[Note: This is the prepared text for a message given to The Dalles congregation on Sabbath, April 9, 2022.]
I thought I would take a bit of a break from my series of sermons on the boundaries of the ten commandments for a message and discuss a question that was brought up to me by someone in this congregation about the subject of baptism. I do not know how long it has been since you all had a sermon on baptism that dealt with the context of baptism within the early Church of God, but since there have been questions about the subject, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss some aspects of baptism in the Bible that may not be immediately obvious to us as the Bible gives us details, including its surprising origins and other questions related to baptism and the Church. I apologize in advance if this message goes on a bit longer than usual, but because of the importance of the subject and how timely it is, I hope you will listen attentively all the same.
The first references to baptism itself within the Bible come to the baptism given by John the Baptist in the Gospels. We will have more to say about this baptism later on, but it is worth discussing at the beginning the context of baptism as it appears within the Bible. The entire chapter of Matthew 3 contains the first writing about baptism that we have in the Bible, and it introduces a lot of complexity about the subject that will serve to introduce the subject to us. Matthew 3:1-17 reads as follows: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’ ” Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Beginning here, there are a few aspects of this chapter that invite questions that we will return to repeatedly over the rest of this message. First, let us note that John the Baptist provided a baptism of repentance, and he himself alluded to another person–Jesus Christ, in this case–who would inaugurate baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire. Typically, we look at three forms of baptism, and we want only two of them. John the Baptist represents the baptism by water, that of repentance from dead works and sin and the cleansing and restoration that comes when God grants mercy and forgiveness. We will have much more to say about this shortly, as it serves as the introduction into the context of baptism and its context in Second Temple Judaism, context we often lack today. The second form of baptism is represented by the baptism of the Spirit, which takes place with the laying on of hands. Typically, within the Church of God, these two forms of baptism occur one after another in quick succession, with the baptism of the water coming first and then the laying on of hands and the baptism of the Spirit coming second, but that need not be the case, as we will explore later in. Third, the baptism of fire is representative of the judgment of God and Jesus Christ upon the unworthy and rebellious, and none of us want to receive that sort of baptism at all. It is noteworthy that John the Baptist spends a considerable amount of time in this passage discussing the judgment that was to come on the nation of Judah for their rebellion against God, a pattern we see repeatedly throughout the scriptures.
Second, let us note here that baptism involves questions of authority, and this passage views these questions of authority in multiple aspects that again will return over and over again as we discuss the context of baptism in the Bible. John the Baptist happily baptizes repentant Jews and Gentiles who come to him to confess their sins, but he has less kind words to say to the Jewish leadership that have come to more or less spy on him and give a report on his behavior to the presumably hostile authorities in Jerusalem. When John the Baptist asks them, “Who warned you of the wrath to come,” he is pointing to the fact that if they have come to hear his message, they should have a repentant heart, and should recognize his authority as a prophet from God, none of which was actually the case. Baptism is a sign that one recognizes a given authority. In this light, it makes sense that John would be reluctant to baptize Jesus. After all, we know that Jesus Christ was not under the authority of John the Baptist (quite the revere, actually), and that Jesus Christ had no sins to repent of. Yet Jesus Christ was recognizing the legitimacy of John the Baptist’s ministry and by being baptized was setting an example for the rest of us, and for these reasons Jesus Christ addressed John’s concerns and successfully urged his cousin to baptize him.
We are left, though, with the question of where baptism comes from. How is it that John the Baptist came to use baptism, full immersion in the Jordan River, to be even more precise, as a sign of repentance and cleansing? Where did this association come from? It is to that question we will now turn. First, we will look at some biblical antecedents to baptism that come from the Old Testament law and prophets, and then we will turn to the question of how it was that ritual washing was present within the context of Second Temple Judiasm, a context that has been absent for nearly 2000 years and which provided baptism with a great deal of its symbolic meaning and importance.
We first see the ceremonial importance of the washing of water when we view the consecration of Aaron and his sons to be priests. We find this recorded in Exodus 40:12-15. In the midst of the establishment of the tabernacle for worship and its various parts, including the ephods and robes for Aaron and his sons, we find the following statement about the washing of Aaron and his sons in Exodus 40:12-15: ““Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tabernacle of meeting and wash them with water. You shall put the holy garments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may minister to Me as priest. And you shall bring his sons and clothe them with tunics. You shall anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may minister to Me as priests; for their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations.”” From this beginning we see washing being associated not only with physical cleanliness, but also with ceremonial cleanliness.
