Mt. 28:19,20 is one of the most well-known Biblical texts, and at the same time, one of the most controversial. A source of controversy here is not only the famous formula "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit", which is one of the most frequently cited texts in support of the Trinity, but also the words "make them my disciples", which in turn are interpreted as a command that the followers of Jesus should convert the whole world through proclaiming the Gospel, preaching on missions, etc. Both issues are very important for both theory and practice of our conduct in Christ. Hence, they deserve to be carefully examined in the light of Biblical contexts, as well as the whole of the Biblical teaching.
"... MAKE THEM MY DISCIPLES"
First, we find in Mt. 28:19,20 the call to 'to make all peoples Christ's disciples'. How can one become a disciple? Through submitting to baptism ("baptize them") and learning from the Bible ("teach them to obey everything I have commanded you"). And this is, apart from the Imperative "make them my disciples", the basic message of Mt. 28:19,20 - one becomes Christ's disciple through submitting to water baptism, learning about God's requirements from the Bible and respecting them (also see Lk. 9:23, 14:27; Jn. 8:31). What is then the role of the preacher?
The mentioned Imperative is a command addressed to believers: make disciples. Many churches have taken this call very seriously, and in their zeal they make disciples by baptizing newborn babies. This way one can be certain that his mission of making disciples will be fulfilled. Infants will not raise objections, after all. They are not even aware that the ceremony going on is baptism, not mentioning its meaning. Water baptism elevated to a sacrament will inevitably make them members of Christ's church without any need for awareness on their part. This is, however, a serious misinterpretation of Christ's teaching. It is true, the Bible shows that we do not minister baptism to ourselves and we do need teachers who introduce us to Biblical doctrines. Still, before we can fulfill the command of Jesus from Mt. 28:19,20 in relation to anyone through baptism and teaching, the person needs to do one more thing: convert to Christ.
Conversion must precede baptism, if we want to talk about the real Biblical baptism. Apostle Peter is most explicit on that point in his speech to the Jews who gathered at Pentecost: "Reform, and be baptized each of you on the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38 YLT). If we understand that the meaning of water baptism is to confirm our consecration (sacrificing our lives to God), we also understand that no one can take this step for us, be it the father, the mother or anyone else (Rom. 6:3-6). It has to be a fully conscious, independent and thoughtful step of a man who offers himself as a sacrifice to God, ready to concentrate his life on fulfilling the will of his Creator.
One also needs to consider that there are elements of the Biblical doctrine, such as Divine calling and Divine election. God is the only one to elect those who will receive baptism in the Spirit. And those who are chosen will also be called by God through the gift of faith. Only the God-given faith can lead one to be baptized in the Spirit, i.e. to repent and convert to God through Christ (Acts 26:18 YLT). If there is no calling, there is no conversion, and there will be no prize in heaven, which God has foreseen only for his elect ones (Rom. 8:29,30, 9:6-16, 12:3; Ef. 1:3-6, 2:8-10; 1 Thes. 1:4-7).
Jesus' command to make disciples should be understood as it was written: we are to minister water baptism and teach the baptized. We need to understand, however, that these actions can be taken in relation to those who have received faith from God and who converted to Him, proving in this way their election. If this proof is lacking, before God no baptism will be effective.
Why then does Jesus tell his apostles to make "all peoples everywhere" his disciples instead of making disciples from amongst "all peoples"? We need to take into account when and to whom Jesus is speaking. His earthly ministry was aimed solely at the Jews (Mt. 15:24). Giving his command to make "all nations" his disciples, he once again turns to the Jews. What would have been understood by Jesus' Jewish apostles if he had spoken about making disciples from amongst nations? With a great deal of certainty, not as a command to preach Gospel to pagans, but rather to the Jews scattered amongst nations. "With a great deal of certainty" because even the words we read in Mt. 28:19,20 were interpreted this way. Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is poured out, is the day of an ardent enthusiasm for preaching precisely to the Jews who came to the feast from different countries. We don't hear about preaching to pagans until the time of Cornelius.
Moreover, when Peter receives the vision described in Acts 10:9-16, he sees no relation with the words spoken by Jesus in Mt. 28:19,20. Quite to the contrary, "Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean" (Acts 10:17 WB). It is only forthcoming events that convince him "God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34,35 WB). Therefore, the command to make disciples of all nations refers to the mission of preaching Gospel to pagans. Making disciples of Israel did not mean that every Jew was to be converted to Jesus. On the contrary, sending his followers to preach Gospel, Jesus says: "And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy" (Mt. 10:11 KJV). Similarly, proclaiming the Gospel, let us not try to convert everyone because it is not our task. Instead, let us 'enquire who is worthy' - who is called by God.
"... BAPTIZE THEM IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT"
Mt. 28:19,20 is often quoted in the above element to support the argument that God exists in three Divine Persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A closer look at this fragment of the Bible reveals, however, that it does not treat about unity in the ontic sense. If it shows unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in any sense, it is the unity of action. If I do something in the name of three other persons, it means that these people have a common goal to achieve, and they want to use me as an intermediary who will arrange it on their behalf, that's all.
There is no doubt that in the process of consecration symbolised by water baptism (Rom. 6:3-5) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all play an active role. God is the one who calls us through faith and who grants us the new birth in the Spirit (Rom. 8:29,30; 2 Cor. 1:21,22). Jesus is the one who paid for us the price of his life and who now acts as our advocate before God and Mediator of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 7:25, 9:15). In the Holy Spirit we are born again as the "new creation", a new person dedicated to the service of God (Jn. 1:12,13, 3:5; Gal. 5:22,23; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24). So we can definitely speak about the unity of action between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in relation to the called ones. Its aim is their sanctification, that is full fransformation of their characters after the image of Christ (1 Thes. 4:3,7). However, is does not have to involve, and in fact does not involve, unity in the sense implied by the doctrine of the Trinity.
There is also no agreement as to whether the phrase "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" is original. Mt. 28:19,20 is the only verse in the New Testament where baptism is "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." In other cases, we read about baptism in the name of only one person - our Lord Jesus (Acts 2:38, 8:12,16, 10:47,48, 19:5, 22:16; Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27). Furthermore, in several pre-Nicene texts (written before 325 AD) containing quotations from Mt. 28:19,20 we find reference only to the person of Jesus Christ - the Father and the Holy Spirit are not mentioned (see the online article "Constantine Wrote Matthew 28:19 Into Your Bible!").
In the context of the Trinity as related to Mt. 28:19,20 the issue of possible addition does not even seem to be critical. Crucial is the fact that even in the presently accepted version the text does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity in the ontological sense. There is no single word which would suggest that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in being, which in itself discredits the use of Mt. 28:19,20 in this sense.