Baptism is a purification ritual performed on someone who has come to faith in Christ.
Why is this done?
It is a visible picture or sign of an inner, invisible, spiritual reality.
What is the visible picture?
The visible picture provided in baptism is washing or purification. Stuart (p83): “What is it that it [baptism] signifies? Purification is the answer; and this is the only scriptural and consistent answer that we can give.”
What is this invisible reality to which the physical sign points?
The invisible reality is twofold. First, the cleansing of our record which means the forgiveness of our sins and removal of our guilt. Second, a cleansing of our character from sinful habits.
Where does the Bible teach us about this?
The word baptism first occurs when John the baptizer began to baptize those who responded to his preaching. The principal ideas which underlie this practice, however, are established in the Old Testament.
Old Testament Baptisms
Where do we find baptizing in the Old Testament?
The author of Hebrews writes:
The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, 9 which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [or baptisms], regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:8-10)
What are these baptisms in the Old Testament?
The author refers to various baptisms here. In subsequent verses, he mentions some of these.
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)
Where do we read about these baptisms in the Old Testament?
The ritual involving the heifer is explained in Numbers 19.
What was the purpose of this ritual?
This was a ritual for returning a person who had become unclean to a state of ceremonial cleanness again. This ritual was specifically for people who had in some way come into contact with a dead person either by direct contact, or by being in the tent when someone had died, or even accidentally touching a corpse or human bone in a field.
What exactly was involved in the performance of this ritual?
First, the water of purification לְמֵי נִדָּה had to be prepared. This special water had ashes mixed in it. To prepare these ashes, the priest took a red heifer which had no blemish and had never been used for plowing, killed it and burned it. As the animal burned, the priest would add to the fire some sticks of cedar, a branch of hyssop, and some scarlet yarn. When all this was burned, the ashes were collected and stored in a container outside the camp.
Whenever someone became unclean in the ways described above, they entered into a state of uncleanness for seven days. In order to become clean again, someone would run and fetch this container of ashes. Some of this ash was then mixed with water, and this mixture was sprinkled on the unclean person. This sprinkling would take place on the third day and on the seventh day. If this was done, the person became ceremonially clean on the seventh day.
What is meant by being unclean or being ceremonially unclean?
A person who was unclean was not allowed to participate in the worship of the Tabernacle (or temple) and was, in a sense, placed in a temporary position of probation. If they failed to deal with their uncleanness, they would be permanently cut off from God’s people. In the above instance, Moses taught the people:
Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him. (Numbers 19:13)
A person who was unclean was not necessarily a person who had sinned; many of the situations that made a person unclean involved no sin such as the above when someone died in your tent. (Numbers 19:14) It was, however, a symbol or picture of sin.
What exactly was this water of purification?
In Hebrew, the term is לְמֵי נִדָּה which is literally “for a water of impurity” or water for the removal of impurity. As described above, the water itself was made from the ashes of an animal which had been killed as a sin offering. Again, the symbolism here is key.
Why does the author of Hebrews call this a “baptism?”
In the culture of the time, the word “baptize” meant to dip or plunge something into a liquid. Over time, this word came to refer to the effect of this plunging and was used for washing or dyeing something. In the New Testament, the word “baptism” is used to refer to the many OT purification rituals.
What other baptisms are found in the Old Testament?
The author of Hebrews refers to “various washings” in the Old Testament ceremonial worship as baptisms. Hence, wherever there is a washing, we can conclude that this was understood by the New Testament church as a kind of baptism; cf. Leviticus 6:28; 8:5–6; 14:8–9; 15:5, 11-12; see here. The symbolic meaning of these rituals was understood as well; cf. Psalm 51:2, 7; Jeremiah 2:22; 4:14.
How common were these washings?
These ritual washings must have been a near daily occurrence in Israel. The ritual of the red heifer would have occurred at least as often as someone died. It is no exaggeration to say that these purification ceremonies would have been routine in the life of a typical Jew.
What is the first baptizing we meet with in the New Testament?
John the Baptizer used this ritual as a picture of the repentance that his followers needed if they were to be ready for the Messiah’s coming.
Where does John explain the meaning of his baptism?
We can see this in the gospel of Matthew:
Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, “THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!'” (Matthew 3:1-3)
In a subsequent verse, he announces:
As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)
From this, we conclude that John’s baptism was a picture of purification preparing its recipients to receive Israel’s coming, Messiah-King.
Why did John choose baptism as a sign of this preparation?
This is one of the puzzling things about John’s baptism. Apparently, John assumed that all his hearers already understood its meaning, and there was no need for him to explain it. Warfield writes:
It is argued that there is no evidence from the New Testament notices that Christ was instituting a rite that was new in the sense that its form or mode was a novelty; or that when John called on the people to come to his baptism, he needed to stop and explain to them what this “baptism” was and how they were to do it. On the contrary, it appears that Christ and John expected to be thoroughly understood from the beginning, and only implanted a new significance in an old rite, now adapted to a new use. The Archaeology of the Mode of Baptism, page 635
Why is this important for our understanding of baptism?
It means that John was not introducing something entirely new or some unheard of practice. Evidently, this was something that both John and his audience already understood. MacLeod writes:
Some have argued that he [John the Baptizer] borrowed the practice [baptizing] either from Old Testament ablutions/washings, Jewish Proselyte (i.e., convert) baptism, or the washings of Qumran, the community of the Essenes near the Dead Sea. However, John’s practice was different from them all. For one thing, he immersed the people himself, while Old Testament ablutions and proselyte baptisms were self-administered. … In short, John’s baptism was original and unique. It was a radically new thing. David J. MacLeod, “Herald of the King: The Mission of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12),” Emmaus Journal 9, no. 1 (2000): 19.
That this is incorrect can be seen from Numbers 19:18 where the baptism was clearly not self-administered. Whately remarks:
But in this and in several other points also, difficulties, and sometimes serious mistakes are likely to arise from want of sufficient care to view the Gospel through the medium of the Law to recollect that is not only that the Mosaic Dispensation itself was the forerunner and type of the Christian which fulfilled and extended it but also that Christianity was first preached by and to men who had been brought up Jews; and that accordingly we must carefully consider and steadily keep in mind what were the habits and modes of thought of Jews of that Age and Country and in what way they would be likely to understand and to act upon the precepts and doctrines delivered to them. For the interpretations which were the most obvious to them will be often different from what may be the most obvious to us of the present day. And again it will often happen that what were to them the greatest difficulties as for instance the admission of the Gentiles to be fellow heirs will be to us no difficulties at all. And whatever meaning presented itself to their minds may be presumed to be the right one whenever they were not taught otherwise by their inspired guides, the Apostles, who were at hand to correct any mistakes they might fall into. source
Where would John and his audience have learned about baptizing?
The Bible does not explicitly answer this question, but certainly the most obvious answer is that John and his audience retained their understanding of baptizing from the Old Testament practice. Axtell writes:
John’s baptism breaks in upon sacred history like a meteor at night. Without a single definition or explanation the word comes suddenly forward in the Gospels, and is recognized and accepted by all as the appropriate name for John’s great work. The sudden appearing of the word in the Gospels does not seem so strange, however, when we remember that the Jews had long been familiar with the word as a name for ceremonial purification, and had always thought of the ceremony as bringing them into a condition of holiness and favor with God. Moreover, they all understood that special occasions in religious service required special purifications. They had learned this from the consecration of Aaron and his sons, and from the frequent purifications of the priests when entering the Temple service. They had learned it also from the consecration of the tabernacle and its vessels, and from the dedication of the Temple. They had seen the same truth in the anointing of the kings and in the holy lives of the prophets, and they had been taught that special purifications were necessary as a preparation for every religious service and for the fulfilment of all religious vows. Baptism, which was the name of these purifications, did not, therefore, in John’s time need any definition or explanation. source
Are there any other reasons for believing that John’s baptism was linked in meaning and practice to the Old Testament practice?
Yes, we know that John was the son of a priest (Luke 1:5) and thus would have had an intimate knowledge of these purification rituals. If these practices would have been routine for the ordinary Jewish person, they would have been doubly so for John.
