We do not have to go far to find differing opinions on baptism. Christendom is full of confusing messages about the subject, and for clear direction the believer must turn to the Word of God.
As we shall see, the basic idea involved in baptism is association. It dissociates me from one sphere of things and associates me with another. This is why it is who or what we are baptised to that matters most—not how or when. For example, the believers in Acts 19: 1–7 who had not received the gift of the Holy Spirit had been baptised with John’s baptism. They were identified with John rather than Christ. When they heard about the Lord however, they desired to be associated with Him, and were thus then “baptised to the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19: 5).
The Baptism of the Red Sea
The first baptism in Scripture was at the Red Sea: “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” (1 Cor. 10: 1, 2). Some have tried to make out that this is only a figure of baptism, but the Bible does not call it a figure. It was a baptism because the children of Israel were, in effect, under water—they “passed through the sea”. To understand the sense of being baptised “unto Moses” we must turn to the historical record of the events. In Exodus 14 we read that after passing through the Red Sea, the children of Israel “feared Jehovah, and believed in Jehovah, and in Moses his bondman” (v31). They thus acknowledged the leadership of Moses, and in passing through the water were set apart to him as his disciples. In their case, the baptism was twofold: “in the cloud and in the sea”. The cloud gave divine protection and guidance (Ex. 13: 21; 14: 19, 20), and those under it had put themselves where Moses was—they were associated with him. The sea dissociated Moses (and those who went with him) from Egypt, and thus saved them from the hostile Egyptians. Salvation (or preservation) and baptism thus go together.
Now Scripture specifically says that all were baptised, though their subsequent history proves that not all had faith (see 1 Cor. 10: 3–5; Heb. 3: 7–19). This fact is not contradicted by Heb. 11: 29, “by faith they passed through the Red Sea”, because the word they is indefinite, and it is not said who it includes. It is also clear from Exod. 12: 37, that the baptised company included children. We thus have a situation in which a mixed company of persons were baptised to Moses—that is, sanctified (or set apart) to God’s servant. How is this to be explained? Clearly, the sanctification did not involve heaven and eternity any more than the salvation did, 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 unbeliever with the believer that sanctifies. In the same way, though many of those who passed through the Red Sea were either unbelievers or children, their association with Moses brought them into sanctification and salvation. All were set apart to God through being baptised, though not all had faith in God. Practically, Israel as a nation was anything but holy, but positionally they were “a holy people … unto Jehovah thy God” (Deut. 7: 6).
Circumcision and Baptism
The great distinguishing mark that separated Israel from the nations was circumcision, and this parallels baptism in many ways (see Col. 2: 11, 12). Now circumcision was merely a symbolic act, and accomplished nothing spiritually. What was important, however, was what it represented—that one who was circumcised was placed outwardly under the covenant and promise of Genesis 17: 1–14. It was the sign of the covenant (see v 11). Though a Hebrew might be racially pure, and believe all the promises, unless he was circumcised he would not be considered to be a partner in the covenant (see v14). None of the privileges and blessings from God that were linked with that covenant could be his. Outwardly he would be no different from the Gentiles who were “strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2: 12). The reverse situation was also true: an Israelite could have no faith in God’s promises at all, and still come into the earthly blessings of the nation. How? Simply because of circumcision.
Now just as circumcision is the outward sign of entrance into Judaism, so Christian baptism is the outward sign of entrance into Christianity. It brings me outwardly into the kingdom—where both the false and the true (see Matt. 13: 24–30 etc.), by being baptised, profess subjection to the King. Until Christ was revealed, the Israelite was “under law” (Gal. 3: 23)—that is, on Jewish ground. When, however, he was baptised (note that 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 as it were. Circumcision no longer having any force (see Gal. 5: 6) he exchanged the clothes of Judaism for the clothes of Christianity. Hence Paul goes on to say that in Christ Jesus “there is no Jew nor Greek …” (Gal. 3: 28). Circumcision is the outward sign of Judaism, baptism of Christianity. 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. In Matt. 28: 18-20, baptism is linked to discipling, teaching and the kingdom, not faith and heaven. Again, in Mark 16: 16, baptism precedes salvation but it is unbelief alone that leads to condemnation. Neither circumcision nor baptism gives life, but they are both the entrance into a sphere of divine blessing and preservation.
The Flood as a Figure of Baptism
The connection between salvation and baptism is illustrated by the great flood when 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” (1 Pet. 3: 20, 21). 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 dissociate him from the old, corrupt world with which he had been connected. In the same way, baptism severs our links with the world system and links us outwardly with Christ. Thus the water which was the death of the world saved Noah. Of course, the ark also saved Noah’s life, but it did so by providing him a refuge from the judgment of that world. The ark can thus be likened to the salvation that comes as a result of faith in God.
