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The Great Commission is a commandment, not a suggestion.
No wonder then that Matthew 28:19-20 is such a debated passage of Scripture. Controversy and contradiction are words that readily come to mind when discussion begins. Usually the debate is focused upon the words of Jesus concerning baptism. Those who espouse the Trinitarian mode of baptism use verse 19 as their proof text, but seem to ignore or gloss over the abundant biblical support for baptism in the name of Jesus. For those who claim that Jesus name baptism is the clear scriptural norm, Matthew 28:19 represents a hurdle that must be examined and reconciled.
As a supporter of Jesus' name baptism, I am alarmed by the methods and explanations that others use in order to prove our point. We live in an age that demands and deserves integrity in our presentation of biblical truth, but when it comes to this one verse we are desperately in need of some correction and redirection.
Specifically, we are suffering with respect to our grammar, the use of logic, and the application of hermeneutic principles. What we risk losing in the process is credibility, and possibly the very souls we hope to reach. We really need to take a closer look at the text, and handle it with the care and honor deserving of God's precious Word. Paul understood how important this was when he wrote:
According to the Message paraphrase of the Bible, not handling the Word of God deceitfully means that "we don't twist God's Word to suit ourselves." Yet without using sound principles of interpretation, we can easily fall prey to this self-serving mindset. We may reach the right conclusions, but our methods will fail the test; and lest we become tempted to justify a less than honest approach, we should remember that in theology as in life, the ends never justify the means.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote to the church at Corinth above, elsewhere admonished Timothy to "rightly divide" the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15). This was a challenge not only to understand the Scriptures properly, but to teach them with integrity. We have the same mandate today. The purpose of this article is similar: to challenge us to rightly divide the Word of Truth as we explain and exegete Matthew 28:19. Doing so will not only make us more effective in our presentation of the Gospel, but will also make us more God honoring in the process.
When discussing the meaning and application of Matthew 28:19 with regard to Jesus' instructions concerning baptism, Oneness Pentecostals (and other Jesus' Name Baptism supporters) have traditionally appealed to the grammar of the text to make their case, challenging the mainstream Christian view on baptism based upon the use of a single word. Let's look at the verse:
Notice that Jesus said "in the name" as opposed to "in the names." We insist that because the word "name" is singular and not plural, Jesus is suggesting that only one name, not three, is being spoken of. We have apparently lost sight of the proper use and interpretation of the common prepositional phrase. In the latter half of our verse, there are three prepositional phrases: 1) of the Father, 2) of the Son, and 3) of the Holy Ghost. The parallel structure allows the noun "name" to refer to all of the succeeding prepositional phrases. Therefore our verse would mean exactly the same thing if it were written the following way:
There is no difference between the actual wording of Matthew 28:19 and the above illustration. If I were to ask you to take your Sunday School attendance sheet and give me the name of the teacher, the secretary, and the substitute you would not think for a moment that I was speaking of just one name. It would be clear that I wanted three names, even though I used the word "name" in singular form.
Furthermore, if the verse actually did say "names" instead of "name" it would imply two or more names for each prepositional phrase that follows. We would be potentially speaking of several names of the Father, several of the Son, and several of the Holy Ghost. This is not a matter of interpretation or even application. This is simply a matter of properly understanding the grammar of the text. The Bible is replete with examples of singular expressions referring to plural objects, so Matthew 28:19 is certainly not an anomaly. Here's just a few examples:
That last one is particularly noteworthy because it raises another point. Typically, after we "prove" that Jesus can only be speaking of one name, we embark on a biblical quest to define what that name actually is. After all, "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" are not names, but titles, right? The Bible suggests otherwise. Father is not simply a title, it's who God is. It's a Name of God. Not the Name, of course, but a biggie, nonetheless. Isaiah 9:6 (above) makes that point. But we never get that far. No, we insist that the singular name Jesus is speaking of must be discovered elsewhere, and so we ask the question, "What is the one name that Jesus is talking about that represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?" Here is where our argumentation goes from bad English to bad logic and poor hermeneutics.
