The passage referred to as "The Great Commission" gives instructions to the church about water baptism. Under our consideration is the meaning of the phrase "...baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:18-ff). Some sects have claimed that unless the formula given here is followed exactly you have no real baptism. The puzzling thing for me is that most of these groups don't believe baptism is of any sacramental significance anyway. Most see it as something we do for God and as a witness to the world. To "do it wrong" means nothing unless they view this act of obedience to be of such significance that failure to do it correctly means separation or deprived benefits from God.
That premise is one I reject. If you have read the studies on this web site on baptism you know that I am thoroughly persuaded that baptism is a work of God in man's behalf, not the other way around. To make any sacrament of any act of faith the object of our faith (i.e. trusting that thing instead of trusting God who works through the means of grace), is to commit idolatry.
Still, it is our desire to understand, as much as possible, the instructions and commands of Jesus so that we can obey them. To comprehend what we are being commanded in Matthew 28:19 we will look at the text to discern what is meant by the words and look at how the Apostles carried out this command in the New Testament.
The first step is to examine the text. At most baptisms we hear the words "In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.", but is that what we are told to do? Did Jesus say "...baptizing them with these words; In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"? No, He said "...baptizing them In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". What does it mean to baptize "In The Name Of". It can means several things:
As the Hebrew people lost the fullest use of their language it was forbidden even to attempt to pronounce the divine name of God for fear of mispronouncing it. Even today devout Jews use the term Jehovah or the term Adonai, when he reads the divine name in the text to avoid any attempt at the real pronunciation and get it wrong. The most common term used is Lord, or Adonai. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Hebrew into Greek) translated the divine name as "Kurios," which means Lord. We know that Jesus quoted from the Septuagint (because of some of the nuances and distinctions between a translation from Hebrew and Greek), hence the "name" for the father evidently used by Jesus and the disciples would have been "Kurios,", in English we translate it Lord.
The Hebrew name for God has been translated ":I AM" (Exodus 13:14)
This is the easiest name since it was given by an angel to Mary and is used throughout the New Testament. The name "Jesus" appears approximately 1000 times in the New Testament. Both Jesus (Greek) and Joshua (Hebrew) mean Savior.
There is no 'proper name' given to the Holy Spirit in Scripture. The nearest we come is the term Christ (Greek: Christos, Hebrew: mashiyach). This is more a title than a name, but we are given no name. The word means "Anointed". Jesus the Christ, means Jesus the Anointed.
What is the NAME used in the baptismal formula? We can count on the practice of the apostles and early church to have understood it properly. What is the practice of the church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and in the epistles?
The following passages reveal the specific fulfillment of the baptismal "formula" by the Apostles.
What we have seen from the examples of baptism in the New Testament is that there is no consensus. Clearly the Apostles understood the fullness of the names of deity to exist in the Jesus the Christ. From the examples we have seen baptism was done using the phrase "in the Lord Jesus Christ" or some variation of it.
Does this mean that using a different phrase invalidates the baptism? No. We have seen that there is no consistency and no clear amplification on the baptismal formula. If it had been important enough to invalidate the baptism, the Lord would certainly have made it clear to His Apostles. What we find, instead, is flexibility. We must not restrict or narrowly define that which the Lord has not restricted.
The key to this issue, as it is with so many others, is that God is far more interested in WHAT is going on in our hearts toward him than legalism, formulas or methods. Baptism, after all, is God acting in our behalf and for our benefit.