Some see the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19 as the only direct statement of the Trinity in the Bible. But does this verse really prove the Trinity?
Our article “The Trinity: What Is It?” examines the biblical teaching about the nature of God and shows that the idea of the Trinity did not come from the Bible. The Trinity doctrine developed over hundreds of years and was influenced by the teachings of pagan Greek philosophers.
However, Matthew 28:19 is frequently used in attempts to prove that the Trinity is a biblical teaching. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003 edition, “The only direct statement of Trinitarian revelation is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19.”
If the Trinity doctrine rests its biblical claim on this verse, what happens if this verse doesn’t actually prove the Trinity?
Examining Matthew 28:19
At first glance, Jesus Christ’s words in this account may appear as validation of the Trinity. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But notice: This verse does not actually make any statement about equality or about three persons in one Being. It does not describe the Holy Spirit as a person or as having personality. The instruction is about baptism, not about the nature of the Godhead. Had Jesus wanted to establish Trinitarianism, He could have been much clearer.
The New King James Version uses the words “in the name.” The American Standard Version, the English Revised Version and the Weymouth New Testament use “into” instead of “in.” In the Greek, the word is eis. It is defined as “into, to, towards, for, and among” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). We believe “into” is a much better translation than “in” and that it better describes the marvelous transformation that begins in a Christian’s life when he or she receives the Holy Spirit.
Greek lexicons and dictionaries emphasize that eis shows movement toward something. Translating eis as “into” with regard to going toward something gives a much clearer sense of the meaning. Being baptized thrusts us powerfully toward God the Father and Jesus Christ, and we are given the Holy Spirit to impart to our minds a beginning portion of the divine nature.
We are baptized by the authority of Jesus Christ, who, by His awesome sacrifice, paid for our sins. And we are baptized into the family of the divine God, who is Spirit (John 4:24). We must worship Him in spirit. His Spirit comes into our mind and a new spiritual life begins. It is in this sense that we are baptized “into” the Holy Spirit, becoming younger brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and children of God the Father (Hebrews 2:10-12; John 1:12; Romans 8:14).
Being baptized into the Holy Spirit reminds us of John the Baptist’s words in Matthew 3:11, “I indeed baptize you with [Greek en, primarily translated as “in,” which is appropriate here since baptism is by immersion in water] water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with [Greek en, “in” again] the Holy Spirit and fire” (emphasis added). John likens being immersed in water with being immersed in the Holy Spirit.
Also, realize that just because something has a name, that doesn’t automatically equate it with personhood. Even inanimate objects—mountain ranges, for example—have proper names.
The Holy Spirit helps us to be like Jesus Christ, but this does not mean it is a person. It is the nature of God, the power of God, the way He extends Himself in the universe. Please see the article “Is the Holy Spirit a Person?”
Acts 2:38 also discusses baptism, but it has a different purpose. It gives an overview of the steps involved in baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
What does he mean here by being baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ”? If we do something in the name of someone, we do it by his authority. So Peter told us to be baptized by the authority of Jesus Christ.
Also consider that Peter describes the Holy Spirit as a gift. If the Holy Spirit were a person, how could it be a gift? Earlier in Acts 2 he quoted the book of Joel where God said that He would “pour out My Spirit” (verse 18). If the Holy Spirit were a person, how could it be poured out?
God the Father’s goodness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4), and He is the One from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named (Ephesians 3:15). The Son is the One who died for our sins. The actions of the Father and the Son make it possible for us to receive the power of Their Holy Spirit into our minds upon conversion and baptism to impart the divine nature of God.
In Romans 8:16 we read, “The Spirit Himself [“itself,” King James Version] bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (The reason the New King James Version translators incorrectly used “Himself” is explained in our more comprehensive article on the Trinity.)
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all essential to the ceremony of baptism. God imparts the Holy Spirit to our minds to begin a new spiritual life in us. It binds Christians together and empowers them, granting them some of the divine nature of Almighty God. But this in no sense proves the Trinity.
For more on this subject, see the related articles: