Matthew 28:19 (ESV) reads:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

In the Greek, (according to Blue Letter Bible) that's:

πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος

I recently heard the argument that, because "baptizing" comes after "making disciples" here, infant baptism is an incorrect view. Now, I'm not interested in the theological positions, but is this a valid claim from an exegetical perspective?

The argument also stated that baptizing is a participle, whereas "making disciples" is the main verb. From context, Greek technicalities, or simply apparent intent, does the order matter here? Is there an implied process?

  • "I'm not interested in the theological positions, but is this a valid claim from an exegetical perspective" - I think what you mean here is that you are not interested in exegesis based on any theological hermeneutic. – user33515 Feb 14 '18 at 15:40

This argument is incorrect. Participles have a wide range of interpretive possibilities and sometimes choosing the correct one is difficult. Here is a resource that may help as I go along.

The argument that since βαπτίζοντες follows μαθητεύσατε it must mean that it is a later action is a grammar myth along the lines of the abused aorist.

So, it is true that the governing verb in this is μαθητεύσατε ... an 2nd person, active, aorist, imperative. These are commonly used ingressively, meaning that there is an urge to start an action ... "start making disciples." πορευθέντες is an aorist passive participle. Aorist participles, when the precede the main verb usually indicate action simultaneous to that of the main verb, and only rarely indicate previous action. I'd probably argue that πορευθέντες is a temporal participle and indicates simultaneous action. "While being made to go, make disciples."

Finally, we have βαπτίζοντες. This is the only occurrence that I see in the NT (SBLGNT). It is a present, active participle. These match the tense of the main verb, which is aorist, which is simply punctiliar - it happens at a point in time. It's fairly generic and standard. The main thing is that this participle most naturally fits into an instrumental/adverbial-participle-of-means category, meaning that the way a disciple was "made" was through baptism.

This doesn't necessarily indicate that the only way one could be made a disciple was through baptism, but that through baptism, one could be assure that a disciple was made.

Perhaps another translation could be "When having gone, make disciples ..." but that loses the simultaneous sense.

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  • 6
    Even as someone who is not a fan of the practice of infant baptism, whoever made this original argument clearly knows just enough Greek to be dangerous. +1 for a good response. – Mallioch Apr 17 '12 at 4:01
  • I sense we're in the same boat, @Mallioch – swasheck Apr 17 '12 at 16:13
  • It does look that way :) – Mallioch Apr 18 '12 at 18:27

The first answer is good, and I have voted for it. The following comments are intended to complement it.

I too have had conversations with people who use this verse to argue against infant baptism. In my case the argument was that baptism required people being taught, therefore baptism was only for people above a certain intellectual level. Of course this is only valid if one brings a prior world view to words such as teaching. Is it not the case that from birth parents teach their children by example, teach them to smile, to say their first words, to take their first wobbly steps? I say this as a reminder to all of us that we need to be careful of our own unconscious belief systems. It is so easy to read our own ideas into a text.

I agree with the exegetical reading in the previous answer. The original Greek has only one command, to make disciples. Then there are three participles, one before the command and two following. A wooden English translation following the Greek word order would look like this:

Going therefore, disciple all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you.

If we take the participles as instrumental, which to me seems the natural reading, this is the process by which the command will be fulfilled. We could bring this sense to light with a paraphrase like this:

Jesus said, "… Make disciples of all nations. Do this by (1) going to the nations; (2) baptising them in the name of the father, the Son, the Holy Spirit; (3) teaching them everything I have commanded."

When read this way, to talk about infant baptism completely misses the point. Baptism here has a different focus. It is the nations that are to be baptised. Jesus' words here are to be understood in the sense of bringing in a harvest, an image that he uses elsewhere (see eg Matthew 9.35-38). The harvest of the nations is reaped by going to the nations, by bringing them into the church (baptism) and by teaching them Jesus' commands so they may continue the harvest. Obviously there will be individual baptisms, but how the church carries out those baptisms in particular cases is simply not addressed.

This reading also controls the question of timing. These are generic processes which have a logical order loosely related to chronology. But the more important idea is that all three processes will continue for as long as the church is engaged in mission. As a supporter of infant baptism I think it's possible to create an argument for infant baptism based on the strict chronology of this command. The argument would go like this: We are commanded to baptise, then to teach. Teaching is therefore for those who are already within the church on other grounds. This pattern fits infant baptism, but it doesn't fit believer's baptism in which you have to be taught sufficiently to provide a foundation of understanding for the baptismal response. But again, I'm saying that such an argument would be wrong because chronology is not the main focus of this passage.

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