We do not have to go far in Christendom to find opinions on the subject of baptism. Persons may be heard on every hand extolling the virtues of “believer’s baptism”, “christening”, “household baptism”, “sprinkling” and “immersion”. Baptism according to Christendom is thus a hotchpotch of confusing messages, and for clear direction the child of God must turn away from these to the clear and living stream of God’s Word. My title then is Baptism according to the Scriptures.
The basic idea involved in baptism is association or identification. It dissociates me from one sphere of things and associates me with another. This is why baptism is always in relation to a name. It is who we are baptized to that matters most (see Acts 19: 1-5). The practical effect of baptism is salvation, and this will become clearer as we proceed.
The first baptism mentioned in the NT is that of John. This is not Christian baptism for the simple reason that Christian baptism is unto Christ’s death (Rom. 6: 3), and Christ had not died when John was baptizing. Nevertheless, although distinct from Christian baptism, John’s baptism sets forth the broad principles governing it.
The purpose of John’s baptism was to prepare persons for the imminent arrival of Christ:
John indeed baptized [with] the baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on him that was coming after him, that is, on Jesus” (Acts 19: 4).
He himself said
“I [am] the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the path of [the] Lord, as said Esaias the prophet” (John 1: 22-23).
The nation as a whole was in no fit state to receive its Messiah, and thus the God-fearing remnant must dissociate themselves from it, clearing their names of the collective guilt, in order to be ready. Baptism was the means by which this dissociation was achieved.
Baptism is a figure of death (see Romans. 6: 4), and by being baptized the godly remnant of Israel were acknowledging that there was no hope in the current order of things - they were dying to it. They recognized that the relationship with Abraham was of no avail (compare Matthew. 3: 9), and that there was a need to remove themselves from the guilty ground on which Israel stood. By being baptized in the river Jordan (in itself a type of death), they took separate ground from the national body, acknowledged their sinfulness, and cleared themselves from the sinful condition of the nation. Furthermore, John’s baptism was not merely baptism, but a baptism of repentance (Matt. 3: 1-12). John laid great stress on this: whenever he preached, he preached repentance, and whenever persons came to be baptized he expected “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3: 8; Luke 3: 7-14). Without this baptism the possibility of forgiveness is not even entertained: it was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (see Mark 1: 4; Luke 3: 7). Those who refused to be baptized by John were without hope: “the Pharisees and the lawyers rendered null as to themselves the counsel of God, not having been baptized by him” (Luke 7: 30).
At first it might seem strange that the Lord Jesus Himself, being utterly without sin, should wish to submit himself to a baptism of repentance (see Matt. 3: 13). There was a specific purpose behind this, however. John’s own testimony was that he came baptizing with water in order that the Christ “might be manifested to Israel” (John 1: 31). When this sinless One entered the waters of death the heavens could not remain silent, for to do so would have meant that the Lord was a sinner just like any other man. No, heaven must speak:
And Jesus , having been baptized, went up straightway from the water, and lo, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him: and behold, a voice out of the heavens saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight.” (Matt. 3: 16-17).
God marked Him out as His chosen man - utterly sinless and utterly delightful to heaven. Following on from this the Lord entered his public ministry.
Part of the Lord’s public ministry (at least initially), involved baptism, though it was His disciples rather than the Lord Himself who actually carried it out (compare John 3: 22 and 4: 1). We are not told what this baptism was, though it seems likely that it was to Christ as Messiah - that is, those baptized desired to be associated with Him in that capacity. The baptism spoken of in connection with the so-called Great commission (Matt. 28: 18-20) is wider in its outlook (“all the nations”), but I would be inclined to the view that this is not Christian baptism, but a baptism associated with the preaching of the kingdom after the rapture of the Church (see Matt. 24: 14).
The first record of Christian baptism as such, is in Acts 2: 36-41 where Peter charges the Jewish multitude with the murder of their Messiah:
Let the whole house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him, this Jesus whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (v36).
As with John’s preaching, there was a need for dissociation in order for there to be blessing. Those convicted of their sin were told to “Repent, and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v38). The nation of Israel had crucified Christ, and the convicted Jew had to clear himself of this national sin before there could be blessing. The call was “Be saved from this perverse generation” (v40), meaning that they were to clear themselves of Israel’s sin by dissociating themselves in baptism from the nation. Instead of being associated with those that had murdered Christ, they now associated themselves with the One they had crucified - they were baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (v38, see v41). It was a complete change of ground.
Following on from this incident with the Jews, we have the baptism of the Samaritans (Acts 8: 12-25), a hybrid people part Hebrew and part Gentile, and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (v26-39), who was in all probability a Gentile. Now in the case of the Jews, baptism was essential before there could be blessing from God - dissociation preceded the sealing of the Spirit (2: 38). However, with the Gentiles this order was reversed: when Cornelius and his companions were converted the gift of the Spirit preceded baptism (Compare 10: 44 and v47,48). The reason for this difference was that the Jews were God’s people, whilst the Gentiles were “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2: 12). The Jews had committed a terrible crime in rejecting their Messiah - God’s Son - and had to clear themselves of this before they could count on any recognition from God (a recognition witnessed to by the gift of the Holy Spirit). A Jew who remained unbaptised continued to be associated with the cry of His Christ-rejecting countrymen: “Crucify him, crucify him” (Luke 23: 21, see also 19: 41). How could God identify Himself (by His Spirit) with one who still remained identified with those who, though they claimed to serve God, had rejected Him (in His Son)? He would be putting His sanction on a religion that though it took His name, was in reality apostate. The Gentiles had no such special difficulty, and thus had no need to be baptized before the gift of the Spirit could be sent to them.