Assuming all this to be true, then we would be led to believe that the central idea behind John’s baptism was purification.
Yes, it was a purification ritual to prepare his hearers to receive the coming King who was mightier than he and whose sandals, he was not worthy to loose. (Matthew 3:11)
What is taught us about John’s baptizing in the gospel of John?
John writes that the ministry of Jesus was bearing fruit, and the disciples were busy baptizing many people.
After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and [people] were coming and were being baptized–for John had not yet been thrown into prison. (John 3:22-24)
In this context, John records, “Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification.” (John 3:25)
What was the point of dispute?
The gospel author does not tell us. There are two reasons to believe that some unnamed Jew was comparing Jesus’ baptism with John’s in favor of Jesus’ baptism. John’s disciples were irritated by this and the dispute was on. Note first the “therefore” at the beginning of v25. It shows that as a consequence of Jesus’ baptizing so many, this dispute arose. It stands to reason that Jesus’ increased popularity here prompted this dispute.
Second in the following verse (v26), the disciples of John express their concerns that Jesus is attracting more disciples than John. This seems to be their real concern and likely what sparked the debate in the first place. Hence, we conclude that the dispute was centered around the comparative superiority of the baptisms of John and Jesus. Lenski writes:
What the actual question of the dispute was the evangelist does not say since his concern is something more important. All we can gather from the complaint of the Baptist’s disciples in v26 is that the Jew maintained the superiority of Jesus’ Baptism over that of the Baptist, which the disciples of the latter refused to admit as it would also involve that men should leave the Baptist and go to Jesus. Lenski on Jn 3:25 also Vincent
Why is this important?
It shows that in the in the mind of the gospel author, purification (John 3:25) and baptizing (John 3:22, 23) are near synonyms. It again shows that John’s baptizing was essentially a Jewish purification ritual.
What else do we learn from John’s baptism?
We learn to distinguish between the sign and the reality.
What is the the sign and what the reality in the case of John’s baptism?
The sign is the throwing water upon the person (Numbers 19:18) and the reality is the purifying ministry of the Holy Spirit on a person’s soul. John preached: As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)
Why does John say that his baptism will involve fire?
Because fire was understood to be a purifying agent. Any metal captured in battle first had to be cleansed by fire. (Numbers 31:23) God also promises to cleanse His people by burning.
When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, (Isaiah 4:4)
What can we learn about baptism from Jesus’ practice?
We learn from John 4 that Jesus Himself did not baptize anyone. His disciples did this.
When therefore the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were)… (John 4:1, 2)
Why did Jesus not baptize Himself?
The Bible does not answer this question. Chrysostom writes:
Yet the Evangelist farther on says, that “Jesus baptized not, but His disciples”; whence it is clear that this is his meaning here also. And why did Jesus not baptize? The Baptist had said before, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Now he had not yet given the Spirit, and it was therefore with good cause that he did not baptize. But His disciples did so, because they desired to bring many to the saving doctrine. source
The Great Commission
Does Jesus give any instruction about baptism?
The command to baptize comes from Jesus:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Was this when baptism was first instituted?
Apparently, not since Jesus’ disciples were being baptized before this command was given. (John 4:1-2)
What can we learn about baptism from what Jesus teaches here?
First, it must be noted again that there is no explanation given here of what baptism means. It is just assumed that those who were present knew of what Jesus was speaking.
Second, we are taught here that the practice of baptism is not optional. It is something that Jesus Himself, who has all authority in heaven and on earth, commands His followers to do.
Third, we are taught here that baptism is to be given to all disciples.
Fourth, we are told that baptism is to be done in the Name of the Triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What is the significance of the first of these; i.e. the assumption made regarding the meaning of baptism.
It shows that baptism was not something new that needed explanation. It was something with which those listening were already familiar. This drives us to think hard about what their understanding of a “baptism” would have been. We have this same issue with John’s baptism.
What does it mean to be baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?
To be baptized in anyone’s name means to become a disciple of that person. Thus, when Paul is rebuking the Corinthian Christians for taking sides with one particular preacher over another, he reminds them that they were not baptized into the name of Paul. (1 Corinthians 1:13) If they had been baptized into the name of Paul, they would be disciples of Paul. They were, however, baptized into the Name of Jesus; and therefore, they should show in their life that they belong to Jesus, not a favorite preacher, teacher or elder.
Why is the picture of a cleansing associated with being a disciple of Jesus?
Because no one can be a disciple of Jesus unless they are first cleansed, just as no one was allowed to approach mount Sinai unless they first washed their clothes (Exodus 19:10) and the priests had to be washed before they could begin their service in the tabernacle. (Exodus 29:4)
Acts 2 – Pentecost
What baptism took place at Pentecost?
The first thing to note is that the entire event of Pentecost is described by Jesus as a “baptism.” (Acts 1:5) Jesus had ascended into heaven and had received the Spirit of God from the Father. (Acts 2:33) Now, Jesus baptizes His people in this blessed Spirit. This was the inauguration of the new covenant for which the people of Israel had been waiting and looking for so many years. (Acts 2:16) This was an event of such massive significance in the history of God’s redemption that it was accompanied by various signs and many miracles. (Acts 2:2-4, 43)
What can be said about this baptism for our understanding of the church’s practice of baptism today?
First, this Pentecostal baptism shows that we must distinguish between baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit. (Acts 1:5)
Second, this Pentecostal baptism shows us that a “baptism” in Scripture is not limited to one specific mode such as immersion. Baptists insist that no baptism is valid unless it is a full dipping or immersion into water. Yet here, the church is said to have been baptized with the Spirit, but the mode is clearly a pouring (Acts 2:17-18, 33), not a dipping. Fortner poses the question of how baptism is to be performed. He answers:
The answer to that question is so obvious in Scripture that the question itself is ridiculous. Baptism cannot be performed except by immersion. Not only is it true that none were baptized in the New Testament by any other means, the very word “baptize” means “to immerse.” Immersion is not a mode of baptism. Immersion is baptism. Without immersion, there is no baptism (Matt. 3:13–17; Acts 8:38; Col. 2:12). Basic Bible Doctrine, 525.
This is clearly false. Ferguson says that the pouring out of the Spirit was not itself the baptism.
God poured out the Spirit, but that pouring (a figure for God’s action in sending the Spirit) was not itself the baptism of the Holy Spirit but made the baptism possible. The baptism was the result of the coming (the pouring out) of the Holy Spirit, who filled the house (surrounding each), rested upon each, and filled each. How a medium (in this case the Holy Spirit) comes to be in a container (in this case the room) is distinct from what is done to a person in the medium (the baptism). Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, 167.
This distinction, however, is not in the text itself; and therefore, we hold that a baptism can be performed by pouring.
Third, that the promise of the gospel (and therefore the right to baptism) extends to believers and their children.
Where do we learn that the promise of the gospel extends to children?
Because at the close of his sermon, Peter announces that the promise of receiving the Holy Spirit is for all who repent and their children as well.
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:37-39)
What is Peter calling his audience to do here?
First, Peter is calling them to own the fact that they had crucified their Messiah (Acts 2:36) and to confess this guilt to God. Then to hate that sin, to turn from it, and to find forgiveness in Jesus. Second, he calls them to be baptized in water as a public display of what God had done for them. The reason they should do this is because of God’s promise.
What is this promise?
This is the promise which is at the heart of the gospel. In one sense, we could say that this promise is the gospel. It is a conditional promise in that God promises salvation to all who have faith in Jesus. An example of this promise was given by Peter when he quoted the prophet Joel that everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:21) In Peter’s sermon here, the promised benefits are the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) which are just other terms for what we call salvation. Now this promise is the reason why people should repent and turn to Jesus. That’s why Acts 2:39 begins with the word “for” or “for this reason.” We could paraphrase the text this way:
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now the reason you should repent is that there is a promise for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)
When they do this, they are saved from all the punishment which their sin deserves.
So this text implies that all those who repent and believe in Jesus are to seek baptism.
Why is this reference to children so important?
