How Do Baptism and Teaching Relate to the Great Commission?

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By Daniel L. Akin, Benjamin L. Merkle, and George G. Robinson in 40 Questions About the Great Commission

The Meaning of “Baptizing”

The first characteristic of a disciple involves the act of baptism. The implication, then, is that Jesus expects his disciples to baptize new converts. Many commentators note that this is the first mention of baptism in Matthew’s Gospel since chapter 3 where we read of the baptism of John and Jesus’s acceptance of John’s baptism. Although we have no record of Jesus calling for his disciples to receive baptism, it should probably be assumed based on the testimony of the early church. For example, when Peter preached to the multitudes on the Day of Pentecost, they asked him, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s immediate response was, “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 2:38). Morris writes, “We have no knowledge of a time when the church was without baptism or unsure of baptism. It is difficult to explain this apart from the definite command of Jesus.”[1]

Baptism is the initiatory rite whereby those who give a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ are immersed or dipped into water. According to Paul, it is a sign or symbol of a believer’s union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (see Rom. 6:3–4; Col. 2:11–12).

Jesus gave his disciples the command to baptize new converts (Matt. 28:19) but Paul gives the theology of baptism: it is a picture of the believer’s death to sin and his new life in Christ.[2]

Baptism not only signifies our union with Christ; it is also a sign of our unity with other believers. Paul teaches that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). He also states, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). These verses emphasize the participation of all believers in baptism, demonstrating the importance of this rite. The unity of believers is signified by their one baptism. Baptism is shared in common by all those who are united to Christ by faith (Gal. 3:27).

Baptism is the visible initiation into the Christian community. After publicly confessing their sins and believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior, new converts were immediately baptized. In the early church, baptism normally occurred on the same day as conversion.[3] There was not a long time of teaching and testing beforehand. If baptism is a symbol of our death and resurrection with Christ and our entrance into the body of Christ, it makes sense that baptism should be done as close to conversion as possible. Thus, in the early church, teaching followed baptism.

The singular “name” with the Trinitarian formula (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) suggests an early understanding of the Trinity.[4] France states, “The fact that the three divine persons are spoken of as having a single ‘name’ is a significant pointer toward the Trinitarian doctrine of three persons in one God.”[5] We also note that this baptism is “into” (eis) the name of the Trinity. Carson notes that the preposition eis (“into”) “strongly suggests a coming-into-relationship-with or a coming-under-the-lordship of.”[6]

Although we should be careful not to read too much into the order of the verbs, there does seem to be an intentional ordering: (1) go, (2) make disciples, (3) baptize, and (4) teach. As Schnabel writes, “It surely is significant that baptism is mentioned after the winning of disciples: it is people who have been converted to faith in Jesus Christ who are baptized (not vice versa, baptized people being made into disciples by the teaching of the church).”[7]

The Meaning of “Teaching”

The second characteristic of a disciple involves being taught to obey all of Jesus’s teachings. Note that it is the teachings of Jesus, and not the Torah, that are to be obeyed. This is yet another example of Jesus claiming superiority to the OT Law and to Moses himself. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew has been emphasizing Jesus as a teacher (Matt. 4:23; 5:2; 7:29; 9:35; 11:1; 13:34; 21:23; 26:55) who delivers five sermons (chs. 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 23–25). The disciples are now given the task of teaching. Bruner remarks, “This is the first time that Jesus ever applies the verb ‘teaching’ to the work of the disciples.”[8] Up to this point Jesus had done all the teaching. Specifically, they are to teach converts to “observe” (tērein) all the things that Jesus had commanded them.[9] Thus, we see that Jesus’s commission has a distinctively ethical dimension. Although Christianity is not based on the OT law, it does have a moral code that its adherents are expected to follow.

The disciples are also commanded to teach “all that I have commanded you,” which recalls all the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Earlier Jesus stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. . . . Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17–19). He later claimed, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt. 7:24). The expectation is that the disciples of Jesus will not only know what Jesus taught, but that they will live according to that teaching.[10] This includes not some, but all of Jesus’s teaching. As Morris explains, “Jesus is not suggesting that his followers should make a selection from his teachings as it pleases them and neglect the rest. Since the teaching of Jesus is a unified whole, disciples are to observe all that this means.”[11]

We should again emphasize that obeying the commands of Jesus are the result of being his disciple. In other words, apart from a prior faith-commitment to Jesus, there is neither the desire or ability to keep Jesus’s commands. As Bruner clarifies, “Therefore, keeping Jesus’ commands may be understood as an obedience that flows out of a prior believing worship of Jesus’ person.” Consequently, “The main way we worship Jesus’ person is by keeping his commands.”[12] Thus, a disciple is one who observes or obeys Jesus’s teaching.

  [1].  Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 747.

  [2].  See Daniel Akin, “The Meaning of Baptism,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, eds. Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcom B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 63–80.

  [3].  See Robert H. Stein, “Baptism in Luke-Acts,” in Believers Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 33–66.

  [4].  Though cf. Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27 which lack the Trinitarian formula. Köstenberger and O’Brien state, “It appears . . . that the early church felt no contradiction between Jesus’ command to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and its practice of baptizing in the name of Jesus, since the latter implied the former” (Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 105). R. T. France adds: “The reader of Matthew will probably remember that when Jesus himself was baptized, God, the Holy Spirit, and God’s Son were all involved (3:16–17). They will also remember that Jesus has been introduced as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (3:11)” (The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], 1117 n. 41).

  [5].  France, Gospel of Matthew, 1118. Blomberg declares, “Jesus has already spoken of God as his Father (Matt 11:27; 24:36), of himself as Son (11:27; 16:27; 24:36), and of blasphemy against God’s work in himself as against the Spirit (12:28). . . . That Jesus should gather together into summary form his own references . . . in his final charge to the disciples seems quite natural” (Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC 22 [Nashville: B&H, 1992], 432).

  [6].  Carson, “Matthew,” 668.

  [7].  Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 357.

  [8].  Fredrick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2 (The Churchbook: Matthew 13–28), rev. and exp. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 824 (emphasis original).

  [9].  Earlier, Matthew used the verb “observe” (tēreō) in 19:17 for keeping the Ten Commandments and in 23:3 for keeping the Torah.

[10].  Based on Jesus’s words in Matthew 28, Köstenberger and O’Brien warn, “The present charge makes clear that mission entails the nurturing of converts into the full obedience of faith, not merely the proclamation of the gospel” (Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 105).

[11].  Morris, Matthew, 749.

[12].  Bruner, Matthew, 2:826.

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About the Great Commission by Daniel L. Akin, Benjamin L. Merkle, and George G. Robinson. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

“This is a book on the Great Commission from every conceivable angle. The more I read it, the more excited I became. The writing is clear and concise. The arguments are compelling. The implications are inspiring. This is a book for anyone who wants to obey Jesus’s final command to make disciples of the nations.”
—Steve Addison, author of The Rise and Fall of Movements: A Roadmap for Leaders

“Excellent! Simply excellent! Akin, Merkle, and Robinson have produced a comprehensive, scholarly, yet, easy-to-understand work for the Church. Biblical, inspirational, and practical! The authors dig deeply into the Great Commission mine and, page-after-page, keep bringing up gold!”
—J.D. Payne, Samford University


About Author

Daniel L. Akin is President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. George G. Robinson is Associate Professor of Missions and Evangelism and Richard and Gina Headrick Chair of World Missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Benjamin L. Merkle (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the editor of the 40 Questions series and the author of 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons.

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