A friend of a friend on FB last night was wrestling with a Bible Study class in seminary, and was asking her for advice dealing with Matthew 28:18-20 -- the "Great Commission." IBS (a Bible study method, not a disease of the colon) emphasizes diagramming the sentences first in order to construe their meaning in English. If you know Greek, that's great, but if you can't make the meaning of straight-up English, you probably ought not be preaching (which instantly disqualifies a lot of preachers I've heard).
Anyway, for a lark, I picked up my Bible and my Greek New Testament and did a quick grammatical analysis and translation and posted it on my friend's FB. It was interesting. I hadn't thought much about the Great Commission before; I mean, there it is, now go do it -- but I'd never seen much in it beyond the obvious.
Nevertheless, just to show that every trip through the Bible can yield something new, I found some new insights in doing this.
Briefly stated, vv. 18-20 are two dense, compound sentences which are balanced against each other in a very concentrated way. Nothing here is left to chance. Shift one thing, take it out of context, and the whole passage is damaged.
In the first sentence, the first independent clause is an introductory action statement that sets up the transition to a direct quote. The second independent clause begins the direct quote. The two clauses balance the fact that the risen Christ said this in person against the authority claim he makes.
In the second sentence, the first independent clause gives Jesus's command instructions. The second independent clause following the semi-colon gives an extraordinary promise by Jesus that he will continue to be present with his followers. The command is balanced against the promise.
The two compound sentences are thus balanced against each other. The literally present Christ's claim to authority is given as the ground of his command to his disciples and his promise to continue to be present spiritually to them.
CAME AND SAID (in Grk, "coming the Jesus spoke to them saying")
IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH
HAS BEEN GIVEN
TO ME (Jesus)
GO (Subj understood, "you")
MAKE DISCIPLES (one word in Grk)
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
TO OBSERVE ALL THAT I HAVE COMMANDED YOU
OF ALL THE NATIONS ('gentes, peoples")
AND LO (Conj & Interj)
I (Jesus, emphatic)
AM (copula; however, consider also the power of Jesus saying, "I am" in any sense)
WITH YOU ALWAYS (Grk, "all the days")
TO THE CLOSE OF THE AGE
The thing that jumped out of me from this simple grammatical analysis is that the emphasis in "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is not where I have sometimes heard it in evangelical preaching. The Grk phrase eis to onoma + Genitive is a financial term from the first Century, implying power of attorney. It means "to do on behalf of, as the personal representative of."
Now, eis "in, into" is a more powerful preposition than en "in" -- at least, in some circumstances. But it caught my attention that I have sometimes heard preaching say (with appropriate awe in their voices), "Into the Name of Jeezus!" and I realized they were misunderstanding the term.
What we do when we baptize is not -- at least, not in this passage -- mark them with an eternal brand; that is, we don't put the Name on them, or enroll them into the People of God, etc. Those are images -- with some Scriptural support -- that are commonly used of baptism. But the import of this passage is on the authority of Christ to speak for God and the authority of Christ's representative to speak for him (and, by extension, for God). Thus, in the present context, we baptize them as the properly constituted representative of God Almighty, just as if God had done it Himself.
Baptism, in terms of converting the nations, should be understood here in its character as a mark of repentance and a promise of peace with God and the eternal life that comes from that. Regeneration, the New Birth, which are also properly part of baptismal theology, is not what we're talking about.
It is as if we were to visit the chaotic, violent scene of a beaten rebellion. The victorious king's army has not yet arrived to impose order. You're thinking of quitting, but you risk being shot by your own side for desertion or treason. If you try to just wander off, you will always have to go armed and every man's hand will be against you. You're thinking about surrendering to the king -- you hear that he's offered pardon and peace to everyone who does so. The question is, "where can you find somebody who can receive your surrender and normalize your relation with the king again?"
This is where the apostle/minister steps in. Christ's representatives are authorized to make contact with rebels desiring to lay down their arms, to receive their confession of sin and pardon them, and promise them everlasting life in the kingdom of God. Baptism is God's promise (as given by his duly appointed representative) and he will honor it. When the minister acts, God acts. Faith is not only believing in God, but believing the human being who stands before you, saying that you have been forgiven and are at peace with God, for what we say in that moment we say not of our own authority, but on the authority of Christ, who speaks for God in all his fullness.
The emphasis here is not on the supernatural effects of baptism, but on the authority of the minister to say what God says. It is not magical, but sacramental.