Because the words “…and for your children” are a formula by which the Jewish audience would have understood that the household principle was to continue under the new covenant.
What makes you think that these words are a formula?
Because the ideas, and even the language, are so commonly used in the context of covenant making. Note the language given below:
- Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you… (Genesis 9:9)
- All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the LORD I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and for your offspring with you. (Numbers 18:19)
- and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel. (Numbers 25:13)
- I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:7)
Now compare this with what Peter announces:
For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself. (Acts 2:39)
Peter’s Jewish hearers would certainly have understood these words as indicating a continuity between God’s administration of the covenant in previous dispensations and the new covenant which God had just enacted by baptizing the people with the Holy Spirit. Some refer to this as the genealogical principle.
What is the genealogical principle?
This is the practice of treating a family as a single unit. Thus, when God makes a covenant with the head of the family, the rest of the family are also counted as participants in that covenant and receive the covenant sign. Some call it the “household principle” or “corporate personality (p376)” “the principle of parent-and-child solidarity (Packer).” This was God’s practice in both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants and the dispensations which they governed. Willison writes that infants
are to be ranked among believers being the children of believing parents for infants are but parts of the parents wrapped up in another skin and to be accounted but one person with them as the root and branches are but one tree according to Rom 11:16. We are to judge of children by their parents till they come to the use of reason and be capable to choose their own way…” source
So when Peter says that the promise is to you and your children, he is to be understood as teaching that the genealogical principle is still the way God administers His covenant in the new dispensation which had just begun?
Yes, precisely. Further evidence for this is Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:14 where he identifies the Holy Spirit as that which God promised to Abraham.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”–in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13-14)
This teaches us that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit was one of the blessings which God had promised to Abraham. Again, we see further support for the idea that the new covenant is in continuity with the covenant God made with Abraham and his seed. Peter makes this same connection again in Acts 3.
It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘AND IN YOUR SEED ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED.’ (Acts 3:25)
What is taught us in Acts 3:25?
Here Peter identifies His audience as “sons of the prophets.” The Jewish people often used the term “son of” in a figurative way to show that something was closely connected with something else; see many examples of this in letter 6 of Stuart. In this context, “son of the prophets” means that these Jewish people were the recipients of what the prophets had promised and predicted so many years ago. Furthermore, these Jews are also participants in the covenant which God made with Abraham or, as Peter calls it, “sons of the covenant which God made with Abraham.” Again, all this shows that we are to understand the baptism with the Spirit which took place on Pentecost as in direct continuity with the prophecies of the prophets regarding a new covenant and the covenant that God made with Abraham.
Why is this significant?
Because the covenant sign in these dispensations was given to infant children. Absent any explicit command to change the way we deal with our infants, we are obliged to continue the practice which God originally gave to Abraham. God has not given us any indication that we are to act differently under His new covenant dispensation, and the above Scriptures show that the new covenant is simply the Abrahamic covenant coming to its fulfillment.
But did not God change the covenant sign from circumcision to baptism?
Yes, this is certainly taught in the New Testament. We are clearly commanded to change the sign, but there is no command to stop giving the covenant sign to the infant children of believers.
Does it make any difference that Peter here extends God’s promise to children but not necessarily to infants?
The word “children” here (or τέκνοις) is a broader term than infant (βρέφος or νήπιος). It implies children of all ages including newborns; see Revelation 12:5. The real question, however, is this; what would Peter’s audience have understood when they heard this phrase “…and to your children.” Watson puts it very plainly:
They [Peter’s hearers] had been accustomed for many hundred years to receive infants by circumcision into the Church; and this they did, as before observed, because God had promised to be a God to Abraham and to his seed. They had understood this promise to mean parents and their infant offspring, and this idea was become familiar by the practice of many centuries. What then must have been their views, when one of their own community says to them, “The promise is unto you, and to your children?” If their practice of receiving infants was founded on a promise exactly similar, as it was, how could they possibly understand him, but as meaning the same thing, since he himself used the same mode of speech? This must have been the case, unless we admit this absurdity, that they understood him in a sense to which they had never been accustomed. source
If the new covenant is new, however, then is it not likely that the genealogical principle may have been terminated?
It certainly is possible that God would have brought this principle to an end. If so, we would have to read a direct word from God teaching us this. There is no such word, however, and therefore, we are bound to believe that it continues. Furthermore, Paul teaches that the new covenant is new relative to the Mosaic covenant, not the Abrahamic covenant.
Where does Paul teach that the new covenant is new relative to the Mosaic covenant, not the Abrahamic covenant?
Paul teaches this in Galatians 3:
Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. (Galatians 3:15-17)
Here Paul teaches that the Abrahamic covenant is not nullified by the Mosaic covenant which came 430 years after God’s covenant with Abraham. On the contrary, the Abrahamic covenant remains in effect even after the enactment of the Mosaic covenant with all its laws and regulations and its subsequent removal at the coming of Jesus. In fact, the Abrahamic covenant is, in substance, the new covenant. That is why the new covenant is more accurately called the renewed covenant since it is in substance the renewal of the Abrahamic covenant with the additional burden of the Mosaic laws removed. Believers in Galatia (and believers everywhere) are participants in Abraham’s covenant, and they should not seek to come under the law; i.e. to place themselves under the strictures of the Mosaic covenant. Jeremiah also, in his classic prophecy of the new covenant, clearly places the new covenant over against the Mosaic covenant, not Abraham’s covenant.
Behold, the days come, says Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, says Jehovah. (Jeremiah 31:31-32)
Why do you say the Abrahamic covenant is “in substance” the new covenant?
Because they are not exactly the same. One obvious difference is that the covenant sign has changed from circumcision to baptism. Also, the people under the Abrahamic covenant looked forward to the coming of the Messiah; under the new covenant, we look back on it. Gentry and Wellum point out an obvious difference:
What Jeremiah 31:34 is saying, however, in contrast to Jeremiah 31:29-30, is that, in the old covenant, people became members of the covenant community simply by being born into that community. As they grew up, some became believers in Yahweh and others did not. This resulted in a situation within the covenant community where some members could urge other members to know the Lord. In the new covenant community, however, one does not become a member by physical birth but rather by the new birth, which requires faith on the part of each person. Thus only believers are members of the new community: all members are believers, and only believers are members. Therefore, in the new covenant community, there will no longer be a situation where some members urge other members to know the Lord. There will be no such thing as an unregenerate member of the new covenant community. All are believers, all know the Lord, because all have experienced the forgiveness of sins. Paedobaptists have argued that there is an already and not yet to the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:34. They do so to bolster their view of paedobaptism and their view of the church as a mixed community. But the new covenant is different from the Abrahamic covenant in structure, right from the start. Membership in the Abrahamic covenant community is defined by physical birth, with circumcision as the sign; membership in the new covenant community is defined by the new birth, by regeneration by faith in Jesus Christ, with baptism as the sign of this faith. How can an infant baptism be a sign of the child’s faith?
What can we say to this teaching?
Everything the authors say here is certainly true except for their rejection of the already/not yet interpretation of Jeremiah 31:34. It’s difficult to see how Baptists can believe that churches are not a mixed community. Are there no hypocrites in attendance? Is there no difference between the visible and invisible church? Certainly, a perfectly pure church will not be in existence until the second coming of Christ, and we enter the New Jerusalem. The authors here affirm that paedobaptists argue for an already/not yet interpretation of Jeremiah 31:34 in order to bolster their view of infant baptism and their view of the church as a mixed community. This might be true for many paedobaptists. It also might be true that many paedobaptists see the church as a mixed community because Jesus explicitly teaches that it will be a mixed community until the second judgment.
Where does Jesus teach this?
In His explanation of the parable of the tares, Jesus teaches:
And He said, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:37-43)
Note that there are tares in the kingdom of God. Jesus says that His angels will gather “out of His kingdom” all unbelievers and cast them into hell.
But are infant children even capable of receiving the Holy Spirit?
