Matthew 28: 19 – Problems in Understanding the Text as a reference to a Baptismal Water Ceremony
Let us now turn to Matthew 28: 19 and recognise the problems we have if we see the reference to baptism being a reference either solely or primarily a reference to a literal water ceremony. Some of what I say here has already been referred to in the previous blog series. I will list 8 problems.
1. Given the nature of Matthew’s Gospel it should strike us as odd that at its conclusion it refers to the necessity of a water ceremony. With the exception of Matthew 21 where a reference is made to John’s baptism, the only other reference to the water ceremony in Matthew is at the beginning of the Gospel in chapter 3 where again it refers to John’s baptism and the baptism of Jesus at that time. The content of the Gospel after chapter 3 does not prepare the reader to expect a command in chapter 28 that concerns a water ceremony. It is arguable however that Matthew uses chapter 3 and chapter 28 as types of “book ends” to his Gospel using the crucial notion of “immersion”. In the water ceremony of chapter 3 all three of the Godhead are referred to when the Father, addresses Jesus as “my Son”, and the Spirit of God descends upon him. In chapter 28 mention is made again of all three but here “immersion” may be understood to have a metaphorical character (see above and below). The reference to the promise that Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire mentioned in chapter 3 and Matthew’s conclusion in 28: 20 of Jesus promising that he would be with his disciples always may be a further part of the “book end” approach.
2. Though the command refers to “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”, any mention of “in the name of” in association with water baptism in the Acts of the Apostles, is only made in terms of “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2: 38; 10: 48) or “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8: 16; 19: 5). To argue that the activity of the Father and the Holy Spirit are to be recognised as associated with the water ceremony and so caught up in “the name of Jesus Christ” or “the name of the Lord Jesus” is to ignore the importance of “in the name of” in the command. One would expect at least one reference in the Acts of the Apostles to mention “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” if the command of Matthew concerns water baptism.
3. Matthew’s Gospel is the only Gospel that refers to a commandment for a water ceremony to be performed if indeed that is what the commandment is about. On the other hand, all the Gospels in one way or another refer to the “world wide mission” that is captured in Matthew 28: 19. If there is a special ceremonial command, given that it would indeed be special, given the rarity if not the entire absence of such commands outside of the Gospels, one might well expect it to be mentioned in all four Gospels.
My next post will be in a week or so time.
The Importance of the Baptismal Water Ceremony (continued)
What was meant by being baptised in the name of Jesus Christ or the Lord Jesus? (The words, “Jesus Christ” may have been more suitable for Jews or those familiar with Jewish concepts while the words, “Lord Jesus” may have been more helpful for Gentile Christians.) In principle, a person baptised in his name was making some type of confession that they came under his governorship (see later). They were now attaching their lives to him. Their lives were now focussed on him; their lives now, it was being acknowledged, depended on him.
Just as one would give considerable thought before deciding not to have a ring as part of a marriage ceremony where that is the custom so presumably christians would think seriously before deciding not to urge new christians to be baptised. This would be the case especially if the ceremony being considered genuinely symbolised cleansing and death to an old life, if it was associated with repentance and the forgiveness of sins and if it focussed on the person coming under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and provided that it did not seriously mislead.
Even though sometimes the Acts of the Apostles records a close association in time between the ceremony and the gracious work of God (Acts 2: 38; 8: 14 – 17; 9: 17, 18; 10: 44-48; 19: 5, 6), a tragic mistake that was made in the early days was to believe that the ceremony itself brought about what in fact God graciously gave and could give independently of any ceremony, That mistake is still made by some in our day.
One of course could decide that having people undergo a baptismal water ceremony is in certain circumstances to be avoided. This could be the case, for instance, where such a ceremony would almost certainly be badly misunderstood, independently of any efforts to educate otherwise, either by those undergoing the ceremony, those witnessing it or both. Our concern for the truth of the gospel should outweigh our concern for ceremonies.
