There is additional significance to the baptism Peter insisted on.
“Be baptized” is in the passive voice. We often miss the significance of this fact, but it’s very important.
It’s passive because, unlike a cleansing under the Law of Moses, this cleansing is administered by someone else. Someone wishing to be cleansed in a mikveh would enter and leave by himself, but baptism is administered by a Christian on behalf of God and the church. It’s never expressed in the active or middle voice. You don’t baptize yourself.
(Obviously, Peter wasn’t dealing with an “only person on a desert island” scenario. The symbolism is built on the 99.9999% case.)
It’s on behalf of God because it’s at water baptism that the Spirit is normally received from God. It’s God who forgives. But it’s on behalf of the church because the church must decide whether to accept the convert’s confession of faith and admit him into the community of faith.
This sounds very odd to Church of Christ ears, because we have roots deep in Frontier Revivalism and so extend the invitation routinely and immediately baptize nearly all who request it.
But we all know of cases where the preacher or other church leader asked a child or visitor to delay his decision until the church leaders could be sure the convert was truly ready to take such a big step. We don’t do catechism classes in the Churches of Christ, that is, classes for people not yet baptized. Rather, we have new member classes — which seems to me to fit well with the examples we have in Acts. But still someone must decide whether to accept someone’s confession.
I remember my own baptism well enough — although it was a very long time ago. As a young child, I approached the preacher asking to be baptized. He set up a time for me to meet with him in his office. My mother later drove me there. My feet didn’t even touch the floor sitting in his chair.
He asked me if I knew the “Plan of Salvation.” I dutifully recited the Five Steps correctly (I think I got bonus points for knowing the Sixth Step — “Be faithful unto death”) — on the second try. He explained to me when and how to go forward the following Sunday.
Why not take me straight to the baptistry? Why delay for a week and schedule an interview? Well, because I was only 8 or 9 and he wanted to know whether I had a clue. And I think that was the right think to do (although he really should have asked some deeper questions than the Five- (or Six-) Step Plan).
The requirement to ask a convert what he believes is implicit in the requirement to confess Jesus.
(Rom 10:9-10 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
Paul’s Plan of Salvation in Romans 10 includes Send (a missionary), Preach (the gospel of Jesus), Hear, Believe, Confess, Be Saved. He emphasizes confession here ahead of even baptism, and yet we sometimes treat confession as little more than a formality — focusing millions of words on what is and isn’t a good baptism and having very little to say on what is and isn’t a good confession.
But clearly the confession must be the right confession, or else we’d greatly err in baptizing someone who’d not declared his faith in Jesus. And here’s part of the problem: we often aren’t even sure what “faith in Jesus” means. We so focus on faith in the Plan that we fail to truly consider just what or who must be believed. You see, we have a Plan of Salvation that allows someone to “confess” Five Steps and say nothing about Jesus of Nazareth.
And as a result, we sometimes make no effort to determine if the convert even really knows who Jesus is or what it means to confess him as Lord or Christ or Savior. No, we’re much more concerned to get him into the sacramental waters, and to say the right words over him, rather than to ask whether, when it comes to Jesus, he even has a clue.
If we baptize the clueless, what happens when they later come to realize what Jesus is all about? Well, some ask for re-baptism. Some decide they aren’t really interested in Jesus after all.
We really have to get over our revivalism, our anxiety to produce baptism by any means necessary, and begin making disciples.
(Mat 28:19-20 ESV) 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
After all, that’s the command. We’re to baptize disciples, not just anyone who’s scared of hell. And how can we know we’re baptizing a disciple if we only ask whether the convert is so scared of hell he’s willing to be baptized — or knows the Five Steps?
Thus, conversion and baptism should not be an entirely unilateral process. It’s not enough to get wet. The convert must confess his faith, that is, declare what he believes and approach the faith community to request admission.
And while we don’t vote on conversions in the Churches of Christ, neither should we accept everyone without question. We discern whether a child is old enough or whether he truly understands what he’s committing to. And this is good, right, and justifies the passive voice — that baptism is received, not done.
As a result, we can fairly refer to baptism as a “gift,” not a “work.” There’s more to the whole faith/works question, but this is the starting point. Yes, Peter’s “Repent and be baptized” is a command, but it’s a command to repent to receive a gift.
Baptism is a symbolic request to God to take away the old man and give a new birth, a new creation. It’s more than a symbol, of course, but it is indeed a symbol — a symbol that tells a powerful story.
Therefore, we baptize correctly when the baptism is administered like a burial, where the convert is lowered into the water by the baptizer, passively submitting and accepting the rite. Indeed, to be baptized is to trust your life to the baptizer. You place yourself in an utterly defenseless, helpless posture, falling backward, forced to hold your nose to keep from drowning . At the bottom of the immersion, you couldn’t get up without the help of the baptizer.
And the picture matters. You see, this is Christianity. We submit, even to the point of death. We are lifted up, not by our own strength, but the strength of God and the church that surrounds us. And so, when we are symbolically resurrected with Jesus, we are rescued by others. Baptism requires faith — not just faith in Jesus but faith in whoever is going to immerse us!
And so baptism pictures the new convert trusting his very life to his new congregation — a picture that is no accident and that we should take far more seriously.
The Essenes are the sect of the Jews who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. They don’t show up in the New Testament, but some think John the Baptist was an Essene. His ascetic ways and baptismal teachings sound like the Essenes.
Therefore, some scholars think Christian baptism evolved from the washing practices of the Essenes, who engaged in ceremonial washings for atonement of sins. You see, the Essenes had rejected the Temple and priests because they were not of the right lineage under the Torah. Therefore, the Essenes sought forgiveness by other means.
Evidently, they read the prophets just as I just did, finding in water symbolism of forgiveness and God’s Spirit. Therefore, they washed not just for ceremonial purity but in hopes of receiving forgiveness, as they had no confidence in animal sacrifices performed by the wrong priests.
But I don’t think Christian baptism comes from the Essenes. Rather, I think the Essenes and Christians happen to read the Prophets the same way, and both Christians and Essenes rejected the Temple sacrifices, but for very different reasons. Having rejected the sacrificial system, both looked to the Prophets for a deeper, better way to ask God for atonement.
“Everyone of you.”
Peter said, “Repent, and be baptized everyone of you …” We never talk about “everyone of you.” After all, doesn’t everyone need to be saved? To have Jesus? Well, of course, but there’s more.
Peter’s point is not just, “All fall short of the glory of God,” but that every Jew there would not enter the Kingdom and enjoy God’s blessings unless he repented and accepted Jesus as Messiah. Both the Jews who shouted “Crucify him!” and the ones who just arrived from across the Mediterranean had to repent. And all had to be baptized. All were in Exile. All were in the wilderness. All needed to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.
Thus, Jesus didn’t come merely to improve Judaism. The Jews there in Jerusalem weren’t automatically citizens of the Kingdom. No, they all had to make some hard decisions about whether to enter or not.
- If the Jews weren’t saved because of their lineage, will our own children be saved just because their parents are?
- Do you agree that baptism involves the church? Or is the baptizer merely a mechanism for doing the ritual?
- What if the church accepts someone it shouldn’t? What if the church rejects someone it shouldn’t?
- We Westerners tend to individualize our salvation, that is, to see Jesus as “personal” Savior with little regard to entry into the Kingdom or church as being of critical importance. Does the fact that you can’t baptize yourself change your view of baptism? Of conversion? Of your relationship to the church?
- Why do you suppose entry into the church is so important to God’s plans? Why not allow us to baptize ourselves?
- Many Christians today are considering universalism, that is, that ultimately everyone will be saved. Do you find Peter’s preaching and the meaning of baptism to fit that story? Or does baptism tell a different story?