Baptism and the Great Commission

Baptism and the Great Commission

Recently I read D. Broughton Knox’s fascinating teaching on baptism.[1]  I wish to quote some of what he says here.  Due to the brief nature of blogs I can’t give the overall teaching contained in those pages, but will focus on the Great Commission.

By way of introduction Knox states: “There is no other doctrine or practice in which differences of opinion are so diverse among Christians”.[2]  It would seem to me therefore that Bible believing Christians would do well to keep their views on baptism very firmly in a secondary (or lower) place.

Knox examines the Scriptures on baptism to see how our church practices line up.  While he does not deny or disparage our church practices, it seems that they do not line up with Scripture (on almost any view of baptism).

In the Great Commission Jesus said:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Many Christians assume from this statement that our practice of water baptism is here commanded.  Knox categorically denies this, claiming that Jesus is giving a “fully metaphorical use of the concept of baptizing as discipling” and that this statement “contains no reference to administering water baptism”.[3]

Knox’s conclusion is based on many observations, among them the following.  Jesus spoke of baptism twice concerning his death, both of which were clearly metaphorical references (Luke 12:50; Mark 10:38).  When Jesus spoke of the disciples being baptised it was also metaphorical (not speaking of water, but baptism by the Holy Spirit): Acts 1:5.  When water baptism is practiced in Acts[4] it is not in the name of the Trinity (cf 1 Corinthians 1:13); if it were a result of the Great Commission, baptism would be in the name of the Trinity.  The words “disciple”, “baptise” and “teach” in the Great Commission are synonymous: “Jesus is commanding his apostles to bring the whole world into the knowledge of the true God”.[5]

These are interesting observations, but for me, this one is the clincher: Paul’s remarks about baptism in 1 Corinthians 1.  Paul only baptised a few people, for “Christ did not send me to baptize”.  Knox comments that it “is inconceivable that Paul could have said this if the Lord had commanded his apostles in his last solemn commission to administer water baptism”.[6]  How could Paul not obey the Great Commission as the apostle to the Gentiles?!

[1] Pages 263-316 in K. Birkett (ed.), D. Broughton Knox Selected Works (Vol. 2; Kingsford: Matthiasmedia, 2003). Knox’s fuller view can be obtained by reading these pages.
[2] Page 263, ibid.  Knox means Bible believing Christians here.
[3] Page 278, ibid.
[4] Baptism in Acts and 1 Corinthians 1 refers to a continuation of John’s water baptism
[5] Page 280, ibid.
[6] Page 281, ibid.

Photo Credit: Cross and World © Gino Santa Maria 1093183


  1. Don (Author)

    Being  a Baptist by conviction, I cannot let this post go by without a response.

    With C.H. Spurgeon and John MacArthur, I assert that the New Testament teaches that believers are to be baptised.

    Both men proclaim the necessity for Christians to be baptised in order to be obedient to the “The Great Commission” of Jesus Christ. 

    Spurgeon writes:

    “We finally maintain that our view of the commission is correct, because the apostles so understood it, as their subsequent conduct and writings abundantly evidence. Peter on the day of Pentecost first preached the gospel of Christ, and then taught the anxiously enquiring to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They must change their minds, having been unbelieving in regard to Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour, and on this faith in Christ, to which God’s Spirit was drawing and helping them, be baptized, thus in obedience to Christ, avowing their belief in him as the Messiah and their Saviour. And after further exhortation and instruction from Peter, “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”

    MacArthur adds:

    “The church is commanded to baptize. The individual is commanded to be baptized. There is really no lack of clarity with regard to this. In fact, in each of the cases where the great commission is given, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there’s an emphasis on baptism. In spite of this, there is widespread noncompliance with what is a very simple command. In many ways, it’s sort of the easiest act of obedience as a Christian you can do because all the rest have to do with sorting out the stuff that’s in your mind and heart, for the most part. This simple act , when obediently done, demonstrates a heart that seeks to honor the Word of the Lord.”

    I disagree with D. Broughton Knox that because there is diverse opinion on baptism we should keep our views on the subject “very firmly in a secondary place”. Since when has the importance of a doctrine depended upon common agreement? Surely, the importance of a doctrine is determined by the prominence it is given in Scripture. And the Bible has much to say on this subject.

