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The Great Commission in Luke
By J.R. Ensey

The Gospel of Luke was written by someone who was not in the group to whom Jesus spoke when giving the Great Commission—the last instructions of Jesus before His ascension—but he heard it from those who were, and who had been “eyewitnesses” of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 1:2). Writing what he was told by these credible (inspired, in this case) sources, “And [Jesus] said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (24:46,47; italics mine).

Luke reiterated the essence of it as he began the Book of Acts (1:4-8). If he had been told that Jesus had clearly said to use the titles rather than the name in baptism he could not have recorded Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, or Acts 19:5. Neither Luke nor any of the Gospel writers had ever heard the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” spoken in reference to God. It did not come from the lips of any disciple of which there is record. The Matthean phrase stands alone in the Scriptures. It is found nowhere else. (Scholarship, based on its absence in Greek manuscripts before the sixteenth century, is virtually unanimous that I John 5:7, which is closest to Matthew 28:19, is an interpolation.) Each of those titles used independently elsewhere referred to an operation which God Himself would fulfill.

All references to the Commission are similar with the exception of Matthew 28:19. Like Luke, Mark has “in my name” involved in the work the Apostles were to perform (Mark 16:14-18). But Matthew has these words added: “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Why would Luke and Mark omit “Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” if they were essential to be used in their preaching ministry? Why would either of them use the titles, which they did not, if Jesus had said “in my name,” as they state? It is much simpler to question whether the words in Matthew were added to the text later than to understand why Luke and Mark would ignore them.

Many, perhaps most, scholars believe Mark’s Gospel was written first, probably in the late 50s. Mark had been mentored by the apostle Peter, as suggested by the reference to him as “Marcus my son” (I Peter 5:13). Much of the material in his Gospel probably came from the lips of Peter. Papias, a leader of the church in Hierapolis, writing about A.D. 140, noted:

“And the presbyter [the apostle John] said this: ‘Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterward, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he too especial care, not to omit anything he had head, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.’” [Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord (6)]

Justin Martyr, writing about A.D. 150, referred to the Gospel of Mark as “the memoirs of Peter.” Peter was present when the Great Commission was spoken by Jesus. Would it not be strange for him to misquote the baptismal formula only 50 days later in his message at Pentecost (Acts 2:38)? As the author of Acts, that message and formula was duly recorded by Luke himself, informed by “eyewitnesses” of the event. A wordsmith, Luke would have caught the difference. According to John MacArthur, other than the eyewitnesses, Luke drew on written sources (15:23-29; 23:26-30), and also no doubt interviewed key figures, such as Peter, John, another in the Jerusalem church. Paul’s two-year imprisonment at Caesarea (24:27) gave Luke ample opportunity to interview Philip and his daughters (who were considered important sources of information on the early days of the church). Finally, Luke’s frequent use of the first person plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ (16:10-17; 20:5-21; 18; 27:1-28:16).” [MacArthur Study Bible, 1997; p. 16:30.) With this massive amount of information, Luke would not have gotten it wrong in the Commission and in several places in Acts. One cannot conceive his mistaking the words of Jesus at that critical moment approaching Jesus’ departure.

To many scholars and textual analysts, the Matthean phrase obviously belongs to the post-apostolic age. It does not occur in any Greek manuscript before the fourth century, after the Nicene Council in A.D. 325. Before Nicea, Eusebius consistently quotes it as ending with “in my name,” but after Nicea, the full phrase with the titles. Where did it come from? Like some other phrases did, it may have come from liturgical use or appeared as a gloss from a marginal reference in an earlier manuscript. We do know that a Trinitarian scribe added a similar phrase to the Lord’s Prayer doxology, itself an apparent emendation, making it read: “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.” This addition was copied by other scribes and appears in the late manuscripts 157,225, and 418 (12th – 15th centuries). If such an emendation could be added at the Lord’s Prayer, could it also have been added at Matthew 28:19?

