Is baptism meant to be an act of public testimony?
The idea that baptism is meant to be a public testimony is widely held - but that does not mean that it is correct. Certainly there is nothing wrong in public baptism - many of the baptisms recorded in the NT were undoubtedly public, and hence served as a testimony. Yet I do not think that public testimony was ever the divine objective in baptism. Why? Because then I should find that in every example given in the N.T, where sufficient detail is supplied, that baptism was performed in a public place. If there is just one example in which it is clear that it was carried out in private (especially if it could just as easily have been done in public), then the case for public testimony as the purpose of baptism collapses. The Philippian jailor is one such example.
Let us examine the circumstances given in Acts 16. I learn (v13), that Philippi had a river - a suitable public site for baptism. The convert, the jailor, was a public official of Rome. Roman jailors were tough, cruel and uncaring - as the fact that he had ignored the wounds of Paul and Silas from their scourging shows (v23, v33). He was also not squeamish about taking his own life (v27). But he got converted and this is clearly seen in the fact that he himself washed their wounds and he himself set the table for them (v33, v34). His wife, or anyone else didn’t do it! So if ever there was a man who would serve as an ideal example of the power of the Gospel in conversion to be witnessed publicly by his being baptised - then this was the man!
Now Paul evidently had public matters in mind because he was determined that the wrong, inflicted on himself and Silas as Roman citizens, should be put right publicly (v37). Hence when the praetors were forced to come and escort Paul and Silas publicly out of the jail, they could have then gone down to the river with the jailor and his household, along with Lydia and the brethren (v40), and made it a real public testimony to the saving power of the Gospel - but they didn’t. Why?
Again, I say that there is absolutely nothing wrong in baptism being performed publicly if conditions permit. However, in this particular case there was an overriding factor preventing it being performed publicly. If you search the NT you will find that the one thing never allowed with baptism is delay. Baptism was always carried out immediately upon the confession of faith. If a person was converted, then he was baptised there and then. Hence in Acts 22: 16 Ananias rebukes Paul saying “And now why lingerest thou? Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name”. The jailor was converted around midnight (Acts 16: 25). When was he baptised? “He took them the same hour of the night…and was baptised” (v33). It couldn’t wait. In baptism immediacy is more important than public testimony.
Why then no delay? If baptism couldn’t wait until the morning, even though the circumstances for public testimony would then be ideal, there must be a good reason. In baptism I am buried with Christ (Rom. 6: 4). That is its spiritual significance. Now we often learn the spiritual from the natural. (“Does not even nature itself teach you?” - 1 Cor. 11: 14). In the warm climate of the Middle East a dead person is buried quickly (see Acts 5: 1-10). Thus to teach that baptism signifies burial, and then allow a converted person to go days before being baptised would have been unintelligible to the first Christians because it would have been completely out of keeping with the natural burial that they knew.
When a person is buried, naturally or by baptism, he is acknowledged to be dead and finished with so far as this scene is concerned. I think from v32 that the jailor understood this, and in submitting to the symbolical waters of death then he would realise that the pressing need was to sever his links with the world that crucified his Saviour. This is clearly seen in the case of converted Jews. Peter tells them that baptism is “[the] demand as before God of a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3: 21). Conscience made a converted Jew dissociate himself immediately by baptism from the nation that had crucified Christ. Hence to those convicted at Pentecost the word is “repent, and be baptised”, and be “saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2: 38, 40). What happened? “Those then who had accepted his word were baptised” (v41). There is no suggestion of any delay - they broke their links straight away. With baptism when is more important than where; immediacy has priority over public testimony.