Acts 2:38 (“Be baptized, everyone of you,” Part 2)

The mikveh and uncleanness

The Torah speaks of many kinds of washings that were to be done to remove ceremonial uncleanness from a Jew. We modern Westerners struggle to grasp the idea of cleanness today, and so we tend to overlook these passages, but ceremonial cleanness surely played a big part in the thinking of First Century Jews.

In Jesus’ days, the Temple was surrounded by several large pools used for pilgrims to immerse themselves to become clean before entering the Temple. Many synagogues had small pools designed for the same purpose, called a mikveh. A few homes were elaborate enough to have a private mikveh.

Thus, when John the Baptist came baptizing, he would have been seen by the Jews as washing away their uncleanness.

Under the Torah, a Jew would become unclean by touching a corpse or leprosy, by menstruating or having an ejaculation, or by using certain earthenware. But the prophets referred to Israel herself as “unclean” for following idols —

Jeremiah 2:20–24 (ESV)
20 “For long ago I broke your yoke
and burst your bonds;
but you said, ‘I will not serve.’
Yes, on every high hill
and under every green tree
you bowed down like a whore.

21 Yet I planted you a choice vine,
wholly of pure seed.
How then have you turned degenerate
and become a wild vine?

22 Though you wash yourself with lye
and use much soap,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,
declares the Lord God.

23 How can you say, ‘I am not unclean,
I have not gone after the Baals’?
Look at your way in the valley;
know what you have done—
a restless young camel running here and there,

24 a wild donkey used to the wilderness,
in her heat sniffing the wind!
Who can restrain her lust?
None who seek her need weary themselves;
in her month they will find her.

Lamentations 1:8–9 (ESV)
8 Jerusalem sinned grievously;
therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans
and turns her face away.

9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
she took no thought of her future;
therefore her fall is terrible;
she has no comforter.

“O Lord, behold my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed!”

In the Torah, worshiping idols is declared as a means of making one unclean, and by Thus, by the time of Jesus, “unclean” was a term that included any rebellion against God.

As a result, in the First Century, Gentiles were considered unclean, since they were idol worshipers.

Thus, to require a Jew to be baptized implies that had been unclean, indeed, the moral equivalents of the idolaters who sinned so greatly that God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to overthrow Jerusalem.

Just as the word “repent” is a call to leave a corrupt generation and enter God’s kingdom, baptism paints a picture of an unclean people who need God to wash away their uncleanness.

Baptism further represents the cleansing that the prophets promised —

(Eze 36:24–29 ESV) 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you.

Notice that the cleansing promised by God is with “clean water” and the giving of the Spirit. Peter’s sermon is a close parallel to this important Kingdom passage.

Just so, Zechariah promises cleansing by a flowing fountain —

(Zech 12:10–13:2 ESV) 10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. …

13 “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.

“And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness.

The water and the Spirit

Peter’s listeners would have also associated the waters of baptism with the giving of the Spirit, as the association of the Spirit with water runs throughout the Old Testament.

Isaiah 32:14–16 (ESV)
14 For the palace is forsaken,
the populous city deserted;
the hill and the watchtower
will become dens forever,
a joy of wild donkeys,
a pasture of flocks;

15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,
and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.

16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

Isaiah 44:3–4 (ESV)
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.

4 They shall spring up among the grass
like willows by flowing streams.

Indeed, Peter had just quoted Joel, in which the Spirit is to be “outpoured,” referring to the Spirit as water — a powerful metaphor among a desert people where water was both life giving and precious.

And so we see why Jesus referred to the Spirit as “living water” in John 4 and 7. Whether the Spirit is pictured as falling from heaven or being drawn from a stream, the Spirit is pictured as the source of life and refreshment.

John’s baptism

Of course, it would be hard to miss the image of John’s baptism. Although many of the pilgrims in Jerusalem would have never been to the Jordan, much less been baptized by John, they would have heard the stories. After all, many considered John a true prophet, proving that the Spirit of prophecy had finally returned to Judea.

John pointed to the Messiah who was to come, and so Jesus’ adoption of John’s baptism would show continuity with John’s preaching and a claim to be the promised Messiah. Baptism in the name of Jesus therefore meant faith in Jesus as the Messiah promised by John.

John’s baptism was for repentance, that is, a turning toward God in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. Thus, Peter’s call for baptism also signaled that the Kingdom had dawned.

Finally, when Peter promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, he is declaring that this baptism fulfills John’s promise that the Messiah would baptize in the Spirit.

In short, the baptisms at Pentecost laid claim to all the promises given by John the Baptist — the Kingdom, the outpoured Spirit, the Messiah — all received by repentance — just as promised by the prophets before John.

Jordan River

In a culture steeped in story, symbol, and typology, it’s no accident that John baptized in the Jordan River. Israel had to pass through the Jordan River to enter the Kingdom following the Exodus. Indeed, the Jordan marked the dividing line between the generation that died in the wilderness for a lack of faith and the generation that believed and so entered Palestine to enter into God’s mission to take the land.

