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What is the Purpose of Baptism? (Part 1)

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

[Editor’s Note: This article is the first installment in a two-part series taken from AP’s soon-to-be released book Baptism & the Greek Made Simple.]

"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, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen" (Matthew 28:19-20).

This declaration of Jesus just prior to His exit from the Earth constitutes the “marching orders” for the apostles in promulgating the spread of Christianity in the first century. Embedded within this “Great Commission” is one of the key prerequisites to being saved: water baptism. The precise wording expressed by Jesus provides clarification in ascertaining the essentiality of baptism.

Greek Present Participles

Consider Matthew’s use of participles in this passage. In Greek, a participle indicates action as it relates to the main verb.1 Present participles indicate action that occurs at the same time as the action of the main verb. Consider the following affirmations of this important point by prominent Greek grammarians:

  • J. Gresham Machen [early 20th-century Presbyterian theologian, professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, author of the Greek grammar New Testament Greek for Beginners]—“The present participle, therefore, is used if the action denoted by the participle is represented as taking place at the same time as the action denoted by the leading verb, no matter whether the action denoted by the leading verb is past, present or future.” 2
  • Ray Summers [20th-century professor of New Testament and Greek at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Baylor University, author of the Greek grammar Essentials of New Testament Greek]—“The time of action in participles is indicated in the relation of the action of the participle to the action of the main verb…. The present participle indicates action which is contemporaneous with the action of the main verb.” 3
  • H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey [20th-century Baptist seminary professors of New Testament Interpretation, authors of the Greek grammar A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament]—“Simultaneous action relative to the main verb is ordinarily expressed by the present.” 4
  • A.T. Robertson [early 20th-century eminent professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, author of Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament as well as A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research]—“The present participle gets its time from the principal verb.” 5
  • James Hadley [19th-century professor of Greek at Yale, member of the American Committee for the revision of the New Testament and president of the American Oriental Society; first rate linguist, with knowledge of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, and several Celtic languages]—“The participles denote time relatively to that of the verb on which they depend. The present and perfect participles denote time relatively present, the aorist participle time relatively past, the future participle time relatively future.” 6
  • William Goodwin [19th-century classical scholar and Eliot professor of Greek at Harvard University, first director of the American School for Classical Studies at Athens, president of the American Philological Association]—“The tenses of the participle…are present, past, or future relatively to the time of the verb with which they are connected.” 7
  • William Mounce [21st-century New Testament Greek scholar, chaired the ESV translation committee, directed the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and author ofBasics of Biblical Greek]—“[T]he time of the participle is relative to the time of the main verb. The present participle describes an action occurring at the same time as the main verb.” 8
  • Raphael Kuhner [19th-century German classical scholar educated at the University of Göttingen, taught in the Hanover Lyceum, produced a large, two-volume Greek grammar translated by William Jelf, with an enlarged third edition in four volumes produced by Friedrich Blass and Bernhard Gerth]—“The action or state denoted by the participle is, therefore, usually prior to that denoted by the verb with which it is connected, sometimes coincident.” 9
  • James Moulton [early 20th-century philologist and Greek scholar, Tutor at Didsbury College, Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, Greenwood Professor of Hellenistic Greek and Indo-European Philology at Manchester University, Doctor of Letters, University of London. Produced Prolegomena, the first volume in the highly acclaimed series A Grammar of New Testament Greek]—“the linear action in a participle, connected with a finite verb in past or present time, partakes in the time of its principal.”10

While many more could be cited,11 these observations from respected Greek grammarians of the last two centuries demonstrate a simple but certain truth regarding the use of participles in the Greek language of the New Testament. Robison demonstrated the same usage among the apostolic fathers.12

Before turning to the Greek grammar of Matthew 28:19-20, consider the following examples in English that illustrate the function of the present participle as it relates to the main verb:

Example #1: “Go make pancakes, mixing the batter in the porcelain bowl, pouring it on the griddle.”

“Make (pancakes)” serves as the main verb of the sentence. “Mixing” and “pouring” are present participles. They refer to action that occurs at the same time as the main verb. In other words, “mixing the batter” and “pouring it on the griddle” describe how to achieve the action of the main verb. Mixing the batter and pouring it on the griddle do not refer to action that is subsequent to the action of the main verb. They do not occur after the pancakes are made. Rather, they represent actions that are contemporaneous with the action of the main verb.

Example #2: “Go clean the yard, mowing the lawn, raking the leaves.”

The main verb of this sentence is “clean (the yard)” followed by the two present participles “mowing” and “raking.” Being present participles, “mowing” and “raking” represent action that occurs simultaneous with the action of the main verb. The father is not instructing his son to clean the yard, and then after doing so, to subsequently mow the yard and rake the leaves. Rather, mowing the yard and raking the leaves indicate how the action of the main verb (clean the yard) is to be achieved.

