26: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Therefore being one with the Father comes by remaining in his name given through Jesus. John does not record the Great Commission, but this statement can be seen as relating to baptism: one is baptized in the name of the Trinity. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 is in fact the only place in the New Testament where Jesus tells us explicitly how we get his name: we are baptized. Jesus also says that his name brings the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) who is the very Trinitarian relationship of love. Thus baptism gives the Holy Spirit because Jesus has placed his name–God’s name–in it: “…Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
We cannot regard baptism then as an incantation, invoking the divine name and thus affecting his presence. No, his name is himself and his relationship to his people. It’s a package deal; when a person rejects the relationship, then the name also is rejected and does not benefit that person. But because of the aforementioned promises we must confess that his saving name is given in baptism along with the Holy Spirit when it is received in faith. The Apostle Peter extended this promise to the crowds gathered at Pentecost when he said in Acts 2 “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Just as promised, Jesus was giving his name–his gift of Trinitarian salvation and love–in his baptism through the accompanied Holy Spirit.
When a person is baptized she then receives God’s name and with God’s name is the promised Holy Spirit. Another way of saying this is that when a person is baptized she receives God himself; his presence for her salvation. This must be as real and powerful as the presence of God on the mercy seat in Solomon’s temple. Indeed it is more; for now the presence of God is in the heart of the individual and no one need say to his brother “know God” for each baptized person knows God when his faith receives God’s salvation, wrought by Christ, in his name.
With this historical understanding of God’s name and its gift of salvation, from Genesis through the gospels, the following passages from Acts and the epistles concerning baptism should be understood:
I Corinthians 6:11 “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Acts 19:5,6 “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.”
Acts 22:16 “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
Galatians 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Romans 6:3-5 “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Colossians 2:11,12 “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
I Peter 3:20,21 “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
These passages show a perspective on baptism as being the ritual that encompasses all the Christian life, causing our life to become one with the story and power of Jesus’ life by giving us his name.