They certainly are as is made clear in the life of John the Baptizer. (Luke 1:15) Calvin writes (bottom of p508):
And what do we require more, when the Judge himself declares that there is no entrance into the heavenly life, except for those who are born again? And, to silence all objectors, by sanctifying John the Baptist in his mother’s womb, he exhibited an example of what he was able to do for others. Nor can they gain any advantage by their frivolous evasion, that this was only a single case, which does not justify the conclusion that the Lord generally acts in this manner with infants. For we use no such argument. We only mean to shew, that they unjustly confine the power of God within those narrow limits to which it does not suffer itself to be restricted. Their other subterfuge is equally weak. They allege that, according to the usage of the Scripture, the phrase from the womb denotes from childhood. But it is easy to see that, in the declaration of the angel to Zacharias, it was used in a different sense, and that John was to be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before he was born. Let us not attempt, therefore, to impose laws upon God, whose power has sustained no diminution, but who is able to sanctify whom he pleases, as he sanctified this child.
Sum up then, what we can learn about baptism from Peter’s sermon here.
- There is a difference between being baptized with the Spirit of God and being baptized with water;
- Being baptized with water is an external sign or symbol pointing to the inner reality of being baptized with the Spirit;
- The genealogical principle continues under the new covenant dispensation;
- Baptism can be administered by way of pouring.
Acts 9 – Paul’s Baptism
Was Paul baptized?
Yes, Paul was baptized when he become a believer in Jesus. (Acts 9:18) Ananias came to him and announced God’s intentions towards Paul. Upon hearing this, Paul received the Holy Spirit and was then baptized. In Acts 22, Paul is speaking to the mob in Jerusalem and explaining himself. In the course of this speech, he mentions his conversion on the way to Damascus:
A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him. “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. ‘For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. ‘Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’ (Acts 22:12-16)
Here, baptism is represented as a washing or a purification ritual just as was common in Old Testament worship.
Does Paul speak in other contexts of baptism as a purification ritual?
This depends on whether one sees a reference to baptism in Ephesians 5 and Titus 3.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5)
Does baptism wash away our sins?
Spirit baptism does indeed wash away our sins, and water baptism represents to us in a visible way this baptism of the Spirit.
Acts 10 – Cornelius
What is noteworthy about the baptism of Cornelius?
First, the immediacy of the baptism; second, the connection made between receiving the spirit and the rite of baptism.
Start with the immediacy of baptism.
The story is told in an abbreviated way which means that the details which are included are regarded by the narrator to be important. Here we are simply told that Peter’s preaching was interrupted by another baptism of the Holy Spirit. As this was developing, Peter exclaims with great excitement that there was no reason not to baptize these Gentiles. Then the order is given for them to be baptized. There is no mention here of anyone being asked to make a confession of faith or to attend a class or to give a testimony or to sit for an interview before elders. They are just summarily baptized.
If those baptized were not asked to confess their faith, then how did the elders know if they were believers?
They would have known this because the Spirit had given the assembly the ability to speak in tongues, and many were praising God. No confession of faith was necessary because God Himself, by giving these gifts, had made it clear who were the believers. This is why the Jewish-Christian people, who were travelling with Peter, were so surprised. They could see with their own eyes that God had brought Gentiles into the people of God.
All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. (Acts 10:45-46)
How does this passage show the connection between receiving the Spirit and the rite of baptism?
Because Peter teaches that the right to receive baptism is based on the fact that they had previously been baptized with the Holy Spirit. “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (Acts 10:47) In other words, those who had received the reality were also entitled to receive the sign of that reality. In fact, Peter says elsewhere that not giving these baptism would be equivalent to standing in God’s way. (Acts 11:17)
How do you know that the members of Cornelius’ household were baptized with the Holy Spirit?
Peter says this in Acts 11:16.
Why is this connection of such significance?
Because it helps us understand what baptism is and what it is signifying. Water baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality and that inward reality is Spirit baptism. Therefore, our understanding of what water baptism is should be parallel to what Scripture teaches us about Spirit baptism.
What is Spirit baptism?
Spirit baptism is an action of the ascended Christ (Acts 2:33) by which He pours out the Holy Spirit on His people thereby cleansing them from sin and bringing them into union with Himself. McCune writes: “The baptism of the Holy Spirit is the non-experiential, judicial placing of one into union with Christ and thus into the body of Christ. It is positional in nature, not efficient or subjective/experiential.” Systematic Theology, 3.90.
If this is what Spirit baptism is, then what is water baptism?
Water-baptism is a public display of this reality using water as a symbol for the Holy Spirit.
Why is this significant?
Because many churches say that baptism is something we do. It is our act of faith or commitment or identification with Jesus. Erickson writes:
Baptism is, then, an act of faith and a testimony that one has been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, that one has experienced spiritual circumcision. It is a public indication of one’s commitment to Christ.” Systematic Theology, p. 1028.
Many other church doctrinal statements will say something to the effect that being water baptized is an outward proclamation of a decision to follow Jesus. This is not consistent, however, with the above parallel between Spirit baptism and water baptism.
Why is this not consistent with the parallel between Spirit baptism and water baptism?
Because Spirit baptism is so consistently represented to us as something in which the human recipient of it is completely passive. In Acts 2, the Spirit suddenly came down on the assembly without any premonition or warning. It was a sovereign act of the ascended Lord (Acts 2:33) which the assembly simply received passively. The same thing is observed in Acts 10 when the Spirit fell on Cornelius’ family. It was completely unpredictable and the assembled people did nothing to make it happen. On this basis, it is incorrect to say that water baptism is our act of faith in God. Baptism represents God’s work of bringing us into a saving union with Christ.
Is it correct to say that Spirit baptism brings us into union with the invisible church (i.e. Christ’s body) and water baptism brings us into union with the visible church?
What is then, the correct understanding of the relation between baptism and faith?
Baptism represents the saving action of God on our behalf and to this work we respond in faith. In this way, both sacraments strengthen our faith.
Acts 16 – Lydia’s Baptism
Does Paul teach us anything else about baptism?
Yes, the Old Testament covenantal practice is most clearly seen in Paul’s practice.
What is the Old Testament covenantal practice?
This is the practice we find in both the Old and New Testaments where the entire family of an individual is brought under the privileges of the covenant when the family-head comes under the covenant. The entire family is reckoned to be one with the family-head.
Where do we find this practice in the Old Testament?
It is most clear in the practice of circumcision. This cutting, which was a seal of the righteousness which one has by faith (Romans 4:11) was applied to adult Israelites as well as to all their children. (Genesis 17:10) These infants were not able to give any indication as to the state of their soul. They could not make any personal decision for themselves. Rather, the children were bound up with the choice of their parents, and the parents’ choice was reckoned to be the decision of the child(ren).
Where do we find this practice in the New Testament?
This is what Paul teaches us. Paul only baptized those who were disciples of Christ. When such a person was baptized, however, Paul would also baptize the entire family in keeping with this covenantal principle. This appears to have been standard apostolic practice. We see this principle in two other New Testament stories:
- When Zacchaeus was saved, Jesus announced, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9) Note that Jesus says that salvation has come to the entire family because the head of the family has become a son of Abraham.
- So also the nobleman of Capernaum believed the gospel and John tells us that “…he himself believed and his whole household.” (John 4:53)
Why do you say this was “standard apostolic practice?”
Because nearly every time a family was present, Paul baptized them:
- Lydia (Acts 16:15),
- the Jailer (Acts 16:33),
- Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:14),
- Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:16),
- Cornelius (Acts 10:2, 47)
The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:38) and Paul (Acts 9:18) would have had no family. The families of the Caesareans (Acts 10:47), the Samaritans (Acts 8:12), Gaius (1 Corinthians 1:14), and John’s disciples (Acts 19:5) are not mentioned. It is noteworthy in this context that when Peter called the repentant Jews to be baptized, he included this comment, “…for the promise is to you and your children.” (Acts 2:39)
Explain the baptism of Lydia.
We read that Lydia was a worshiper of God meaning that she was either a Jew or a proselyte to the religion of Judaism. We read further that God had opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. (Acts 16:14) Then she was baptized, but Paul didn’t stop with just baptizing her. We read:
A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:14-15)
Here we see that where a family was present, Paul baptized the individual along with his/her entire family.