    Although baptism is in itself a metaphor, Broughton is incorrect when he states “that Jesus is giving a “fully metaphorical use of the concept of baptizing”. We do not interpret the disciple making or teaching portion of the great commission as metaphorical – why would we when it comes to baptism? 

    Baptism is the metaphor the Scripture uses to teach  believers (and those who observe the act of baptism) concerning the deep mystery of salvation. Paul elaborates this in Romans 6:2-5. However, without the actual practice of baptism, there is no metaphor. The reality that the metaphor represents is not the metaphor. 

    The Scriptural record of the early followers of Christ  is that they understood Jesus words to be carried out in real terms with concrete action. (Acts 2:38, 2:41, 8:12, 8:13, 8:36, 9:18, 10:48, 16:15, 16:33, 18:8, 19:5, 22:16).

    Finally, an argument based on silence or even scant evidence is a weak argument. Paul did baptise. He names a few of those whom he baptised and admits he cannot be sure how many other people this involved other than those he names. He states that his primary ministry was to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 1:17). He was concerned that being a baptiser would contribute to the tendency of establishing a personality cult, so he concentrated on the mission to which God had called him.

    Although a minor point, evangelicals tend to avoid formulaic terminology, i.e baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. When one baptises, this is what is happening whether these words are expressed or not. The Scripture records that believers were baptised in the “name of Jesus”. Since on cannot separate one member of the Trinity from the others as the the three coexist in one, then baptising in the name of Jesus is synonymous with baptising in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.

  2. Martin Pakula

    Hi Don. How’s Canada going?! Thanks for your reply. I hear what you are saying, however I don’t think you have really addressed what Broughton Knox has said. That’s partly my fault for putting a brief section of his views here. He is asserting that water baptism is John’s baptism that continued for some time, not the baptism of the Holy Spirit that Jesus talked about. And I don’t think you have addressed why Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, did not carry out this ‘command’ (if it is a command to baptise with water).
    As for Knox’s view on this being a secondary issue – those are more my words (partly his). My point is that there is no clear teaching on baptism one way or the other, and therefore we should not divide over such things. I understand though that you do not agree with that assertion.
    Finally, Knox’s argument has piles of evidence and is not an argument from silence. I have given several of his arguments in summary, but he gives a very full and excellent exposition of the Scriptures in the reference I gave. His point is that the Scriptures do not back up Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian or any other church traditions in this area.
    Anyway, his view is radical, and I’m glad that you have given the main-stream regular counter-view. But as far as I’m concerned, there is a lot of food for thought here…

  3. Jim Drake

    The answer to your question can be found in the context of what Paul wrote, but it takes some time and effort. The author doesn’t seem all that interested in presenting Paul’s reasoning, however. He simply replaces Paul’s reasoning with his own. Only one small phrase from verse 17 in the entire first chapter of 1 Corinthians is quoted. There is a citation of verse 13. The author quotes more extensively from Knox than he does from the apostle Paul!

    • Martin Pakula (Author)

      Hi Jim. Hoping this works… I have read your comments below. This was what I was trying to post yesterday. If it works, I will then try and comment further below…

      Thanks for this comment. I take your point, but it’s difficult in a short blog piece to give lengthy reasoning; also I’m “flying a kite” by quoting Knox to see what people think of his opinion. I presume you don’t agree with Knox, but you haven’t given any reason why.

      I preached right through 1 Corinthians last year and the sermons are recorded on our church website: I have examined the whole letter of Corinthians, in the Greek, using several commentaries, the best of which, I thought was Rosner/ Ciampa in Pillar. But I would have thought the passage is fairly self evident in plain English! Paul baptised very few people at all at Corinth. This is an astounding statement! His reason for this is that he came to preach the gospel, not to baptise. That is, people are baptised by the Holy Spirit as they hear the gospel and believe. Water baptism as the sign of this seems to be something Paul is quite indifferent to.

      Some commentaries from men I greatly respect and admire, like Stott, try to explain this away, but, unlike Knox, engage in eisegesis, not exegesis at this point of the passage.

