Barry Newman's Blog

January 28, 2012

Baptising in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (part II)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 8:53 pm


What does this well know phrase from Matthew 28: 19 really mean?  Of course we know what it means – comes the swift reply: This is a command from Jesus to be baptised and the baptism has to be carried out in the name of the Father and in the name of the Son and in the name of the Holy Spirit.

There are a number of errors in this statement – some quite consciously inserted.  The command was not to be baptised.  It was to baptise.  Then again it is actually a participle phrase and only acquires its imperative force because it “hangs on” the explicit imperative phrase which is “make disciples of all nations”.  That “make disciples of all nations” is the substantial imperative on which the other participle phrases in Matthew 28: 19 hang should not be overlooked.  Furthermore, there is only one reference to “name”.  It is “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, not individual names.

The problems however do not stop here.  Over many centuries different “churches” seem to have understood the text differently when it came to what should be said at the baptismal ceremony.  This matter will be referred to later.

And why do we have to translate the Greek “baptizo[1] as baptise?  “Baptizo” is a an ordinary “run of the mill” Greek word which has the general sense of “immerse” and outside of the New Testament has no automatic association with a ceremony.  Even in the New Testament the verb is sometimes used in a context that has nothing to do with a ceremony.  Sometimes it is clearly used metaphorically rather than literally.  This is the case where Jesus is described as referring to his sufferings and when it is used of John the “baptiser” when speaking of Jesus “baptising” in the Holy Spirit and fire.  Of course “baptise” is not a translation at all.  Rather it is a transliteration.  Because we see this transliteration so often in the New Testament and because a ceremony of immersion is often being referred to we tend automatically to associate almost every usage of the word with a ceremony and see other usages as oddities.  In the Classical/Hellenistic world, the view would have been the other way around.  Any association of “baptizo” with a ceremony was quite the exception.  A number of my previous blog series have made references to “baptizo” and of necessity more will have to be said in this series, towards the end, on what the term can signify.

In order to prevent us from automatically associating “baptizo” with a water ceremony I will tend to use words such as, “immerse” and “immerser” even when it is clear that a water ceremony is in mind.  It may be claimed that “baptizo” (together with its associated nouns) became technical terms in the New Testament and that the “translations” “baptise” (and “baptism”) are quite appropriate.  I think at best they became “pseudo-technical terms.  “Technical”, because they are used in the New Testament more often than not of a water ceremony and that usage appears to be novel. “Pseudo- technical”, because in the New Testament, that is not the only way in which they are used.  If it is maintained that in the New Testament the other type of usage is simply metaphorical in character, it should be noted that both literal and metaphorical usages of “baptizo” are to be found in the Classical/Hellenistic literature.  In that respect, there is no difference between “baptizo” as used in the New Testament and “baptizo” as it is found in the Greek literature external to the New Testament. “Immersing” or something similar, such as, “overwhelming or “engulfing” is the overriding notion associated with “baptizo” in the Classical/Hellenistic world and underlies even the water ceremony practice.  Hence, for the reason given – as a way of preventing us from automatically seeing the water ceremony practice wherever we come across “baptizo” in the New Testament, I will tend to use the terms, “immerse” and “immerser”.

As this document proceeds it will be obvious that we are trying to answer a number of questions.  Questions such as, “What can ‘in the name’ mean, particularly in its association with ‘the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ and specifically in the context of Matthew 28: 19”?  “What would “immersing in that name” signify? We will need to look at these and related questions separately but in the end with a view to understanding the complete phrase, “immersing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

[1] References to “baptizo” are to be understood as references to any of the cognates of the verb.



  1. Hi Barry,

    thank you for this great work you are engaged in! I hope it will prove to be a permanent resource, this side of our Lord’s return.

    When you say:

    “The command in Matthew 28: 19 was to make disciples of all nations, “baptising them …” being a participle attached to this imperative.”

    that is true.

    But I notice that a participle can gather imperatival force from its context. Mounce has a good little post on that here:

    I don’t think it affects your overall view.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Gordon Cheng — January 31, 2012 @ 3:48 am | Reply

    • Thanks Gordon,

      You are quite right, hanging on the imperative as it does, “baptising” as well as each of the participles assumes some imperative force. Perhaps I should have stated that. In the final post which will have all the posts together, I will probably modify the statements (It will crop up at least twice) referring to it as not being an imperative directly in itself.

      I guess I was focussed on the position often adopted that sees the text mainly about baptism and that if one is not baptised one cannot be a disciple.

      Unfortunately the number of posts in the series is likely to be very many. I hope some people can hang in there.

      Thanks as always for your encouragement.



      Comment by barrynewman — January 31, 2012 @ 8:47 am | Reply

    • Gordon, I have just updated the blog to take into account the reality of the imperative force of the participle phrases. In actual fact later on I treat them as having the force of imperatives which of course they have. The really important question is however what is meant by “baptising in the name of …”.

      Thanks again


      Comment by barrynewman — January 31, 2012 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  2. How does “soak” work as a translation for baptizo? The notion of dye, and the way it’s used in the NT suggest to me that it is somehow effective, which “immerse” doesn’t mean (you can be immersed but entirely unchanged.) I think that “soak” might have that subtlety of meaning.

    Comment by Dannii — March 6, 2012 @ 6:47 am | Reply

    • Hi Dannii,

      In part IX of the series I make some comments about the verb, “bapto” which has the general sense of “dip” in the Classical/Hellenistic world. It appears that in later usage it took on the additional sense of “dye”. I think the rationale for this development is that in dyeing, the material to be dyed is placed into and then pulled out of the dye solution. That is, it is dipped in and out. “Bapto” is not really equivalent to “baptizo”. “Bapto” occurs 3 times in the N.T. In Luke 16: 24 and John 13: 26 – the notion of dipping is involved. In Rev 19: 13 it could be dipping or dyeing (or both). In part IX I also deal with the intensive nature of “baptizo”. That is, there is something “thoroughgoing” about “baptizo”. (“Bapto” is not intensive but has an intensive form – “apobapto”.) Often, but not always, the intensive nature is indicated by the entity being “immersed” for some time. Whatever the situation, the entity is well and truly “dunked”. Now “soaking” could also be understood as portraying that intensive nature but I think that soaking also implies that the entity being “immersed” also absorbs part of the medium into which it is placed. I don’t think “baptizo” implies that and in fact I am not aware of any usage in the Classical/Hellenistic world where “soaking” is actually involved. Additionally, I don’t think that “soaking” is part of its usage in the N.T. In part XXI, which should come out tomorrow, I spend some more time on the nature of “baptizo” and related noun forms. I hope it is of some help. Cheers


      Comment by barrynewman — March 6, 2012 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

    • Hi Dannii,

      I should have said that “bapto” occurs 4 times in the New Testament, not 3. It is found twice in John 13: 26.


      Comment by barrynewman — March 7, 2012 @ 6:44 am | Reply

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