The Importance of the Baptismal Water Ceremony
The ceremony of baptism should not be treated lightly. John the baptiser said that God (“the one”) had sent him to baptise with water (John 1: 33). As mentioned earlier, it could have been understood by him as an enacted sign. In turn, Jesus thought it important enough to have his disciples baptise. And after Pentecost, Peter, Philip, Paul and others continued the practice though with a focus that now centred on the resurrected Jesus.
What was its purpose? What did it signify? For Jews, even if it was not a mimicking of Jewish proselyte baptism, or for anyone, it would have been humbling. It certainly could act as an indication that you, the newly baptised, were now attached to the one who baptised them or the one in whose name they were baptised. However there could have been other ways to achieve that end if that was all that was involved. In Paul’s own baptism it is linked with the notion of cleansing. Ananias says to him, “Be baptised and wash away your sin” (Acts 22: 16). John the baptiser may have seen himself as involved in the fulfilling of something like Ezekiel 36: 25 – “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean.” The cleansing of the pagan leper Naaman in the river Jordan centuries before may have come to the mind of some. However, “baptizo” is rarely directly associated with cleansing in the Classical/Hellenistic literature before or at this time. The imagery of being immersed in water bringing about one’s death should not be ignored as another contender and perhaps the main contender for what was being symbolised. You died to your previous way of life, your old allegiances, and for example, whatever earlier understandings of Jesus you had. Baptism and repentance went hand in hand. You needed to become a new person. Coming out of the water could have been see as symbolic of coming into a new life – of having a new life and adopting a new approach on how to live having repented of the old way of life. Paul’s reference to being baptised into Christ Jesus … being baptised into his death … buried therefore with him into his death … that as Christ was raised up from among the dead … so also we should walk in newness of life (Rom 6: 3-5) is consistent with this imagery. This is not to suggest however that Paul was referring solely or mainly to a literal water baptism. The understanding adopted here is that Paul had a metaphorical usage in mind that carried with it something of the symbolism of a literal immersion. See the previous blog series, “Biblical Baptism”.
The Baptismal Water Ceremony in the New Testament (continued)
Indeed, the command uttered by Peter, “Repent and be baptised” (Acts 2: 38) can be considered to be an expression similar in form to the statement, “Marry the girl and give her a wedding ring”. The giving of a wedding ring is a common feature of many marriage ceremonies. Water baptism was a common feature of the ministry of John the baptiser who saw himself as preparing the way of the Messiah and the ministry of the Messiah himself. And both preached the necessity of repentance. Given the well known association, either directly or indirectly, of a literal water baptism with the Messiah it would have been natural for Peter, in proclaiming the Messiah and the need to repent to say, “And be baptised”. However just as the giving of a ring does not in itself bring about the marriage neither does baptism bring about repentance, but in each situation the two go hand in hand. One of course is essential; the other is a ceremony accompanying the essential.
What may have began as an enacted sign soon became an established ceremonial custom. Later, beyond the New Testament period, baptism in one form or another, unfortunately became an established religious rite.
The Baptismal Water Ceremony in the New Testament
In order to understand the place of the baptismal ceremony in the Acts of the Apostles, we need to remember its origins and that in a short period of time it became a well established and well known practice. John the baptiser may have been mimicking Jewish proselyte washings but clear evidence to that effect is lacking. He claims that the reason behind his coming, baptising with water, is so that “the lamb of God” “might be revealed to Israel” (John 1: 31). Sometime after John began baptising, the disciples of Jesus and perhaps, though not likely, Jesus himself, began to baptise (John 3: 22; 4: 2). John was a prophet and perhaps baptism was understood by him as an enacted sign, somewhat along the lines of the enacted signs of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 4: 1 – 5: 4; 12: 1 – 11; 24: 15 – 27) and Hosea (Hosea 1: 2 – 9). It is well attested that great crowds became familiar with what both John and the disciples of Jesus were doing. (See Matthew 3: 5, 6; Mark 1: 5; Luke 3: 7; John 3: 26). Though to our ears it is an exaggeration, Mark records that, “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him (John) (Mark 1: 5). At one time it appeared that Jesus (in reality the disciples of Jesus), was (were) baptising even more disciples than John (John 4: 1). Even before the time of the apostolic period, water baptism associated with either John the Baptiser or Jesus of Nazareth had become a very well known practice in and around the localities in which they ministered.
