All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Ed.), Published by The Lockman Foundation

What does it mean to follow the Lord Jesus? First of all, it means to yield allegiance to Him as your Lord and Master. And what does this require you to do? To obey His commands. What is one of the most important commands that He has given His people? The most important one, undoubtedly, is His “new commandment”, found in the Gospel of John, to “love one another as I have loved you”. But there’s a second one that is almost as important. Whereas the command to love one another is directed toward our relationships as God’s family, the second relates to our responsibility to those outside God’s family. This command, which really includes a few commands, is usually called “the Great Commission”.

This Great Commission is recorded in Matthew 28:18-20:

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'”

Most Christians have at least heard this passage read, but do we really understand and practice the Great Commission as the New Testament teaches us? Are we really being faithful to this foundational set of instructions that the Lord Jesus gave to His first apostles, and through them, to us?

If you study the example of the apostles and the early church in the New Testament, and compare it to the practice of the Great Commission by most churches today, there are glaring inconsistencies. And these inconsistencies are found in each of the responsibilities that the Lord gave His people. However, the most visible, and arguably the most divisive one, is our practice of “baptizing”, or baptism. Most Christian assemblies in the western world fall far short of the apostles’ example and teaching on this ordinance, or required ritual, of the church. So, why is baptism so important, and how did the early church practice it? The need to understand the answers to these questions is urgent for the faithfulness of God’s people, and our effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission, for the glory of our Lord and Master.

The Meaning of Making Disciples

Despite its location as the first word that Jesus gives His apostles in Matthew 28:19, the apparent command to “go” isn’t the main command of the Great Commission. The Greek word translated “go” is an aorist participle, meaning that it’s a completed action with continued results, and that it modifies the main verb of the sentence. Hence, Jesus literally says in His Commission, “having gone”, or “while going”. And what are the apostles to do while they’re going? “Make disciples”.

What is a disciple? It’s helpful to understand what this term means if we think about a common English word that contains it. That word is “discipline”. And what does it mean to discipline someone? It means to teach, or to train, them through regular, consistent, and careful instruction. Thus, the term “disciple” refers to someone who is being trained in this way. In the context of Jesus’s service on earth, His disciples were those who were trained by Him to not only believe and do what He taught, but also to do what He did. The same was true in the case of those whom the apostles made into disciples. They were not to simply make students, but also followers and imitators of themselves.

But how were they to make disciples? The same way that Jesus did. Mark 1:14-15 says that when Jesus began His service of disciple-making, the way He began was by going “into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel'”. The very first step in making disciples is to preach to those who aren’t disciples of Jesus to repent, or change their minds, and to put their faith in the good news of the Lord Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, some sinners will obey this command of the gospel, and will trust in Jesus to be their Lord and Master, thus becoming His disciples. In the beginning of the church, the way that the first converts followed Jesus was by following the apostles.

And at the present day, we are still required to follow the teachings and example of the apostles. This is one way that we know the Great Commission still applies to us today — the apostles were to teach their disciples to obey all that the Lord commanded them, and this included the Great Commission. Therefore, believers today are responsible to do all that’s included in this Commission, including preaching the gospel, and what follows.

But preaching the gospel, and in that way persuading sinners to repent and depend on the Lord is only the beginning of making disciples. The two actions that follow Jesus’s command to make disciples of all the nations are how He wants us to make them. And without even mentioning the preaching of the gospel, the very first method that Jesus tells the apostles to use in discipling the nations is “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Thus, baptism must be one of the first priorities in making disciples of people. But why is this the first thing we must do when we’ve made a disciple? The answer lies in the exact meaning of this instruction.

Baptism as Immersion into God’s Name

The literal meaning of the Greek word for “baptize” is “immerse”, so when Jesus told the apostles to disciple the nations by “baptizing” them, he was literally telling them to immerse them. The ritual of baptism wasn’t new to the apostles, since they had already been baptizing new converts throughout Jesus’s service. The evidence for this is found in the apostle John’s description of Jesus’s baptismal service in John 4:1-2, which reads,

“Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were) . . .”

Here, we clearly see that Jesus had taught His disciples at an early stage in His service to not only make disciples, but also to baptize them. But what was the meaning of this baptism, since Jesus hadn’t died and risen yet? It had the same meaning as John the Baptizer’s baptism. And what kind of baptism was his? It’s described as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3). In other words, it was an outward display of one’s inward repentance of sins, in order to receive God’s offer of forgiveness through the coming Messiah. The act of being “immersed” into water signified one’s acknowledgement that he was polluted by sin, and was trusting God to cleanse Him through forgiveness, in preparation for the coming and reign of the Messiah. In the case of Jesus’s baptism of His disciples, the same truths were communicated through a person receiving it. However, those who were immersed by the apostles at this early stage were repenting in order to follow Jesus as the Messiah.

Hence, after Jesus was raised from the dead, and gave His apostles the Great Commission, He wasn’t telling them something brand new by commanding them to baptize their disciples. Nevertheless, there was a new element to this Christian baptism. Jesus didn’t simply tell the apostles to “baptize”, but to baptize their disciples “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. This is the main aspect that distinguishes Jesus’s baptism after His resurrection from before His resurrection.

But what does this mean? In order to understand what He was saying, we need to know what Greek word He used for what’s usually translated as “in”. The Greek word used here is eis, which literally means “into”. And since baptize literally means immerse, it makes a lot of sense for Jesus to be instructing the apostles to disciple people by immersing them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But what does Jesus mean by the word, “name”? Just as in most instances in the Old Testament, the “name” of God means all that He is and does — His nature and character. Hence, when Jesus commanded the apostles to baptize disciples into the name of the triune God revealed in Himself, He was telling them to immerse them into the very nature and character of God. To put it another way, what this baptism signifies is a new disciple’s initiation into the very life and communion of God in the Trinity. In simple terms, it means to picture a disciple’s identification with the true God.

So, rather than Jesus’s instruction for baptism simply describing the authority of the baptism, it’s really describing the main purpose of baptism. This purpose is to show that a new disciple has just been united to God’s name, and entered into the life of God. But there are many more purposes for baptism, which are described in multiple places in the New Testament. After identification with God’s name, Christian baptism, like John’s baptism, is also an outward demonstration of someone’s inward repentance.

Baptism as an Appeal of Repentance to God

The most explicit passage that teaches baptism’s purpose as a demonstration of repentance is 1 Peter 3:21, which says,

“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .”

The question we must first ask about this verse is, what is Peter referring to when he says that the salvation of baptism “corresponds to that”? The event that he’s pointing back to is the salvation of Noah and his family “through water” from God’s judgment on mankind during the Great Flood. What he’s saying is, just as Noah was saved from God’s judgment on man through water, so now Christian’s are saved from God’s final judgment through the water of baptism. How could this be? Is Peter saying that we’re saved by a physical ritual that we physically receive? By no means, as Peter goes on to explain.

Peter immediately follows his bold assertion that baptism saves believers by denying that it’s “the removal of dirt from the flesh” that saves them. In other words, it’s not the physical ceremony of baptism that saves them, as if by cleaning them, the water would save them. Rather, Peter calls baptism “an appeal to God for a good conscience”.

What does he mean by this? He’s saying that the act of submitting to the ritual of baptism is an outward demonstration to God that the recipient is appealing to, or asking from, God, a good conscience. To put it another way, submitting to baptism is the recipient’s demonstration to God that he wants to have a good, or clear, conscience before Him. And how is this good conscience received? Through the salvation provided “through the resurrection [and death] of Jesus Christ”, as Peter ends the statement.

This meaning of baptism demonstrating someone’s seeking of God to receive a good conscience is further described in Peter’s preaching about baptism in his sermon on the day of Pentecost. The familiar passage that records Peter’s words about baptism says,

“Now when they [Peter’s audience] heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . .” (Acts 2:37-38)

After Peter had just preached the gospel to a crowd of Jewish unbelievers, they asked him and the other apostles what they should do in order to receive God’s forgiveness for their sins against Him. Peter immediately responded with two commands — “repent”, and “be baptized”. Of course, the first command was the only way that they would receive God’s forgiveness, since to “repent” for them meant to “change their minds” about Jesus, and to put their faith in Him as their Messiah, or Savior-King. But Peter also told them to immediately “be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ”. Why? Because, like disciples of Jesus had been doing, receiving baptism would demonstrate that they had repented, and now trusted in Jesus’s name.

But Peter adds one more element to this command to repent and be baptized. He tells them that they must be baptized “for the forgiveness of your sins”. If Peter was saying that they had to be baptized to have the forgiveness of their sins, then he obviously would have been teaching them that God’s forgiveness was given to them through their baptism. This can’t be the case, since baptism, as Peter here describes, is something they do. Thus, he must be saying that the reason they were to be baptized was because of their forgiveness. In other words, they were to be baptized because they knew that God had forgiven their sins based on Jesus’s death and resurrection.

There’s at least one other passage in Acts that describes baptism as a demonstration of a believer’s initial repentance. This contains Paul’s account of his own conversion, and of how baptism was offered to him:

“‘A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.'” (Acts 22:12-16)

The key verse, of course, is verse 16, which records Ananias as asking Saul why he was waiting, and commanding him to “be baptized”, to “wash away your sins”, and to do this by “calling on His [Jesus’s] name”. From this verse, we can see that Ananias undoubtedly viewed Saul’s submission to baptism as his outward demonstration of “calling on” the name of the Lord. And what does it mean to call on His name? To repent and seek Him to “wash away your sins”. Thus, Saul was to show that he trusted Jesus to wash away his sins by receiving baptism.

