Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thinking About The Word βαπτίζοντες In The Great Commission

I had a student chime in on a conversation I was having with a couple of individuals this afternoon. We were talking about the lordship salvation issue. I shared with them about a conversation Ricky B. and I had with John MacArthur while living in Los Angeles. I remember John MacArthur saying how kind Charles Ryrie is to him whenever he is in the Dallas area. You might have thought the two never talked considering what they write in their works The Gospel according to Jesus and Basic Theology. It surprised me. They actually were on talking terms, and they were loving each other with the love of Christ. That conversation said a lot to me.

The student who chimed in said he disagreed with me about lordship salvation, specifically that repentance, when defined as a "turning away from sin," is a necessary component of salvation. Here is one of the things he said: "The Greek word μετανοέω only means 'change of mind.'" There are few words, if any, that can only mean one thing. The very nature of language, especially with limited vocabulary, encourages wide semantic range. Some words have a wider semantic range than others. But words have ranges of meaning. How do you narrow down what a word means when you encounter it in the Bible, or any communication for that matter? You have to consider the context. The next thing that the student said was this: "John emphasizes faith. That's what's necessary." It's true the word πιστεύω occurs bookoos of times in the Gospel of John. No doubt. But there's a danger when you consider only what that author wrote and do not consider whether or not the word, translated mostly as "believe" in the Gospel, could involve more than just a mental affirmative assent concerning the gospel and what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

That leads me to this consideration. Could an author use a word and more be entailed by the use of that word? I think we see a perfect example of that in Matthew 28:19–20, the passage known to us as the Great Commission. I really like Dave Black's translation. Let me share it with you here before we hone in on one of the participles:
"Wherever you go, train everyone you meet -- the people in every nation -- how to be my followers. Mark them publicly by immersion in the triune name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them not just in knowledge but in the practice of everything I've commanded you. And as you do this, remember this: I will be with you, day after day after day, until the very end of the age."
What are we going to do with the participle βαπτίζοντες? Well, first of all, don't you love how his translation takes it to immersion. The famous transliteration of the root with "baptiz" that we see in all of our translations of the Bible really only maintains an intentional ambiguity that helps with marketing and sales. In other words, the ambiguity is retained generation after generation just so the translation can be attractive to a wider audience. Okay, so that's a tangent.

But back to my point. What's involved with the word βαπτίζοντες? Which of us would ever say that it only refers to the act of immersion in water? That's of course what Jesus tells us to do. But we are not supposed to be immersing people just for the sake of immersing them. What Jesus is commanding his own apprentices to do is not just go in to the world and get people wet! Involved in this participle are the following ideas:
  1. His disciples were supposed to clearly explain the gospel. No one could be marked as a Christian who had not first heard the gospel. 
  2. Those who heard the gospel and responded to the gospel were to be publicly identified with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. 
Three participles are given in the Great Commission to enunciate what is involved in making disciples of all the nations, i.e., "training everyone everywhere." We might expect to see something like κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, like found in Peter's Gospel, but we don't see anything like it here. In fact, in Matthew's Gospel, we probably would expect to see an added participle, the use of κηρύσσοντες, between μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη and βαπτίζοντες. The use of another participial clause is really unnecessary though. Isn't the idea of sharing the gospel caught up in and implied by the use of βαπτίζοντες. I think so. We only baptize those who respond to the gospel. Let's think for a moment about what would happen if we found a κηρύσσοντες clause in place of the βαπτίζοντες clause. If we did, we would miss the connection Jesus makes to the teaching aspect of the Great Commission. What I see in the Great Commission is this:
  1. We share the gospel with everyone everywhere. 
  2. We concentrate on teaching everything Jesus commanded us to obey (not just the gospel) to people who have responded to the gospel and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Until then, our teaching concerns the gospel, over and over and over again. 
I think a lot of churches confuse these two points. They want to teach everyone everywhere first and hope that they respond to the gospel somewhere along the way. That's not the way Jesus puts it. By including the participle βαπτίζοντες where and how he does, Jesus makes this point definitive. We must first be telling people the gospel. They can't be baptized unless they hear the good news. There's no significance of a Jesusless, gospelless baptism. The teaching of everything Jesus commanded comes after that! Until then, we teach them some of what Jesus commanded, namely the gospel and how they should respond to Jesus' substitutionary death on the cross and his resurrection three days later.

So this leads me to my concluding thought and question. Why do some of us want to restrict John's many uses of πιστεύω to just mental affirmative assent (minus repentance)? Repentance is an essential component of the gospel. Jesus called people everywhere to repentance (see Matt. 4:17). When he sent his disciples out, he told them to carry the same exact message (see Mark 6:12). Repentance was an important component of Jesus' teaching even after the tragic day that Israel rejected him as the rightful heir to the David throne (see Matthew 12–13 for the "tragic" day; and see Luke 13:3, 5; 16:30; 17:4; etc.). I have no doubt that the Apostle John understood that repentance was an intricate piece of what we call salvation.

Be careful when you base your theology on a single lexical definition, ya'll. Exercise major caution when you hear someone else do it. With that said, don't swing to the other side of the pendulum and ascribe every semantic possibility to a word. Let the context limit and expand what a word means!

You can download the PDF version of this essay here.

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