Baptism as Understood in early Christian Writings (continued)
There are some positive things to say about the early christian references to baptism. In addition to those beliefs and practices outlined earlier, one also finds some references to the need for those to be baptised to be instructed (e.g. Justin Martyr and the Didache). This notion will be taken up in the discussion of correctly understanding Matthew 28: 19, 20 later. One can also detect in some of the texts a general correlation between on the one hand, the ceremony and on the other hand, repentance involving turning to a new life of righteousness, the forgiveness of sins and the giving of the Spirit. Such is in accord with the New Testament perspectives, although the repentance of Acts 2: 38 may have had as its chief component a repentance towards Jesus the Messiah. Furthermore, in order to avoid making too close a connection between the ceremony and the giving of the Holy Spirit, one should remember that in the Acts of the Apostles, the gift is given sometimes before and independently of the ceremony being performed (Acts 9: 17, 18; 10: 44-48).
Taking what these early christian texts have to say about baptism, as a whole, however, one should not assume, for example, that any work that understands the “baptizo” of Matthew 28: 19 as referring primarily to a literal water ceremony is in fact correct. The reference to “baptising” in the text may be primarily a metaphorical reference with overtones of the water ceremony in the background or indeed simply a metaphorical reference. I will return to this matter in more detail later.
Indeed one of the fundamental problems in appealing to the writings of the early christians, over the first 3 or 4 centuries concerning what they believed about baptism and how baptism was practised is that there was no single belief or practice to which we can appeal. Just as today there are different practices, so in those days there were different ways of conducting baptism including whether the water should be “applied” once in connection with the one name or three times in association with the three persons. More importantly, there were different beliefs about its effectiveness – would it deal only with sins committed before baptism or did it cover sins yet to be committed (as though a ceremony could ever deal with sins!), and for those who “fell away”, but desired to return, did they need to be baptised a second time or was a second baptism forbidden?
Baptism as Understood in early Christain writings (continued)
One should be wary of appealing to these early works or indeed those that came later, for one’s theology. Hermas seem to believe that literal water baptism is essential for salvation. The Epistle of Barnabas seems to believe that the actual ceremony brings about the forgiveness of sins while Hermas restricts that forgiveness to past sins. In the Gospel of Nicodemus, some of the dead are baptised out of necessity. There is a similar sentiment in the Apocalypse of Peter and the Epistle of the Apostles. Fasting prior to baptism is seen to be a necessity (Acts of John, Justin Martyr and the Didache). There is a growing idea that by the ceremony itself one is sealed with the divine name (2 Clement, Odes of Solomon, The Shepherd by Hermas). Justin Martyr makes a strong though imprecise linkage between the “born anew” material of John 3 and the ceremony of baptism. He also attaches the idea of enlightenment to the ceremony. Ignatius, though probably out of a concern for order, stipulates that baptisms should only be performed by a bishop or someone approved by him. Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla baptises a talking lion who after being immersed three times, says, “Grace be with you.”
Not everyone would consider all of these practices or beliefs objectionable. However, whatever the limits to one’s objections, this literature indicates that baptism, simply as a ceremony, had come to assume a far more significant place in christian practice than is warranted. Such an importance by itself could only badly distort an understanding of the gospel and the grace of God. In my judgement this distortion indeed occurred and occurred rapidly. That such false views should arise so quickly should not surprise anyone given the evidence of false teaching arising so readily during New Testament times and recorded in the New Testament literature. We have a tendency to hunger for a dependency on what we do rather than what God has done.