      My point stands: if the Great Commission is a command to baptise all the nations in water, why does not the apostle to the nations do so?

  4. Jim Drake

    Note the inconsistency in Knox’s reasoning here.
    First, he says that the baptism Jesus spoke of in Matt. 28:19 “contains no reference to administering water baptism”. Got it. No water.

    Then he says that the water baptism practiced in Acts is not the baptism of the Great Commission. But he already said that the baptism of the Great Commission had nothing to do with water! How, then, does he compare the two? Is it a metaphor, or is it not?

    Then there is the matter of “in the name of the Trinity”. We are told that Jesus is giving a “fully metaphorical use of the concept of baptizing”, and so the phrase “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is to be understood metaphorically – “Jesus is commanding his apostles to bring the whole world into the knowledge of the true God”. He does not claim that the knowledge of God could be imparted simply by rote repetition of the phrase “in the name of …”. It’s part of the metaphor. (Notice, by the way, that “in the name of” is replaced with “into the knowledge of”. Perhaps that is valid, but is that how “in the name of” is usually understood?)

    Now the reason he says that the water baptism practiced in Acts cannot be the water, oops, metaphorical baptism of the Great Commission is that (he claims) it was not performed “in the name of the Trinity”. So now he interprets the phrase as if Jesus intended it to be literally applied? Again, the author needs to make up his mind – literal or metaphor?

    Lastly, the footnote “Baptism in Acts and 1 Corinthians 1 refers to a continuation of John’s water baptism” is offered with no proof at all. Check out Acts 19 and decide for yourselves whether or not this is true.

    • Martin Pakula

      Hi Jim.
      Thanks so much for making these comments. Unknown to you, I have been trying to reply, and for some reason I’m not aware of, the site is not letting me! I don’t want you to think that I’m not replying. I’ll just try this much and see if it posts.

    • Martin Pakula (Author)

      Praise the Lord it worked! Now I can add some comments (boy computers can be frustrating at times!)

      Thanks again for these comments Jim.

      I’m not sure I followed the logic you started with. (One of the difficulties not having a face to face conversation!) I can’t see what is inconsistent with what Knox says. I actually never met him, and don’t have a great desire to defend his views. I’m not sure I agree with him, although you can probably tell I think he ‘might’ be right.

      Anyway, I thought he was simply saying that there is no indication in the text of the Great Commision EXPLICITLY (sorry – can’t do italics) that there is water involved in the baptism. In Acts there are clear indications that there is water. He is saying therefore that the two may well be different: that Acts is describing a water baptism, which can ONLY be John’s baptism (in his view), and is therefore different to the baptism of the Holy Spirit which John talked about and to which Jesus refers. This may be wrong, but I don’t see why it is inconsistent.

      I think I understand your next argument. But I’m not sure it’s fair, reasonable, etc. That is, Knox is saying that the Great Commission baptism IS metaphorical. He is saying that if you take it ‘literally’, then you should expect to see reference to the Trinity in Acts when it happens. The fact that there are no such references means that he is correct, and that it is metaphorical in Matthew 28. (Not saying again that this is correct, but that is his reasoning, I think.)

      Finally, I do agree with your last point that he has given no proof. I guess he thinks there is no proof on the other side either.
      I don’t know how strongly he held to these views. I’m pretty sure that he followed “orthodox” church practice. And I’m just flying a kite here myself, so to speak. What I do like about him though is a determination to examine the texts without reading back into them our church practices. I don’t at all mind if he’s wrong. But it makes me wonder if he is right too!?!

  5. Jim Drake

    Hi Don,
    I see a number of unsupported assertions in his argument. He has no objection to replacing “in the name of” with “into the knowledge of”. I see no reason to allow that. I don’t believe it is ever translated that way in any scripture. (Not that the NWT wouldn’t like to). Without this switch, his claim makes little sense. None of the examples cited do this: there is no mention “baptizing in the name of suffering”, for example. Apparently, he considers the only possible alternative interpretation to be that Jesus’ words are meant to be repeated over and over as part of some formula that must always accompany baptism (another unproven assumption). He then claims that since the baptisms in Acts did not conform to this assumption, they cannot be the baptism of the Great Commission. However, there is a more natural interpretation of “in the name of” available to us – namely that it indicates the authority by which the action is taken. Christ’s authority is absolute (Matt. 28:18), and so I see no contradiction in saying that an act that is “in the name of Christ” has been authorized by Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Again, there is no evidence to support the claim that John’s baptism continued to be used by the church. That’s just an unsupported assertion. John was the forerunner for Christ. His ministry ceased. “He must increase, but I must decrease”. There are just a few mentions of John’s baptism in Acts. Most of them refer to it only in connection with John’s life. There are two passages that speak of John’s baptism as it existed in the book of Acts.

