Let us be very clear about what Matt 28:19 does say and what it does NOT say.
The NT has frequent references to being "baptized in the name of ...", for example:
- Acts 2:28 - Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 8:16 - they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
- Acts 19:5 - On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Note the overtones that are present in all of these as indicated by Luke 19:38:
"Blessed is the king [ie, Jesus] who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" See also Matt 21:9.
We see this idea repeatedly in the NT -
- Col 3:17 - And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
- Acts 3:16 - By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.
- 2 Thess 1:12 - We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is, doing anything "in the name of Jesus" is to invoke the power, authority, and "mindset" or spirit of the entire Godhead. This is made explicit in Matt 29:19 by comparing the above comments on baptism with those in Matt 28:19.
What the Baptism Text does NOT say
As with every Christian rite instructed by the NT, there is no "procedure" for doing them. Therefore, we are not instructed about how a person is to be immersed, specifically:
- not told whether it is forwards or backwards or otherwise
- not told what words to pronounce (nothing about speaking even)
- not told what type of water to use (whether sea water, fresh water, blessed water or running water such as river)
- not told what to wear
- not told who may or may not administer baptism
... and so forth. [The same is also true of the communion service!! despite centuries of arguments about this.]
The important point about baptism is what we ARE told about baptism, namely,
- The word baptism comes from the Greek verb, baptizo, meaning to dip or immerse and “was used among the Greeks to signify the dying of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another, etc.” Thus, when a person is baptised, it indicated a complete immersion. See below and 2 Kings 5:14 in the Septuagint. [The word had expanded idiomatic meanings including: “wash the hands” (by dipping them) Matt 15:1, 2, Luke 11:38; “go through a difficult trial” Mark 10:38, 39, Luke 12:50.] This immersion signified being buried with Christ. Rom 6:4. When a cloth was “baptised” to dye it, a complete change was effected.
- Baptism, expanding on the above idea, is sometimes expressed as a “death” (and burial) to the old way of life and a resurrection to a new way of life in Christ. Rom 6:4-9, 1 Cor 10:2, 12:13, 14, Gal 3:27, Col 2:12, 13, 1 Peter 3:21. Thus baptism was used as an outward symbol of inner conversion or “Sanctification”, which see.
- Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River. Matt 3:6, 13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21, 22; and Philip baptised the Ethiopian in another way-side river, Acts 8:36-38, but there is no description of exactly how the rite was administered.
- The apostles and disciples practised the rite of Baptism. John 3:22, 23, 4:1, Acts 8:36, 38, 1 Cor 1:14, 16.
- Baptism symbolised repentance (ie, a change of life direction, ie, conversion) and was accompanied by confession and a “washing” away of (ie, turning away from) sin. Mark 1:4, 5, Luke 3:3, 7-12, 7:29, 30, Acts 2:38, 13:24, 16:15, 33, 19:4, 5, 22:16, Rom 6:4, Gal 3:27. (See also 1 Cor 6:11.)
- Thus, baptism is necessarily associated with teaching about Christ in order to learn about the rights and responsibilities of baptism and the completely new Christian life as a disciple, imitating Christ. Matt 28:19, 20, Acts 2:38, 41, 8:26-39, 16:15, 18:8.
- Baptism also symbolised the reception of the gift(s) of the Holy Spirit, Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5, 2:38, 8:12-16, 10:47, 48, 11:16, 19:4, 5.
- The New Testament is silent about who should, and how to administer the rite of Baptism other than the example of the disciples. However, we note that all Christians are to be Disciples of Christ, and all are instructed to baptize (Matt 28:19, 20).
- On occasions, the early church practised rebaptism, Acts 19:1-7.
- There is no evidence that baptism was a sacrament in the sense of being essential to salvation and imparting grace. Baptism appears to have been an outward symbol of the inner change of life which should have already occurred at conversion.
APPENDIX - Historical Note:
The early Christian document, “Didache”, (about 150 AD?) describes the process of baptism of a neophyte as done after instruction and preferably by immersion, but where a river or pool is unavailable, poring was permissible. See Didache 7:1-3.