Baptism as Understood in early Christian Writings
It is fairly clear that in the very early days after New Testament times some Christians understood Matthew 28: 19 to refer to a literal water baptism. References to a baptism in water in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit (or similar) are made by Justin Martyr and are found in the Acts of Peter and the Didache (date?). However there are also early references in connection with a literal water baptism where the reference to “the name” is restricted to “the Lord” or “Jesus Christ” only, with no mention of “the Father” or “the Holy Spirit” (Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd by Hermas and the Acts of Paul and Thecla). This more limited association of “the name” in these latter references is more consonant with what we observe in the Acts of the Apostles. In this New Testament text there are two instances of people being baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus and two instances of people being baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. There are no instances of anyone being baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
My source for quotes from these early works and those to follow is Ferguson, E., Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries
, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2009. The works cited are considered to belong to the 2nd
century A.D or thereabouts.
 In most of the instances recorded in either the early christian writings or in the New Testament, where reference is made to “in the name of …” it is not clear that these actual words were used in the ceremony. It may have been that the writer records that it was the concept behind these words that applied to the ceremony rather than the specific words. However it may well have been that the actual words were indeed used as part of the ceremony in most if not all instances.
“Baptizo” in the New Testament – Metaphorical Usage
It would seem that a Greek speaker reading the New Testament would be astonished at “baptizo” being predominantly used in association with a ceremony, that of water baptism. However, he or she would not be astonished if they thought it was used in other ways independently of that ceremony, either in a literal or metaphorical sense. The perceived difficulty of the 1 Corinthians 15: 29 text with its reference to “being baptised on behalf of the dead” – as commonly translated, disappears when one recognises the metaphorical usage of “baptizo.” The text could then be translated, “being overwhelmed for the sake of the dead”, recognising at the same time that for Paul use of the words, “the dead” could be a way of referring to the living who have immortality written into their existence. Such an understanding fits well with the rest of the passage where Paul refers to his suffering as a preacher. As part of his argument that there is a resurrection of the dead, Paul in effect is saying, “Why would one suffer so much for proclaiming the gospel to ‘the dead’ if in the end ‘the dead’ simply die and there is no resurrection?” Paul does not have to say, “I am about to use “baptizo” metaphorically.” He is simply using “baptizo” as an ordinary word and in a not uncommon manner.
One of our problems in our reading of English translations of the New Testament is that the Greek words “baptizo” and “baptisma” are not translated. They are simply transliterated. As a consequence and because we so commonly associate “baptise” and “baptism” with a water ceremony, we are pressured into seeing that ceremony almost at every occurrence of the words “baptise” and “baptism”. And yet it is clear that Jesus himself uses the words metaphorically when he refers to his death and his suffering (e.g. Mark 10: 38, 39) and that John the baptiser uses the verb metaphorically when referring to “being immersed in the Spirit” (e.g. Matthew 3: 11). I have previously argued while appealing to Robinson and Knox that Paul uses the words metaphorically when referring to “being immersed in Christ Jesus” and “being immersed in the death of Jesus” (Romans 6: 3) and in other places in his letters.
Two of the possible translations for the Greek preposition “huper” are “on behalf of” and “for the sake of”.
 Translations in a number of languages other than English, including the ancient Latin Vulgate, suffer from the same type of problem.
I was intending to create some posts dealing with the Old Testament and then the New Testament references to “the heart”. However there are good reasons for first returning to the subject of “Biblical Baptism”.
Over September 1 to September 13 2009 I created a series of blogs on the subject entitled “Biblical Baptism”. The material has been discussed by various people in different venues and I have tried to listen carefully to the comments made. What follows is an attempt to further contribute to the debate particularly with reference to the Matthew 28: 19, 20 text. Some of that earlier material will be referred to again. If the earlier series has not been read it might be helpful to do so before reading this series.
The evidence firmly suggests that from earliest times up to the end of the first century A.D. the Greek verb “baptizo”, outside of the New Testament, was a word in ordinary use having the general sense of immersion. It was commonly used of the sinking of ships and the drowning of people. However it was also used of inanimate objects and in a variety of situations. Furthermore it was used metaphorically as well as literally. Of the 100 or so instances of its usage external to the New Testament, there are only a couple or so where it could be argued that it referred to some type of established rite. The noun “baptisma”, with only one or two exceptions, is first found in the pages of the New Testament and seems to follow the usage of the verb in that literature.