    In Acts 18:26, we are told that Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and “explained to him the way of God more accurately.”
    So, what was Apollos lacking? He was “acquainted only with the baptism of John”. Acts 18:25.

    In Acts 19:3-5, Paul finds some disciples who had only heard of John’s baptism. But when Paul preached Jesus to them “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”.

    All of this tends to contradict the claim.

    God Bless,

  6. Martin Pakula (Author)

    Hi Jim
    I wasn’t sure if this was to me (Martin) or to Don? Maybe we can both respond?
    I agree with your first point. The Greek just says “in the name of”, and he hasn’t, I think, given any argument for why he understands this as “into the knowledge of”. However his point is simply that this is what it means. In the context of what the Great Commission says, that seems to make sense (re making disciples). I’m sure he’s not arguing for a translation, but for the meaning or interpretation. And I generally agree with your point that baptism in the name of Christ is in the name of the Trinity in spirit, etc. However his point again is a fair one. If you take the Great Commission “literally”, then you would indeed expect this ‘formula’ to occur.
    As for the other points, I think Knox would agree with the substance of what you are saying. However I think you are misrepresenting his points and not really giving an argument against them. Of course in Acts ministry has moved on from John’s Baptism to that of Jesus’ death and resurrection, etc, a la Apollos, etc, etc. However that is not Knox’s point. Of course he would agree. His point is that the disciples are most likely continuing a practice of water baptism that goes back to John’s baptism. He contends the latter is not an established Jewish practice, but is an innovation based on previous Jewish practices. In Acts, he suggests, the baptism is not an innovation this time. It is not something that Jesus has called for in his Great Commission, but is just a continuation of practices from the time of Jesus based on what John was doing. I agree though that he gives no proof for this, it is just a supposition. But his supposition is a guess based on other exegetical evidence (eg why Paul didn’t do this water baptism in Corinth).
    So, while I don’t particularly want to defend Knox, I’m not convinced by your arguments. I really appreciate you taking the time to make them. I must say that I never knew Knox, but that from what I know I’m sure he participated in the church practice of baptism in a completely orthodox way. However he is examining the texts to see if what we do finds its basis there. While I’m not entirely convinced by his arguments, I think he has a big point! If you’re not convinced, fair enough!

  7. Jim Drake

    Hey Martin,
    Yep, I had meant to reply to you. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

    Regarding “in the name of” – you state that Knox hasn’t given any argument for why he understands this as “into the knowledge of”. But then you write “However his point is simply that this is what it means.”

    Knox cannot simply claim an entirely new definition of the term without evidence. Just because one can still make sense of the statement by applying this definition is hardly proof. One cannot prove a thing true by simply assuming it to be true. That’s circular reasoning.

    The claim that “in the name of” must be otherwise be understood as “reciting the name of” is not reasonable (at least, that’s what I think you mean by taking it literally). “In the name of” is an idiomatic expression that the dictionary defines as “In behalf of; by the authority of.” One does not translate an idiom by translating the individual words. Worse, if we insist that the use of an idiom requires that the entire phrase in which it appears be figurative, then we have made it impossible for idioms to be used as intended. It is perfectly good grammar to understand baptizing in its literal sense, while recognizing “in the name of” as an idiom. Deconstructing the idiom, and replacing “name” with “knowledge” is not allowed by any rules of grammar that I know of.

    As for John’s baptism being continued in Acts. You agree that he gives no proof for this, it is just a supposition. Note that I am not required to disprove his assertion (although I have shown that what little evidence there is contradicts him). The burden is his.

