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In the Great Commission of Matt.28:19 (NIV) we read:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Some people have argued that given Jesus' direct link between baptism and discipleship this command to baptise can only apply to those old enough to respond as active disciples (which would exclude babies and young children).

How do paedo-baptists interpret this text?

  • @TheIronKnuckle It's been edited from it's original. See the revision history by clicking "edited x hours ago" under the post in the middle. – fredsbend Jan 30 '17 at 6:43
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With regard to this particular verse there is nothing to explain beyond a very understandable misreading of a grammatical ambiguity.

The KJV has "teach all nations, baptizing them". The word "teach" is a translation of the Greek word mathetosate. The NIV translates this as "make disciples of," bringing out a somewhat stronger meaning of the verb. It is however still a verb.

In the following phrase "baptizing them," "them" refers to the antecedent noun, the only noun, "all nations." It is easy to misread "them" in the NIV as referring to the noun "disciples" but here it is not a noun at all.

Jesus said to baptize all nations.

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My first thought on reading this question was whether it was in the right forum. Should this be part of the Hermeneutics or Christianity site? But then I considered that interpretation of the text and more general reflection on the meaning of baptism are both necessary, so the question fits well in either place.

In Matthew 28.19-20 the relevant part of Jesus' command reads as follows:

πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος, διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν.

which the NIV translates as:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

The grammar of the sentence suggests that the primary command is μαθητεύσατε ("make disciples"). The other verbs are πορευθέντες (going), βαπτίζοντες (baptising), and διδάσκοντες (teaching). These are all participles rather than imperatives. So a reasonable reading of this text is that Jesus is issuing one key instruction, namely to make disciples. The other verbs are participles which point to the process involved in carrying out the command. A paraphrase to bring out this idea would be:

[Jesus said] "Disciple the nations by going, by baptising, and by teaching…"

This final word of Jesus functions as a general template for his disciples, who are commissioned to be a mission focussed church. Jesus came to bring about God's kingdom. He now passes the torch to the disciples, who are to take that kingdom out into the whole world. We read parallel commissions elsewhere in the gospel tradition:

“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24.46-49)

Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20.21-22)

"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8)

Now it's important to understand both what this commissioning template says, and what it doesn't say. To take an example, in Acts 1 Jesus commands his disciples to be "witnesses". What exactly does this word mean? In order to obey this command, what do Jesus' disciples need to do? This can be answered at at least three levels.

The first answer is derived from the natural range of meaning the word has in Acts 1.8. To witness is to testify, to describe what one has seen and heard. And in particular the testimony is about Jesus and is authorised by him ("my witnesses").

The second answer is provided by the range of examples spread throughout Acts. This is because the literary structure of the book is to show how the command to witness was carried out. Luke begins with the command and then spends the rest of Acts illustrating it. And so we learn that witness includes that which the Holy Spirit inspires in his disciples. We learn that witness can be a one off activity (Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch) or a structured process (Paul's missionary journeys). We learn that witness is focussed mostly on the apostles but by no means limited to them (the birth of the church at Antioch). We learn that witness is not limited to testimony of "what we have seen and heard", but extends to showing how these events are a fulfilment and continuation of the Old Testament scriptures. These are no more than selected examples which we could easily add to. The critical thing to note is that if we ask what it means to "witness" in Acts 1.8, the answer turns out to be far deeper than what we would see if we limited ourselves to that one verse.

The third level takes that principle even further. Acts 28 is not the end of the command. We find Paul preaching at Rome, the heart of the then known world, and the implication is that this will continue from there "to the ends of the earth". So in the same way that the scope of "witness" is expanded as we follow the story from Acts 1 to Acts 28, it's arguable that it could be expanded further as the gospel is taken to new places, new people, new cultures. Subsequent generations are to be witnesses, and their witness will be consistent with Acts 1.8, and with the narrative of Acts at large, but need not be identical to that story. We are the offspring of the church in Acts, not its clones.

So Jesus' one or two sentence commission should be understood as a broad template of the process involved. Jesus is commanding his disciples to continue his work in new settings, and his commission is not to be interpreted narrowly. Rather, they are sent and released to do whatever seems right to fulfil that commission based on wisdom, experience and the leading of the Spirit.

Coming back to Matthew, the command is to go, baptise, teach. No-one would argue that the "teach" element in this sentence requires us to teach the young children, university students and grandparents in our church exactly the same. We agree that teaching is proper for all of them in order that they may be fully discipled as Jesus has commanded. But how we carry out that teaching process is completely undefined. We may use all the resources of the contemporary church (training, age appropriate resources, spiritual giftings) to obey Jesus at this point. Why is baptism any different?

My reading of this passage is that the focus of baptism is on what the church does, not what the individual does. The church is to make disciples. The church is to go. The church is to teach. And in the same way the church is to baptise. So baptism in this context refers to the process of bringing people into the church. In other texts it will have deep sacramental meaning for the individual believer, but that's not Matthew's focus here. Matthew could have written "Make disciples by going into the world, bringing people into the church and training them up in the Christian faith." If he had, the core meaning would have been the same.

So to sum up, I think it's impossible to determine from this text alone that children can or cannot be baptised. If the Bible at large limits baptism to adult believers, then that's who we should be baptising to be consistent with this command. But if there are valid reasons either within or consistent with scripture to baptise children as well, then we should baptise both children and adults into the church in accordance with this command. The flow is from baptism to teaching. So there is nothing in the command that says a certain minimum level of teaching must have been carried out before baptism. All it says is that at the end of the process a well discipled person will have been both baptised and trained up in the faith. The order is irrelevant. To baptise a child and then teach that child "all that Jesus has commanded" is precisely in accord with this text.