Turning now to the Greek grammar of Matthew 28:19-20, our Lord uttered an imperative directive couched in the main verb matheteusate frommatheteuo—“to make disciples.”13 The apostles were to go throughout the world and “make disciples.” Jesus clarified this directive with two present participles: “teaching” and “baptizing.” Southern Baptist scholar of New Testament Greek A.T. Robertson says these two participles in this passage are “modal participles,”14 i.e., they identify the manner, means, or method by which the action of the main verb is accomplished. Samuel Green agreed, listing Matthew 28:19 as an example of the “modal” use, “setting forth the manner in which the given action was performed.”15 Dana and Mantey state that the “Modal Participle” “may signify the manner in which the action of the main verb is accomplished.”16 Hence, they pinpoint the mode by which the action of the main verb is achieved (also “manner or means”).17

Observe that the English reader might be tempted to interpret Jesus’ command to mean that the apostles were first to make disciples, i.e., convert people to Christianity, and then baptize them, and then after baptizing them to teach them additional Christian doctrine. However, the Greek grammar of the passage, i.e., Matthew’s inspired Greek translation of Jesus’ (perhaps Aramaic) remarks, weighs heavily against this interpretation and clarifies succinctly Jesus’ intended meaning.18

The main verb of the sentence, “make disciples,” is followed by two present participles that represent actions that occur at the same time as the action of the main verb. “Teaching” (didaskontes) and “baptizing” (baptidzontes) are actions that occur simultaneous with “making disciples,” i.e., they indicate what Jesus meant when He directed the apostles to go throughout the nations and convert people. To make disciples, the apostles were required to teach people the Gospel, including the necessity of observing all of Jesus’ commands, and then to baptize them in water. Those individuals who complied with these two actions were thereby made disciples.19 Alexander Bruce, 19th-century Scottish theologian and chair of Apologetics and New Testament Exegesis in the Free Church Hall in Glasgow, who authored the commentary on Matthew in Nicoll’s series The Expositor’s Greek Testament, wrote: “baptism the condition of discipleship = make disciples by baptizing.” 20 In his commentaries on the Greek Testament, another 19th-century scholar, English churchman, theologian, and textual critic, Henry Alford, specifically noted concerning Matthew 28:19-20: “Both these present participles are the conditioning components of the imperative aor. preceding.” 21 In other words, being taught and baptized are the conditions for becoming a disciple. As Matthew Poole explained: “make disciples…must be first by preaching and instructing them in the principles of the Christian faith…. I cannot be of their mind, who think that persons may be baptized before they are taught…. They were first to preach and to baptize amongst the Jews, and then thus to disciple all nations.” 22 Hence, John Lightfoot explained: “Make disciples: Bring them in by baptism…. When they are under baptism, they are no longer under heathenism; [baptism] puts a difference between those who are under the discipleship of Christ, and those who are not.” 23 Or as British Baptist scholar and professor of New Testament Interpretation G.R. Beasley-Murray noted: “the participles describe the manner in which a disciple is made…. It is when a hearer believes and is baptized that he becomes a full disciple; which is the same as saying that a disciple is made such in baptism by faith…. Baptizing belongs to the means by which a disciple is made.” 24

American theologian, ordained Presbyterian minister, and graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Albert Barnes, explained the import of the participles in his commentary: “This word properly means disciple, or make disciples of. This was to be done, however, by teaching, and by administering the rite of baptism.” 25 R.C.H. Lenski, Lutheran scholar whose 12-volume series of commentaries on the New Testament (from a traditional Lutheran perspective) contains a literal translation of the Greek texts, observes: “Two participles of means then state how all nations are to be made into disciples: by baptizing them and by teaching them.” 26 Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, Daniel Wallace, insists that the two participles (baptizing and teaching)

should not be taken as attendant circumstance. First, they do not fit the normal pattern for attendant circumstance participles (they are present tense and follow the main verb). And second, they obviously make good sense as participles of means: i.e., the means by which the disciples were to make disciples.” 27

R.T. France, New Testament scholar and Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, explains that “Baptizing and ‘teaching’ (v. 20) are participles dependent on the main verb, make disciples; they further specify what is involved in discipleship.” 28 And A. Lukyn Williams insightfully observes: “The imperative aorist matheteusate is, as it were, decomposed by the two following present participles, ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’…. The present participle denotes the mode of initiation into discipleship. Make them disciples by baptizing them.” 29 Or as Norrisian Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and Lord Bishop of Winchester, Edward Harold Browne, explained in the well-respected Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible: “Make disciples of all nations by baptizing them…[T]hey were to be made disciples, admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, by baptism.”30 And Heinrich Meyer, noted German Protestant theologian, in his Kritisch-ex-egetischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, observed that it is in the “baptizing” where “discipling” “is to be consummated, not something that must be done after the matheteusate.” 31

In view of these decisive linguistic considerations, examine the following three sentences together:

  • “Go make pancakes, mixing the batter in the porcelain bowl, pouring it on the griddle.”
  • “Go clean the yard, mowing the lawn, raking the leaves.”
  • “Go make disciples…, baptizing them…, teaching them….”