According to William J. Morford, editor of The Power New Testament, Third Edition, “Matthew 28:19 in the Greek text contains a reference to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is considerable evidence that this phrase was added at the Nicean Council in A.D. 325. Several early Christian theologians, who had seen the complete book of Matthew, attested that the early copies of Matthew did not contain the phrase. Eusebius was one of those and even though he believed in the Trinity, he wrote that the phrase, “baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” was not in the early texts. Today there are only two copies of Matthew earlier than the 4th century and the last page of each of those was destroyed. William R. Conner, Litt.D. writes, ‘While no manuscript of the first three centuries is in existence, we do have the writings of at least two men who did actually possess, or had access to manuscripts much earlier than our earliest now in existence. These bring forward evidence from the following, either to direct quotation from their writings, or indirectly through the writings of their contemporaries, viz. Eusebius of Caesarea, the unknown author of De Rebaptismate, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Macedonius, Eunomius and Aphraates.’ Dr. Connor’s discussion of these covers twenty-one pages so it is not included here, but the evidence he cites is overwhelming that the original Matthew 28:19 did not include the phrase ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’ For that reason the phrase does not appear in the text of this translation.” - The Power New Testament, Third Edition (Lexington, SC: Shalom Ministries, Inc., 2005), pp. 383,384.

“With the early disciples generally baptism was ‘in the name of Jesus Christ.’ There is no mention of baptism in the name of the Trinity in the New Testament, except in the command attributed to Christ in Matthew 28:19. That text is early, but not the original however. It underlies the Apostles’ Creed, and the practice recorded [or interpolated] in the Teaching, [the Didache] and by Justin. The Christian leaders of the third century retained the recognition of the earlier form, and, in Rome at least, baptism in the name of Christ was deemed valid, if irregular, certainly from the time of Bishop Stephen (254-257)....While the power of the episcopate and the significance of churches of apostolical [Catholic] foundation was thus greatly enhanced, the Gnostic crisis saw a corresponding development of [man-made non-inspired spurious] creed, at least in the West. Some form of instruction before baptism was common by the middle of the second century. At Rome this developed, apparently, between 150 and 175, and probably in opposition to Marcionite Gnosticism, into an explication of the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19 the earliest known form of the so-called Apostles Creed.” - Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Prentice Hall, 1953); p. 61,95 (Author’s note: It is interesting to note that Dr. Walker suggests that Matthew 28:19 was invented along with the Apostles’ Creed to counter so-called heretics who baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Marcion, often a target of official Christianity in the second century, considered to be a Gnostic of sorts, still baptized his converts in the name of Jesus Christ.

The venerable 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica had this to say under Baptism: “As to the other text [Matthew 28:19], it has been doubted by many critics, e.g. Neander, Harnack, Dr Armitage Robinson and James Martineau, whether it represents a real utterance of Christ and not rather the liturgical usage of the region in which the first gospel was compiled. The circumstance, unknown to these critics when they made their conjectures, that Eusebius Pamphili, in nearly a score of citations, substitutes the words ‘in My Name’ for the words ‘baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,’ renders their conjectures superfluous. Aphraates also in citing the verse substitutes ‘and they shall believe in Me’—a paraphrase of ‘in My Name.’ The first gospel thus falls into line with the rest of the New Testament...But as a rule the repentant underwent baptism in the name of Christ Jesus, and washed away their sins...And in Acts 3:16, it is the name itself which renders strong and whole the man who believed therein.” - Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition online [Baptism, pp. 368,369]

Some might say, “Shouldn’t we trust the scribes in the third and fourth centuries to copy the Scriptures correctly?” By and large, absolutely, but since we have ample record of changes and emendations, we must apply the principles of textual criticism to find the answer. I trust Matthew explicitly, but I also trust Luke and Mark. But we have reason to evaluate the thousands of extant Greek manuscript copies since no two of them are exactly alike at every place.

I am not personally saying categorically that the phrase did not come from the lips of Jesus and the pen of Matthew, but many others will say that. There is argument on both sides. I say let’s just do what Jesus said to do: baptize our converts “in His name”! That is for sure what the apostles heard and what the Book of Acts confirms they did.