(John 3:3-18) In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Whether Jesus was speaking of baptism has become controversial for 500 years (it wasn’t controversial at all before Calvin). That’s a question I’ve addressed elsewhere. For now, the question is what does Jesus tell us our baptism means?
First, baptism is “of the Spirit.” This means, at least, that we receive the Spirit and that God, by means of the Spirit, somehow gives us eternal life.
Of course, baptism is also symbolic of the cleansing we receive by faith in Jesus. Baptism is thus a lesson in grace. You see, baptism is always spoken of in the passive voice. We “are baptized.” The saved man “is born of water and spirit.” Baptism is not a work performed but a gift received — just as is our eternal life.
We’ve covered the essence of Acts 2:38 already. We can therefore move immediately to the verses that follow —
(Acts 2:41-47) Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
What did baptism mean to those who believed on Pentecost? It meant a devotion to apostolic teaching (they became disciples).
And they devoted themselves to fellowship. Notice the verb is not passive. It’s active. They weren’t handed free relationships. Rather, they themselves worked to create relationships.
The met daily in the temple courts. The temple courts were large enough to hold such a large crowd and, of course, had huge spiritual significance to the Jews.
Now imagine having to walk the streets of Jerusalem every day to meet in the temple courts. Every day. It was a serious time commitment. And on the top of a mountain. It was uphill no matter where you started.
They also devoted themselves to the breaking of bread — meaning common meals. Some wish to limit this to the Lord’s Supper, but the idiomatic meaning of “break bread” was to eat a meal, and we know from history and scripture that the early church made a point to eat together — so much so that being disfellowshipped meant the unbearable penalty of not getting to eat with the church!
They met in homes. It was not yet illegal for the church to meet in synagogues and the temple courts, but to eat together, they had to meet in homes — which was surely a logistical nightmare for a church of thousands! A First Century home could hold, at most, 30 people, and so they had, in effect, over 1,000 “small groups,” meeting in homes to eat.
Finally, as we see so often in Acts, the Lord himself was active in helping to bring people into the church. “Added to their number” is no mere accounting procedure. Rather, the sense is that God himself was involved in bringing people into the community of the church.
Samaritans and Cornelius
(Acts 11:16-18) “Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
In both stories, we see that baptism symbolized the expansion of God’s kingdom to include Samaritans and Gentiles. Indeed, the apostles seem to have been reluctant to preach to either group. The apostles didn’t go to Samaria until after Phillip had preached to them and baptized them.
In the case of Cornelius, we see Peter struggling to overcome his prejudices — and Judaism — until God through a vision and, finally, the miraculous imparting of the Spirit, forced him to see that Gentiles were fully accepted by God. When he was finally persuaded, Peter commanded that these converts be baptized.
Baptism thus came to be a symbol of the fact that Christianity brings people of all races and nationalities into God’s kingdom — God’s nation — to be God’s people — God’s race.
Indeed, a major theme of the New Testament is the work of bringing Gentiles into full citizenship in the nation of Christ, without burdening theme with the traditional markers of Judaism.