From these few passages, we’ve seen that baptism in the early church was always an immediate demonstration of a person’s repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus. But, of course, this immersion symbolizes much more than repentance. It symbolizes one’s identification with Jesus.

Baptism as Identification with the Lord Jesus

The clearest passage that teaches that baptism symbolizes identification, and union, with Christ is chapter 6, verses 3-4, of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

There’s no way of knowing if Paul is directly referring to water baptism, or whether he’s referring to spiritual baptism from the Holy Spirit, which unites believers with Christ. However, we can know that baptism symbolizes this union with Christ, since we’ve already seen from the Great Commission that baptism pictures a disciple’s immersion into the life and name of God, and that name includes God the Son. Further, as Luke’s account in Acts of some adherents of John’s baptism shows, Paul baptized them “into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). Hence, when the first gospel preachers baptized people, they were immersing them specifically into Jesus’s name, or all that He is, and has done.

This being the case, we can rightly apply the truths from this passage in Romans to water baptism. And what does Paul say that baptism pictures? First, it pictures a believer’s identification, or union, with Christ’s death. What does this mean? It means that, since Jesus died to the power and condemnation of sin (6:10), so too those who are in Him have died to that power and condemnation. In the words of Paul, believers “have been buried with Him through baptism into death”. Therefore, their old, sinful and condemned selves are dead. The old, sinful, life is gone.

And what is the result of dying with Christ? Paul says the result is that we “walk in newness of life”, just as Christ was raised from the dead in order to walk in that life. But why do believers walk in this newness? Because, not only have they been made one with Christ in His death, but also in His resurrection, as Paul goes on to imply:

“For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection . . .” (6:5)

So, how does baptism picture a believer’s death, burial, and resurrection with Christ? It can only do so if baptism is actually performed as immersion in water. When a believer is immersed, or submerged, in the water, this pictures him dying with Christ, and the old person going to the grave. Then, when he’s lifted out of the water, this shows him, and anyone witnessing, his resurrection to new life with Christ. This beautiful imagery once again tells us that baptism is meant to be an immediate demonstration of someone’s profession of faith. And this immediacy is what we see over and over in the Acts of the Apostles.

Baptism is Immediately Received in the Book of Acts

There are several passages in Acts that describe believers being baptized very soon after professing their faith in Jesus.

First, there’s Acts 8:12, in which some Samaritans are baptized by Philip the evangelist:

“But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.”

Second, there’s the famous account of the Ethiopian eunuch, where we read,

“As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.” (Acts 8:36-38)

Third, there’s the account of the centurion Cornelius, and his household:

47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.” (Acts 10:47-48)

Fourth, Luke describes the conversion and baptism of the Philippian jailer:

32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.” (Acts 16:32-33)

Finally, some Corinthians are baptized as soon as they believe in the Lord:

“Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.” (Acts 18:8)

In almost every one of these accounts, the people believing the gospel are baptized immediately, and if not immediately, as soon as possible. Why? For the reasons we’ve already looked at.

But, let’s review them:

  1. Baptism shows a disciple’s immersion into the name of the true God.
  2. Baptism pictures a believer’s cleansing from sin.
  3. Baptism demonstrates a believer’s repentance toward God, and his appeal to God for a good conscience.
  4. Baptism pictures a believer’s union with Christ in His death and resurrection.

The Administrators and Audience of Baptism

Nowhere in Acts, nor in the epistles, is baptism ever performed by someone being referred to as an “elder” or “pastor”. In every case in Acts, it’s either an apostle, an evangelist, or even just “a disciple named Ananias”, who is nowhere said to be a church leader. The only special right given to Ananias is that he received a vision from Jesus about Saul, and was commanded to lay his hands on him, so he could regain his sight, and then be baptized. So where do we get the idea that the only Christians qualified to baptize are elders or missionaries? Nowhere in Scripture. In fact, on the Day of Pentecost, it’s most likely that there were many disciples baptizing the new converts, since there were over 3,000 of them!

But what about the setting of baptism? Must it be during a church meeting? Where in Acts is baptism described as being performed during one? And where in any of the epistles is it enforced that this must be done? Nowhere! This is simply the product of church tradition, and has no basis in Scripture.

So, why don’t we follow the apostolic practice of baptism as demonstrated by the early church? Because we don’t believe that apostolic example is enough to follow. We must follow the logical traditions that we’ve invented, and made persuasive arguments for. But what nonsense this has brought about! Waiting for a convert to be baptized for days, weeks, or even months! Having to take a long, drawn-out, class, in order to teach a convert every major point of doctrine! This is nowhere found in Scripture.

What blessing we’re missing when we fail to practice baptism in the way of the apostles and the early church! Please prayerfully consider all we’ve examined in this article, and be honest — are you and the churches you have fellowship with baptizing disciples into God’s name the way the apostles did, for the benefit of all involved, and the glory of the Lord Jesus?

For further teaching on baptism, read my article entitled, “Baptismology: The Importance and Practice of Baptism”