The case of the Samaritans was peculiar, because, as already indicated, they fitted neither the Jewish nor the Gentile category. They believed “the glad tidings concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ”, and “were baptized” (see Acts 8: 12), yet they did not receive the gift of the Holy Spirit until Peter and John came down from Jerusalem (v17 - 18). The reason for this was because of the schism that existed between Samaria and Jerusalem (John 4: 9, 27). Samaria denied the divine recognition the Jews claimed for the city of Jerusalem and its temple (v20). However, despite all the claims they made for themselves, Scripture is explicit: “salvation is of the Jews” (v22) - not Samaria. This schism had to be ended (the Assembly is one body - see Eph. 4: 4), and the Samaritans brought into association with Jerusalem. It was therefore divinely ordered that the gift of the Holy Spirit should be withheld in their case until the two apostles came from Jerusalem and “laid their hands upon them” (v17) - a well-known figure of identification. This meant an acknowledgment of Jerusalem as the true centre (Acts 1: 4), and the giving up of their own false position. If the Spirit had been imparted to them at once, without any involvement from Jerusalem, it might have resulted in the continuance of the existing rivalry. Peter is in the foreground again, and uses the keys of the kingdom here with the Samaritans, just as he did on the day of Pentecost with the Jews, and later with the Gentiles.
The incident of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8: 26 - 39) sheds much light on the reasons for being baptized. On hearing the “glad tidings of Jesus” (v35), the eunuch makes a sudden request to be baptized: “Behold water; what hinders my being baptized?” (v36).
Why did he do this? Is it not significant that the passage of Scripture he had been reading (and this is recorded purposely for our benefit), ends with the words “for his life is taken from the earth” (v33). It is not unreasonable to suppose that his request to be baptized was the result of realizing that his new master had been rejected and cast out by men. His conclusion was that, if his Lord had no place here, then neither would he - he would depart from this scene in the waters of baptism.
Note as well the way the Eunuch’s request is phrased: “Behold water; what hinders my being baptised?“ (Acts 8: 36 - my emphasis). The answer is of course that there was nothing to hinder. There was no need to call the Assembly together, no need to go back to Jerusalem to have the baptism in front of the crowds, no need to wait for anything. As soon as water becomes available, the eunuch was baptised there and then. There was no need for delay. The eunuch exclaims: “Behold water” (v36). What happened next? “And he commanded the chariot to stop. And they went down both to the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised Him” (v38). Of course there were no crowds, for this was “desert” (v26), but that did not matter. The important thing was to get baptised. The New Testament knows nothing of a delay between conversion and baptism.
Passing over several other references to baptism for the moment, let me now examine Acts 22: 16. In the verses preceding, Paul recounts his conversion, and then relates what Ananias had said to him, including these words:
"And now why lingerest thou? Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name”.
This was obviously intended as a mild rebuke - clearly Ananias felt that Paul ought to have been baptised already since it was now three days since his conversion (Acts 9: 9). Indeed, when Paul realised the urgency of the matter, he gave his baptism priority over receiving food (compare v9 and v18-19).
What does ‘washing away of sins’ mean in this context? Justification is “on the principle of faith” (Rom 5: 1), and so clearly Ananias is not talking here about a washing that fits a man for heaven. No, the washing here was to fit Paul to be a testimony to Christ on earth. It was an outward cleansing. His sins were taken away on the Damascus road by virtue of the blood of Christ (Heb. 10: 4, 12) but until he was baptised, the sins of his old life were still outwardly attached to him. Paul had been a passionate opponent and persecutor of the Christian faith and its adherents (Acts 22: 4), but in baptism he publicly washed it all away. When he stepped into the water he was declaring that he was completely finished with his previous way of life (in effect, he was dying to it). That old way of life he cut off with the waters of death. It was an act of dissociation.
Romans 6: 1-14 deals with the claim of some that grace gives the believer licence to sin:
“What then shall we say? Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (v1).
Paul’s reply is scathing:
“Far be the thought. We who have died to sin, how shall we still live in it? Are you ignorant that we, as many as have been baptised unto Christ Jesus, have been baptised unto his death?” (v2,3).
Baptism is a picture of our death with Christ - a complete finishing with our former, sinful way of life. To propose to continue in sin - for whatever reason - betrayed a fundamental ignorance of the meaning of baptism. That way of life we announced in baptism as dead and buried - and like a buried corpse it should be put completely out of sight. What the foolish persons that Paul was dealing with were suggesting was that it would be a good idea to parade it ! In being “baptised unto Christ Jesus” (v3) we are identified with Him, but the apostle does not stop there but goes on to say that we are also “baptised unto his death” - that is, identified with his death as well. Now the Lord Jesus died in order that the first man might be removed from before God, and if I am associated with Him in His death then I am renouncing my old, sinful nature, and, in effect, confessing my own death with Christ. If, by baptism, I have announced that my old way of life has gone in death, how can I possibly propose continuing in sin? It is a ludicrous contradiction!
