Is the Singular "Name" of Matthew 28:19 Theologically Significant?

Jason Dulle

I’ve been giving some thought to the traditional Oneness Pentecostal interpretation of Matthew 28:19, particularly our emphasis on the importance of the singular nature of “name.” We argue that if Jesus meant for us to actually invoke three names over the baptizee (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), He should have used the plural form, “names” rather than the singular form, “name,” which is grammatically incorrect. The reason Jesus used the singular was not because He made a grammatical mistake, but because He only had one name in view. The disciples properly discerned that name to be His name--Jesus--and used His name exclusively in their baptismal formula. They obeyed Jesus' words, rather than merely repeating Jesus’ words.

The linchpin of this interpretation is the assumption that the singular “name” is grammatically incorrect. I'm not convinced this is true. The phrase, “Of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is a string of three genitival phrases modifying “name.” One could easily understand the prepositional phrase, “in the name,” to be implied for both the Son and the Holy Spirit, so that the intended sense of the verse is, “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and [in the name] of the Son, and [in the name] of the Holy Spirit.” This would be similar to me saying, “Arrest them in the name of the king, and the queen, and the motherland.” Here, the singular use of “name” is justified because “in the name of” is implied for both the queen and the motherland. The meaning of the sentence is, “Arrest them in the name of the king, and [the name of] the queen, and [the name of] the motherland.” If the same is true of Matthew 28:19, then the singular “name” is being applied to each of the three appellations individually. This would mean there is no theological significance in Jesus' use of the singular "name," and it is irrelevant to understanding how Matthew 28:19 squares with the baptismal formula used by the apostles in Acts.

If I am right about the use of "name" in Matthew 28:19, how do we reconcile what Jesus said about baptism with what the apostles taught and practiced in Acts? Why did they baptize in the name of Jesus, rather than in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? What clued them in to the fact that Jesus did not mean for them to literally repeat His exact words, if it wasn't His use of the singular "name"? I would suggest that it was what Jesus said immediately before. He prefaced His command concerning baptism by saying, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore…” (28:18). And after Jesus issued His command concerning baptism, He continued to speak exclusively of Himself: “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always” (28:20). The emphasis throughout the Great Commission was on Christ alone. Together with the disciples' recognition that Jesus encapsulates our experience of God, they understood His words to mean that they were to baptize in His name. The name (authority) into which we are baptized is the same name who had just claimed all authority in heaven and earth: Jesus Christ. Because Jesus possesses all authority, we are to be baptized in His name.

Of course, I could be wrong about Jesus' intention. Perhaps He did not intend to imply "in the name of" in connection with the Son and Holy Spirit. Perhaps he intended the singular use of "name" to signal to the apostles that they were to baptize in His name alone. Whether it was due to Jesus' singular use of “name” or Jesus' emphasis on His authority, the fact remains that the apostles understood Jesus to mean they were to baptize in His name, and we should follow their lead.

See also:
Baptism: Do It Right

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