    The lone proof cited for this is 1 Cor. 1:17, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel”. This does not mean, as is commonly claimed, that baptism is not part of the gospel. That is not what Paul says. He does not compare baptism (the word is not even found here) to the gospel. He compares the act of baptizing to the act of preaching. The “not this but that” construction is commonly used to show the importance of one thing over another. Jesus said “Work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures”.(John 6:27). We do not take this to mean that we are forbidden to work for physical food. Similarly, Paul has not been forbidden to baptize (else he sinned when he baptized Crispus, etc). Proper understanding of Paul’s statement requires understanding of one simple concept: No special adoration is to be attached to the person administering the rite of baptism. You say that if baptism were commanded, Paul would have insisted on carrying out the rite personally. But that is not so. Paul here is dealing with division in the church and expresses relief that the Corinthians cannot claim to be followers of Paul on the basis of their having been baptized BY HIM PERSONALLY (sorry, no italics). The meaning is plain enough. Suppose a preacher tells his hearers that they must be baptized. If 1000 of them respond, are you telling me that he can only be considered to have obeyed Jesus’ command by then personally administering the rite? Suppose, instead that he continues to preach while others administer the rite, and another 1000 respond. And then another 1000. Which course of action demonstrates a greater devotion to Jesus’ command? Preaching and allowing others to administer the rite, or stopping his preaching so he can personally carry out the rite? When did Peter demonstrate obedience to Christ’s command on Pentecost? Was it not when he commanded his hearers to be baptized? At what point should Peter have stopped preaching to personally administer the rite? It seems backwards to suggest that a course of action which would actually result in a greater number of baptisms could serve as evidence that baptism was not commanded. Would not this same standard apply to Paul? Suppose Paul included the command to be baptized in his preaching of the gospel. How does allowing others to administer the rite while he continues to preach demonstrate a disregard for the command? So, I ask you, did Paul (like Peter) include the intruction to be baptized when he preached the gospel to the Corinthians? Well, how did his hearers respond? Acts 18:8 tells us that “many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.”

    Paul is famed for his well reasoned and logically thorough arguments. Notice that in 1 Cor. 1: 13, Paul reminds them of their unity in Christ on the basis of two things: 1)the crucifixion, and 2)their baptism. (Note that he assumes they had all been baptized). The importance of the first cannot be over-exaggerated. Any claim we make that diminishes the importance of baptism, makes the apostle Paul uncharacteristically guilty of using an ill-matched pairing that lessens the force of his own argument. On the contrary, note the elegant symmetry that he employs. He takes their minds back to the cross, to Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and then reminds them of their baptism, their common personal connection to the cross, thus uniting them with Christ and with one another. Now that’s the kind of thinking that inspires me.

    God Bless,

  8. Martin Pakula (Author)

    Hi Jim
    You make some very good points and arguments here. I’m not convinced! I’d like to be! But I still think Knox has some very good points. But it’s good to hear both sides of the argument (I think), and you have done us a great service by putting forward the other side of the argument. I realise too that your side of the argument is the commonly accepted traditional orthodox Christian one! So thank you.
    I think we’ll leave it at that if we can? I won’t make too many comments on what you have said. But I just want to raise a few issues for further thought. I think we’ve gone over the rest already.
    First, there is a difference between strict translation and meaning/ interpretation. Knox was a Greek scholar and obviously knew the difference. He is never suggesting a translation with these things, but that the words have the meaning/ interpretation he is suggesting. His writing is fairly concise though, so he often doesn’t flesh it out a great deal. Clearly you’re not convinced! That’s OK. I still think he has a point.
    Finally, your argument for 1 Corinthians is good. It’s speculative, but that is necessary here. I think you may well be right. Others may have baptised some of the Corinthians. But I still think the point stands. One would expect Paul should have baptised far more people. The logic of the passage doesn’t change that.
    Anyway, I think the evidence for Knox’s position isn’t great. But he raises some good questions. The important thing, which I have appreciated in our exchange, is that both sides try to examine the Scriptures to see what they are really saying. Are we reading present day activities, even long and dearly held ones, back into the text? Maybe. Maybe not. Let the readers of our comments make up their own minds!
    Thanks again for the exchange,
    yours in Christ,
    Martin Pakula

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