16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
Matthew records in his gospel the final moments Jesus spent with his disciples, particularly with the eleven. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus announced to them what we know as the great commission. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a commission is a command to perform prescribed acts. The word implies that someone receives the authority to carry out a duty on behalf of or in place of another. What we observe in Matthew 28:16–20 is exactly that type of situation. Jesus told the disciples, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (v. 18). Notice here that Jesus has the authority, which he received from someone else. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:19–23 that God the Father gave Jesus the Son dominion over everything:
19 and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power 20 which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. 22 And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
While Jesus was on this earth, he was carrying out a commission on behalf of the Father to bear witness of the true Light (John 1:1–18). He was obedient to the will of the Father (Heb. 5:8). Matthew now records the moment in which Jesus handed this authority over to the disciples (cf. Matt. 5:13–16) by giving them a command that involves baptism. This passage of Scriptures, therefore, highlights the essentiality of baptism in God’s plan of salvation.
Jesus told them, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (v. 19). Although this English translation expresses the command in the phrases “go” and “make disciples”, the Greek text expresses the command only in “make disciples.” The Young’s Literal Translation provides a better version of the original:
19 having gone, then, disciple all the nations, baptizing them — to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
Notice that the verb “go” is rendered as a participle that indicates a continuous action, and the imperative is to disciple—the main action of the sentence. That is, Jesus was telling the disciples that, as they went about, they had to convert the people they encountered, and he gave them specific ways of how to do so. Attached to the main action are two phrases (vv. 19–20): “baptizing them” and “teaching them to observe all things.” We learn from these verses that conversion involves both baptism and doctrine. Here we will focus on baptism.
Baptized into His Possession
First, baptism is in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “In the name of” comes from the Greek construction εἰς τὸ ὄνομα (eis to onoma), which means “into the possession of” (Bauer et al. 1979). Therefore, we understand that we are baptized into the possession of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Upon baptism, we become part of God’s chosen generation, royal priesthood, holy nation, and his own special people—we are of God (1 Pet. 2:9–10; cf. 1 Cor. 1:12–13; Acts 20:28).
Baptism Initiates New Life
Also notice in verses 19–20 that baptism comes before teaching. That is, baptism is the initiation of a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:4–7). It is only after we begin this new life that we can observe all Christ’s teachings by reading, studying, and applying the word of God. We cannot expect to benefit from his teachings if we have not first come into a covenant relationship with God through baptism.
We therefore can take three points from Matthew 28:16–20 concerning the essentiality of baptism. First, baptism is a command authorized by Jesus Christ, and we must submit to this command, having faith that God has the power to save those who obey him (Col. 2:12; Heb. 5:9). Second, in baptism we become the property of God because it puts us in contact with Christ’s blood—the blood with which he purchased the church (Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:14). Lastly, baptism precedes doctrine; that is, it marks the beginning of our new Christian life. Once we are in Christ, God grants us the right to benefit from the spiritual blessings found in his word (Eph. 1:3ff).
Bauer, W., Arndt, W. F., Gingrich, F. W., and Danker F., (1979). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.