Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church (2b)

Baptism in the Gospels and Acts

Before we examine the introduction of Christian baptism at the end of Matthew’s gospel, it is worth flagging up to metaphorical references to baptism in Mark and Luke. In Mark 10:38 and 39, Jesus addresses the glory-seeking of James and John by asking them whether they can drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized. In typical headstrong fashion, they assert their willingness and ability, and Jesus affirms that they will indeed drink this cup and endure this baptism. He clearly refers to his own suffering and death. Luke 12:50 also records Jesus using the image in this way. The link between Jesus’ death and baptism is thus established early on, and the fact that baptism is linked to “the cup” of God’s wrath is also significant for our understanding of the rite. Both will be alluded to in other New Testament teaching.

The introduction of Christian baptism proper occurs in the Great Commission, recorded in Matthew 28:16-20. The resurrected Jesus gives the disciples the following instructions: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in (or into) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. Several things about baptism can be observed from this passage. First of all, Christian baptism is the way in which disciples are made. I take it that the logical structure of the commission is as follows:
Go and make disciples by
Baptising in the Triune name
And teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.
At least one significant element is therefore carried over from the baptism of John: baptism is a rite that makes disciples. Just as John gained disciples by baptising them, so Jesus will have disciples by baptising them.

Secondly, Christian baptism is in (or into) the Triune name. As many commentators have noted, this is one name – the name of God. But this one name is borne by the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Given the explicit nature of the instruction, we should not allow subsequent references to being baptised in Jesus’ name alone to imply that baptism was not into the Triune name. (Consider again the baptism of John’s disciples at Ephesus in Acts 19 – an incident provoked by the fact that they are unaware of the Holy Spirit and therefore have not been baptised into the Triune name). Rather, we should assume that baptism into Jesus is shorthand for baptism into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The shorthand is used because the rite of baptism makes a person a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, Christian baptism is to be accompanied by the teaching of Christian doctrine and ethics, such that the person being baptised is a disciple in truth – a follower of Jesus. Baptism without teaching will not make disciples. Neither will baptism and teaching without obedience.

This ministry of baptism and teaching is carried on by the Apostles from the day of Pentecost onwards, as is recorded in the book of Acts. There is no need to look at every mention of baptism in this book, since many are routine and are mentioned only in passing. Five instances will be considered separately, although not all to the same level of detail: the baptisms at Pentecost in Acts 2; the baptism of the Samaritans by Philip in Acts 8; the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, also in Acts 8; the baptism of the household of Cornelius in Acts 10; and Paul’s testimony to the Jews in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 22. Finally, common features of the other references to baptism (16:15; 16:33; 18:8) will be briefly considered. My focus will be on what is said about baptism, although the circumstances must also be taken into account.

Baptism is presented on the day of Pentecost as the Apostles’ response to people who are “cut to the heart” by the gospel message, acknowledge their guilt and cry out “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s answer gives two requirements and two promises. On the one hand they are called to repent, and to be baptized into the name of Jesus. On the other, they are promised the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is interesting that Peter makes no mention of faith here; I will later suggest that if we are to make this fit with other New Testament teaching on the way that forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are to be received, we must assume that in Peter’s mind baptism and faith are at least very closely tied together, such that the former can serve as shorthand for the latter. At this stage, though, it is worth noting primarily the way in which forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are associated with baptism, themes which will recur.

Acts 2:39 is variously interpreted, and is worth examining in some detail. It reads: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself”. In the context, the promise is certainly that of the outpouring of the Spirit made through the prophet Joel. This promise was made to the nation of Israel, the people of the forward-looking covenant, and Peter clearly sees Pentecost as the fulfilment of that promise. Therefore, with the assembled representatives of Israel in front of him, he urges them to claim the promise that God made to their nation long ago. He extends the promise in two ways, and restricts it in one. It is extended to the people of Israel in all generations (“for your children”) and in all places (“for all who are far off”), but it is limited to “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself”. This is, of course, consistent with Joel’s prophecy, which in Peter’s quotation concludes “and it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”; the only difference is that Joel looks at it from the point of view of human responsibility and Peter that of divine sovereignty. Either way, it is assumed that those who are called by God, and who therefore call upon him, will not constitute the whole people of Israel. This will be useful for our analysis of the relationship between the old and new covenant.

