By Christopher VanDusen
In Matthew 28:16-19, the apostle Matthew says this:
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” (ESV)
Jesus had just risen from the dead, and His disciples had left Jerusalem, where He was crucified, and moved to their home turf, the province of Galilee. They were told by at least one of the other disciples that Jesus wanted them to go to a specific mountain in Galilee, where He would give them instructions on what they were to do now. So, they went.
In this passage, Jesus gives the eleven disciples, or apostles, what is commonly known as the Great Commission. This is a mission statement for the apostles, and has been the mission statement for every single disciple of Jesus since then.
First, Jesus declares that He has been given all authority, or power, in heaven, and on earth. This means that He is the King of the whole universe. Hence, His commission is authoritative and imperative. That’s why He bases it on His authority by beginning His commission with “therefore”. He’s saying “because all authority in the universe has been given to me, go”.
Second, Jesus commands His disciples to go from Galilee. They were to go from where they were, where there were no people, and to live among people.
Third, He commands them to make disciples. The word “disciples” could also be understood as “followers” or “students”. They were to turn people into disciples of Christ.
Fourth, He commands them to baptize these disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The word “baptize” isn’t a translation of the Greek word, but is a transliteration, since the Greek word literally means “immerse” or “submerge”.
It’s this command to baptize that I want to focus on. We must first notice that this command to baptize disciples is a command given to those who were to teach their disciples all that Christ commanded them to do. Now, if we think about it, that would include Christ’s command to baptize disciples. Since that’s the case, it follows that from their time, to the present, the will of Christ has been that all disciples be taught to baptize those whom they have made into disciples.
Now, at this point, the question arises — how is this to be done? Besides Christ commanding it, why are disciples to be baptized, and how are they to be baptized?
First, let’s address why Christ commanded His disciples, up to the present day, to baptize new disciples.
Why Does Christ Want His Disciples to Baptize?
- It’s how Christians identify who believes in Christ, and who doesn’t.
The first reason that Christ wants His disciples to baptize people is that this marks them as those who believe in Christ in some way. If no one was baptized, then it would be much more difficult to determine who was a believer and who was an unbeliever.
One of the clearest passages that supports this idea is 1 Peter 3:20-21:
“. . . God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .” (ESV)
First, it may be necessary to prove that Peter is speaking of water baptism here. There are three evidences for this:
- The baptism Peter speaks of “corresponds to” Noah being “brought safely through water”, just as baptism brings a person through water.
- Peter has to qualify his statement that baptism “now saves you”, which would be unnecessary if he was speaking of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or spiritual baptism into Christ.
- Peter equates this baptism with “an appeal to God for a good conscience”, which is something people do (be baptized), not something that God does to them (baptize them with the Spirit and into Christ).
Now that we see that Peter is speaking of water baptism, how does this passage support the idea that the baptism of someone shows others that that person believes in Christ?
Obviously, first, Peter explicitly says that “baptism . . . now saves you”. Now, what exactly does he mean by this? Well, he says that baptism corresponds to what he said about Noah in the flood. And what did he say about him? That he and others were “brought safely through water”. Why does he use the word “safely”? Because the rest of humanity were killed by the flood, which was a judgment from God. In a similar way, Peter is saying that baptism, in some sense, saves those who are baptized from God’s judgment.
But how does baptism save people? Peter explains:
“. . . not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience . . .” (v. 21)
Here, Peter explains what he means when he says that baptism saves people. It doesn’t save them because they get washed in water, but because being baptized is “an appeal to God for a good conscience”. What does this mean? The Greek translated “an appeal to God for a good conscience” is translated “a pledge of a good conscience toward God” or something similar in the CSB, HCSB, NIV, and NET translations. The idea is that the act of receiving baptism is the baptized person’s pledge to God that he has a good conscience that has been relieved of the torment of knowing that one is under God’s wrath, and given the knowledge that he now needs to obey Christ by being baptized.
In other words, the fact that a person receives baptism shows that he believes he has a good conscience before God, and thus has a restored relationship with God. This is only possible if the person believes in Christ, since it’s only through His death and resurrection that we can be reconciled to God, and have a good conscience. In short, Peter is teaching here that a person’s acceptance of baptism shows that he believes in Christ.
A second important passage that teaches this concept of baptism being a person’s profession of faith is Acts 2:38, which says,
“And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” (ESV)
Here, Peter explicitly commands his audience to repent and be baptized “for” the forgiveness of their sins. The word “repent” is translated from a Greek word that literally means “change your mind”. Peter’s hearers were to change their minds about Jesus, and to therefore believe that He was the God-man who had died for their sins and risen from the dead. However, they were also to prove that they had changed their minds about Jesus by being baptized in His name.