Occasionally within the law we find this principle extended to other people, for whom a form of ritual washing is viewed with the same sense of symbolism. Among the laws that included this form of ritual washing as a sign of cleanliness was the ritual regarding the purification of leprosy. We find this law discussed in Leviticus 14:1-9. Leviticus 14:1-9 reads: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest. And the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall examine him; and indeed, if the leprosy is healed in the leper, then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two living and clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop. And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water. As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose in the open field. He who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water, that he may be clean. After that he shall come into the camp, and shall stay outside his tent seven days. But on the seventh day he shall shave all the hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows—all his hair he shall shave off. He shall wash his clothes and wash his body in water, and he shall be clean.”
Let us note that this is a somewhat drastic ritual. The cleansing of leprosy involved a ceremony that was not unlike the ceremony involving the two goats for the Day of Atonement. One bird was killed, and the other bird was released alive, giving a rather solemn and serious reflection on the connection between leprosy (and ceremonial impurity in general), and death. At the end of this particular process of seven days the recovered leper was to wash his clothing and wash himself in water, and then he was to be clean again, and able to participate with believers in ordinary society. Previously, as a leper, he had been an outcast, and no one would want to be near anyone with such a deadly and contagious disease, and there would be a great deal of motivation for someone to rid themselves of this isolation.
In the prophets, we find one example of the washing of a leper that seems to us to be a striking foreshadowing of the process of baptism and the relationship between the cleansing from disease and impurity that separate us from company with other people and conversion to God’s ways and becoming a full part of His people. We find this example in 2 Kings 5:9-15. 2 Kings 5:9-15 is part of the story of Naaman the Syrian, and it reads: “Then Naaman went with his horses and chariot, and he stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near and spoke to him, and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. And he returned to the man of God, he and all his aides, and came and stood before him; and he said, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now therefore, please take a gift from your servant.””
At first, like many people who have been told that they need to be baptized, Naaman was less than enthusiastic about undergoing the process. He thought that the Jordan River was insignificant and that it was a meaningless and even demeaning gesture to be told to bathe seven times in the Jordan River when there were more glorious things that he could do. However, his servants skillfully presented Elisha’s requirement not as a demeaning or humiliating one but rather as something that one should not in any way complain about, and when Naaman immersed himself in the Jordan River seven times, he found that his leprosy had been removed, and after this physical healing took place, we see a conversion experience that follows where Naaman confesses an exclusive worship in the God of Israel. Not only did this particular washing in the Jordan River take place in the same general area where John the Baptist later baptized people, but it had a similar result, the washing in the river being related to repentance and to restoration of a relationship not only with other people–who again, did not want to be around contagious lepers–but also with God as one of His believers.
It is from this biblical context, therefore, that baptism sprang, being associated with the process of anointing someone for service to God as part of the Aaronic priesthood as well as the healing from leprosy and of the social isolation and deprivation of intimacy that came along with that dreadful disease. There was also a context that sprang from Second Temple Judaism. Washing was a regular part of this context. Indeed, we find that there were dozens of what are called mikvah–baths–that are all around the area of the temple mount in Jerusalem, where believers would have to bathe, ceremonially cleansing themselves from all sin and corruption, before they could worship in the temple. The understanding that people would have to wash before becoming clean was something that the audience of Jesus’ day readily understood. Indeed, there are at least a couple of implications of this tradition of somewhat elaborate and repeated washings that remain as part of the Bible with relevance for us today as believers.
First, let us look at Mark 7 and understand the relationship between the ritual washing for the temple and the habit of the Pharisees. Mark 7:1-8 discusses the rather elaborate washing that the Pharisees engaged in as part of getting ready to eat. Mark 7:1-8 reads: “Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.””
Let us note here that the elaborate and special washing of the Pharisees before eating was not something that was commanded by God, nor is it a tradition that Jesus and His disciples felt it necessary to endorse. The Pharisees sought to take upon themselves the authority that God had given to the priests, and so they engaged in the ceremonial washing of their hands and arms in a way that was symbolic of this authority as a priest. It should be noted that Jesus Christ nowhere considered the Pharisees to have the authority to change or interpret the law, and indeed this passage demonstrates Jesus’ lack of respect for their own self-claimed authority, and here again we see the relationship between washing and authority that is a thread which goes throughout the entire Bible.