Now if baptism is “unto death”, it is also “in order that, even as Christ has been raised up from among [the] dead by the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life” (v4). Baptism is thus the start of a new life (which is why it ought to happen immediately on conversion) - a life different to the one submitted to the waters of baptism. It must be different, for if we have ‘died’ in baptism, then we are “justified from sin” (v7). In our old lives we were in bondage to sin, and the only way to be freed from that bondage is through death. In baptism we announce our death with Christ, and having thus died we are “justified from sin”. As death releases the slave from service to his master, so our death with Christ (of which baptism is a figure) releases us from the mastery of sin. Dead men cannot sin (and by submitting myself to the waters of baptism, I am announcing that I am dead). The believer has finished with the old, sinful order of things - he has died with Christ and now seeks to walk in newness of life.
Notice, however, that it does not say that the old man is dead. He is crucified (v6), but a crucified man is not necessarily dead. He is condemned, and death is his only prospect, but, as we find out by practical experience, he is very much alive. The old sinful nature is still with us. Thus there is a need to continually reckon ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v11). ‘To reckon’ is an act of faith: we put ourselves where God has put us. It is a position and fact that has to be accepted rather than a feeling to be experienced. If an attempt is made to experience it, the result can only be gross self-satisfaction (coupled with delusion), or the despair and misery of utter failure. We cannot feel dead to sin (and we soon realise this), but we can believe it. It is a work done for us, not in us.
Christ has dealt with sin. He has “died to sin once for all” and now “lives to God” (v10). If we are associated with Him in His death (set forth in baptism), then we too have finished with sin. From a practical point of view the need is to reckon ourselves in this position - to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. If we reckon ourselves dead to sin then we will not yield our members “instruments of unrighteousness to sin”, but will yield ourselves “to God as alive from among [the] dead” and our members “instruments of righteousness to God” (v13). It is when we do not reckon ourselves dead that we give in to sin.
In 1 Corinthians 1: 12 - 16 we see the importance of the name in which we are baptised. Sectarianism was rife in Corinth with various names being lifted up as the heads of parties, including that of Paul:
“But I speak of this, that each of you says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ. Is the Christ divided? Has Paul been crucified for you? or have ye been baptised unto the name of Paul? I thank God that I have baptised none of you, unless Crispus and Gaius, that no one may say that I have baptised unto my own name.”
The anxiety here expressed by the apostle underlies the fact that the name in which a person is baptised associates us with the possessor of that name. For example, the believers in Acts 19: 1-7 who did not possess the gift of the Holy Spirit were baptised unto John:
And he said, To what then were ye baptised? And they said, To the baptism of John.”
They were identified with John rather than Christ. When, however, they heard about the Lord Jesus, they desired to be associated with Him, and were “baptised to the name of the Lord Jesus”.
The tenth chapter deals with what we might call the Mosaic baptism. Some have tried to make out that this is only a figure of baptism, but that is a perversion of the clear words of Holy Scripture. It does not say ‘in figure all were baptised unto Moses’ but “all were baptised unto Moses”. It was a baptism. Of course it wasn’t Christian baptism, but that does not alter the fact that it was baptism! I quote in full the relevant passage: “For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (v 1-2).
I shall return to these verses more fully later, but it is worth drawing attention to a few broad points now. Firstly, we have again the importance of the name to which we are baptised: “…..unto Moses”. Secondly, we have association and dissociation. The Israelites “were baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea”. The cloud was the cloud of divine protection and guidance (Ex. 13: 21), and those who put themselves under it put themselves where Moses was - they were associated with him. The sea (that is, the Red Sea), dissociated Moses (and those who went with him) from Egypt. They were separated from what speaks of the world. To fully understand the sense of this being baptised “unto Moses” we must turn to the historical record of the events in Exodus 14: 31. There we read that after passing through the Red Sea, the children of Israel “feared Jehovah, and believed in Jehovah, and in Moses his bondman”. They acknowledged the leadership of Moses, and in passing through the water were set apart (baptised) to him as his disciples. They cut themselves off from the old order of things (Egypt) and were baptised to their deliverer. Thirdly, salvation was included in the baptism, since by the dissociation accomplished at the baptism of the Red Sea, the children of Israel were saved from the Egyptians. The separating character of the Sea saved them.
The next New Testament verse that needs examining is Galatians 3: 27. Now this verse has perplexed many, for in it the apostle Paul declares that it is in baptism that we put on Christ: “For ye, as many as have been baptised unto Christ, have put on Christ”. No, not when we believed the Gospel (as we might expect), but when we were baptised, and only then. How then, do we put on Christ in baptism?
Imagine a young man joining the army. As soon as he takes the oath of allegiance to the head of state, he becomes a member of the service, but he is still in civilian clothes. In the eyes of the world around he is still a civilian! When, however, he puts his uniform on it is obvious to all that he is no longer a civilian, but a soldier. Now the same principle applies with the believer. When he is converted, he becomes a Christian - he takes the “oath of allegiance” to his Lord. However, not until he is baptised can the Christian be said to have put on his uniform - to have “put on Christ”. Baptism puts us on Christian ground in the eyes of the world - it is the taking of a positive step of distinction from the world. Orientals understand this truth far better than persons in the West. Thus when a Jew or Muslim is converted, his new-found faith is tolerated - he can still be persuaded of his “folly”. When he gets baptised, however, that is it - literally. They will have no more to do with him. He has taken off the uniform of Judaism or Islam and put on Christ. This explains why Paul goes on to say “There is no Jew nor Greek; there is no bondman nor freeman; there is no male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 28). The uniform of the Jew or the Greek, the bondman or the freeman, was off - they had the uniform of Christ on. They had “put on Christ” (v27).