After deciding that Jesus can only be speaking of a single name in Matthew 28:19, we then begin some strenuous logical and hermeneutical gymnastics. We begin by addressing the first prepositional phrase, which begs the question, "What is the name of the Father?" Turning to John 5:43, we point with confidence to the immutable words of Jesus Himself:
Jesus said, "I am come in my Father's name." Somehow we think that this statement is just like saying, "Hey guess what? My name is Jesus! I have come in my Father's name! So that must mean that the Father's name is Jesus!"
Are we twisting the Word of God to suit ourselves? The fact is, for Jesus to say "I am come in my Father's name" has nothing to do with His own name being Jesus, or the Father's name being Jesus. Instead, He is claiming to represent the Father. His statement a clear claim of divine authority. As a man, Jesus had His commission from His Father, and did all for His glory. He said over and over that His words and His works were not His own, but were of and from the Father (John 5:19, 5:30, 5:36, 8:26-29, 10:25, 10:38, 12:49-50, 14:10 and 14:24). Of these many references, one of the most telling in our discussion is John 10:25:
If the name of the Father is Jesus, wouldn't that imply that Jesus was healing and teaching in the name of Jesus? Why then would He say that He was not representing Himself (John 5:30), if all He did and said were prefaced by and credited to His own name? Logically it makes no sense, and hermeneutically it just doesn't fly. He was saying that His works were done by the authority and power of the Father, and as such testified that He was who He said He was. In other words, Jesus' central message and claim to Messiahship was confirmed by the signs and wonders that accompanied His ministry.
Consider the fact that while Jesus was claiming to do miracles in the name of the Father, he was not actually saying "in the name of the Father" as an injunction over His deeds. Clearly, doing the works that Jesus did, and saying the things that Jesus said, was only "in the name of the Father" inasmuch as He acted and spoke by the authority and on the behalf of the Father.
The Scripture is clear that Jesus, as a man, was the physical representation of the invisible God (Hebrews 1:3). He did not rely on His deity for His message or His miracles, but on the anointing of the Holy Ghost (Acts 10:38, Luke 4:1). He was completely submitted to the purpose and calling of God (Philippians 2:5-8). And so when Jesus claimed to have come in His Father's name, He was claiming to be under the Father's authority, and to be operating in both word and deed on His behalf, by His command, and for His glory.
Following our former cue, we quickly deduce that the name of the Holy Ghost must be Jesus. Once again, we have done violence to the text. Why did Jesus say that the Holy Ghost would come "in His name"? One commentator writes:
Well said. In John chapters 14-16, Jesus was preparing His disciples for both His eminent departure and the Holy Spirit's arrival. He made it clear in John 16:7 that He had to depart before He could impart. He said, "If I don't go, the Holy Ghost won't come." We can understand why when we consider what He had already told them in John 14:16-18:
Let's look more closely at the italicized portions of the above text, "another Comforter...the Spirit of truth...he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you...I will come to you." It should be clear from the above text that Jesus was identifying Himself with the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Holy Spirit would be "the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead," or as Paul also wrote, "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Romans 8:10-11, Colossians 1:27).
The fact that the Spirit would come "in the name of Jesus" means that while Jesus would be absent physically, He would be present spiritually. The Holy Spirit would come "in His place" and "on His behalf." That is why He first had to depart. He would ascend, so the Holy Spirit could descend. And just as Jesus represented His Father, the Holy Spirit would represent Jesus. As with the name of the Father, the "name" implies authority and representation.
