In the Great Commission, Jesus told his disciples to make disciples and to “baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” So, what is the role of baptism in the Great Commission? The following is a look “beneath the hood” of Matthew 28:18-19. We will explore the original Greek grammar in order to discover what role baptism plays in this core command of Jesus.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gave his disciples the following commission:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18b-20, NASB)
In the Great Commission, the text has one main verb, which is translated “teach” in the King James Version (“teach all nations”). Other translations have a more accurate translation of the underlying Greek word, which is “make disciples.” The mood of the verb is imperative, which means it is functioning in this passage as a command.
The verb “make disciples” is modified by three subordinate participles that indicate how the main imperative verb is accomplished. We will focus on the function of one of the participles located in verse 19, “baptizing,” since our discussion is the function of baptism within this text.
“The verb ‘make disciples’ is modified by three subordinate participles that indicate how the main imperative verb is accomplished.”
How to Make Disciples According to Matthew 28:18-20
This verse not only demonstrates that the apostles were to make disciples, but it also expresses the process by which this would take place. It is important to note that although there is but one command in the text translated “make disciples,” the participles function as commands taking on the force of an imperative because they modify the one command. To this point, the translators of the United Bible Society make this quite clear in their translation of Matthew 28:19-20. They state:
Go…baptizing…teaching (verse 20) are each participles dependent upon the main verb “make disciples.” But in such a construction it is not uncommon for the participles themselves to assume the force of an imperative. However, the command to make disciples is the primary command, while the commands to baptize and teach are ways of fulfilling the primary command.
Donald Hagner, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, also mentions this grammatical structure of Matthew 28:19-20 highlighting the imperative force of the three subordinate participles. He states:
The commission itself is given by means of one main imperative verb, μαθητεύω, “make disciples,” together with three syntactically subordinate participles that take on an imperatival force . . . because of the main verb.
The first participle, “Go,” seems to function as a circumstantial passive participle that shows action associated with the main verb. It can also be translated “as you are going.” Some have attempted to interpret this as a temporal participle translating it as, “having gone” in hopes of eliminating the imperative force of this participle. This ignores the fact that Christ is sending them to “all nations,” which would make “going” necessary.
Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: “The second participle is ‘baptizing’ and also has imperatival force, seeing that it modifies the main verb by explaining how it is accomplished.”
The second participle is “baptizing” and also has imperatival force, seeing that it modifies the main verb by explaining how it is accomplished. This means that baptism was necessary to the disciple-making process, in which one could never become a New Testament disciple without being baptized. If we were there and heard Jesus say, “make disciples,” the next logical question would be how? The response of Jesus, based on our examination of the grammar, would be make disciples (main verb) of all nations baptizing (participle) them.
This simply means the verb “make disciples” is accomplished by going, baptizing, and teaching.
Baptizing Disciples or Baptizing People of All Nations?
Some have come to the incorrect conclusion that Jesus is saying to baptize disciples when he is actually saying baptize “all nations” so they can become disciples. While this is a small detail, it is impactful to one’s theology of conversion. This mistake has happened because interpreters have treated the verb “make disciples” as if “disciples” were the noun referred to by the pronoun “them” (“baptize them”).
The noun being referred to is actually “all nations.” Christ is telling the apostles to make disciples of “all nations” by means of baptizing them (all nations) “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This is clarified when we examine the antecedent noun of the pronoun “them” in the phrase, “baptizing them.”
It is important to note the function of pronouns. Richard Young in his Greek grammar book, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach, gives a helpful definition of pronouns. He says, “Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns while pointing to a place in the text where the noun occurs.” In addition, he says, “The use of pronouns avoids the repetition of the noun and gives variety and flexibility to the language. The noun that the pronoun takes the place of is called the antecedent.”
The pronoun “them” refers back to the noun “nations,” which is the nearest antecedent. Christ wants his apostles to “make disciples” (verb) of all nations (noun). Syntactically, pronouns do not refer to verbs. They refer to a previous noun. Since “make disciples” is a verb in the Greek text, it cannot function as an antecedent to a pronoun.
“Christ wants his apostles to ‘make disciples’ (verb) of all nations (noun).”
What does this all mean? Christ desires to make disciples (verb) of all “nations” (noun) by baptizing “them” (pronoun). The conclusion from this is that one does not make disciples without baptism, which makes baptism necessary to the discipleship process under the new covenant agreement. Therefore, making disciples under the new covenant is a redemptive process by which one is saved. This becomes clear in studying the phrase, “in the name,” which is more accurately translated, “into the name.”
Into The Name: Becoming the Possession of the Lord
Within the context of Matthew 28:19, there is a phrase that must be clarified in hopes of understanding Christ’s intended meaning. The particular phrase under discussion is the phrase, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” While some translations use the phrase “in the name,” it is actually not the best translation. The Greek text actually has the phrase “eis to onoma,” which translates “into the name.” This is reflected in the American Standard Version of 1901.
Why would Jesus use this phrase? What is the meaning behind this phrase? This phrase was used in the Greek language and culture to express the idea of becoming one’s property. This phrase was utilized to demonstrate a sense of belonging. Therefore, when one is baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it indicates that the person baptized becomes their property. Through the experience of baptism, one enters into a relationship with God in which God becomes the owner of the one baptized.
Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: “When one is baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it indicates that the person baptized becomes their property.”
In the book, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, we find an excellent synopsis in regards to the meaning of this phrase. It states:
“Into the name” probably means either “in order that they may belong to” (this is what Greek usage leads us to expect) or “in order that they may enter into a relationship with” (which is what rabbinic parallels suggests: SB 1, pp. 1054 -5). In any case v. l9b states what baptism accomplishes.
This language was also used in commercial activity, in which a sum of money was placed in one’s bank account describing the process of becoming an individual’s possession. The Anchor Yale Bible observes this by stating:
“Into the name of the Lord Jesus.” It is relatively certain that in the early Church one commonly referred to baptism as being done “into the name of the Lord Jesus” or something similar. One strange thing with this phrase is that the construction in what seems to be its earliest form, viz. “into the name of…” (Gk. eis to onoma) was not otherwise used in normal Gk, except for the language of banking, in which it referred to the account/name “into” which a sum of money was placed. It does not occur in the LXX.
“This phrase was used in the Greek language and culture to express the idea of becoming one’s property.”
The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology also declares that this phrase has a relationship to the idea of ownership. It is stated in this source:
“In the name” implied Jesus’ authority for the rite; “into the name” (8:16; 19:5) indicated passing into Jesus’ ownership, as one “redeemed.”
These linguistic scholars have indicated that the phrase was used to express the concept of entering into a relationship with God, in which we belong to him. The importance of baptism becomes clear in light of the meaning of this phrase. Christians have become the possession of the Lord Jesus Christ and the entire Godhead by being baptized into their name, which is a phrase used repeatedly throughout the New Testament in the original language (Matt. 28:19; Acts 8:16; Acts 19:5).
 DA Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, Vol. 33B. Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 2002), 886.
 RA Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 71.
 RA Young, (1994). Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 71.
 SBHL Strack, P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 6 vols., Munich, 1921–1961.
 WD Davies, DC Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 685.
Excerpted from Orpheus J. Heyward, Baptism: Dead, Dipped, Delivered. Used with permission.