In Colossians 2: 12, baptism is seen not only to be death, but burial:
buried with him in baptism, in which ye have been also raised with [him] through faith of the working of God who raised him from among the dead”.
In being identified with Him in His death we not only die, but we are buried with him - that is, we go completely out of sight. That order of man is utterly finished. (Incidentally, that is why Biblical baptism is not sprinkling, but immersion). Burial is the complete and final thought with regard to death - when a dead man is put in the grave, then it is obvious to all that it is the end. The effect of baptism is the same in principle.
However, it can also be seen, yet again, that baptism is with a view to another life. The Christian coming up out of the waters of baptism signifies his being raised out of death with Christ, to walk in association with Him in newness of life. Hence the apostle goes on “in which ye have been also raised with [him] through faith of the working of God who raised him from among the dead. And you, being dead in offences and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he has quickened together with him…..” (v12, 13).
Finally, there is 1 Peter 3: 18-22:
"for Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, [the] just for [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in flesh, but made alive in [the] Spirit, in which also going he preached to the spirits [which are] in prison, heretofore disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in [the] days of Noah while the ark was preparing, into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which figure also now saves you, [even] baptism, not a putting away of [the] filth of the flesh, but [the] demand as before God of a good conscience, by [the] resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at [the] right hand of God, gone into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being subjected to him”.
Now Noah and his family were saved by two means: by the water of the flood (as stated here), and by the ark, and the difference between the two is the difference between faith and baptism. Water saved Noah in that it was used in the judgment of God to destroy the old corrupt world with which he had been connected, and brought him into a new and better world. In the same way, baptism severs our links with one system and links us outwardly with another. The water which was the death of the world saved Noah. Of course, the ark also saved Noah’s life, but it saved him from the judgment, not from an evil world. The ark can thus be likened to the salvation that comes as a result of faith in God. It was left to the water (like baptism) to save Noah from an evil world.
Certainly, baptism is only a “figure”, and accomplishes nothing vital and eternal, but it is certainly more than a mere ceremonial washing. It is, as Peter says, “[the] demand as before God of a good conscience” (v21). Thus the Ethiopian eunuch on understanding His Lord was given no place here, cries out “Behold water; what hinders my being baptised?” (Acts 8: 36). A good conscience demands baptism, considering it faithfulness to the Master to be in figure cut off from the old life, even as He was literally cut off in death. Conscience requires such an identification with Him.
As one would expect, there are several instances of individuals being baptised in the New Testament. What is not commonly known, is that there are several instances of households being baptised - that is, baptised as households. These include Cornelius (Acts 10: 47-48, 11: 13-14), Lydia (Acts 16: 14-15), Crispus (Acts 18: 8) and Stephanas (1 Cor. 1: 16). Most controversial of all, there is the case of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16: 33-34). It is worth quoting the whole passage in full:
“And it came to pass as we were going to prayer that a certain female slave, having a spirit of Python, met us, who brought much profit to her masters by prophesying. She, having followed Paul and us, cried saying These men are bondmen of the Most High God, who announce to you [the] way of salvation. And this she did many days. And Paul, being distressed, turned, and said to the spirit, I enjoin thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And it came out the same hour. And her masters, seeing that the hope of their gains was gone, having seized Paul and Silas, dragged [them] into the market before the magistrates; and having brought them up to the praetors, said, These men utterly trouble our city, being Jews, and announce customs which it is not lawful for us to receive nor practise, being Romans. And the crowd rose up too against them; and the praetors, having torn off their clothes, commanded to scourge [them]. And having laid many stripes upon them they cast [them] into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely; who, having received such a charge, cast them into the inner prison, and secured their feet to the stocks. And at midnight Paul and Silas, in praying, were praising God with singing, and the prisoners listened to them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison shook, and all the doors were immediately opened, and the bonds of all loosed. And the jailor being awakened out of his sleep, and seeing the doors of the prison opened, having drawn a sword was going to kill himself, thinking the prisoners had fled. But Paul called out with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm, for we are all here. And having asked for lights, he rushed in, and, trembling, fell down before Paul and Silas. And leading them out said, Sirs, what must I do that I may be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house. And they spoke to him the word of the Lord, with all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed [them] from their stripes; and was baptised, he and all his straightway. And having brought them into his house he laid the table [for them], and rejoiced with all his house, having believed in God.” (Acts 16: 16-34)
In this fascinating Scripture, Paul and Silas had been occupied in public testimony in Philippi, but incurring the wrath of the crowd, they were thrown in prison. There the jailor (evidently a hard man, like many in his class), had fastened their feet in the stocks and left them for the night. At midnight Paul and Silas were praising God with singing, and were heard by the other prisoners (though not apparently by the jailor, who in verse 27 is specifically said to have been asleep at the time. This fact, and the fact that he “rushed in” to where the prisoners were, probably indicates that he was in a room by himself some distance away). Suddenly God intervened in power, and there was a great earthquake, and the doors of the prison were thrown wide open. The jailor awoke bewildered, and seeing the doors of the prison open was about to kill himself presuming all the prisoners to have fled ( verse 29 would suggest that there were no lights on in the prison, and that he would not have been able to see whether any of the prisoners were still inside). As the keeper of the prison he was entrusted with securing the prisoners, and failure to carry out this duty was punishable by death under Roman law. Presumably, he preferred a quick suicide to the barbaric executions dealt out by the Roman authorities.
