While the blog was down for the holidays, the crash, and all, I typed up notes on the rest of Acts 2. I’ll be posting these every other day for a couple of weeks, until we get to the end of the chapter. And I’ll be taking Acts 2:38 to the end of the chapter phrase at a time. Some phrases will require more than one post.
These are being written for Bible class teachers at my church, and so will often have a series of question to help the teachers. But this is not your usual Bible class material. We’re delving very deeply into the text.
(Acts 2:38 ESV) And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The necessity of baptism
This is surely one of the most analyzed and dissected passages in the Bible. So before we get too far down the road with this one, let’s start with one elemental point: The New Testament plainly associates baptism with salvation and expects that converts will be baptized.
Ever since the time of Zwingli, who founded the Reformed Churches with Calvin, Protestants have debated whether baptism is a mere symbol that is not necessary for salvation, or both symbol and sacrament, that is, a symbol that is essential for salvation. (It is unquestionably symbolic, you know. The debate is over whether it is more than symbol.)
It’s an interesting question, but the most important question is whether we are going to baptize those we convert, as commanded by Jesus himself in Matthew 28:19. And I don’t see where we have much choice in the matter.
Another question of great importance is whether we should treat an improperly baptized penitent believer as saved, and I think we clearly must. After all, the, 120 disciples in Acts were not water baptized but only Spirit baptized, and yet they were plainly saved. Indeed, John the Baptist is quoted in two gospels as contrasting his baptism with water with Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit.
(John 1:33 ESV) “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
(Mark 1:8 ESV) I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John didn’t say, “I baptize with water, but he will baptize you with water and the Spirit.” The plain emphasis is on the Spirit as both necessary and sufficient.
The Spirit normally is received concurrently with water baptism, but not always. Indeed, Acts offers a number of examples of water and Spirit baptism not being simultaneous, although Acts 2:38 certainly suggests that the simultaneous receipt of water and Spirit would be the normative Christian experience.
Now, before we can take a hard position on what is an effective baptism, we have to inquire as to why God commanded baptism. The 19th Century approach is to treat baptism as a “positive” command, that is, a command that is entirely arbitrary, calculate to test our faith. Baptism was seen as a test of true penitence and faith, and therefore an absolute condition.
Soon, the insistence on baptism (which is nearly universal among Christian denominations) became insistence on baptism done correctly. And soon “correctly” became more and more narrowly defined.
But rarely does anyone in the Churches of Christ take the time to ask, “Why baptism?”
Is baptism really arbitrary? Or does God have a deeper purpose in wanting his followers to be immersed in water? To answer that question, we must delve deeply into the history and symbolism of the rite.
The Kingdom, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the coming of the Messiah were all anticipated by the prophets in considerable detail. We have to take these as central doctrines, as they even go back to the Torah. But baptism, even though appearing at the climax of Peter’s sermon, seems to be something of an innovation, going back not much earlier the John’s baptism. Why baptism, indeed?
Well, baptism has some vital associations with ancient practices that help explain the story that it tells and perhaps explain why God chose to make water baptism the initiatory rite of Christianity. We’ll dig into those in the next couple of posts in this series.