Over and over in Scripture the principle of authority and representation is equated with the use of God's name. In several Old Testament passages prophets were warned not to presume to speak in the Lord's name, or to falsely speak in His name. Invoking God's name was tantamount to claiming to speak on His behalf, as His agent. In Deuteronomy 18:20, the warning against this false representation was made clear:
In addition to words, acts of service could be conveyed in the name of the Lord. Jesus promised that "whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward." (Mark 9:41). Given with the love of God and for the glory of Christ, a simple act of kindness is said to be done in His name. When we do what we do because Jesus has commissioned us to do it, and because it is our pleasure to please Him, we are acting (or speaking) in His name. This is what the Apostle Paul spoke of when he wrote:
Some suggest that we should actually say "in Jesus name" as an injunction over all that we do or say. That is not only unpractical, but it misses the point. This commandment means wherever you are, whatever you do, and whatever you say should be governed by an understanding that you represent the Master. Whether in word or deed, you should do all things as His ambassador. You have been given authority to represent His purpose in the world (Luke 10:19, II Corinthians 5:20), and ultimately all that you do and say should give glory to God (I Corinthians 10:31). Simply put, doing all in the name of Jesus means that we act as his legal representative, for His sake, on His behalf, and for His glory.
The notion that simply saying the name of Jesus, whether in prayer or in baptism, is enough to effect the power of Heaven is an idea that borders on magic. I've seen people, well intentioned, who chant the name of Jesus in prayer as if saying it long enough and loud enough would eventually produce the miraculous. The name of Jesus is not a magic word. To treat it like an "abracadabra" or "open sesame" is not only insulting, it simply will not work. This is a lesson that the seven sons of Sceva learned the hard way (Acts 19:13-16). And worse than making fools of ourselves, it must surely grieve the heart of God.
His name is powerful because He is powerful. His name is beautiful because He is beautiful. His name can and should be invoked in prayer, in baptism, and in praise, not because of some formulaic or mystical power that we attribute to the word, but because in saying His name we are acting as His agents, speaking by His authority, and being motivated by an unyielding passion for His glory.
Shedding light on the proper meaning and application of John 5:43 and John 14:26 takes courage considering that to do so means letting go of two major weapons in the "Jesus Name" arsenal. But the truth is that we hurt our own credibility when we take these verses out of context. So what was Jesus saying? Consider again the flow of Jesus' words:
These imperatives reveal the tone of Jesus' command. He did not say "repeat after me" with His injunction to baptize, but rather commissioned them to do so "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." They were to act as God's personal representatives in the world. As His ambassadors, they were to go and "do," not simply to go and "say." If quoting the words of Jesus was the intention of either Jesus Himself or the Gospel writers, one would expect to find it referenced in another of the Gospel accounts of the Great Commission, or in one of the many references to baptism in the book of Acts. No such reference exists. Instead, Luke's Gospel offers an alternate version of Jesus' words. His version of the Great Commission reads,
Here Jesus instructs His disciples to preach repentance and remission of sins in His name. While baptism is not mentioned specifically, it is nevertheless alluded to by the phrase "remission of sins" which is enjoined to baptism in both the ministry of John (Mark 1:4) and the practice of baptism in the early church (Acts 2:38, 22:16). And here, the injunction to do so is in His (Jesus) name. Why the disparity? Why the seeming contradiction? Perhaps there is more to consider than mere names and titles. Each Gospel writer is capturing a unique perspective on a singular event, and both versions are worthy of our attention and understanding.
First, where Matthew 28:19 is concerned, it is clear that Jesus is not telling the disciples what to say, but what to do. They were to go and make disciples, baptizing them because of and into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It may well be that this speaks of only one name, as even some Trinitarians suggest. That is because Father, Son, and Holy Ghost can be understood as one name, not three, speaking of God as we understand, perceive, and experience Him: as the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Ghost. Some churches understand and apply this truth by saying,"I now baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ, who brings you to His Heavenly Father, who graciously gives you the Holy Ghost." From Matthew's perspective, Jesus is commanding His disciples to go and baptize new disciples with an understanding of the spiritual dynamic that this example captures. We all come to God at the foot of the Cross. The broken body and shed blood of Jesus is the only way any of us can approach the Father; Jesus said so Himself:
And when we come back into fellowship with God the Father through Jesus Christ His Son, we can expect with full faith the promised gift of the Holy Ghost:
Regarding Luke 24:45-47, it would seem that Luke remains focused on the function of baptism, i.e. remission of sins, and the focus of baptism, i.e. the atoning work of Jesus Himself on the Cross. This theme is what is emphasized throughout the book of Acts, as well as in the many references to baptism in the Epistles:
Many of the events and teaching of Jesus are repeated in two, three and sometimes all four of the Gospel records. And while the Bible does not contradict itself, it often reveals very different perspectives based on the writer, the audience, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. We would do well not to try and discredit one version in order to approve of another.