Paul and Silas, apparently discerning what was about to happen, called out urgently “Do thyself no harm, for we are all here” (v28). Whether they could actually see the jailor is questionable, since the prison was in darkness (v29), and they were in the inner prison (v24). The jailor reacted to this call by rushing in trembling, and falling down at their feet. Leading them out, He asked “Sirs, what must I do that I may be saved?” (v30). He is not now thinking of suicide but salvation. What changed his mind? No doubt Paul’s words “we are all here” were enough to make the jailor see that this was no ordinary earthquake, that more than the power of nature was at work - indeed, that it was the power of God. With the prisoners still all safe, he had no reason to fear the Roman authorities, but now something more awful had been brought into his consciousness. He felt the power of God, and immediately felt the need to be saved. Whether he knew anything of what Paul and Silas had been preaching is not revealed, but the fact is that he cried out in trembling fear seeking salvation.
Paul replied to the jailor’s question with the well-known words “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (v31). The first part of this verse is one of the most widely known in Scripture, adorning many a text and bumper sticker. Sadly, the latter part, “thou and thy house”, is often deliberately overlooked, almost as if it were an embarrassment. This would indicate that its force is not well understood.
Now there are but three possible explanation’s of Paul’s promise to the jailor:
Following on from this, the “word of the Lord” (v32) was spoken to the jailor, along with all that were with him in his house. Presumably this “word of the Lord” built upon the foundational statement of Paul “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (v31). The result of this was that the jailor believed (v34), and was immediately baptised with all his household (v33). Proof that he was now a changed man is seen in the fact that he washed the stripes of Paul and Silas, and gave them a meal in his own house (v33).
Attention has been drawn to the fact that having believed in God, the jailor “rejoiced with all his house” (v34), and since all rejoiced, this is taken to mean that they must have all believed as well. However, the “having believed” (Greek: pisteuo) in verse 34, is in the singular. We have no warrant for saying that anyone apart from the jailor believed. They may well have done, but Scripture does not say so. Furthermore, rejoicing is not a definite evidence of conversion - witness the rocky ground “convert” of Matthew 13: 20 - 21. Again, the rejoicing could even refer to merely a general celebration laid on by the jailor - we simply do not know.
As to facts, therefore, only four can definitely be established from the passage:
Now the so-called “believer’s baptist” says that the household of the jailor were baptised because they believed the Gospel. As can be seen, there is no conclusive evidence of this. By contrast, the so-called “household baptist” says that the household of the jailor were baptised, whether they were believers or not, because they were members of his household. Who then is right?
First of all, let us recap what we have learnt in general as to baptism:
Baptism involves dissociation.
Thus in the Gospels the repentant Jew separated himself from the apostate mass by means of the baptism of John. Again, on the day of Pentecost, the repentant Jew separated himself from the nation that had crucified Christ by being baptised to the name of the Lord Jesus. In the Old Testament, Israel separated herself from the Egyptian world by being baptised in the Red Sea. In New Testament teaching, the Christian dissociates himself from his former sinful life by being buried with Christ in baptism.
Baptism involves association.
Thus the Israelites identified themselves with Moses by passing through the Red Sea. Again, Christians are buried with Christ (see Col. 2: 12), and baptised unto Christ and unto His death (see Rom. 6: 3).
Baptism involves a change of ground.
This follows naturally from baptism involving dissociation and association. What is meant by this is that in baptism the baptised person abandons the ground on which he formerly stood, be it heathen, Jewish or whatever, and takes new ground. Thus Galatians 3: 27, “For ye, as many as have been baptised unto Christ, have put on Christ”, shows clearly that baptism is the means by which we move on to Christian ground. Hence what follows in the next verse: “There is no Jew nor Greek; there is no bondman nor freeman; there is no male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (v28). Prior to being baptised we cannot claim to have “put on Christ”, even though we may have been soundly converted. This is because outwardly we are still on the ground of the world - still associated with that sphere of things. In baptism we take the new ground of Christianity, and die to our previous way of life. Thus the apostle Paul, though converted on the road to Damascus, did not put on Christ in baptism until three days later (Acts 22: 16) - until that moment he was still associated with Christ-rejecting Judaism - hence the call to have his sins “washed away”. This has nothing to do with having sins blotted out in the sight of God by the precious blood of Christ, but refers to the outward cleansing from sin. Until baptised, Paul was still a Jew in the eyes of the world, and thus tainted with the national sin. Going down into the waters of death, however, put him publicly on Christian ground.
Baptism involves a name.