Who would have been included in “family?”
This is a broad word that would have included the parents, any children, and even the slaves. It could possibly have included members of the wider family as well such as uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, etc.
Acts 16 – The Jailer’s Baptism
Explain the baptism of the jailer.
After the conversion of Lydia, Paul and Silas were imprisoned for reasons given in Acts 16:6f. While in this prison, God sent an earthquake which He used to bring the jailer to a sense of his sin and need for a Savior. When the jailer came to believe in Christ, we read again that Paul baptized him and his entire family. In fact, the covenantal principle mentioned above is especially clear in the verses which give us this account. Note the references to the jailer’s family in these verses:
Acts 16:31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.”
Acts 16:32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.
Acts 16:33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.
Acts 16:34 And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.
Notice that every verse repeats this covenantal idea. The grammar of the last verse also supports this idea.
What is the grammar of v34 which shows the covenantal idea?
Because all the actions taken here are the jailer’s.
- he brought them into his house
- he set food before them
- he rejoiced greatly
- he having believed in God (the participle here is singular; cf principle 7)
Then, the jailer’s family is attached to him in the final phrase with his whole household. Again, the entire family is bound up with the action(s) of the family-head.
What about the adults in the jailer’s family? Would not Paul have required them to give some kind of profession of faith before he would give them baptism?
It isn’t stated here what Paul required of them, but we can conclude from apostolic practice elsewhere that there would have to be some indication that they were disciples of Jesus. Of course, such a profession of faith would have been exceedingly simple and primitive these gentiles not having received any kind of previous instruction in the things of God.
What about the infants in these families? Would they also have been baptized?
Yes, they also would have been baptized just as the infants of old covenant families were circumcised.
How do you know this is true?
Because this had been the divinely ordained practice for the last two millennia, and there is no indication that God had changed the practice.
What does it mean to be baptized into someone’s name as Paul did in Acts 19:5?
To be baptized into someone’s name means you have left your former allegiance and are now joining yourself as a disciple to this new teacher. Thus to be baptized into the name of Paul would be to make clear that you were now a disciple of Paul. (1 Corinthians 1:13) To be baptized into the name of Moses, means to be a disciple of Moses. (1 Corinthians 10:2) cf Clarke
Did Paul baptize anyone?
Paul certainly did baptize some people. It must be said at the outset, however, that Paul was not much interested in the ritual of water baptism. It’s not that he regarded it as unimportant. Rather, Paul says that he did not believe that God had called him to baptize. He tells the Corinthians that he remembered baptizing Crispus and Gaius as well as Stephanus’ family but then writes, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Corinthians 1:17) Robertson writes (p60):
Now there are two passages in Paul’s Epistles that to my mind are decisive on this point and render it impossible to class Paul with the sacramentarians on the subject of baptism. The first one is 1 Corinthians 1:14-17. Here Paul expresses gratitude that he baptized none of the Corinthian Christians save Crispus and Gaius. Then he recalls the household of Stephanas and beyond that he cannot recall whether he baptized any others. Certainly this attitude, almost of indifference, is not that of a man who attached saving efficacy to the ordinance of baptism. But v17 settles the matter. … Here Paul deliberately interprets his permanent mission as an apostle of Christ in language that leaves baptism to one side, and in contrast with his real work of preaching the gospel. I do not see how it is possible to understand that Paul could write thus if he held to baptismal regeneration. Certainly Paul was not making light of baptism, but he did not consider it his task.
I do not see baptism mentioned at all in this chapter. Why do you reference it here?
Because of Paul’s comments here regarding circumcision. Paul writes:
Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. (Romans 4:9-12)
What is Paul’s larger point here?
Paul is arguing here that circumcision is not necessary to be saved. The clear proof is Abraham who was justified by faith before he ever received circumcision.
What does this have to do with baptism?
Because Paul describes for us what the meaning of circumcision was. He says that circumcision was a sign and a seal.
How was circumcision a sign?
Circumcision was a sign that involved the cutting off of the foreskin. In Genesis, God taught Abraham to regard circumcision as a sign that he was in covenant with Himself. (Genesis 17:11) In Colossians, Paul takes this further and teaches us that circumcision was a sign of regeneration. Paul calls this a circumcision not made with hands and a removal of the body of the flesh. (Colossians 2:11)
How was circumcision a seal?
A seal in the Greco-Roman world was something which authenticated. A document, for instance, might carry the seal of the person who sent it. The recipient could assure himself that the letter really was from the sender since he would recognize the sender’s seal on the document. This is the idea we should carry over to circumcision. This bloody act confirmed to the recipient that God really was in covenant with him (Genesis 17:11), that his guilt had been removed, and that God regarded him as righteous in Christ. (Romans 4:11)
What does this have to do with baptism?
Because Paul also teaches us that the spiritual reality which was represented in circumcision is the same reality represented to us in our baptism. Therefore, we conclude that circumcision was a sign to the recipient of being a participant in the old covenant. Baptism is a sign to the recipient that s/he is a participant in the new covenant. All this is laid out in our subsequent comments on Colossians 2:11.
Does this not have ramifications for the question of infant baptism?
It does. Clearly, circumcision was a sign an inward, spiritual reality, and yet God commanded infants to be circumcised. The most common, Baptist objection to baptizing infants is that they are not capable of believing or at least of giving any kind of a credible indication that they have faith. If this objection were sound, then it would also count against infant circumcision; but if an infant’s inability to believe is not a good reason to postpone circumcision, then neither is it a good reason to postpone baptism.
What is the Baptist response to this?
John Piper argues that the people of God in the Old Testament were a mixed group of people; mixed in the sense that there were unbelievers and believers all together in one nation of people. He points to Romans 9 as proof of this:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. (Romans 9:6-8)
Piper then goes on to say that within this mixed group, there was a believing remnant. Now the new covenant people of God or the church are the continuation of this remnant. Therefore, the church is the new covenant people of God, but it is an advancement on Israel. The new covenant people of God are no longer a mixed group as they were under the old covenant. Now, they are a pure group consisting only of regenerate believers. Piper writes:
But the people of the new covenant, called the Church of Jesus Christ, is being built in a fundamentally different way. The church is not based on any ethnic, national distinctives but on the reality of faith alone, by grace alone in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not a continuation of Israel as a whole; it is a continuation of the true Israel, the remnant—not the children of the flesh, but the children of promise. Therefore, it is not fitting that the children born merely according to the flesh receive the sign of the covenant, baptism.
Sum this up.
Sure, consider the following propositions as Piper’s view:
- All the people in covenant with God should receive the sign of being in covenant with God.
- The people of God in the old covenant were a mixed group of people consisting of both true believers and hypocrites.
- Every member of this group received the sign of the covenant including the hypocrites.
- Under the old covenant, the sign of being in covenant with God was circumcision.
- The people of God in the new covenant are no longer a mixed group of people. They consist only of regenerate believers.
- Every member of this group also receives the sign of being in covenant with God.
- Under the new covenant, the sign of being in covenant with God is baptism.
- Only those who can give credible evidence of being regenerate should be baptized.
What can be said in response to this?
The Bible expressly contradicts #5. In His explanation of the parable of the weeds, Jesus teaches that on the last day, His angels will gather out of His kingdom all the weeds or hypocrites.
The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness… (Matthew 13:41)
Is the kingdom the same as the church?
The extent of the kingdom is the same as the church. The difference between the two lies in the fact that the church of God is the visible manifestation of the invisible kingdom. (Luke 17:20)
Are there other points in the above list to which you take exception?
Even granting all these points, there is no verse in the New Testament that teaches point #8. This is a conclusion drawn from their system, not a point of exegesis.
Does Paul mention baptism in his letters?
He does. The first is in Romans 6 where Paul writes:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with [Him] in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be [in the likeness] of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)
Paul here shows that when we are united to Christ, we die to sin. This means that we will have nothing to do with sin any longer. A picture of this union with Christ is given us in baptism where we are visibly baptized or joined to or identified with the holy Name of Jesus.