Of course, 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 reading of the Lord Jesus that “his life is taken from the earth” (Acts 8: 33), and understanding that He was given no place here, cried out, “Behold water; what hinders my being baptised?” (v36). His conscience demanded that he, in figure, be cut off from his old life, even as His Lord was literally cut off in death.
There is no clearer Scripture connecting baptism and salvation than 1 Pet. 3: 20, 21. Those who can conceive of salvation only in relation to heaven and eternity either tend to emphasise Acts 8: 37 instead (a verse not in the original text), or erroneously make baptism a condition for entrance into heaven, thereby contradicting Mark 16: 16. Now salvation is always in reference to a threat—we are saved from something or someone. Baptism saves us because it cuts us off from what is against us. Thus the context of 1 Pet. 3: 20, 21 is of Noah being saved from an immoral world by the flood. Again, 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 evil surroundings. Baptism “saves” (1 Pet. 3: 21), but only in the sense of the salvation required for our lives on this earth. 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. His eternal salvation, however, rests on his faith in God alone. Wearing the uniform of Christianity—baptism—will preserve me from many evil influences, as the world will no longer regard me as ‘one of them’. To whom is this salvation available? In the case of Noah, it was not restricted to the one individual whom God had seen to be righteous (Gen. 6: 8, 9; 7: 1) and who was characterised by the exercise of faith. The whole household was saved (see Heb. 11: 7) because of its association with Noah (see Gen. 7: 7)—including a son who may have been unregenerate (see Gen. 9: 18–27).
The first baptism mentioned in the NT is that of John but this is not Christian baptism for the simple reason that Christian baptism is unto Christ’s death (see Rom. 6: 3), and Christ had not died when John was baptising. The purpose of John’s baptism was to prepare persons for the imminent arrival of Christ (see John 1: 23; Acts 19: 4). The nation as a whole was in no fit state to receive its Messiah, and in order to be ready the faithful remnant had to dissociate themselves from it, clearing their names of the collective guilt. Baptism in the Jordan (a figure of death) was the means by which this dissociation was achieved, and those who refused it were without hope (see Luke 7: 30). It was a baptism of repentance (see Matt. 3: 1–12) to be accompanied by “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3: 8; see Luke 3: 7–14). Without it the possibility of forgiveness was not even entertained: it was a “baptism of repentance for remission of sins” (Mark 1: 4).
Christian Baptism in the Book of Acts
The first record of Christian baptism as such, is in Acts 2: “Let the whole house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him, this Jesus whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (v 36). 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 blessing could come. The call was “Be saved from this perverse generation” (v40), meaning that they were to dissociate themselves in baptism from the nation. Instead of being associated with those that had crucified Christ, they now associated themselves with Him—they were baptised “in the name of Jesus Christ” (v38).
One more reference—Acts 22. There Paul first recounts his conversion, and then relates what Ananias had said to him, including these words: “Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name” (v16). What does ‘washing away of sins’ mean in this context? It is the blood of Jesus Christ that “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1: 7), so Ananias is clearly not talking here about a washing that fits a man for heaven. This washing was an outward cleansing to prepare Paul to be a testimony to Christ on earth. His sins were taken away in the sight of God on the Damascus road, but until he was baptised, the sins of his old life were still outwardly attached to him. Paul had been a persecutor of the Christian faith (see Acts 22: 4), but in baptism he announced that he was completely finished with his previous way of life. It was an act of dissociation.
Baptism in the Epistles
Paul was not sent to baptise (see 1 Cor. 1: 17), but it is in his epistles that the significance of baptism is expanded and developed. It is important to see this because in all the arguments about how and when persons should be baptised, the actual meaning of baptism can be lost.
Romans 6: 1–14 deals with the claim of some that grace gives the believer license to sin. The apostle’s reply is scathing: “We who have died to sin, how shall we still live in it?” (v2). The Christian is not only “baptised unto Christ Jesus” but “baptised unto his death” (v3). In baptism we declare that we have died to sin— completely finished with our former, sinful way of life. But the apostle doesn’t stop there. If baptism is “unto death”, it is also “in order that, even as Christ has been raised up from among [the] dead … so we also should walk in newness of life” (v4). Baptism is thus the start of a new life here (which is why it ought to follow immediately on conversion)—a life of complete contrast to the one submitted to the waters of baptism. 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” (v7). As death releases the slave from service to his master, so our death with Christ releases us from the mastery of sin. Dead men cannot sin (and by submitting to baptism, I am announcing that I am dead). However, the figure of baptism must be accompanied by reality. Hence 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. If we reckon ourselves dead to sin then we will not yield our members as “instruments of unrighteousness to sin”, but as “instruments of righteousness to God” (v13).