Understanding the spirit and intention of Jesus' words in Matthew 28:19 helps us settle the apparent contradiction between the words of Jesus and the actions of the apostles. Jesus was focused on the authority of the Gospel, the disciples were focused on the application of the Gospel. As we read through the book of Acts, we see how the disciples understood and obeyed the command of Jesus, and we can conclude that their actions were faithful to His words. They above all others would have known what Jesus was talking about, and they consistently baptized new Christians in the name of Jesus. Were they wrong? Did they disobey? Not at all; there is no reason to believe (and no evidence in Scripture to suggest) that they were disobedient or that they misunderstood the clear instructions of Jesus.
Even though we have discussed at modest length the meaning of the term "in the name" as it is used in Scripture, it should remain clear that baptism in the early Church did include the invocation of a name over the recipients. And when we examine the evidence of both the biblical record and early historians, we find that over and over it is the name of Jesus that is invoked, declared and commanded.
Historians and biblical encyclopedias all agree that it was the name of Jesus that was invoked in baptism for the first 100 years of the newly founded Church. In fact, the written works of Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 263-339) suggest that Matthew 28:19 originally did not contain the triune formula at all, but rather stated, "Go ye and make disciples of all the nations in my name." While all extant manuscripts contain the triune formula, some early church records seem to indicate that the text was changed within the first 100 years to reflect the emerging doctrine of the Trinity. There is compelling evidence to support the conclusion that Jesus never spoke the words we now read in Matthew 28:19, though scholars of textual criticism will no doubt continue to debate this well into the future. However, it is not necessary to rewrite Matthew 28:19 in order to reconcile it with the rest of the Biblical record. Certainly within the context of evangelism, we would be better served by letting the text read as it does, and then by simply asking better questions.
What did the disciples actually do?
The witness of Scripture is clear. From the birth of the Church on the Day of Pentecost and throughout the book of Acts, baptism was consistently preached and administered by the Apostles in the name of Jesus Christ, sometimes recorded simply as, "in the name of the Lord, or Lord Jesus".
What name did they invoke audibly over those who they baptized?
Again, it is the name of Jesus invoked or implied in many Scriptures. No appeal is made to a triune formula in any of the references to baptism in the Epistles, though many are made which support baptism in the name of Jesus. (See Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5, 22:16, Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 1:13, Galatians 3:27 and Colossians 2:12)
What does the Scripture teach us that baptism symbolizes?
Baptism in the name of Jesus is likened to our identification and personalization of the death and burial of Christ. (Romans 6:1-4 and Colossians 2:12). It is how we ‘put on’ Christ (Galatians 3:27). It is called the ‘circumcision of Christ,’ and reflects our ‘putting off’ of the man of sin, thus becoming a ‘new creature in Christ Jesus.’ (Col. 2:11-12, 2 Cor. 5:17). Baptism in the name of Jesus expresses faith in the Incarnation, the authentic human life of Jesus, the death of the Son of God on the Cross for our sins, and the remission of sins through His name. Baptism which invokes the threefold name misses the point of Jesus' command (exception given to the example used above), and can be said only to express faith in the Trinitarian doctrine itself, an idea never associated with baptism anywhere in the Scriptures.
When we look at the whole counsel of God's Word, it is clear that baptism in the name of Jesus was the consistent scriptural norm, as it should continue to be today.
This article is by no means exhaustive; its' purpose has been to address the ways that I feel we fall short in presenting this beautiful truth with biblical integrity; we can do better. I welcome your feedback and appreciate your input. In the end, it is my sincere desire that the message of the Mighty God in Christ will reach this world in unimagined splendor before the soon return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
May His name be ever exalted.
Also written by Mark Kennicott: