This series of articles is based on ministry given at a Conference in Ukraine in July, 2009.
"THEY THAT GLADLY RECEIVED HIS WORD WERE BAPTISED" (Acts 2.41)
In Acts the Holy Spirit sets out for us seven features that characterised the believers of the early church, seven things that should be seen in the life of every believer (2.41-42). In last months article we looked at the first of these - they "gladly received his word", and we noted that every Christian ought to be receptive to the Word and voice of God. This month we will look at the second fundamental feature mentioned in these verses - baptism. This is a major New Testament doctrine, and it is important that we all have a good grasp of it. Let us ask ourselves some questions about it. (Remember that in this article, we are referring to water baptism, and not baptism in the Holy Spirit, which is a different thing altogether.)
Who should be baptised?
The New Testament is clear that every believer should be baptised. For example, in Acts 2.38 we read: "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ". Verse 41 of the same chapter makes it clear that those who had believed were baptised - it was the natural, expected thing for believers to do. Mark 16.16 adds weight to this: "He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved". This does not mean that baptism is necessary for salvation, but shows us that believing and being baptised were so closely linked (in the practice of the first century church) that they were viewed as one single event. Someone who believed was invariably baptised. Indeed, the New Testament never envisages someone being saved but not baptised. The question of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.36 is pertinent in this regard - "See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptised?". Every unbaptised believer ought to ask themselves the same question. Furthermore, Philips reply in Acts 8.37 makes it clear that only believers should be baptised: "If thou believest thou mayest" - the eunuch could not have been baptised unless he had believed. This is the inevitable conclusion that we come to when we understand the meaning of baptism (as we will see later in this article). Thus we see that all believers, and only believers, should be baptised.
How should a believer be baptised?
Again, the New Testament is clear that Christian baptism is by immersion (not by sprinkling, or any other method). We can see this from the following:
The Greek word baptizo (Strong 907) means to dip something in a liquid; it was used in the first century of dyeing a bale of cloth, or of something being overwhelmed. The root word from which it comes (bapto, Strong 911) was used to describe a ship which had sunk. This root word also occurs in Luke 16.24, where the rich man in Hell asks Abraham to send Lazarus: " send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue". This is an unmistakable indication that the word chosen by the Holy Spirit to describe Christian baptism carries the thought of something being immersed, dipped, or submerged in a liquid.
When Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8.38), they both went down into the water - why do so if it had been Philips intention merely to sprinkle water on the eunuchs head? Baptism is a symbol of death, burial, and resurrection - the believer goes down into the water (death), is placed under the water (burial), and comes back up out of the water (resurrection). Sprinkling cannot depict this in the same way.
When should a believer be baptised?
A believer should be baptised as soon as possible after conversion. In the New Testament the longest recorded interval between conversion and baptism is three days (Acts 9.9-18). When the Philippian jailer was converted he was baptised the same night (Acts 16.33). (Note, incidentally, that the reason that he "and all his" were baptised is that not only the jailer himself, but also all the members of his house, had been converted (v.34). There is no mandate here for so-called household baptism, nor for the "baptising" of infants too young to profess faith. Everyone who was baptised on that occasion was a believer.)
Why should a believer be baptised?
There are a number of reasons why a believer should be baptised. First, our Lord commanded it: those who had become His disciples (this is the thought behind the word "teach" in Matthew 28.19) were to be baptised. The genuine believer should need no other reason for being baptised - the Lord has told us to do so, and with glad hearts we respond in obedience to Him. Notice also, however, that before He commanded others to be baptised He was baptised himself (Mt 3.13-17; Mk 1.9-11; Lk 3.21) and the events surrounding His baptism are recorded. He was baptised as an expression of His devotedness to God, and God responded by declaring His delight in what His Son had done. If He was baptised, it is the duty and privilege of every believer to follow His example.
Second, it was the practice of the early church. The records in Acts (2.41; 8.38; 18.8 etc) show clearly that it was the habit of the early Christians to baptise converts. It is characteristic of the New Testament that teaching relating to church order and practice is very often given to us not only as a series of commandments or instructions, but also by means of example. Therefore, as a general rule, if we find a thing being practised in Acts and expounded in the epistles, we ought to do the same. The Holy Spirit has left these things on record for us so that believers of every age might have a clear indication of how they ought to act. Since the early Christians were baptised, we who are inheritors of their tradition as taught in Scripture should do likewise.
Third, a believer should be baptised because it is a public testimony to the fact that they have become a Christian. This subject will be dealt with below.
What does baptism mean?
Baptism is a public, symbolic declaration of the fact that I have died, been buried, and been raised to walk in newness of life (Rom 6.3-4; Col 2.12). It is a remarkable fact that at the moment when I was saved, I died: I died to my old life, to the sinful things that characterised me in my unregenerate days. Not only so, but I was buried. The person I used to be was put out of sight, and I became a new creation in Christ, henceforth to live a new kind of life altogether. Because these things happened in my soul, and cannot be directly perceived by others, baptism provides a public "enactment" of what has taken place inwardly. Note, incidentally, that the death, burial, and resurrection take place at conversion, not at baptism. My responsibility to walk in newness of life starts from the moment I am saved, and not on the day I am baptised.
In light of these things, we could summarise the New Testament teaching regarding baptism as follows. It is the responsibility of every born-again believer to obey the command, and follow the example, of the Lord Jesus by being baptised by immersion as soon as possible after conversion as a public testimony to the fact that they, having died to their old life, have become a new creation in Christ Jesus.
Finally, let us remember this: every believer who has been baptised must live accordingly. It is not consistent for a believer to be living as they did before they were saved. In their baptism they have declared that they are dead to their old way of life. May God give us the ability to live lives that are consistent with this great truth!
To be continued.