Similar truth is expounded in Colossians, where the danger was of being led away by “philosophy and vain deceit, according to the teaching of men, according to the elements of the world” (Col. 2: 8)—things connected with the order of man renounced in baptism. In being baptised we are not only identified with Christ in His death, but we are “buried with him” (v12)—that is, we go out of sight. The first man (however cultured) is finished with—when a dead man is put in the grave, then that is the end of him as far as this world is concerned.
Galatians has already been referred to, but it may be as well to add that the error being pressed there was for believers to be circumcised. What Paul desired of the saints was not “a fair appearance in [the] flesh” (Gal. 6: 12) but reality—hence, “ye are all God’s sons by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 26, my emphasis). It is not that Christianity is bereft of outward symbols, but it is baptism not circumcision that is required: “as many as have been baptised unto Christ, have put on Christ” (v27). Although it took the first Christians many years to come to it, Christian baptism was just as much a burial of the Judaistic lifestyle as it was of Gentile practices.
The Baptism of Households
As one would expect, there are several instances of individuals being baptised in the NT. What is not so commonly known is that there are also several instances of households being baptised—including Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailor, Crispus and Stephanas (see Acts 10: 47, 48, 11: 13, 14; 16: 14, 15; 16: 33, 34; 18: 8; 1 Cor. 1: 16).
In the case of the Philippian jailor, Paul exhorted him to “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (Acts 16: 31). The first part of this verse is one of the most familiar in Scripture, having been extensively used in the Gospel. Sadly, the latter part, “thou and thy house”, is often overlooked, almost as if it were an embarrassment. This suggests that its force is not well understood.
Following the initial exchange, the “word of the Lord” (v32) was spoken to the jailor, along with all that were with him in his house. Presumably this 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, and was immediately baptised with all his household (see v33, 34). Some draw attention to the fact that since the jailor “rejoiced with all his house” (v 34), then all must have believed as well. However, the words “having believed” do not have this sense. In Greek, this is one word pepisteukos which is the perfect participle of pisteuo. Participles are verbal adjectives and this one is masculine singular and thus can only refer to the jailor. We have no warrant whatsoever 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 (see Matt. 13: 20–21). The rejoicing could even refer to merely a general celebration laid on by the jailor—we simply do not know. What is crystal clear, is that all were baptised, and were baptised as a household.
Now this thought of “thou and thy house” (Acts 16: 31), in which the household is brought into a place of external blessing through the faith of its head, is important in Scripture. The household of Noah has already been referred to, but other examples are Abraham, Israel on Passover night, Rahab, Obed–Edom and Zacchaeus (see Gen. 17: 11–14; Exod. 12: 3; Josh. 2: 12, 18; 6: 25; 2 Sam. 6: 11, 12; Luke 19: 9). Is it so extraordinary that the jailor’s household were also brought into a certain level of blessing by virtue of being under his headship as a believer? Previously the household environment had been pagan—now, it was Christian. How was it Christian? Because all had been baptised—had “put on Christ” (Gal. 3: 27).
In Ephesians 6: 4, the believing fathers are to bring their children up “in [the] discipline and admonition of [the] Lord”. This means that they are to be trained in the Christian way—brought up in a home where those values are taught and practiced and where the authority of the Lord is acknowledged. The same principle would apply to the household of the jailor—and it would be very inconsistent to attempt this without them being baptised. How could he claim to head of a Christian household if his family were still wearing the ‘uniform’ of paganism? It would be like a Jewish father claiming to bring his children up in Judaism, yet leaving his sons uncircumcised! Outwardly, the jailor’s household would be dissociated from the world by baptism, and associated with Christ. Practically, this would mean preservation (that is, salvation) from much that is evil, and blessing from being in an environment where the Lord and His Word were loved and honoured. Can a baptised infant therefore reckon himself dead to sin or have a good conscience towards God (see Rom. 6: 11; 1 Pet. 3: 21)? No, of course not, but then both the epistles referred to are written to responsible adults not children! The point is that the infant comes into the benefit of baptism even though he lacks understanding.
Baptism itself does not actually give its recipient anything, but what it does is put him 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” would “demand” it (1 Pet. 3: 21). It would also be anomalous for a believing man to leave his household unbaptised—his conscience would again surely demand it. Why bring up a child in the discipline and admonition of the Lord—what value is this to the unconverted child? It is because there is blessing in it—by virtue of association with the name of the Lord and dissociation from the world, children are saved (or preserved) from much evil, and brought to know what is good. To baptise a child with this in view indicates faith on the part of the parents—faith that the child will eventually come to realise the value of the discipline and admonition of the Lord for himself.