Finally, we gather two further facts about baptism from the Pentecost narrative. Firstly, baptism is administered only to those “who received [Peter’s] word” (Acts 2:41). This counts against a mechanistic understanding of baptism, and serves to bind baptism and faith (which is of course receiving the word) more closely together in this narrative. Secondly, those who are baptised are added to the community of believers, becoming subject to its discipline and joining in its life (Acts 2:41ff).

The references to the baptism of Samaritans in Acts 8 are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the separation of water baptism from the reception of the Holy Spirit is unexpected, given how closely the two are bound together in the Pentecost narrative. I take it that this is connected to the fact that this is the first advance of the gospel beyond orthodox Judaism, and that the presence of the Apostles is required in order to make it clear that the Samaritan conversions are ‘legitimate’. As an aside, within the context of the whole New Testament we can hardly understand the passage as saying that the Holy Spirit was uninvolved until Peter and John arrived, for the Samaritans had “believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God” (Acts 8:12), something only possible through the Holy Spirit’s intervention. However, the giving of the Spirit in an obvious way is restrained until the Apostles arrive so that they can vouch for the genuineness of the Samaritan’s faith.

The second interesting feature of this narrative is the presence of Simon Magus. Simon is baptized, and is described as having believed (8:13). However, he later offers money in exchange for apostolic power, and is told by Peter that his “heart is not right before God” (8:21). The straightforward interpretation is that Simon’s faith is counterfeit, for he is described as being “in the bond of iniquity” (8:23). This is the first clear instance of someone being baptized upon confession of faith, but then showing later that this confession was not genuine, saving faith. Again, this counts against mechanistic understandings of baptism, for baptism without genuine faith proves to be useless to Simon.

The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the latter part of Acts 8 adds little to our understanding of baptism. It is chiefly important because of the speed with which it is carried out. The eunuch has the Scriptures explained to him, and upon understanding them immediately requests baptism (Acts 8:36). This shows that baptism was an integral part of the message presented by Philip (for otherwise the eunuch could scarcely have known to request it), and seems to indicate that baptism has been presented as the means of becoming a Christian. Philip’s willingness to grant this request backs up this interpretation.

The end of Acts 10 presents a situation that is in many ways similar to the Samaritan mission in chapter 8. The gospel is once again crossing a significant boundary, and once again the presence of an Apostle is required to legitimate the mission. However, the situation is also exactly reversed in one significant way. Whereas the Samaritans believed, were baptized and then received the Holy Spirit, the household of Cornelius believe, receive the Holy Spirit and are therefore baptized. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the mission to Gentiles is going to be ‘harder to swallow’ for the Jewish majority in the church than that to the Samaritans. However, all the familiar ingredients are present: faith in the message preached, baptism into the name of Jesus and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is significant that in Peter’s report of this incident he recalls the Lord’s words: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”. It was this thought that provoked Peter to administer water baptism. This shows both how closely bound together water baptism and baptism with the Spirit are in Acts, and also that in Peter’s understanding the one does not replace the other – those who have received the Spirit are also to submit to baptism.

The final particularly significant mention of baptism in Acts occurs at 22:16. I draw attention to this because here Paul links three elements that we have seen to be common to baptism in Acts, namely: water baptism; the forgiveness of sins, here connected to the symbolic function of baptism as washing; and calling on Jesus’ name. The washing will be picked up later in our analysis of the symbolism of baptism.

The other references to baptism in Acts are brief, and add little to our understanding. They have become significant, however, because of the weight that has often been put on the fact that entire households are baptized together. This will be examined more closely in my theological conclusions at the end of this section. For now, suffice it to say that in at least one of these occasions it is specifically recorded that the word was preached to all in the house (Acts 16:32) and that the whole household rejoiced (16:34), which makes it highly likely to my mind that all those baptized also received the word with faith. If we allow the more detailed accounts of baptism to control our interpretation of these brief accounts (and I think we should), Acts presents an overall picture of several elements bound together, although in varying orders. They are:
  • Repentance (always in conjunction with baptism)

  • Faith (likewise)

  • Baptism itself

  • Reception of the Holy Spirit (sometimes before, sometimes after baptism, but always closely connected)

  • Forgiveness of sins (promised as a result of baptism/faith/repentance)

The evidence of Acts seems to count against any separation of baptism from faith and repentance, as I will argue in more detail later.