Whether Moses, John or the Lord Jesus, the name in which we are baptised associated us with that person. Baptism on its own is meaningless - it is to whom or to what we are baptised that is vital. Thus on the day of Pentecost it was not enough for the converted Jews to be baptised , they had to be baptised “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2: 38) - that is, be publicly identified with the person they had previously rejected.
To this list could also be added a fifth point (to which allusion has already been made):
Baptism involves salvation.
This may startle some, and for this reason it may be as well to look at one or two confirming Scriptures.
First of all, Mark 16: 16: “He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned”. Here baptism precedes salvation and not the other way round, and it is clear that both faith and baptism are necessary for salvation. Now the salvation here in view is not just the salvation of the soul, but also salvation (or preservation) in an evil world. Thus the Red Sea not only cut Israel off from the murderous intent of Pharaoh, but also from the worldly influences of Egypt - not only saved their lives, but saved them from godless surroundings. There are of course those who insist on baptism for soul-salvation, but this is disproved by the latter clause of the verse in Mark: “and he that disbelieves shall be condemned”. It does not say “he that disbelieves and has not been baptised shall be condemned”. Condemnation is only on the basis of a lack of faith. Baptism is essential for salvation, but only in the sense of the salvation required for our lives down here in this world. The death-bed convert does not need to be baptised because he will not need to be saved (or preserved) from the influence of the world. He has but moments to live. His eternal salvation, however, rests on his faith in God alone.
The second Scripture worth considering is 1 Peter 3: 20 - 21: “when the longsuffering of God waited in [the] days of Noah while the ark was preparing, into which few, that is, eight souls were saved through water: which figure also now saves you, [even] baptism, not a putting away of [the] filth of flesh, but [the] demand as before God of a good conscience”. A clearer Scripture connecting baptism and salvation cannot be found: ‘which figure also now saves you, even baptism”. So what kind of salvation is in view here? Clearly, since baptism saves, and baptism is for earth, this salvation must be in relation to earth. How exactly then does baptism save?
In seeking to answer this question, it must be seen that salvation and sanctification are intimately connected in Scripture - the one is dependent on the other. Sanctification is the act of setting apart to God. Thus the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites was not only the way of their being saved from Egypt, but also the means by which they were set apart (as a body) to Jehovah. Again, 2 Thessalonians 2: 13 says “But we ought to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved of [the] Lord, that God has chosen you from [the] beginning to salvation in sanctification of [the] Spirit and belief of [the] truth”. Salvation in sanctification - there is no salvation outside sanctification. The Thessalonians were saved because they were sanctified - set apart to God for salvation. Now go back to the thought of baptism. Baptism involves me being separated from what I was previously associated with, and set apart - sanctified - in an outward sense to God. Thus baptism, since it sanctifies, must involve salvation.
Returning to the passage of the children of Israel through the Red Sea, we read that they were thus all “baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10: 2). Now Scripture specifically says that all were baptised, though we know for a fact that not all had faith (see Heb. 3: 7-19). Thus we have a situation in which unbelievers were baptised unto Moses - that is, sanctified (or set apart) to God’s servant. They had salvation (by being removed from Egypt, and brought into association with Moses) - but they had no faith in God! How is this to be explained? Clearly, the salvation did not involve heaven and eternity, but earth and time. Take another Scripture: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother; since [otherwise] indeed your children are unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Cor 7: 14). Here, it is the association of the unbelieving spouse with the believing spouse that sanctifies. Likewise with their children - they were holy (set apart to God), on account of their parents. In the same way, though many of the Israelites who passed through the Red Sea were unbelievers, their association with Moses brought them into sanctification and salvation.
Again, look at the example of Noah. With Noah, it was his faith alone that brought his family into salvation: “And Jehovah said to Noah, Go into the ark, thou and all thy house; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Gen. 7: 1). It was their association with Noah that enabled his family to be brought into salvation. In this regard, it is not the fact that they were believers or not that is important (though this is of course vital as to the eternal welfare of their own souls), but whether they were members of his household, and thus associated with him. Indeed, we would have some justification in supposing that Ham was an unbeliever (see Gen. 9: 18 - 27), but despite this he was saved from God’s judgment by his association with his father (Gen 7: 7).
This thought of “thou and thy house” is important in Scripture, whereby the household is brought into a place of external blessing, on the ground of the individual faith and responsibility of its head. Other examples that come to mind are: the household sheltered by the blood of the passover lamb, (Exod. 12: 3), Rahab (Josh. 2: 12, 18, 6: 25), Obed-Edom (2 Sam. 6: 11-12), and Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 9).
Having taken all this on board, it can be seen that the key question with regard to the case of the Philippian jailor and his household is not whether all those baptised were saved, but whether they were baptised as a household - i.e. because they were members of the jailor’s household. The salvation and sanctification we have been speaking of is available to unbelievers (however much the truth of this may grate on some ears), but only to those associated with believers, that is, those part of a believing household (a household where the head is a believer). This principle of God blessing households as households is seen right throughout Scripture (see, for example, Exod. 12: 21; Josh. 6: 25; Judges 1: 25; 2 Sam. 6: 11; Luke 19: 9).