The second aspect of washing that is important for us has particular importance in the Passover ceremony, and here too we have questions about the relationship between washing and authority in ways that have often made believers to be uncomfortable. Let us look at John 13:1-17, which discusses the awkwardness of footwashing to Peter, because of the implications that Peter drew from it. John 13:1-17 reads: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, “You are not all clean.” So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
This is a familiar passage to us–many of us read it every year before the Passover. How many of us have stopped to think of how awkward it is? Jesus, in washing the feet of his disciples, was taking the place of the lowest servant. Peter rebelled at this, thinking that it was demeaning to Jesus for Him to lower Himself in this way. But, as is common, when he was challenged on this he insisted that his whole body be washed, and Jesus refused to do this, since he had already been baptized and was thus clean. Yet symbolically speaking, Peter, like all of us (aside from Jesus Christ himself) had walked along dirty and dusty roads during his imperfect Christian walk and needed his feet to be washed. Even in showing His humility, though, just as Jesus did in getting baptized by John the Baptist even though it was certainly not necessary for him to repent of anything, the Lord set us an example of footwashing as a sign of humility and a reminder that we are not greater than our master, and that we should follow Christ’s example.
When we think about baptism, we often tend to think that it gives us a great deal of status to be baptized by a minister who is more important than it is for us to be baptized by someone of lower status. One of the striking patterns we see about baptism in the Bible, though, is that we find baptism has frequently been delegated to those with less status, although interestingly enough the laying on of hands has always been done by ordained ministry. Let us examine three of the examples of this that we can find written about in scripture that demonstrates how it is that baptism has not been as commonly done by those who were most important in the early Church, contrary to what we might expect.
Let us first look at the example of Jesus baptizing, or rather, the disciples baptizing under Jesus’ authority. John 4:1-4 gives this detail rather laconically. John 4:1-4 reads: “Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee. But He needed to go through Samaria.” Here we see, very briefly, that Jesus Christ had acquired a lot of disciples through baptism, but that He himself did not do the baptisms, but rather the disciples did.
Interestingly enough, when those disciples themselves got to be apostles, they in turn similarly delegated the task of baptism to others, such as the deacon Philip, as we read in Acts 8:4-17. Here we see that there can be quite a gap between the baptism of water and the baptism of the Spirit. Acts 8:4-17 reads: “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. And there was great joy in that city. But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the great power of God.” And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time. But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done. Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet it had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
This passage is interesting for a variety of reasons. For one, it demonstrates–if one continues the story–the way that those who are evil are often attracted by power and desire to have positions of authority where they can exercise power, and the Holy Spirit certainly provides power that would attract a wide variety of power-hungry charlatans to seek positions of authority that they may abuse, as it does to this day. For another, we see that Philip did not overstep the authority he had been delegated. He was allowed to baptize people but not to lay hands on them, and so he did. It is our practice in the contemporary Church of God to lay hands immediately after baptism, and so it is that we tend to be baptized by ministers who do both parts of the ceremony right away.
We see a similar phenomenon in the ministry of Paul, where he was not overly enthusiastic about baptizing. We find this at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17. 1 Corinthians 1:14-17 reads: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.” Here we see that Paul specifically stated that he was not sent by Christ to baptize, a task he presumably left to other people, but rather focused on his speaking and writing, a choice that seems understandable enough for someone like myself I suppose.
We earlier explored the delay between the giving of the baptism and the laying on of hands in the baptism of the Samaritans. Let us discuss two other baptisms that provide us with interesting questions about the timing of baptism, one of the questions that people tend to have. First, let us turn to the baptism of Cornelius the Centurion and note the distinctive timing of the baptism of him and his household. We find this written in Acts 10:44-48. Here, at the end of a long and gradual process, we see the strange order of events in terms of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and water. Acts 10:44-48 reads: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.”
Normally when we are talking about baptism the clear order is that the baptism of the water takes place before the baptism of the Holy Spirit. People repent of their sins and confess them, engage in baptism counseling with a minister, and are washed to repent of dead works. It is at this point, where spiritually cleansed, they then receive the Holy Spirit of God. With Cornelius and his household, though this order was reversed. It was the obvious presence of the Holy Spirit in the same fashion as Peter had witnessed and experienced himself in Acts 2 that led him to baptize the Godfearing Gentile Cornelius, and as was the case with Jesus Christ, the baptism was not so much necessary to demonstrate repentance of sins, as that had been recognized previously by God, but rather as a sign to allow Gentile Christians to be grafted into the Israel of God and accepted as full believers rather than as second-class members of the family of God as was the case in Judaism.