(Deu 3:18–20 ESV) 18 “And I commanded you at that time, saying, ‘The Lord your God has given you this land to possess. All your men of valor shall cross over armed before your brothers, the people of Israel. 19 Only your wives, your little ones, and your livestock (I know that you have much livestock) shall remain in the cities that I have given you, 20 until the Lord gives rest to your brothers, as to you, and they also occupy the land that the Lord your God gives them beyond the Jordan. Then each of you may return to his possession which I have given you.’

Thus, to offer an immersion in the Jordan was to call people to choose between death in the wildness or a life in the Promised Land on mission with God.

(Psa 95:7–11 ESV) 7 For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

10 For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”

11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”

Now, the baptism offered by Peter was in Jerusalem, not the Jordan, but the association with John’s baptism and its symbolism would have been unmistakable. Indeed, to “cross the Jordan” and “enter the Kingdom” are virtual synonyms.

In short, Peter was drawing a symbolic line in the sand: either enter the Kingdom by repenting of your lack of faith or else suffer the same faith as the Jews who died in the desert.


  • Can you think of other symbols founds in baptism? To this point, we’ve covered only the symbols that would be found in the prophets or the Gospels. What other symbols are found in the scriptures? [Death, burial, resurrection; circumcision; what else?]
  • Is it true to the scriptures to think of baptism as itself a test of faith, a willingness to do whatever God commands? Is that how Peter presents it?
  • If you were in Peter’s audience, what would have understood baptism to symbolize? Repentance? From what?
  • What should be our attitude toward a penitent believer who was baptized by immersion but believing his sins had already been forgiven — at the moment of faith?
  • What about a penitent believer baptized as an infant?
  • Why do the Churches of Christ baptize by immersion rather than pouring or sprinkling? Do you agree? Does the mode of baptism determine whether it’s effective? Must someone baptized with too little water be re-baptized to be saved? To be part of this congregation?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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16 Responses to Acts 2:38 (“Be baptized, everyone of you,” Part 2)

  1. Jack Exum Jr says:

    I believe that water immersion has always symbolized the end of something old and the beginning of something new, the case of Israel, a new generation entering a new land… it was (to me) the entrance into a covenant/aggreement situation.
    In Acts it was and remains a symbolizing of the time when one contacts the cleansing blood of Jesus and receives forgivness of sins It is joined with the command to repent. Forgivensss was given when they did what Peter said, repent and be immersed. A new birth of water and Spirit occured for each individual, as it does today when we do the same thing, for the same reason, coming from the same base, faith in Jesus. This is one of the core beliefs of Christianity that stands, and cannot be changed.

  2. Price says:

    Would have loved to set in on the class to see how they answered the questions… !!

  3. Randall says:

    1 Corinthians 10:2-4

    English Standard Version (ESV)
    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.

  4. Charles McLean says:

    Jack’s recitation of the traditional CoC perspective reminds me a bit of a doctrinal “examination” I once underwent. Soon after I was married, my wife’s grandfather asked me the old “if a tree falls on you on the way to the creek” question. I replied that the believer is saved in spite of the fact that he never hit the water. Grandfather then assured me that I was not really Church of Christ at all, but Primitive Baptist. (The congregation for which I was preaching at the time might have been surprised.)

    The idea that forgiveness does not come to us until we emerge from the water makes me think of that poor hypothetical victim of that tree with the bad timing. This poor fellow is the only true believer in Hell doing eternity for sins which never got officially under the sacrifice of Jesus due to a lack of hydration. The believer keeps reciting all those passages out of John (such as 5:24) but so far, no help has arrived.

  5. Wendy says:

    I wonder how they coped in the desert areas. No wonder pouring and sprinkling became common so early…

  6. Alabama John says:


    Now that is funny!

  7. Norton says:

    Immersion in water symbolizes immersion in the Spirit, but I think you all but stated that. Pouring and sprinkling would also symbolize reception of the Spirit, but maybe not washing, death, burial, and resurrection so well. Baptism may be a test of faith, but so is it getting wet. Neither getting wet nor performing a ritual to show our faith is the thing about baptism that saves us.

  8. Bruce Morton says:

    I appreciate your post.

    As a “level set” here, the idea of immersion baptism as God’s action of washing way sins being no more than “traditional church of Christ” teaching (as a means to dismiss it?) is near-sighted. Let me highlight a recent article from beyond the Restoration Movement that announces a great deal about early Christian thought/belief. I encourage those who visit this forum to go find a copy and give it a read.

    Llewelyn, S. R. “Baptism and Salvation.” In New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published 1984-85, 8:176-79. Edited by S. R. Llewelyn. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998.

    Llewelyn looks at multiple early sources and comes to the same conclusion that Everett Ferguson lays out in his Baptism in the Early Church (Eerdmans, 2009). NO question should exist regarding what the early Christians taught. They taught that sins were washed away by the Spirit as individuals were baptized by immersion into Christ.

    Jay, instead of asking some of the questions you ask, how about pointing your forum toward a review of the above article and Everett Ferguson’s thorough look at apostolic teaching and post-apostolic belief? I keep wondering why you do not spend time with Dr. Ferguson’s outstanding study….

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  9. Price says:

    I think Al Maxey’s most recent post was well done !!

  10. HistoryGuy says:


    I wonder how they coped in the desert areas. No wonder pouring and sprinkling became common so early…

    Scripture and the ECF viewed baptism (i.e. immersion in water) as “a” regenerative and saving act of God on the believer; it is a symbol of the reality taking place. Nevertheless, the ECF also make it known that there are not only normative, but also individual situations that God will graciously deal with in the life of the believer. While faith is absolutely necessary for salvation, baptism is only relatively necessary; while immersion in water is the command of God and normative teaching, sprinkling and pouring as well as the baptism of desire and blood were acceptable under certain conditions.

    The earliest non-canonical text to reference an issue about the inability of baptism is the Didache Ch. 7 (50-90 AD). There are writings from each subsequent century that exist and followed suit. First and foremost, the tradition and Scripture are in agreement as to what God says; immersion in water is the command of God and a regenerative act upon the believer. But, tradtion (from those who walked with the apostles) tells us that if immersion is impossible, then…

    Though much later, a prime example among many examples is that of Novatian in the early 200s. He was close to death and received a death bed baptism (i.e. pouring of water in the Trinitarian formula), but he recovered and became more active in the church. Before he could be ordained there was a major uproar over him needing the “proper” baptism (i.e. immersion in water in the Trinitarian formula) since he was now able to do so. Pouring was okay in a pinch, but immersion was the standard one needed to receive if able. Unfortunately, roughly 1,000 years after Novatian the exception became the rule during the Protestant Reformation; baptism of any form was disconnected from salvation and relegated to a mere afterthought.

  11. Price says:

    HG…to clarify my understanding…. you indicate that the ECF’s believed that one was saved by Faith…period… but, that baptism was a command of God to be followed by a true believer…ordinarily by full immersion but in a “pinch” however one might be forced by circumstance to substitute…Is that right ?

  12. HistoryGuy says:

    About baptism, No. I am sorry I if gave anyone the wrong impression. I thought my first sentence was very clear. I said, Scripture and the ECF viewed baptism (i.e. immersion in water) as “a” regenerative and saving act of God on the believer; it is a symbol of the reality taking place. I am happy to answer further questions and clarify what I said, thank you for asking.

    I was fixing to post the following before I saw your question above. In my view, Al Maxey’s recent post was poorly done and can be easily misunderstood by the uninformed reader. He presented neither a clear grammatical case, nor all the grammatical points. Popular writers, such as Matt Slick (who I appreciate in the apologetic realm),, and Dr. Robert Morey have, for a long time, been making the same points as Al, but such does not stick in a peer-reviewed scholarly world.

    Most Greek scholars, many who are not associated with churches of Christ and some associated with the Baptists, disagree with the way in which Al arrived at his conclusion from Acts 2:38. Textually, there are a few reasons that one cannot disconnect forgiveness of sins and baptism. The “other” interpretations of Acts 2:38 did not come about until the mid-1800s, which means earlier Baptist and the like were well aware of the traditional interpretation, but gave a different explanation. Thus, the standard way to handle it (though I disagree) was and is a theological import (i.e. the text says X, but it means Y), which is done by all denominations more often than one may think. There is a reason no major Bible translates Acts 2:38 differently.

  13. HistoryGuy says:

    It seems the -bold- tag did not work. I hope my statement on baptism was clear and stood out. In case my point about baptism was not clear; I will say it like the Orthodox. Baptism (immersion in water) is a saving action from God, but the baptism of desire or the baptism of blood will due in a pinch if and/or until water is available. Novatian was an example of the exception while promoting the rule (immersion in water). There is a good discussion about this in Jay’s last baptism series.

  14. Wendy says:

    HG, or “relegated” to a forethought as infant baptism became the norm?

  15. Price says:

    The part that confused me was this….”While faith is absolutely necessary for salvation, baptism is only relatively necessary.”

    And, while Al’s grammatical exegesis may have been somewhat flawed or disputed, my impression is that he made an excellent point that one statement can’t form an accurate theology if it’s inconsistent with the rest of scripture… But, I know it’s beating a dead horse and not of much practical application if one Believes AND is baptized.. Thanks for the clarification.

  16. HistoryGuy says:

    Price, thank you as well.

    Infant baptism was not under consideration in my discussion since I was focused on the relationship of salvation and baptism in connection with what was normative and what were exceptions. While the chronology, theology, and modes of infant baptism are unique within their respective movements of the eastern and western church, before the Reformation even infant baptism was still connected with salvation. I certainly realize that for example, the Augsburg Confession is a Reformation text of the Lutherans who proclaim justification by faith alone, yet connect baptism and salvation for both adults and children. Thank you for the chance to clarify my post. Again, my goal was to emphasize the disconnection of salvation and baptism (in certain denominations) after the Reformation.

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