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This question is answered directly, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, by Elder Clopas of Romania is his book, The Truth of Our Faith, Vol. 2, On the Christian Mysteries. He first observes that Christian Baptism was prefigured in the Old Testament and applied to both children and adults (p. 22):

Some say that Baptism of babies is meaningless since they don't understand anything when they are baptized. But what did Isaac, Abraham's child, understand on the eighth day [of his circumcision]? Undoubtedly he understood nothing. His parents, however, understood. This is how it is with Baptism in the Orthodox Church, since it is well-known that circumcision symbolizes Baptism in the Old Testament.

He further cites the instances in the New Testament where entire families - including children - were baptized:

Lydia, a "seller of purple," of the city of Thyatira, was baptized with her whole family (Acts 16:14). The prison guard took Paul and Silas with him to his house, washed their wounds, and was straightaway baptized, along with all his household (Acts 16:33). Crispus, the chief ruler of the Synagogue, believed on Christ with all his household (Acts 18:8). The Apostle Paul says in another place, "I baptized also the household of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:16). When he uses the term household, he means all the members of his family, from the oldest to the youngest member, as Joshua also uses the word: "As for me and my house, we will worship the Lord, for he is holy" (24:16).

Elder Cleopas also recalls the important example from Christ Himself:

Jesus Christ, likewise, made it clear that little children ought to be baptized, for when they brought Him some children to be blessed by Him, and His disciples obstructed them, the Lord scolded them, saying, "Suffer little children and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven; And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence" (Matthew 19:13-15). Hence, if the Lord calls children unto salvation from a young age, why would we obstruct them from receiving Holy Baptism?

Ibid., p. 24

The editors of Elder Cleopas' book (Uncut Mountain Press, Thessalonica, Greee) note the following regarding the Orthodox Christian attitude towards baptism:

The Orthodox Church is not ruled by intellectualism or rationalism, that is, by the idea that the reason of man is the reigning organ of his being. 'Faith as a presupposition of Baptism is at work in infant baptism as well, abundantly bestowing the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit. 'For by grace are ye saved through faith; and not that of yourselves: it is a gift of God' (Ephesians 2:8-9). On this account infants, even if they have not developed the understanding and thought of an adult, can, with the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and the gifts which He imparts to the soul of the baptized, among which is faith, reciprocate the call of God in baptism."

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The various "New Church" denominations that accept the teachings and Bible interpretations of the Christian theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) practice infant as well as adult baptism. This is based on Swedenborg's teachings about baptism, which he links directly to the Great Commission. Here is one place where Swedenborg provides this teaching and makes that link:

Many things establish the fact that baptism is what first brings us into the Christian church.

(1) Baptism was instituted as a replacement for circumcision. Just as circumcision was a sign that people belonged to the Israelite church, baptism is a sign that people belong to the Christian church, as was shown under the previous heading [§674]. This sign functions much like the ribbons of different colors tied to newborns of two mothers in order to tell them apart and not switch them by accident.

(2) Baptism is only a sign that people belong to the church. This is clear from the fact that babies who are baptized have not yet developed the use of reason and are therefore no more capable of receiving any part of faith than new little branches on some tree would be.

(3) Babies are not the only ones to be baptized; all who are converted to Christianity are also baptized, no matter how young or old they are. And they are baptized even before they receive instruction, based on nothing more than their declaring that they want to embrace Christianity. Baptism is what initiates them into the religion. This is the procedure the apostles followed when the Lord told them to “make disciples of all the nations and baptize them” (Matthew 28:19).

(4) “John baptized in the Jordan River all who came to him from Judea and Jerusalem” (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5). The reason why he baptized them in the Jordan River was that crossing that river brought people into the land of Canaan. The land of Canaan meant the church, because the church existed there. Therefore the Jordan meant the way people become part of the church (see Revelation Unveiled 367).

This is the earthly effect of baptism.

In the heavens, baptism has the added effect of making the babies who are baptized [on earth] part of the Christian heaven. The Lord assigns angels from that heaven to take care of these babies. Therefore as soon as the babies are baptized, angels are put in charge of them to keep them in a state that is receptive to faith in the Lord. As the children grow up and become independent and able to reason for themselves, these protective angels of theirs leave them, and the now-grown children draw to themselves spirits who have the same life and faith as they do.

This makes it clear that baptism also brings us into the company of Christians in the spiritual world. (True Christianity #677, links added)

Based on this teaching, traditional New Church infant baptism ceremonies charge the parents and godparents that in having their infants and children baptized, they are making a commitment to raise their children as Christians and to instruct them in the Bible and the Christian religion until the children are of an age in which they can make their own decision to dedicate their lives to Christ.

Swedenborgians therefore see the Great Commission as extending not just to adults, but to infants and children as well. "Making disciples" is understood broadly as bringing people of all ages into the Christian Church, instructing them in the Christian religion, and in this way making disciples of them. In the case of infants and children who are baptized under the tutelage of parents and godparents, this making of disciples comes to fruition when as adults they make their own free will decision to become Christians and to follow Christ, having been taught (sometimes traditionally called "discipled") about Christ and the Bible throughout their childhood.

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