RPM, Volume 19, Number 18, April 30 to May 6, 2017

No Other Name Under Heaven

The Name of Jesus in the Book of Acts

By Justin Huffman

Justin Huffman is a Christian, husband, father, pastor, and author: and thankful to God for each. Justin attended Reformed Theological Seminary, has pastored in the United States for over 15 years, and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica – because, as his son has observed, penguins don't need the gospel.

Many Bible students have observed — and correctly so — the prominence of the "Word of God" theme in the book of Acts. In fact, some have gone so far as to say the logos tou theou, and its growth despite opposition, is the real subject of the whole book.

However, there is a theme in Acts which appears to be both more foundational and more prominent, than even the Word of God — and that is the name of Jesus. It is not that these two subjects are in any way opposed to one another; but the reality that is constantly, loudly insisted upon within Acts itself is that there is no "Word"—either in its propositional content or in its active power when preached—apart from the name of Jesus. The great concern of first-century Christians, we see clearly in the book of Acts, was to exalt the name of Jesus.

The Intentional Prominence of the Name of Jesus

Even the most cursory reading of Acts will immediately bring the name of Jesus to the attention of the reader. To begin with, the actual word "Jesus" appears over 60 times in this book. This is particularly remarkable in that Jesus only appears as an actor—in bodily form at least—in the first chapter of this historical narrative. Thus, for his name to be so prominently used means that either Luke (as the narrator) or the disciples themselves (in the narrative) must be consciously, intentionally making mention of his name with great frequency—more often, in fact, than even the name of Peter, who is one of the main characters of the story in Acts.

More striking still is the emphasis that Luke, and his characters, specifically put upon "the name of Jesus," "the name of the Lord," and similar phrases. It quickly becomes evident that there is a theological truth-claim being made as "the name" is purposefully brought to the forefront of both the action of the story and the message of its Christian characters. Jesus' "name" is specified as a point of theology or of controversy over 30 times.

The name of the Lord is Peter's message at Pentecost (Acts 2:36, 38); it is Paul's contention after his conversion (Acts 9:29); it is the certificate of the faithful and commendable (Acts 15:26); it is the source of power/authority over demons (16:48); it is the object of repentance and faith (Acts 20:21); and it is literally Paul's life cause (Acts 21:13). Clearly, it is not coincidental that so much emphasis is placed on Jesus' name — not merely on the Word of God, or forgiveness of sins, or loving one's neighbor, or the unity of the church as gospel subjects in and of themselves. This is because the name of Jesus is not only inseparable from, but at the core of, the first-century Christian gospel.

The prominence of the name of Jesus in Acts, even when spoken against by its detractors, serves to show how central it was to the Christian message. Obviously, there would not be such specific opposition to the name (it would not be mentioned so much) by its enemies, if the Christian gospel was not so constantly bringing the name of Jesus up to begin with.

Below is a table which displays the frequency with which this theme appears in Acts, and highlights the fact that the negative emphases of the name are in direct opposition to its positive emphases by the Christians:

Name of Jesus Emphasized Positively:
Acts 2:21
Acts 2:38
Acts 3:6
Acts 3:16
Acts 4:10
Acts 4:12
Acts 4:30
Acts 5:41
Acts 8:12
Acts 8:16
Acts 9:15
Acts 9:16
Acts 9:27
Acts 9:29
Acts 10:43
Acts 10:48
Acts 15:17
Acts 15:26
Acts 16:18
Acts 19:5
Acts 19:13
Acts 19:17
Acts 21:13
Acts 22:16

Name of Jesus Emphasized Negatively:
Acts 4:7
Acts 5:40
Acts 9:14
Acts 9:21
Acts 26:9

The Battleground in Acts Is the Name of Jesus

It is evident, even in the form which opposition to Christianity takes within Acts, that the major battleground over which the early church and its detractors fought was the use of, insistence upon, and claims surrounding "the Name" which was at the heart of the gospel message. Luke had already indicated this tension in his gospel, as when he recorded the warning from Jesus that "they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name's sake" (Acts 21:12).

And as Peter appears before the Jewish crowd and counsel in Acts 3 and 4, the name of Jesus is unmistakably front and center (Acts 3:6, 13, 16, 20, 26; 4:2, 7, 10, 12, 17-18). Peter (who with his own hand and voice engaged the lame man at the temple), plainly insists "that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him does this man stand here before you whole" (Acts 4:10). In fact, one can hardly imagine a more intentional emphasis on the name of Jesus than Peter's statement that "his name through faith in his name has made this man strong, whom you see and know: yea, the faith which is by him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all" (Acts 3:16). According to Peter, Jesus gives/creates true faith — and that faith is rooted in Jesus! In other words, Peter is saying, "It is through Jesus-given faith in Jesus that Jesus has made this man whole."