  1. It is very striking that all of the NT examples of baptism are confessional. I guess the Simon Magus example can still happen today, but then that's no different to those who once professed to be followers of Christ who no longer walk in his footsteps.

    Thanks for this series, there seems to be lots of material defending the paedobaptist view on other blogs (which I am assuming you are not going to conclude is correct, although I shall wait and see!)

  2. I thought that John the baptist was beheaded by the Jews for trying to replace their cornerstone tradition of the law of blood sacrifice of the flesh of pleasure, known as circumcision, with a ritual cleancing called baptism.
    Then later Jesus tryed the same thing and the Jews paid the Romans to crucify Him for messing with their tradition. With His sacrifice of His life, the law to commit circumcision was fulfilled and supposed to be replaced with Baptism. The Apostles said that it is no longer necessary to be circumcised to belong to the kingdom of heaven and if you allow yourselves to be circumcised then His sacrifice will profit you nothing and He will loose value with you. I think He was trying to save the least of His brothers, the children, from this barbaric ritual and its long term negative side effects it has on the whole spirit of humanity.
    Each one of us is a trinity, also, as we were created from the immage of one creator, we all have one body, and we all belong to the spirit of humanity. Fred R

  3. Greg: your assumptions about where this is all heading are correct ;o)

    Simon Magus is interesting from the point of view of someone raised in baptist circles where one of the justifications for delaying baptism (after a profession of faith) was that we had to make sure the person was really a Christian. Doesn't seem to be the way it worked back then (on which topic, more later).

    Fred: I certainly wouldn't want to write off (male) circumcision as a barbaric rite - it was commanded by God, after all! And it seems that JtheB's beheading had more to do with him pointing out Herod's sin than anything else. Jesus sacrifice does remove the need for circumcision - see the first part of this series, posted some months ago now!

  4. Anonymous8:44 am

    I know you're primarily considering the New Testament passages relating to baptism here, but at a couple of significant points, there is more that could be said about the Old Testament allusions that are going on which are vital to right exegesis here.

    So in Acts 2.39, the 'for you and your children' clause practically quotes Genesis 17.7 ('I will be God to you and to your offspring'). And in Genesis 17, consequently, Abraham and his offspring receive the sign and seal of that promise, in that case circumcision.

    In Acts 16, the baptism of households is I think alluding to what was going on in Genesis 17, too, where all of Abraham's household is circumcised because of his faith.

    I think you are reading too much into what was going on with Lydia and her household, and the Philippian gaoler and his household. Had Luke wanted to make it clear that the whole household believed and were saved, he would have said so, along the lines that he did in Cornelius' household. He very specifically tells us that Lydia believed and her household was baptised, and the Philippian gaoler's household were baptised and rejoiced that he believed.

  5. Daniel: I concur with your comments on Acts 2:39, although I don't think they affect the exegesis of the passage in the way you maintain. In fact, it is in part this parallel that leads me to interpret Peter as saying that the "promise" applies to all Israelites through their generations (rather than bringing in the idea of spiritual descent from Abraham by faith). But what promise is it that is being offered to all Israelites? It is that those who repent and are baptized will receive the Holy Spirit. And this is true.

    Since this promise is offered to Jews (as it was in Joel), I see it as a specific instance of the more general promise that everyone who has faith in Christ will receive the Spirit and forgiveness of sins.

  6. Daniel, I should have been more specific. Forced or coerced infant and adult circumcision is barbaric. Not the informed consent acceptance of the sacrifice by adults, and not when it becomes medically necessary from abuse. For instance a few days ago was national autism awareness day. Google autism from circumcision. There is much denile caused from religious convictions.