Sometimes those who practice so-called “household baptism” are charged with “infant baptism” as if the two were one and the same. This betrays a woeful ignorance of the principles just outlined underlying “household baptism”. It is households that are baptised, not merely infants. Households may contain infants or they may not - that is not the point. The point is membership of the household - association with the believing household head. The same principle is illustrated in regard to circumcision: Abraham circumcised every member of his household (Gen. 17: 11 - 14), not just infants (if indeed there were any).
It may be as well to stay with this subject of circumcision, for many interesting parallels can be drawn between it and baptism. Now circumcision was merely a symbolic act, and accomplished nothing inwardly for the one circumcised. What was important, however, was what it represented - that the one circumcised was placed outwardly under the covenant and promise of Genesis 17: 1 - 14. It was thus the sign of the covenant. Though a Hebrew might be racially pure, and believe all the promises, unless he was circumcised he could not and would not be considered to be a partner in the covenant. Thus: “And the uncircumcised male who hath not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his peoples: he hath broken my covenant” (v14). None of the privileges and blessings from God that were linked with that system could be his. Though a Hebrew by race, outwardly he was no different from the Gentiles surrounding the Hebrew nation, who were “without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2: 12). The reverse situation could also be true: a circumcised Gentile entered into the privileges of being an Israelite. Thus in relation to the Passover it says: “And when a sojourner sojourneth with thee, and would hold the passover to Jehovah, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and hold it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land; but no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. One law shall be for him that is home-born and for the sojourner that sojourneth among you” (Exodus 12: 48 -49). It is also worthy of notice that Paul tells the Galatian saints who desired to be circumcised that if they did so, they were debtors “to do the whole law” (Galatians 5: 3). What he meant by this was that if they wished to take on the sign of the nation of Israel, then they would have to live as Israelites - i.e. under the Mosaic Law. It is an indisputable fact that Scripture takes circumcision to be the defining and separating character between Jew and Gentile - and no Jew would rightly ever contemplate the admittance of any uncircumcised male to the special circle of Judaism. It was, for want of a better expression, the uniform of God’s earthly people.
Thus one could have no faith in God’s promises, or even lack belief in God at all, and still come into the blessings of the nation simply because of circumcision. Circumcision brought an individual into association with those who were real, and this God was pleased to bless. In the wilderness all had the same blessings, though not all were saved: “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink…..yet God was not pleased with the most of them, for they were strewed in the desert” (1 Corinthians 10: 3 -5). It was because they were circumcised - i.e. on Israelitish ground - that God blessed them. Circumcision brought them into the blessings of the nation. Apart from circumcision there could be no blessing - it was the only ground on which an Israelite could come into blessing. If uncircumcised, he was positioning himself outside.
Now just as circumcision is the outward sign of entrance into Judaism, so baptism is the outward sign of entrance into Christianity. Until Christ was revealed, the Israelite was “under law” (Galatians 3: 23) - that is, on Jewish ground. When, however, he was baptised (and note, it was when he was baptised and not when he believed), he “put on Christ” (v27). Baptism put him outwardly into Christianity - he put on its uniform. Circumcision no longer having any force (Galatians 5: 6) he exchanged the clothes of Judaism for the clothes of Christianity. Circumcision was the outward sign of one system, baptism of the other. The similarity between the two is obvious. Circumcision was the proper ground on which Jewish blessings could be received, and baptism is the proper ground on which Christian blessings can be received. Of course, by blessings, it is blessings connected to our walk down here that are meant - both circumcision and baptism being always connected with the earth. Neither can fit a soul for heaven. Thus if baptism “saves” (1 Pet. 3: 21), it is clear that the salvation is in relation to the walk down here, not heaven. However, it is also equally clear that this salvation cannot be received by those who remain unbaptised. The way ordered by God is that in order to receive blessing, the Christian must take separate ground in baptism. It is the proper way of doing things. It would be very anomalous for a person to profess Christianity and remain unbaptised - he would not be properly on Christian ground.
In Ephesians 6: 4, the believing fathers are to bring their children up “in [the] discipline and admonition of [the] Lord”. What does this mean? It means they are to be trained in the Christian way - brought up in a home where those values are taught and practiced, where the authority of the Lord is acknowledged. There would be no assumption that they were already Christians, but they would be brought up in a Christian environment. In short, they are to be brought up in the Christian profession. Now since baptism is the means by which that profession is entered, it would seem logical therefore, for them to be baptised. Indeed, could one be the head of a house still nominally pagan or agnostic - i.e. a Christian father with unbaptised children? The answer is obvious. Nor can you speak of the blessing of being brought up in a Christian household if the members of that household remain on non-Christian ground - i.e. unbaptised. It would be like a Jewish father claiming to bring his children up in the Jewish profession, yet leaving his sons uncircumcised!
Now those who practice so-called “believer’s baptism” speak much of dedicating their children to the Lord, and I have no objection to this, but surely the best way to dedicate my child is by having him baptised? It is a strange idea to dedicate my child to God, and leave him on the grounds of the world. Baptism is unto death, but with a view to life (Romans 6: 4) and thus I baptise my child in faith with a view to him receiving life. Leaving him on non-Christian ground seems to me to destroy any idea of faith.
Furthermore, it seems very odd to deny, as many do, any parallel between baptism and circumcision on the grounds that the latter is “Old Testament, and not relevant for Christianity”, and then proceed to dedicate their children to God citing such Old Testament Scriptures as 1 Sam. 1: 11! Whether there are NT Scriptures for the baptism of the children of believing parents is a debatable point, but it is undisputable that there are no NT Scriptures to support a baptism-less dedication of the same.
