How do you reconcile Paul's statement "For Christ has not sent me to baptise, but to preach glad tidings" (1 Cor. 1: 17) with the Lord's commission to the eleven in Matt. 28: 19: "Go [therefore] and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"?
I can’t—they are irreconcilable. Let me further stress the differences between them. In Matt. 28 the eleven were told to baptise—as baptism and discipleship are linked together (see John 4: 1)—but there is not a word about preaching! I am not saying that there was to be no preaching but it is not in the Lord’s command here. To assume that it must be involved is just that—an assumption. It is not in Matt. 28. By contrast Paul was not sent to baptise but to preach. Many Christians put great stress on baptism and identify it with the Church, but baptism in the Bible is identified with the Kingdom, not the Church.
In 1 Cor. 1 baptism is so far down on the apostle’s list of priorities that he is not sure whom he baptised and whom he didn’t. Paul did preach the Kingdom and he did baptise but baptism and the Kingdom were not part of his commission. His ministry was really the truth of the Church following on from his distinctive presentation of the Gospel so that he calls it “my glad tidings” (Rom 16: 25). The peculiar truth of the Church is that of the one body: Gentile and Jew united together in one body to the Lord as Head in heaven by the indwelling Holy Spirit on earth (see Eph. 2: 15 etc.). This ministry is only to be found in the writings of Paul. He is identified with the Church as no other NT writer. Complementary to this, Paul had no links with the Lord on earth as the Messiah. The eleven did and baptism is always connected with the earth.
Matt. 28 is not only irreconcilable with 1 Cor. 1 but also with the resurrection ministry of the Lord in the other Gospels. Indeed, except perhaps in principle, I do not think it has anything to do with the Church as such, or the present dispensation. This may be unpalatable to many but I believe it is the truth. If you check the Acts and the epistles, you will find that this baptismal name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is never used once. Persons are always baptised in the Lord’s name (see Acts 2: 38; 8: 16; 10: 48; 19: 5; Rom. 6: 3). Either the eleven were grossly disobedient or they knew that the commission was not for the present time. I judge it was the latter.
There are two peculiar features of the present time: Firstly, the Lord is as Man in heaven; secondly the Holy Spirit indwells the Church on earth. In keeping with this, we have both the ascension and the command to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s account (see Luke 24: 49). However, in Matthew’s account there is neither. Not only is there no ascension in Matthew’s Gospel but the Lord’s promise to the eleven was that of His personal presence “until the completion of the age” (Matt. 28: 20). This last expression is peculiar to Matthew (see also Matt. 13: 39, 40; 24: 3). To the Jew there were just two ages: the present one of law and the age to come when Messiah would reign on earth. When the Lord returns in power and glory, all men must be brought under His authority. I believe that Jewish disciples will be sent to “all the nations” for that very purpose. They will teach the laws of the Kingdom as given in Matt. 5–7 which is what I think the Lord refers to in Matt. 28: 20. The mark of submission I believe will be baptism to the threefold Name. The Muslim will have to renounce his singular Allah and the Hindu his multiplicity of gods for the truth of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Finally the basis for the mission of Matt. 28 is the universal power placed in the hands of the Lord. Power, not only in heaven but on earth. If Israel had repented at Peter’s preaching, the Lord would have returned to the earth (see Acts 3: 19–21) and the eleven would have personally carried out the commission of Matt. 28. The nation did not repent and the mission is still future.
Hence as I said, Matt. 28 and 1 Cor. 1 are not reconcilable—they belong to two different eras. Sadly, there is a tendency to make everything in the NT of primary application to the Church––Matt. 28: 16–20 being a case in point. This is not “cutting in a straight line the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2: 15) and leads to confusion. Worse still, it has the effect of making Scripture appear to contradict itself.