At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, he gives us the words of the Master, what is usually called the Great Commission:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” – Matthew 28:18-20.
As I noted in my post on the Ascension of the Lord, this passage harks back to Matthew 24:14. When Jesus spoke to them at that point, everything he was telling them was prophecy. By Matthew 28, he lets them know that they are living in the very fulfillment of that prophecy, which means that this moment in Matthew is truly the very beginning of the beginning of the end. From this point, they can expect to see many of the other things from Matthew 24 begin to come to pass, much of it in that generation.
What makes this passage from the twenty-eighth chapter of particular interest is the mention of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as part of what would become the standard formula for Christian baptism. F.C. Conybeare at the beginning of the 20th century offered up the possibility that the Trinitarian formula was a later addition to the Gospel, just as Mark’s Gospel had had various endings added onto it. This was in spite of the fact that the earliest copies of Matthew that included chapter 28 never failed to mention it.
Conybeare offered up the Theophania by Eusebius of Caesarea (written A.D. 324 – 337) as possible proof that Eusebius was familiar with an older version of Matthew that had an ending more in line with Luke’s Gospel and the early teaching in Acts, which stressed baptism in the name of Jesus. Eusebius wrote:
“‘Go and make Disciples of all nations in my name.’ And, when He had said this to them, He attached to it the promise, by which they should be so encouraged, as readily to give themselves up to the things commanded. For He said to them, ‘Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’ It is stated, moreover, that He breathed into them the Holy Ghost with the Divine power; (thus) giving them the power to work miracles, saying at one time, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost” and at another, commanding them, to ‘Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, and cast out Demons:—freely ye have received, freely give.’” Eusebius, Theophania, V.49
In this passage and others, while Eusebius is indeed stressing the power and the authority of the name of Jesus, he clearly isn’t always quoting passages of Scripture verbatim – or in any linear way. In this short paragraph alone, he begins by combining Matthew 28:19 and Luke 24:47, he quotes Matthew 28:20, John 20:22, and then he ends it by quoting Matthew 10:8. While he may have been familiar with a copy of Matthew that used a shorter baptismal formula, it’s also possible that he was simply combining Matthew and Luke in a few instances.
There’s no real evidence that the Trinitarian ending of Matthew was added after Nicea, and much evidence that believers were familiar with it – or at least the apostolic tradition behind it – from the earliest decades of the Christian era. While exactly what Jesus might have meant by that phrase would be the stuff driving Church Councils for centuries, the Trinitarian formula itself was a solid part of the deposit of faith.
Fortunately, the Great Commission is not the only place that we encounter the Trinity in Matthew’s Gospel. As Matthew is wont to do, he plants seeds in one chapter and that spring up in another. In chapter three, he writes:
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” – Matthew 3:16
The mission of Jesus begins with his baptism and the voice of God, self-identifying as the Father of the Son, with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The continuing mission of Jesus after the resurrection contains the command to teach and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The promise is that Christ’s presence with his people will continue until the end of the age.
As clearly defined Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are lively and closely aligned in the Gospel of Matthew. God is referred to as “Father” in Matthew some forty-five times, according to F.W. Beare – a massive change from the Old Testament usage. Even moreso than in the other Gospels, in Matthew “the Father” is God’s central identity. Although Matthew only mentions the Holy Spirit twelve times, we are given a great deal of information about him. The Spirit is the one who conceives the son of God in time and space within the womb of the Virgin (Matt. 1:18). He is the one who comes upon (Matt. 3:16), empowers (Matt. 12:28) and directs (Matt. 4:1) Jesus during his life on earth. For John the Baptist, the presence of the Holy Spirit is an identifier of the true Messiah (Matt. 3:11), and in the lives of the disciples, the Spirit is the giver of inspiration and holy wisdom (Matt. 10:20). The Holy Spirit also appears to be the most tender member of the Holy Trinity, because purposely calling him unholy is the one sin that cannot be forgiven (Matt. 12:32). Thus, we not only find the Holy Trinity at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus and at the end, but all throughout.
The earliest document outside of the New Testament to use the Trinitarian formula found in Matthew 28 for baptism is the Didache, an ancient church manual written between A.D. 50 – 70:
While St. Clement of Rome doesn’t use the Trinitarian formula for baptism per se, in A.D. 96 he did give a Trinitarian benediction which is likely an allusion to baptism, as an integral part of the faith of true Christians.
“Receive our counsel, and you shall be without repentance. For, as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost live — both the faith and hope of the elect, he who in lowliness of mind, with instant gentleness, and without repentance has observed the ordinances and appointments given by God— the same shall obtain a place and name in the number of those who are being saved through Jesus Christ, through whom is glory to Him for ever and ever. Amen.” – St. Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, 58.
Matthew’s baptismal formula is quoted by St. Hippolytus before the year 200:
“The Father’s Word, therefore, knowing the economy (disposition) and the will of the Father, to wit, that the Father seeks to be worshipped in none other way than this, gave this charge to the disciples after He rose from the dead: Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” – St. Hippolytus of Rome, Against Noetus, 14.
Also writing around the year 200 was Tertullian of Carthage:
“For the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: Go, He says, teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The comparison with this law of that definition, Unless a man have been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens, has tied faith to the necessity of baptism.” Tertullian, On Baptism, 13.
Many other citations could be given, but it should be enough to say that even before the Council of Nicea, the Trinitarian ending of Matthew was commonly known, and not just known, but quoted. As for the possibility that Constantine could have organized a massive, Empire-wide effort to insert the Trinitarian formula into every possible document written or copied within the Church’s first three centuries … if that’s true, then Luke and Acts would not have escaped unscathed, as well as any version of the ending of Mark’s Gospel. It also seems probable, at least to me, that if this had happened, it would have resulted in heavy handed, obvious edits. Indeed, something like that might have occurred if the four Gospels had been discarded for a “harmonized” Gospel – one with all of the various differences ironed out – but thank God that did not happen.
Conybeare, F.C., “The Eusebian Form of the Text of Matt. 28:19,”
The Didache, Riddle, M.B., tr., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James; and Coxe, A. Cleveland, eds., Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.<http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm>.
Eusebius of Caesarea, “Theophania,” Early Church Fathers – Additional Texts, Pearse, Roger, ed.. 2002. <https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_theophania_01preface.htm>
Ge, Liangyan. “Father/Father in Matthew.” Paragraph, vol. 15, no. 3, 1992, pp. 261–78. JSTOR, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/43151753>.
Hippolytus, “Against Noetus,” MacMahon, J.H., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James; and Coxe, A. Cleveland, eds., Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.<http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0521.htm>.
Tertullian, “On Baptism,” Thelwall, S., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James; and Coxe, A. Cleveland, eds., Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.<http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0321.htm>.
20 June 2022