The opposition to this message becomes equally plain and crystallized with the Jewish leaders' response: "So that it spreads no further among the people, let us severely threaten them, that from now on they speak to no man in this name. And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus" (Acts 4:17-18). And when the disciples refuse to heed this warning, we find in the very next chapter that, again, "when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go" (Acts 5:40). To which the disciples immediately respond with "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name" (Acts 5:41). This contrast and emphasis is made even sharper with the literal rendering of uper tou onomatov: "for the Name." F.F. Bruce comments, "To Christians there was one name above all others, the name of Jesus. This absolute use of [the Name] recurs in 3 John 7 and here and there in the Apostolic Fathers." 1

Clearly, the battle lines are drawn, and they form the exact outline of the name of Jesus and all that it entails. The offense of early Christianity, it seems, was not only the exclusivity of their salvation claims, but the identity underlying their salvation message.

We see the same juxtaposition of Christian mission and opposition, yet all the more potently because it comes from the "two sides" of Paul before and after conversion, in the vision of Ananias. On one hand, we see the focal point of the Christian opposition in the objection Ananias makes because Saul of Tarsus "has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name" (Acts 9:14). On the other hand, we see the driving motivation and mission of the Christian community in the response: "But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:15-16). Pre-conversion Saul's single goal was to stamp out the name of Jesus, while post-conversion Paul's calling is summed up as bearing the name, and suffering for the name, of Jesus.

The Name of Jesus Theme Reflected Elsewhere

While this article is specifically focused on the prominent theme of the name of Jesus in the book of Acts, it helps us get our bearings, even in Acts, to briefly survey this theme elsewhere in the New Testament; obviously, many of the epistles were written while the history of Acts was transpiring or by the actors that we find in Acts. Therefore, if we see this theme prominently appearing in Paul's letters, for instance, it bolsters our contention that the theme is purposeful and prominent in Acts as well.

And we certainly find the name of Jesus highlighted throughout the rest of the New Testament, even outside of Acts. It is the source of Christian identity in 1 Corinthians 1:2; it is the Christian's motivation to humility and unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10; it is the authority for Christian discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:4 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6; it is the context of Christian gratitude in Ephesians 5:20; it is the inspiration for Christian confession and obedience in Philippians 2:9-122; it is the banner over every Christian word or deed in Colossians 3:17; it is the goal of grace in saints in 2 Thessalonians 1:12; it is the essence of Christian sanctification in 2 Timothy 2:19; it is the cause of Christian persecution and reproach in 1 Peter 4:14; it is at the core of Christian faith and love in 1 John 3:23; and it is the basis of Christian assurance in 1 John 5:13.

The Theological Importance of the Name of Jesus

Of course, there is much more to the message of the first-century Christians than just the name of Jesus. And certainly there is no hint that the name of Jesus had any mystical power or authority in and of itself. In fact, the opposite is shown to be the case when the seven sons of Sceva mistake the name of Jesus for a magical formula and seek to perform an exorcism, purely on the strength of the name alone and without even a pretense of personal faith in Jesus: "Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, 'We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches'" (Acts 19:13). 3 Yet, even the thrashing they receive from the demon-possessed man served, Luke insists, to further the fame of Jesus: "This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified" (Acts 19:17). Jesus was magnified by the very feebleness of those who used his name hollowly, with no personal connection to him or authority from him.

It is clear that Luke is, throughout Acts, purposefully distancing the actions of the Christians from those of ancient magicians. 4 Unlike Ziesler's suggestion, then, in his article "The Name of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles," that there is some magical power inherent in the name of Jesus—which the disciples used as a magical formula in healings and exorcisms—this is not the thrust of the Luke/Acts uses of the phrase. 5 Rather, as Hak-Chin Kim concludes: "Far from being a magical incantation, 'the name of Jesus' reminds the readers of the active presence of Jesus, who validates the apostolic ministry and is the source of saving authority-power, disclosed in the formula, 'in the name of Jesus'." 6

Certainly there is nothing important about the moniker itself, in that it does not matter whether the man is called "Yeshua" by Second Temple Hebrews, "Jesús" by the modern Hispanic community, or "Jesus" in the United States. Just as Paul summed up his theology and message as "Christ and him crucified," the name of Jesus held for the early Christians the robust and well-rounded implications of all that Jesus was, all that he taught, all that he represented, and all that he accomplished in his death, burial, and resurrection. The name reflects the identity, activity, and authority of Jesus.