What does this teach us about baptism?
We should remember that Paul did not plant the church in Rome, yet he clearly assumes that his readers will know what baptism is. From this, we can conclude that baptism must have begun very soon after the death of Jesus. Paul could not have taught these people what baptism was.
Does Paul’s language of being “buried with Him through baptism” imply that Paul understood baptism to be an immersion into water?
We note that Paul also uses this language in Colossians 2:12. This point is disputed. There appear to be three different ways of understanding Romans 6:4.
What is the first?
The first is to see this verse as referring to water-baptism and that Paul is using the mode of baptism as an illustration of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. The verse in Greek is:
συνετάφημεν οὖν αὐτῷ διὰ τοῦ βαπτίσματος εἰς τὸν θάνατον, ἵνα ὥσπερ ἠγέρθη Χριστὸς ἐκ νεκρῶν διὰ τῆς δόξης τοῦ πατρός, οὕτως καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐν καινότητι ζωῆς περιπατήσωμεν. (Rom 6:4)
A more literal translation would be:
Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, in this manner even we in newness of life might walk. (Rom 6:4)
Headlam paraphrases the text:
Surely you do not need reminding that all of us who were immersed or baptized, as our Christian phrase runs, “into Christ,” i.e. into the closest allegiance and adhesion to Him, were so immersed or baptized into a special relation to His Death. I mean that the Christian, at his baptism, not only professes obedience to Christ but enters into a relation to Him so intimate that it may be described as actual union. Now this union, taken in connexion with the peculiar symbolism of Baptism, implies a great deal more. That symbolism recalls to us with great vividness the redeeming acts of Christ — His Death, Burial, and Resurrection. And our union with Christ involves that we shall repeat those acts, in such sense as we may, i.e. in a moral and spiritual sense, in our own persons. When we descended into the baptismal water, that meant that we died with Christ — to sin. When the water closed over our heads, that meant that we lay buried with Him, in proof that our death to sin, like His death, was real. But this carries with it the third step in the process. As Christ was raised from among the dead by a majestic exercise of Divine power, so we also must from henceforth conduct ourselves as men in whom has been implanted a new principle of life. “For it is not to be supposed that we can join with Christ in one thing and not join with Him in another. If, in undergoing a death like His, we are become one with Christ as the graft becomes one with the tree into which it grows, we must also be one with Him by undergoing a resurrection like His, i.e. at once a moral, spiritual, and physical resurrection.
In this case, the immersion into water is very much a part of Paul’s point. His thought requires an immersion. This is also Fitzmyer’s understanding:
Through baptism into his death we were indeed buried with him. The baptismal rite symbolically represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; the person descends into the baptismal bath, is covered with its waters, and emerges to a new life. In that act one goes through the experience of dying to sin, being buried, and rising to new life, as did Christ. Fitzmyer on Romans 6:4.
What is the other way to read this verse?
Others also see this as a reference to water-baptism but not making any reference to the mode of baptism. A paraphrase might go like this:
The truth is that we are one with Jesus. We died with Jesus, we were buried with Jesus, and we were raised with Jesus. In fact, this is the meaning of your baptism. When you were baptized, you were visibly and publicly united to Christ by being baptized into His Name. Now if you are truly one with Jesus, then you are also one with Him in His death to sin. That is why it is so foolish to talk of sinning in order to magnify the grace of God. Furthermore, being one with Jesus in His death not only means that you died and were buried with Him but also that you rose up out of that grave. When God the Father raised His Son Jesus from the dead, then He also raised you. This means that all your sins are left behind in that stinking grave, and you have risen to an entirely new kind of life. A life marked by holiness and honoring God.
In this case, baptism is understood theologically as a public union with Christ. In this understanding, how the baptism took place is not important.
What is the third way of understanding this verse?
The third way is those who understand the baptism here not as the rite of water-baptism but as Spirit-baptism. Godwin, for instance, argues that Paul cannot possibly be referring to the actual ritual of baptism here. “Little religious instruction and experience preceded the rite during the ministry of Christ and the apostles; and no special spiritual efficacy is ever by them attributed to it.” Surely Paul would have extolled baptism very highly if he thought it had some kind of spiritual efficacy. Instead, we find the opposite. “Circumcision is nothing,” he writes. “I thank God I baptized none of you but Crispus and Gaius” and Paul’s strongest statement of all, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel.” (1 Corinthians 1:14, 17) source Robertson also has a chapter where he argues that Paul was no sacramentarian. A possible paraphrase would be this:
The truth is that we are one with Jesus. This happened when we first believed the gospel, and the Holy Spirit baptized us into Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). When this baptism took place, you could say that we were so closely identified with Jesus that not only did we die with Him, but we were even buried with Him. Why does God do this to us? So that God can also bring us back to a new life and bring us out of that grave an entirely new person. This is what God the Father did in great glory and power to His Son Jesus; and if you are one with Him, then He did it to you too. Now when you were brought out of that grave with Jesus, what was left behind that grave? All your sins and all your old ways of living were left behind in that stinking grave, and you came out of it a new person! A new person means a new life, a life marked by holiness and honoring God. Therefore, let’s not talk anymore about sinning in order to magnify the grace of God. It makes no sense whatsoever for the baptized Christian.
Here, the verse is no longer about the ritual of water-baptism but about being united to Christ by a Spirit worked baptism.
Which of these views is correct?
The third view is best. It is difficult to imagine Paul saying anything remotely like water baptism joining us to Christ in His death and resurrection. Surely, Paul is referring to invisible reality which is visibly portrayed by baptism. This invisible reality is Spirit baptism.
Even in this third view though, Paul likely has the picture of water baptism in his mind and doesn’t his language here imply an immersion?
1 Corinthians 1
What other references are there to baptism in the letters of Paul?
In Paul’s letter to Corinth, he writes the following:
Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. (1 Corinthians 1:13-17)
What does this teach us about baptism?
It shows us Paul’s lack of interest in the ritual of water baptism. cf Robertson
1 Corinthians 7
Does Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 speak to the issue of baptism?
In this chapter, Paul is giving instruction regarding marriage and divorce. He tells married couples that they should not divorce in keeping with the teaching of Jesus. Then Paul speaks to those women or men who came to Christ and were saved but their spouse remains an unbeliever. To these, he writes:
But to the rest [i.e. to those who find themselves married to an unbeliever] I say, not the Lord [Jesus], that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the 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? (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)
Here we note that Paul regards the unbelieving spouse as in some sense “sanctified” by the faith of the believing spouse. He bases this thought on the assumption that the children are “holy.” Note that Paul does not attempt to persuade his readers that children are holy; he simply assumes it as a fact on which they are all agreed.
Why is it important to Paul’s argument here that the children are holy?
- Those spouses who found themselves married to unbelievers were thinking that they were defiled by this union. This thought would have been reinforced by their reading of verses like Deuteronomy 7:3 and the common practice in the Jewish religion of being rendered unclean by touching a dead body, etc. Now the believing spouse would be rendered unfit for entering into God’s presence and participating in the Christian worship services.
- Because of this, many of these Christians would have thought that it would be best for them to leave their unbelieving spouse and divorce him/her. This is what Ezra commanded the Israelites. (Ezra 10:3-5)
- Paul vigorously denounces this as a wrong way of thinking. On the contrary, far from the believing spouse being defiled by the unbelieving spouse, the reverse is the case. The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse. Perhaps, Paul is thinking here of Moses’ teaching that whatever touched the altar was rendered holy. (Exodus 29:37, Leviticus 6:18)
Now Paul gives a supporting reason for the principle stated in #3. This must be the case, says Paul, because otherwise the children of these marriages would also be defiled by the unbelieving spouse and would be unclean as well as the believing spouse. On this reasoning, the spouse should also abandon her/his children as well the spouse. Paul, however, appeals to their common understanding that the children of believers are not unclean but holy. Evidently, it was unthinkable for the apostle and his readers that the children of believers were to be considered pagan children until they came to an age when they could articulate their own, personal faith. On the contrary, the covenantal principle articulated above was Paul’s modus operandi, and he appeals to it here to prevent Christians from seeking a divorce from their unbelieving spouse. Godet puts the argument:
The argument is this: If it is a thing admitted by you all, that notwithstanding their original pollution, your children, who are not yet believers, are nevertheless already consecrated and holy in the eyes of God, and that in virtue of the bond which unites them to you, their parents, why would you make a difficulty about recognizing also that an unbelieving husband may be regarded as consecrated to God in virtue of his union with his believing wife, and that by the fact of his desire to remain united to her? source
What is meant by “children” here?
