1 Corinthians has more references to Christian baptism than any other New Testament book. We find there —
(1Co 1:12-18 ESV) 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in [into] the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in [into] my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
(1Co 6:11 ESV) 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
(1Co 10:1-4 ESV) For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
(1Co 12:13 ESV) 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
(1Co 15:29 ESV) 29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
We covered 1 Cor 10 in the previous post, and I’m not inclined to sort through 15:29 here, because whatever it means, I don’t think it bears on a correct understanding of Christian baptism. The other three passages, however, say quite a lot on the subject.
1 Cor 1:12-18
1 Cor 1:12-18 introduces the problem of division in the congregation, a problem that permeates the book. And Paul immediately challenges the notion that Christians should divide, referencing the baptism common to all Christians. Paul’s point is that they were all baptized into the name of Christ, which rebukes those claiming loyalty to Paul, Apollos, or Cephas and those claiming that they are the only ones truly loyal to Christ. Those claiming allegiance to Paul were also baptized into Christ.
Now, to Western ears, being baptized into “the name” of Christ sounds convoluted and confusing. What on earth does that mean? The expression, deriving from the Hebrew, goes all the way back to the Torah. We read in Exodus —
(Exo 34:4-8 ESV) So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.
When God proclaimed his own name, he was asserting his authority. It’s rather like a claim of jurisdiction.
(Num 6:22-27 ESV) 22 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, 24 The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; 26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. 27 “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
(Deu 28:10 ESV) 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.
The Israelites were “called by the name of the LORD.” To bear God’s name is to be one of his people, a citizen of his Kingdom. As we see in Numbers, to bear God’s name is to be blessed by him and to receive his grace and protection.
Daniel understood —
(Dan 9:17-19 ESV) 17 Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. 18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. 19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.“
— to carry God’s name is to have a special place in God’s heart, entitling his people to call on him for forgiveness and help.
Therefore, when Paul proclaims that we are baptized “into the name of” Jesus, he invokes the ancient relationship of God and his people, describing those baptized as like the Israelites, God’s chosen people, bearing his name and receiving his grace, mercy, forgiveness, protection, and salvation.
Thus, when Paul declares that we’re all baptized into the name of Jesus, he reminds his readers that we’re baptized into a single nation ruled by a single king. We are in Jesus’ jurisdiction, and no one else gets to reign in Jesus’ kingdom! No other loyalty is allowed.
“Christ did not send me to baptize”
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
It’s an astonishing statement, you know. If a missionary returned to his supporting congregation and announced, “You did not send me to baptize,” we would beg to differ! I suppose we wouldn’t much care who did the actual immersing, but then, we really enjoy the slides of missionaries baptizing converts (as well we should).
Paul’s point, though, is that the proclamation of the gospel is more important than baptizing converts. Why? I think it has to do with the relationship of baptism to the church — a question rarely considered in Church of Christ circles, largely because so many Baptists argue that converts are baptized to join the church. We therefore run as far from the argument as we can — and thereby overlook part of the richness of baptism.
You see, as we considered earlier, John the Baptist and the Christian church transformed the ceremonial washing in the Jewish mikveh, not only by changing the purpose of the rite, but by changing the mode. Before the Gospels, immersion was a solitary act. A Jew wishing to become clean would walk down stairs into the mikveh and then back up the stairs all by himself. But Christian baptism is always in the passive voice. We receive baptism. We don’t baptize ourselves.
Therefore, there is always a Christian who baptizes us. There is always a Christian who has accepted our confession, concluded that we have the faith that saves, and then baptized us. Baptism, as a two-party rite, necessarily implies that a representative of the congregation has approved us for admission. And, indeed, this is how it works in practice. Many times I’ve seen a minister refuse baptism until he’s had a chance to meet with the convert and be certain that he understands what he’s doing (we should do that more often!)
Now, some will object that because salvation is purely between a man and his God, no one should judge the convert seeking baptism, but that’s just wrong. That’s Western individualism and autonomy speaking, not Christianity. In Christianity, we submit to one another. Therefore, we come to the church asking to be baptized, not announcing that we’ve baptized ourselves. And the church has to make a decision.
Just so, we are expected to confess our faith. Why? Because someone has to hear that we have faith to consider eligible for baptism or even to treat us as fellow Christian. We are baptized into a community and a Kingdom — that is, to be with other Christians as part of the body of Christ. Hence, we must declare our faith through confession and baptism — and the church must hear our confession, accept us, and grant us baptism.
(No, I’m not saying a man converted on a desert island by reading a Gideon’s Bible floating by can’t immerse himself. But that’s never happened and so we don’t need to distort our theology to make solitary conversion into a normal conversion. Christianity is a team sport.)
When Paul refused to personally baptize his converts, he was humbly granting the decision and privilege of baptism to the local church. They were to be the converts’ brothers and sisters, and so they should be the one to welcome the convert into their community through baptism. Baptism is about many things, and one of those things is community.