Concerning the identity of Jesus, the priority given to the name of Jesus in Peter's sermon after healing the lame man at the temple has been noticed by many Bible students, some of whom have found that this emphasis "on 'the name' as source of power and identity is striking if a bit confusing." 7 C.K. Barrett helpfully uses Acts 9:34—where Peter says to Aeneas, "Jesus the Christ heals you. Arise and make your bed" —in order to point out that "the name of Jesus is not invoked (contrast Acts 3:6), but Peter's words here explain what the name of Jesus means when the phrase is used; it is none other than Jesus (certainly not Peter) who effects the cure." 8

The issue of authority is actually brought up by the Jewish counsel themselves, when they press Peter and John with the question: "By what power or by what name have you done this?" (Acts 4:7). Of course, in the narrative we have already seen that Peter healed the lame man at the temple with the command, "in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk." As David Peterson explains:

"The name of Jesus Christ represents his divine authority and continuing power to grant the blessings of salvation. The name in question is not 'Jesus' but 'the name which belongs to Jesus by virtue of his resurrection and glorification, i.e. Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36)'…Healing does not take place because the right formula is pronounced but because Jesus is openly acknowledged as the only source of help and salvation." 9

And in Peter's reply to the Jewish counsel, we find that the insistence upon the name of Jesus was again in order to directly connect the work of Jesus (both on the cross and through his disciples in Acts) with the man Jesus: "Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole" (Acts 4:10). The full, identifying title for the historical man Jesus is used, not only in order to pinpoint their guilt in crucifying him, but also to connect his name with his miraculous resurrection and the continuing miracles of his disciples. It is with the authority and power of Jesus that we act, Peter insists, and thus "by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth."

It is building upon this assertion that Peter then makes the startling claim that "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Calvin observes that this is in the face of the Jewish effort to extinguere (extinguish or annihilate) the name of Christ, through their utter rejection of him (Acts 4:11). 10 Nonetheless, as F.F. Bruce comments, "The name of Jesus, by which the cripple had been empowered to spring to his feet and walk, was the name with which Israel's salvation (and, as was to appear later, the salvation of the world) was inextricably bound up." 11 This final line of Peter's speech in Acts 4:12 "concludes the christological kerygma with another reference to the name of Jesus and an avowal of its universal significance for salvation." 12

The theological importance of the name of Jesus in the book of Acts, exemplified in Peter's proclamation in Acts 4:12, is well summarized by Peterson:

History has revealed many self-appointed saviour figures and humanity has devised many ways of 'salvation', but there is a divine necessity (dei, must) that should be communicated to everyone about calling upon the name that God has provided. This is so because of Jesus' unique place in the divine plan (Acts 4:11). People in a relativistic, multi-faith society find such an exclusive claim very difficult to accept. Alternatives have been proposed to weaken its impact, including the notion that Jesus somehow benefits sincere adherents to other religions, even though they do not acknowledge him as Saviour and Lord. But such approaches are not consistent with the teaching of Acts 2-3, that it is actually necessary to call upon the name of Jesus with repentance and faith to benefit from the salvation he offers. 13

As Philip preaches in Samaria, Luke specifies the message received and embraced by the new Christian converts: "When they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized" (Acts 8:12). It seems Luke is concerned for his reader(s) to see that there is no message concerning the kingdom of God apart from the name of Jesus.

Again Peter emphasizes the importance of the name of Jesus as he addresses the group in Cornelius' home, claiming that "to Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins." (Acts 10:43). It is interesting that most, even evangelical, Christians today would probably leave out the phrase "through his name" and feel that they had communicated the gospel message by simply explaining that whoever believes in Jesus will receive remission of sins. But Peter purposefully gives prominence to the importance of the name of Jesus. Clearly, it was Peter's assumption that one cannot further the kingdom of God without furthering the name of Jesus, and one cannot believe on Jesus without acknowledging and accepting the identity, activity, and authority of Jesus.

To Christian readers today, this emphasis on the name of Jesus might go largely unnoticed, because we are used to at least mentioning his name frequently. However, as we have already pointed out, it is interesting that—while we may be somewhat familiar with this frequent usage in the book of Acts, and in the rest of the New Testament—we ordinarily do not actually reflect the same conscious, intentional emphasis on the name of Jesus in our own speaking or explanation of the gospel. The natural question arises, then, "Why was the name of Jesus such a central point of theology for the first-century Christians—and should it receive the same attention and prominence among modern-day Christians?"

To generations that now look back upon the reality of the historical impact of Christianity on the world, it might not seem as crucial to assert the name of Jesus at every given opportunity. However, to both the audience whom the apostles faced in their preaching, and Luke's audience as he records the spread of the early church, this insistence upon the name of Jesus linked the message, power, and mission of the church inseparably with the historical man Jesus.