So what are the blessings associated with baptism? Baptism itself does not actually give me anything, but what it does is put me on the proper ground to be blessed. It would be anomalous for a Christian to remain unbaptised, since Scripture tells us that a “good conscience” (1 Pet. 1: 21) would “demand” it. The Christian accounts it faithfulness to the Lord to be in figure cut off from the old life, just as the Master was cut off in death. (As an aside, it has been asked how a baptised infant can have a good conscience towards God. The answer is that it cannot. The first epistle of Peter, however, is addressed, not to infants, but responsible persons). With a child being brought up according to Ephesians 6: 4, faith in the parent would put the child in the sphere where blessing could be received - and baptism is the means to this. Thus to baptise a child shows faith, while not to baptise shows a lack of faith. Why bring up a child in the discipline and admonition of the Lord - what value is this to the unconverted child? Surely it means that there must be blessing in it, and it follows that the baptism of the child would be demanded as the proper ground on which to receive those blessings. To bring a child up in such a way would indicate faith - faith that the child would be eventually saved (otherwise there would be no value in the instruction at all).
What about the salvation that Peter speaks of? How does baptism save? Now it is clear that baptism has nothing whatsoever to do with eternal salvation, but it is equally clear that it does indeed save: “which figure also now saves you, [even] baptism” (1 Pet. 3: 21). In what way then does it save? Salvation is always in reference to something - we are saved from something or someone. Put simply, salvation saves us from our enemies - we become safe from them. Now baptism saves us because it cuts us off from what is against us. Thus in the Scripture in 1 Peter, the context is of Noah being saved from an evil world by the flood. He was “saved through water” (1 Pet. 3: 20), and a parallel is drawn between this and baptism. Elsewhere, the children of Israel were saved from Egypt by the Red Sea because it cut them off from it. Again, in Romans 6, the believer cuts himself off from his former sinful way of life in baptism. It is in this sense that baptism saves.
Once again, it must be stressed that baptism itself accomplishes nothing of intrinsic value - it is what it is, a figure of what is important. The value of baptism lies in what it represents. As to the actual physical procedure, I may be baptised, and yet, as to practical reality, not be cut off from what is against me because I have not reckoned it as an act of faith. Similarly, with the baptism of children, there must be faith on the part of the parent to reckon the child as being placed in an outward sphere of blessing and salvation. For this reason, I would have doubts about the value of the Christening of the child of unsaved parents. It could not be an act of faith. Faith on the part of the parent would see the connection between baptism and salvation, and realise that the proper ground on which the child would receive the latter is through the former. To be brought up in a Christian household involves being saved (or preserved) from many adverse moral influences, and baptism is the fitting background against which this salvation is to be expected.
Those who practice “household baptism” are frequently accused of not having a Scripture for the baptism of children. This would be a serious charge if it were true. In 1 Corinthians 10: 2 it says of those that passed through the Red Sea that “all were baptised”, yet Exodus 12: 37 tells us quite specifically that the company included children. Attention has been drawn to Heb. 11: 29, “By faith they passed through the Red Sea”, as if all those baptised in the Red Sea had faith. This, however, is not born out by their subsequent history (Heb. 3: 7-19). The passage in Hebrews is a general statement, and cannot be used to undermine the fact that all, both with and without faith, were baptised in the Sea. Nor is the baptism referred to in 1 Cor. 10: 2 said to merely a figure of baptism. No, it was baptism. It was baptism because they were, in effect, under water: “all passed through the sea” (v1). By contrast, in 1 Peter 3, Noah’s ordeal is only said to be a “figure” of baptism, for baptism means immersion, and Noah could only be said to have passed over the water in the ark. Of course, there will be those who will triumphantly point out that the baptism in 1 Corinthians 10 is not Christian baptism, but a little thought will show that this distinction does not help them. Unquestionably, 1 Corinthians 10 is baptism, and the only difference between the various baptisms spoken of in Scripture is the name to which the person is baptised. The principles remain the same. Until they can produce evidence of a change of principles, their triumphalism will remain unfounded.
A fundamental tenet of “believer’s baptism” is that faith must precede baptism. It is remarkable then that there are no Scriptures which show, either by teaching or example, that only believers can be baptised. To appeal to Acts 8: 37, only proves the weakness of their case, as all competent scholars now reject this verse as spurious. Indeed, the very term “believer’s baptism” is unsound for it implies (and so its adherents teach) that persons are baptised because they are believers. By contrast, Scripture teaches that persons are baptised, not because they are believers (although they may be), but because they are sinners. Naturally persons are buried (of which baptism is a figure), because they are dead, and things in the spiritual realm are no different. Persons are baptised (i.e. buried) because they are spiritually dead - dead in offences and sins (see Eph. 2: 1). To speak of baptising people because they are walking in newness of life is patently ridiculous. People are buried because they are dead - not because they are alive! You are not baptised because you have life (though in actuality you may have it), but in view of life. As to the children in a Christian household, these too are baptised because they are spiritually dead. Likewise, though they may not have life, they are baptised with a view to receiving life.
Written by S. Noble