These children would have been infants since the Corinthian believers could not have been believers for long, and these children would have been born to them after they had come to Christ. Witherington, Troubled Waters, 48.
What does Paul mean here by “holy?”
In the Bible generally, this word is often used to refer to the Holy Spirit. If we set aside this usage for now, then we find that the word can either refer to an objective holiness or a subjective holiness. The latter is what God works in the life of a person via regeneration, faith, repentance, and the like. The objective meaning is in use when objects are consecrated to God. For example, we read references to a holy city (Matthew 4:5), giving what is holy to dogs (Matthew 7:6), the holy place (Matthew 24:15), holy covenant (Luke 1:72), and the firstborn being holy (Luke 2:23). In Matthew 27:52 and Mark 6:20, we find the idea of a subjective holiness included. Candlish writes that the word rarely makes reference to a person’s moral character.
It does not necessarily imply any inward goodness or good quality at all. It is commonly used simply as a term of outward relationship; denoting the use, destination, office, or official character of a person or thing;—having reference to the light in which God may be pleased to regard any one,—the treatment which God may bestow upon him,—the footing on which God may place him;—and not to what he really and personally is. source
Clearly, Paul’s meaning is the objective sense.
What else can be said about this “being sanctified?”
Whatever this “holiness” may have been, we should note the tense of the verb “sanctified” ἡγίασται in v14 “…for the unbelieving husband is sanctified…”. The meaning of this verb form here is that of a completed and finished action that has results extending into the present. This is why it is not correct to interpret this holiness as something that might come to pass in the future. Paul makes reference to this in 1 Corinthians 7:16. Beet writes:
The Christian wife lays her heathen husband upon the altar of God; and in all her intercourse with him acts as God’s servant, striving ever to accomplish His purposes. Therefore, whatever the husband may be in himself, he is sanctified in the wife: i.e. in the subjective world of her thought and life he is a holy object; and her treatment of him is a sacrifice to God. source
Certainly, there is an element of truth in this, but it does not give enough weight to the completed aspect of the verb “sanctified.” Meyer writes that the unbelieving spouse is not brought into the moral holiness of the new birth, but the holy consecration of that bond of Christian fellowship which forms the church of God. The non-believer is, as it were, affiliated to the holy order of Christians by his union of married life with a Christian person, and, so soon as his spouse is converted to Christ and has thereby become holy, he too on his part participates in his own person (not “simply in his married relationship,”) in his spouse’s holiness, the benefit of which he receives in virtue of his fellowship of life with her, so that he is no longer ἀκάθαρτος [unclean] as before but—although mediately after the fashion described—a ἡγιασμένος [sanctified]. source Here the idea is that “holiness” is the equivalent of being included in the fellowship of the church.
A better explanation of this “holiness” is to see it as another example of the Old Testament covenantal practice which we articulated above and which Paul carried over from the Old Testament. In light of this principle, Paul is not referring here to what we often call a subjective holiness brought about by regeneration, but an objective holiness brought about by birth to Christian parents or, in the case of the unbelieving spouse, marriage to a Christian. This “holiness” is a consecration to God.
Is this what some writers have called a federal holiness?
Yes, the words “federal” and “covenant” are synonyms in this context; see here. The Directory for Public Worship contains these words:
That children, by baptism, are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and them that are without, and united with believers; and that all who are baptized in the name of Christ, do renounce, and by their baptism are bound to fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh: That they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized: That the inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to that very moment of time wherein it is administered; and that the fruit and power thereof reach to the whole course of our life; and that outward baptism is not so necessary, that through the want thereof, the infant is in danger of damnation, or the parents guilty, if they do not contemn or neglect the ordinance of Christ, when and where it may be had. source
1 Corinthians 12
Previously, you referenced 1Corinthians 12:13. What is Paul teaching here about baptism?
In this verse, Paul is not speaking about the ritual of water baptism but about Spirit baptism.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)
Why do the translations differ on whether to translate as “in one Spirit” or “by one Spirit”?
The ASV translates: “For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body…”. The NASB changed this to, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”. Both translations are possible; the issue is
- whether the Spirit is that with which believers are baptized, or
- whether we understand the Holy Spirit to be the agent or the one who is doing the baptizing.
The former is correct since elsewhere the baptism of the Spirit (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:26, 33; Acts 1:5; 11:16) is explained to us as a pouring out (Acts 2:17, 18; 2:33; 10:45) of the Spirit on the people of God. On this basis, the best translation would be “For with one Spirit, we were…”
Why should we not think of the Spirit as the agent of Spirit baptism?
Because Peter has taught us that Jesus is the agent who pours the Spirit out on His people. “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. (Acts 2:32-33)
Baptism for the Dead
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about baptizing for the dead. What does this mean?
This is a very difficult verse to understand. Paul writes: Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? Why are we also in danger every hour (1 Corinthians 15:29-30) Many different interpretations have been given to this verse. One possibility is Edwards’ understanding (see p1062 here). He would understand the text this way:
ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν
Edwards would understand this text this way: Otherwise, what will they do who are being baptized in the name of the dead [i.e. Jesus] if dead ones are not really raised? Why even are they baptized in His Name?
Paraphrase: Now if there is no resurrection from the dead and believers enter death as a permanent state, then what are we to think of those who are being baptized in the Name of Jesus? We claim that their baptism represents their union with Christ in His death and His resurrection (Romans 6:4); but if Christ is not raised, then believers are not raised either. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) So what is the point of our baptizing them into the Name of Jesus? It’s all a fraud!
In favor of this interpretation is its obvious consistency with what Paul had already said in this chapter about the close connection between the resurrection of Jesus and that of believers. There are two problems with this interpretation, however.
- It strains the meaning of the plural “for the dead νεκρῶν”. Edwards’ meaning is possible but highly unlikely that dead here is referring to a single person; i.e. Jesus as Edwards understands the text.
- It also strains our understanding of the preposition “for” which usually means “on behalf of” or “for the advantage of”. Again, Edwards’ meaning is possible, but not what we would expect.
What other way is there to understand this text?
Robert Louis Dabney proposed a way of understanding this text which he claims to have learned from Rev. J. B. Ramsey of Lynchburg, Virginia.
What does Paul write to the Colossian church about baptism?
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:9-12)
Why is this teaching so important for our understanding of baptism?
Because Paul here teaches that when we were baptized, we received circumcision. The text can be broken down like this:
|you were circumcised
|a circumcision not hand made
|ἐν τῇ ἀπεκδύσει τοῦ σώματος τῆς σαρκός,
|in the putting off of the body of the flesh
|ἐν τῇ περιτομῇ τοῦ Χριστοῦ,
|in the circumcision of Christ
|συνταφέντες αὐτῷ ἐν τῷ βαπτισμῷ,
|being buried with Him in baptism
Of what circumcision is Paul speaking here?
Clearly, Paul is speaking about spiritual circumcision or the invisible, spiritual reality to which physical circumcision pointed. This is clear because he says that this circumcision was not “hand made” meaning it was not performed with human hands. It consisted in the putting off of the body of flesh.
Why does Paul reference spiritual circumcision here?
Because the Jews in Colossae prided themselves on their status as Jews and thought themselves to be God’s special favorites because of their being circumcised. (Matthew 3:9) Paul aims to show the believers that they have a circumcision that is far superior to the physical rite performed by human hands.
What is meant by the “putting off of the body of flesh?”
Paul makes a parallel between physical circumcision which was a cutting off of the foreskin and spiritual circumcision which was a cutting off of one’s sin nature. Physical circumcision was a visible sign of this invisible and spiritual reality. In our own theological terminology, we would call this “regeneration.”