We face similar questions when we look at Acts 16 and the experience of the Philippian jailor. Acts 16:20-34 tells us the story of the dramatic conversion of the Philippine jailor, an experience of conversion that is at least as dramatic as the one that occurred with Paul himself on the road to Damascus. Acts 16:20-34 reads: “And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.” Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.”
Let us summarize the dramatic events of this single day when it comes to the question of baptism and conversion. While for most of us the process of conversion is one that is somewhat slow, for the Philippian jailor it was a very quick turnaround. At the start of this story, he is going about his normal business as a jailor. He receives beaten prisoners and is told to keep them secure on pain of death, included among them Paul and Silas, who despite being beaten as uncondemned Romans (which was contrary to Roman law), are singing hymns and praising God while in prison. At midnight God causes a miraculous earthquake that loosens the chains of everyone and instead of escaping, Paul and Silas are able to encourage everyone to stay in the prison. At this point, fearing that he is about to suffer death as a result of letting prisoners escape, the jailor is on the point of suicide, but Paul and Silas encourage him and instead he expresses a faith in God and Jesus Christ and is baptized, with his entire household, immediately after taking the step of washing Paul’s stripes. This dramatic expression of belief is by no means the norm, but it is something that can happen and a dramatic story of how it is that God can work with people in moments of great distress.
If you have been noticing a pattern so far in our discussion of baptism, many of the baptisms we have discussed so far have been baptisms of entire households simultaneously. This is not our usual habit of baptism, but it is worth pausing to consider why it is that this sort of baptism often took place, and as we have seen in other aspects of baptism so far, the reason has something to do with the question of authority. In the Roman world, the head of household had a huge degree of authority within a household, and when the head of the household was converted, that meant that everyone under his authority similarly had a relationship with God. Given the fact that the family was subject to the head of household in matters up to and including often matters of life and death, once that head of household served God and placed himself (or herself, as we will note), under God’s authority, the entire household as a whole was similarly placed under God’s authority as well, and thus the entire household was baptized simultaneously.
Although we tend to think of this as involving men as heads of household, there are occasions where women were also heads of household as well. Since we are already in Acts 16, let us look briefly at one such example of this in Acts 16:11-15. Here we see the last part of the travel itinerary of Paul and his party (including Luke, the author) to Philippi and their early work. Acts 16:11-15 reads: “Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us.” We may note from this passage that when Lydia believed, her entire household was baptized along with her, because she was the head of household and thus had authority over her household in the same way the pater familias of the Roman family usually did. While it is likely that she inherited this position of head of household from her father, who must have been a man of considerable status, it is still noteworthy that whether the head of a household in the early church was a man or a woman, the baptism of the head of household meant the baptism of the entire household in obedience to both God and the head of the family.
That is not the only situation we find ourselves involved in, though. Acts 2 gives us the classic account of a massive baptism of believers, and here too we have questions of the role of other family members in the process. Acts 2:36-42 gives the story of the baptism of the crowd that heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Acts 2:36-42 reads: ““Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
Here we see a few interrelated issues. Peter combines the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit in a way that is familiar with us: there is repentance, confession of sins, counseling, baptism, and the laying on of hands, as well as a continuance in worship of God and in believing and practicing God’s ways based on the instruction of the ministry. In contrast to what we read earlier about the baptism of households, here the baptism was focused on individual leaders, likely because in the Jewish family, fathers did not have the same degree of authority that Roman fathers had, not least because boys and girls were considered to be adults responsible for their own actions at a young age–girls generally at the age of 12 or thereabouts when they hit puberty and boys at the age of 13. Similarly to the baptism of households, though, the focus of the baptism is not merely a personal relationship between God and the baptized believers, but also a recognition that the relationship between a parent or both parents and God brought the promise of God’s involvement to children as well, who automatically were called because of the repentance and conversion of their parents.
There are occasions, though, where baptism is spoken of as being a matter of individuals. We see such an example in the book of Philemon, in verses 8-14. In Philemon verses 8-14, we see the complications that could result from baptizing an individual who was a slave of another believer: “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.” Here we see that two people who had been estranged in the institution of slavery were made brethren as a result of Paul’s ministry, and that created complications for all three men involved–for Paul, for Philemon, as well as for Onesimus. A master was being instructed not to coerce a former runaway slave who had stolen from him and was now returning to his household, Paul had to urge Philemon to do the right thing without abusing his own authority as a minister, and Onesimus had to face up to his master upon new and changed terms as brothers in the faith. Baptism is complicated, but we can see a general principle here that while the conversion of a head of household brings the entire household into the faith, the conversion of individuals brings with it change between how they relate and others.