Now ask and answer three questions based solely on the grammar:

  • Can pancakes be made without mixing batter and pouring the batter on the griddle? Answer: No.
  • Can the yard be cleaned without mowing the lawn and raking the leaves? Answer: No.
  • Can disciples of Christ be made without teaching and baptizing them? Answer: No.

[to be continued]


1 “The participle has not time in itself. Time with the participle is purely relative; it gets its time from the verb with which it is used”—William Davis (1923), Beginner’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Harper & Row), p. 99; cf. John Huddilston (1961), Essentials of New Testament Greek (New York: Macmillan), p. 73.

2 J. Gresham Machen (1923), New Testament Greek for Beginners (Toronto: Macmillan), pp. 105-106, emp. added.

3 Ray Summers (1950), Essentials of New Testament Greek (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press), pp. 89-90, emp. added.

4 H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey (1955), A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto: Macmillan), p. 230, emp. added.

5 A.T. Robertson (1909), Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son), p. 197.

6 James Hadley (1885), A Greek Grammar for Schools and Colleges (New York: D. Appleton), p. 272, italics in orig., emp. added.

7 William Goodwin (1893), A Greek Grammar (Boston: Ginn & Company), p. 275, italics in orig.

8 William Mounce (2003), Basics of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 255, emp. added.

9 Raphael Kuhner (1872), Grammar of the Greek Language, trans. B.B. Edwards & S.H. Taylor (New York: D. Appleton & Co.), p. 471, italics in orig., emp. added.

10 James H. Moulton (1906), A Grammar of New Testament Greek: Prolegomena (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), second edition, p. 126, emp. added.

11 e.g., Ernest Burton (1898), Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), p. 54; H.P.V. Nunn (1973 reprint), A Short Syntax of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 123; Jeremy Duff (2005), The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 85.

12 Henry Robison (1913), Syntax of the Participle in the Apostolic Fathers (Chicago: University of Chicago), pp. 11ff.

13 James Moulton (1919), A Grammar of New Testament Greek: Accidence and Word Formation (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), 2:400.

14 A.T. Robertson (1934), A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman), p. 1128.

15 Samuel Green (1886), Handbook to the Grammar of the Greek Testament (New York: Fleming H. Revell), p. 332.

16 p. 228. Also Curtis Vaughan and Virtus Gideon (1979), A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman), pp. 157,160—“The circumstantial participle (sometimes called ‘adverbial’) defines the circumstances under which the action of a verb takes place…. The circumstantial participle may be modal, denoting the manner in which the action of the main verb is effected.” Classical scholar Herbert Weir Smyth agreed: “The circumstantial participle expresses simply circumstance or manner in general. It may imply various other relations, such as time, manner, means, cause, purpose, concession, condition, etc…. The time denoted by the participle is only relative to that of the governing verb;” “The action set forth by the present participle is generally coincident (rarely antecedent or subsequent) to that of the leading verb”—(1963), Greek Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), pp. 457,419.

17 See also Burton, p. 172—“The participle expressing manner or means often denotes the same action as that of the principal verb…. [A]s respects its modal function it is a participle of manner or means.” Also Cleon Rogers Jr. and Cleon Rogers III (1998), The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 66.

18 “Two or more participles…unconnected by kaiv, are frequently…joined to one principal verb”—George Winer (1870),A Treatise on the Grammar of the New Testament Greek, trans. W.F. Moulton (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), p. 433. Lange notes that “there is no kaiv before didavskonte$, so that baptizing and teaching are not strictly coordinate, as two successive acts”—John Lange (1884), A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 1:558. Again, in other words, both occur coincident with “make disciples.”