Where else does Paul make this distinction between the sign and the reality as it pertains to circumcision?
Paul wrote to the Jews in Rome that even though they were physically circumcised, their disobedience to the law made their circumcision to become uncircumcision. Paul goes on to write:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)
Paul makes the same distinction in Ephesians:
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands–remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11-12)
Paul repeats the same idea in Philippians 3:
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (Philippians 3:1-7)
Stephen also makes a reference to this when he accuses the Sanhedrin of being uncircumcised in heart:
You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. (Acts 7:51)
When does this spiritual circumcision take place?
It takes place when we are united to Christ which is the meaning of the phrase in Whom.
What is meant by “the circumcision of Christ”?
This is an ambiguous phrase. It could be a subjective genitive in which case it would mean a circumcision which Christ performs. In this case the text could be paraphrased:
…and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands but performed by Christ Himself, in the removal of the body of the flesh… (Colossians 2:9-12)
It could be an objective genitive in which it means the circumcision which Christ received.
…and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh when Christ was circumcised on the eighth day; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:9-12)
A variation on this view is that the circumcision of Christ is Christ’s circumcision but not his circumcision on the eighth day but that which He received on the cross. On the cross, Jesus’ body was stripped off as a punishment for the sins of His people.
…and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh when Christ was circumcised on the cross; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:9-12)
Which of these is correct?
It is impossible to know with certainty. Paul had led off this passage with being in Him. This suggests that the circumcision of Christ is what was done to Jesus and we participate in these benefits by reason of our union with Him. Paul has also said, however, that our circumcision is non-handmade which would suggest that our circumcision is Christ-made.
What are we taught here about baptism?
In a word, Paul teaches us here to see baptism and circumcision as parallel. In other words, the outward sign differs, the one a bloody cutting away of the foreskin and the other “the removal of dirt from the flesh” (1 Peter 3:21) but both these signs are pointing to the same inner reality. The assumption here is that for both circumcision and baptism, there is a visible, physical sign pointing to and picturing the same invisible, spiritual reality.
Do some disagree with this?
Yes, Pink writes (p156):
It is a mistake to suppose that baptism has come in the place of circumcision. As that which supplanted the Old Testament sacrifices was the one offering of the Savior, as that which superseded the Aaronic priesthood was the high priesthood of Christ, so that which has succeeded circumcision is the spiritual circumcision which believers have in and by Christ: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in, putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11)—how simple! how satisfying! “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him” (v12) is something additional: it is only wresting Scripture to say these two verses mean “Being buried with him in baptism, ye are circumcised.” No, no; v11 declares the Christian circumcision is “made without hands,” and baptism is administered by hands! The circumcision “made without hands in putting off [judicially, before God] the body of the sins of the flesh” has taken the place of the circumcision made with hands. The circumcision of Christ has come in the place of the circumcision of the law. Never once in the New Testament is baptism spoken of as the seal of the new covenant; rather is the Holy Spirit the seal: see Ephesians 1:13; 4:30.
What are we to think of this?
We have to first agree on the facts. The fact is that the nominative plural participle συνταφέντες is modifying the plural subject of the main verb περιετμήθητε. To understand this passage, one has to explain what this relation is. In other words, how does this participle modify the main verb? That is the question. One cannot properly understand this text by denying that there is a relationship between the two. Therefore, the syntax of Colossians 2:11 rules out Pink’s understanding of this text. The syntax does not allow the exegete to say that the “being baptized” is something additional and different from the “being circumcised.”
Does this mean that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the New Covenant?
Paul does not explicitly say this here or anywhere else. For all that, however, it is clear that Paul’s argument here assumes that baptism is parallel to circumcision; and therefore, we are justified in teaching that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of covenant membership. Fairbairn writes (p326):
The bearing of all this on the ordinance of Christian baptism cannot be overlooked, but it may still be mistaken. The relation between circumcision and baptism is not properly that of type and antitype; the one is a symbolical ordinance as well as the other, and both alike have an outward form and an inward reality. It is precisely in such ordinances that the Old and the New Dispensations approach nearest to each other, and, we might almost say, stand formally upon the same level. The difference does not so much lie in the ordinances themselves, as in the comparative amount of grace and truth respectively exhibited in them—necessarily less in the earlier, and more in the later. The difference in external form was in each case conditioned by the circumstances of the time. In circumcision it bore respect to the propagation of offspring, as it was through the production of a seed of blessing that the covenant, in its preparatory form, was to attain its realization. But when the seed in that respect had reached its culminating point in Christ, and the objects of the covenant were no longer dependent on natural propagation of seed, but were to be carried forward by spiritual means and influences used in connection with the faith of Christ, the external ordinance was fitly altered, so as to express simply a change of nature and state in the individual that received it. Undoubtedly the New Testament form less distinctly recognizes the connection between parent and child—we should rather say, does not of itself recognize that connection at all; so much ought to be frankly conceded to those who disapprove of the practice of infant baptism, and will be conceded by all whose object is to ascertain the truth rather than contend for an opinion.
What does the apostle Peter teach us about baptism?
The only reference to baptism in either of Peter’s letters is here:
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all time, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which He also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, who once were disobedient when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through [the] water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you–not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience–through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Who are these “spirits” to whom Jesus is said to have preached?
These “spirits” are further explained in v20 where the apostles says that this preaching happened during the time when Noah was building the ark. This implies that these “spirits” were those people who heard Noah’s preaching and rejected it. The difficulty with this understanding is that living people are not generally referred to as “spirits”. The word “spirit” is generally used to refer to that part of a human person that survives the death of the body. (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Matthew 27:50; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59; James 2:26) The answer to this also depends on how one understands their being “in prison” (see the next question).
Why are they said to be “in prison”?
This refers to the stubborn unbelief of those people who lived in Noah’s generation. They were locked up in unbelief as in Galatians 3:22. Many others understand the prison here to be hell. When Jesus was preaching to them through Noah, they were not yet in prison. At the time Peter wrote this letter, however, they were in prison; i.e. hell. This resolves the previous difficulty of understanding the word “spirits” to be referring to living persons.
How are we to understand Jesus preaching to these people?
Jesus did not preach to them personally, but through the preaching of Noah. Note that the text says that Jesus preached “by the Spirit” which is the meaning of the phrase “in which” or better translated as “by Whom”.
…in which [or Whom] also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, (1 Peter 3:19)
Similarly, in Romans 10, the question is asked, How then will they call on Him [Jesus] in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:14) Thus, when a preacher explains the Bible, all those listening are hearing the voice of Jesus.
The disobedient people in Noah’s generation perished under God’s judgment. Eight souls, however, were saved and Peter says this is a type for us of baptism. How so?
Peter makes a comparison between the water of the flood which lifted up the ark and thus saved Noah and his family and the waters of baptism which cleanse us from sin and thus save us from the judgment of God. Edwards notes that the same water “which was the instrument of the destruction of the old world was the instrument of the salvation of the church, for thereby it was saved from that deluge of wickedness that was likely to overflow it; but the water washed away that wickedness and filthiness, and delivered them.
What does Peter mean here by “an appeal to God?”
By these words, Peter intends to qualify his previous statement that baptism saves us. He wants his readers to know that it is not the visible, physical act of washing in water that saves us but what this visible sign represents and points to. This invisible reality is the appeal to God or a crying out to Him for salvation and this is what really saves us. In a word, this “appeal to God” is faith. (Luke 18:3)
Why is this appeal said to be for a good conscience?
This would be better translated as a “good conscience” appeal. In other words, the appeal to God is a sincere appeal to God for salvation; it arises from a clear conscience. (cf 1 Timothy 1:5)
Why does Peter make a reference here to the resurrection of Jesus?
This teaches us the object of our faith. The appeal to God ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν or our reaching out to Him for salvation must be an act of sincere συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς faith, and our faith must fix itself on the finished work of Christ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. The resurrection is that act of Jesus which most clearly displays His work as a finished and a triumphant work.