This led to a lot of complications within the early Church of God. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, we see discussions about the complications that baptism could bring to married couples and their families. 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 reads: “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”
Here we see some of the complications that could result when one member of a couple was a believer and the other was not. Whose religious example would the children copy? Would the different belief systems of the husband and wife lead to conflict between them and eventually the threat of divorce or abandonment? Paul urges the maintenance of peace between believing and unbelieving spouses and points to the holiness of children that come from such unions through the example of the believing spouse. Yet such situations are and always have been delicate and complicated, and Paul makes it clear that it requires graciousness and tact to manage such situations well. In bringing a believer into a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ, baptism changes the way that people relate to each other, just as we saw in the case of Philemon.
Before we close, I would like to discuss one other matter relating to baptism, and that is the question of re-baptism. Some people who have previously been baptized might resent being told that they should become baptized again. Other people were baptized in the wrong frame of mind and without having fully understood what they were committing themselves too and may feel it necessary to be baptized again as an expression of faith that they have committed to. How does the Bible address this concern? We have an example of it in Acts 19:1-7, regarding a group of people who had been baptized according to the Baptism of John. Acts 19:1-7 reads: “And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all.”
In this request for the re-baptism of the twelve disciples of John the Baptist, we must note that Paul nowhere denigrated or insulted the legitimacy of the baptism that they had received. We noted in discussing the first mention of baptism, that of John the Baptist, that this baptism was of repentance and that Jesus Christ Himself had been baptized by John the Baptist despite not needing to repent of anything. Paul, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, would not disparage something that His master had done, and we do not find any disparagement of John the Baptist here. Why, then, were these men asked to become baptized again? What we find is that their increased knowledge about God’s way, including the knowledge of the Holy Spirit, was viewed by Paul as being enough of a difference in doctrinal practice to warrant re-baptism by water and then the laying on of hands by which the baptism was recognized.
Let us briefly note, though, something that may not often be remembered, and that is the way that this particular baptism affirmed the importance of John the Baptist. Four times in the book of Acts we are told dramatic stories of baptism that expand the circle of those who receive the blessing of having an intimate relationship with God through baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we find some similar details to all of them. In Acts 2 on Pentecost, in Acts 8 with the baptism of the Samaritans, in Acts 10 with the baptism of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, and here in Acts 19 with the baptism of some of John the Baptist’s disciples, there is the miracle of the speaking of tongues and the recognition that the baptized people are part of God’s family and are not to be looked down upon. Interestingly enough, with this story we have come full circle from where we began. John the Baptist introduces the concept of baptism in the Bible, and in Acts 19, the baptism of some of his disciples by water and the Spirit reminds the largely Gentile church of Asia minor that Jewish believers from a related but not identical faith tradition are brethren with them on a place of full equality. Rather than re-baptism being a sign of disrespect of contempt, it is instead a recognition that these people had moved from the authority of John the Baptist to that of Jesus Christ, but ultimately both of them were on the same team.
Let us therefore close by summarizing and bringing together the points that we have been discussing so far in today’s message. First, we began with the beginning of baptism in the Bible, with the example of John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance that drew many people to hear him and some of them to be baptized by being immersed in the Jordan River. This baptism of repentance sprang from a long history within biblical religion of ceremonially cleaning that was important in such contexts as the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood as well as cleansing from leprosy, and there are some important parallels between the bathing of Naaman and the baptism of people by John the Baptist in the same river and likely very close to the same area. At this point we also explored the contentious nature of washing that includes the context of the footwashing ceremony at Passover. We then explored some of the interesting questions and complications that baptism has involved, including questions about reluctance of the leaders of the early Church to baptize with water, the reason why baptism was sometimes done of whole households when the head of household converted, and at other times for individuals whose baptism changed the dynamic of the families and households in which they were a part. Finally, we discussed the question of re-baptism and why it is that some people who had long ago been baptized according to the baptism of John were asked to be baptized again in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Hopefully I have given you all a better understanding of baptism and its biblical context and the way that our faith in God has always involved questions of authority that are impossible to ignore, and that we can better approach the Passover with a fuller understanding of the baptism and its vital importance to Christian identity and practice.