19 Word order in Greek is far more flexible than in English (“The freedom of the Greek from artificial rules and its response to the play of the mind is never seen better than in the order of words in the sentence”—Robertson, 1934, p. 417), which explains the sequence of the participle “baptizing” occurring before the participle “teaching,” even though in actual point of time a person logically would have to be taught before he could be baptized. One beauty of Koine Greek is the way participles minimize this confusion by deriving their “time” from the action of the principal verb. Again, Robertson noted concerning aorist participles: “It is needless to press the point…that the order of the participle is immaterial” (p. 861). Since both participles in this instance are present participles, both refer to activity that must be associated with the action of the main verb. Though they follow the verb, their action cannot occur after the action of the main verb. (A future participle would more appropriately serve that function). Both actions must occur in concert with “make disciples.” No linguistic justification exists for assigning the action of one of the present participles (“baptizing”) as occurring concurrently with the leading verb while assigning the action of the other present participle (“teaching”) as occurring subsequent to the action of the leading verb. Note further, as a point of clarification, that the two present participles do not indicate simultaneous action with each other—but rather both are contemporaneous with the leading verb. Some writers demonstrate confusion on this point by assigning the “teaching” to post-baptism indoctrination. While the New Testament certainly requires new converts to continue their study and instruction after their conversion, Jesus’ use of present participles demonstrates that He was referring to the teaching that is initially necessary to enable a person to become His disciple. Both “baptizing” and “teaching” are necessary in order to become a disciple of Christ. New Testament scholar William Hendriksen succinctly summarized the point: “In such a construction it would be completely wrong to say that because the word baptizing precedes the word teaching, therefore people must be baptized before they are taught…. The concepts ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ are simply two activities, in co-ordination with each other, but both subordinate to ‘make disciples.’ In other words, by means of being baptized and being taught a person becomes a disciple”—William Hendriksen (1973), Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 1000, italics in orig. Though Carson sends mixed signals in this regard, he at least states plainly that “matheteuo entails both preaching and response…. The NT can scarcely conceive of a disciple who is not baptized or is not instructed. Indeed, the force of this command is to make Jesus’ disciples responsible for making disciples of others, a task characterized by baptism and instruction”—D.A. Carson (1984), Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 8:597. Stanley Porter explains that “the syntax probably indicates that the action of the two participles is logically concurrent in that the two actions of baptizing and teaching indicate, at least in part, what it means to make disciples,” and so inserts into his “interpretative translation” just before “baptizing” the word “including” (pp. 251-252). Though he ends up applying “teaching” to post-baptism instruction in obedience, he rightly concludes: “The command to make disciples is defined by two further prominent concepts, grammaticalized by two participles: baptism and teaching”—(2015), Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 253. Note further that Mark’s wording of the “Great Commission” places “preach the Gospel” parallel to Matthew’s “make disciples.” So where Matthew has make disciples by teaching and baptizing, Mark has save people by preaching the Gospel to them, causing them to believe and be baptized. Matthew and Mark intended to say the same thing. Observe in summary: Even if a solid linguistic case could be made proving that “teaching” refers to post-conversion teaching that follows baptism, nevertheless, the design of baptism remains the same, since the “baptizing” occurs simultaneous with “make disciples,” i.e., baptism is essential to salvation, pinpointing the moment when a penitent believer becomes a disciple of Christ.

20 Alexander Bruce (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:339.

21 Henry Alford (1874), Alford’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980 reprint), 1:306, emp. added.

22 Matthew Poole (no date), A Commentary on the Holy Bible: Matthew-Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), 3:146.

23 John Lightfoot (1979 reprint), A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew-Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), pp. 379-380, italics in orig.

24 G.R. Beasley-Murray (1976 reprint), Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), pp. 88-89, italics in orig. It is surely eye-opening for renowned Baptist pastor and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 19th century, John Broadus, to acknowledge the undeniable grammatical function of the present participles in this passage (“‘disciple by baptizing…by teaching’; and so many understand it”) only to dismiss the clear import of the language in order to evade the contradiction between his personal doctrinal belief and the words of our Lord. John Broadus (1886), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society), p. 594.

25 Albert Barnes (1956 reprint), Notes on the New Testament: Matthew and Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 323, italics in orig.

26 R.C.H. Lenski (1943), The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg), p. 1173. Or as Johann Albrecht Bengel noted: “The verb, maqhteuvein, signifies to make disciples; it includes baptism and teaching”—(1858), Gnomon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), 1:489, italics in orig., emp. added. Commenting on “make disciples,” Eiselen notes: “Make disciples. This describes a comprehensive duty of which baptizing and teaching form a part”—Frederick Eiselen, ed. (1929), The Abingdon Bible Commentary (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press), p. 995, italics in orig.

27 Daniel Wallace (1996), Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 645, italics in orig., emp. added.

28 R.T. France (1985), The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2002 reprint, p. 414, italics in orig.

29 A. Lukyn Williams (1961 reprint), “Matthew,” The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H.D.M. Spence and J.S. Exell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), p. 645, italics in orig., emp. added.

30 Frederick Meyrick (1868), “Baptism,” in William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, rev. and ed. H.B. Hackett (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1971 reprint), 1:236,240, emp. added. Also A.J. Maas (1898), The Gospel According to Matthew (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder), p. 315.

31 Heinrich Meyer (1881), Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of St. Matthew (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), p. 301, italics in orig.

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