Though we might today frequently reference "the kingdom of God" and the "word of God," Luke makes certain that we see there is no kingdom and there is no message apart from Jesus. We can see how a less consistent assertion of the name of Jesus can serve to water down the meaning of other Christian phrases and ideas, when we observe that in many circles today the "Word of God" has been redefined in terms of mere philanthropy or an ecumenical philosophy. The "good news" of the gospel is often disassociated from the identity, activity, and authority of Jesus and described rather in human-centered terms such as confidence, self-fulfillment, or freedom from guilt.

The expressed purpose of the first-century church was to place the name of Jesus, and all that it entails, at the heart of their message and ministry. They steadfastly, intentionally (such frequency has to suggest intentionality) placed the name of Jesus at the forefront of all they did and taught. By constantly insisting upon its use and its importance, they were plainly communicating to their audience a Jesus-centered theology, a Jesus-centered salvation, a Jesus-centered joy. The New Testament gospel was not ultimately centered upon salvation but upon the Savior named Jesus. This message largely differs from the message of many Christian churches today, probably because somewhere along the way the emphasis on the identity, activity, and authority of Jesus was, consciously or unconsciously, neglected.

The Heart of the Word is the Name of Jesus

I suggested at the beginning of this article that the name of Jesus in not only more prominent, but also more foundational than even the Word of God in the book of Acts. This is not to say the two are in any way conflicting, but to emphasize that there is no "Word of God" for the New Testament Christians apart from Jesus' name. Ironically, the question of "words and names" which Gallio saw as unimportant and unworthy of his attention (Acts 18:15) is precisely the issue of discussion in the whole book of Acts. The Word of God is a major theme in Acts, and the name of Jesus is at the heart of the Word of God.

When the believers at Pentecost "who gladly received his word [first use of logos in Acts] were baptized" (Acts 2:41) they were responding to Peter's command to "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). At the temple, it is said that "those who heard the word [second use of logos] believed" (Acts 4:4), as they receive the message that God's servant was Jesus (Acts 3:13), "and His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know" and that "to you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities" (Acts 3:26).

Interestingly, the first use of the phrase "Word of God" in Acts— "they spoke the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31)—is an immediate answer to the prayer, "Grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word [third use of logos], by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus" (Acts 4:29-30).

In Peter's address to Cornelius, in Acts 10, he defines "the word which [God] sent" to be "preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)" (Acts 10:36). In Acts 19:10, the "word of the Lord" is described as "the word of the Lord Jesus," which seems then to delineate the other seven uses of that phrase in Acts. This becomes particularly striking when we notice the frequent interplay in the book of Acts between the "Word of God" and the "Word of the Lord." If, as we've observed already, the word which God sends is peace through Jesus Christ, and the word of the Lord is specifically "the word of the Lord Jesus," then we see more and more the "word" being centered specifically in the name of Jesus in Acts. And the more we see the "Word" connected to Jesus' name, the more it should bring to mind the tone-setting verse in Acts 1 in which Jesus says that his disciples will go speaking on his behalf, with his power and authority: "you shall be witnesses to Me" (Acts 1:8).

There is no way to witness for Jesus without speaking of Jesus, specifically; and there is no way to speak the Word of God, without speaking of the Word who was in the beginning with God. Thus, the name of Jesus is perhaps the most foundational and prominent theme in the book of Acts.


  1. F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 118.
  2. F.F. Bruce, in commenting on Acts 2:36—and Peter's statement that "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ"—points out the intentionality with which early Christians applied to Jesus many Old Testament prophecies concerning Yahweh. He cites, for instance, the application of Isaiah 45:23 ("to Me every knee shall bow") in Philippians 2:10 ("that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow"). This further enforces the theme we have observed in Acts, as well as its prominence elsewhere. (Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 68).
  3. F.F. Bruce gives a backdrop to Jewish practitioners of magic, and how this confusion over the name of Jesus as a spell could easily occur in that culture. (Bruce, The Book of Acts, 368).
  4. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 175.
  5. J. A. Zeisler, "The Name of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles," JSNT 4 (1979): 34.
  6. Hak-Chin Kim, "How Did Luke Understand 'the Name of Jesus' and 'in the Name of Jesus'?," S&I 3, no. 1 (2009): 95.
  7. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (SP, Collegeville: Liturgical, 1992) 66.
  8. C.K. Barrett, Acts 1-14 (ICC, Norfolk, Great Britain: T&T Clark, 1994) 481.
  9. David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) 169.
  10. John Calvin, A Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles (CC, Vol. 18; Grand Rapids: Baker 2003) 174.
  11. Bruce, The Book of Acts, 94
  12. Marion Soards, The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Context, and Concerns (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994) 46.
  13. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 193.
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