The Great Commission has been quoted, preached on, written about, and dissected frequently, as one of the texts that has received some of the most attention in biblical studies. Deservedly so.
In recent days, I wrote a series of meditations on Matthew 28.18-20. And today a neighbor and I studied the same passage in his home. With all this attention given to the text, Jesus’ words about Baptism made a greater impression.
The first part of making disciples, he said, is “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” Mt 28.19. First, it bears repeating that Jesus does not command that these words be said at the moment a baptism is performed in order to be scriptural. So this is not a “formula” that makes up a part of some baptismal ritual (contra Richards 578). It is an explanation of the function of baptism in God’s plan.
The English phrase “in the name of” does not apparently express the proper sense. It is not like Acts 2.38 where baptism is commanded “in (epi) the name of Jesus Christ.” Two different prepositions are used. The preposition eis generally indicates direction and purpose. It seems to mean in Mt 28.19 that people are to be baptized into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
What exactly does this mean? The Greek lexicon BDAG says that “those who are baptized become the possession of and come under the dedicated protection of the one whose name they bear” (Danker 713). Everett Ferguson cautions that the three prepositions (including en) used to translate “in the name of” tend to blend together in meaning (Ferguson 1996, 181-182), but the BDAG distinction would seem to hold. Earlier, Ferguson had written, “The baptism commanded in the great commission (Matt 28:19; Mk. 16:16) brings one into a special relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Ferguson 1984, 33).
A note in the Tradução Ecumênica da Bíblia explains that the phrase “establishes a personal relationship of the person baptized with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Galache 1917). That relationship is defined by belonging, blessing, and submission. So baptism into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit seems to find similarity with Paul’s expression of baptism into Christ, Gal 3.26-28.
The function that Jesus ascribes to baptism, then, is not merely symbolic. It is more than a symbol or sign. In baptism an actual change of status is effected. By it one becomes a disciple of Christ and sustains a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Like the Great Commission in Mk 16.15-16, Matthew’s record places baptism squarely in the center of conversion and describes it as that definitive act where one ceases to be a part of the “nations” and becomes a member of God’s special people and Christ’s body. It should never be diminished nor excluded from the process of salvation.
CITATIONS. Danker, Frederick William, ed. 2000 Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d. ed. Univ. of Chicago Press. Ferguson, Everett 1984 The New Testament Church. Rev. ed. ACU Press. Ferguson, Everett 1996 The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today. Eerdmans. Galache, Gabriel C., ed. 1997 Bíblia—Tradução Ecumênica. Loyola. Richards, Lawrence O. 1985 Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Zondervan.