But what does the word “for” mean here? Well, it can’t mean that Peter’s commanding them to repent and be baptized in order to be forgiven, since that would mean that they had to physically allow someone to baptize them in order to be forgiven, teaching salvation by works. Rather, the word “for” is used here to say “because of”, just like we use it in everyday speech. For example, “I’m taking medicine for my cold”. This doesn’t mean “in order to get” my cold, but “because of” my cold. Hence, when Peter commands his audience to be baptized “for the forgiveness of [their] sins”, he means that they were to be baptized because their sins had been forgiven.
2. Baptism pictures the most important spiritual events that take place when someone is saved for both the baptized person, and the witnesses.
Besides identifying those who believe in Christ, baptism also is a physical representation of what has happened to a person at the moment he believed. The most important passage that teaches this is Romans 6:3-4:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (ESV)
Now, we must first note that Paul cannot be speaking of water baptism here. The reason is that water baptism is nowhere said to baptize believers “into Christ Jesus”, or to spiritually unite them to Him. That requires spiritual power, which is not given through water baptism, but through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, this passage does teach about water baptism, since baptism is a sign that a person believes he’s been saved and forgiven by God. Since it’s a sign, it must picture certain spiritual realities that happen when someone is saved. Thus, the spiritual realities that accompany spiritual baptism must be pictured in physical baptism.
So, what exactly does baptism picture, according to this passage? First, it pictures that a person has been “baptized into [Christ’s] death” and “buried with him by baptism into death”. This means that, when a person is plunged under water in baptism, that pictures the fact that that person died with Christ at the cross. In other words, he has experienced spiritual death through Christ’s spiritual death in his place. This implies that the baptized person’s old, sinful, and condemned, self, is dead.
Second, baptism pictures that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father”, the baptized person can now “walk in newness of life”. In other words, since the new disciple is united to Christ in His death, he is also united to Him in His resurrection. To put it another way, since Christ was raised from the dead, the new disciple has been spiritually raised from spiritual death, and is now spiritually alive. This means that he now walks in “newness of life”. When the baptized person is raised out of the water, this raising pictures that person’s spiritual resurrection.
The second most important passage on the topic of what baptism pictures is Acts 22:16b, in which a Christian named Ananias tells Paul,
“Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his [Jesus’s] name.” (ESV)
Here, Ananias clearly implies that being baptized is a picture of the Christian having his sins washed away. However, the reason he ends the sentence with “calling on his name” is that that is how Paul is to wash away his sins, not by being baptized.
To sum up what baptism signifies, it shows:
- that a person has been spiritually united to Christ’s death, and has died to the rule of sin and condemnation
- that a person has been spiritually united to Christ’s resurrection, and has been made spiritually alive to God and to Christlikeness, or “newness of life”
- that a person has had his sins washed away by Christ’s death for his sins
So, why does Jesus want His disciples to baptize people? First, to identify people that have believed in Him in some way, even if they have non-saving faith, such as Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8. This distinguishes those who are willing to follow Jesus from those who are unwilling to follow Him, and are thus considered to be non-Christians. Second, baptism is a visible picture of what has ideally happened to a person spiritually when he believed in Christ. This strengthens the faith of Christians who witness it, and serves as a visible presentation of the gospel to any non-Christian witness.
How Does Christ Want His Disciples to Baptize People?
- Soon after a profession of faith.
We have already seen that Peter, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, commanded his audience to repent and to be baptized. What he implied by saying that is that baptism is something that is to be done as soon as possible after conversion. However, it’s more complex than that. Let’s examine the information presented to us in Acts about the relationship between conversion and baptism.
First, we’ll turn to Acts 2 again — this time, to verse 41:
“So those who received his [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (ESV)
Here, we see that those who received, or believed, Peter’s message were baptized “that day”, and they were “added” to the church.
Next, let’s look at Acts 8:12:
“But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (ESV)
Here, Luke says that these people were baptized “when they believed Philip”. In other words, almost immediately after they believed the gospel, they were baptized.
In the famous account of the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip is said to have baptized him soon after his conversion:
“And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” – Acts 8:36-38 (ESV)
Luke says that the eunuch asked to be baptized as soon as they came to water, since nothing “prevented” him from being baptized.
After the stories about Philip, Luke records Paul’s conversion and baptism in Acts 9:17-18:
“So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him [Paul] he said, “Brother Saul [Paul’s Jewish name], the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized . . .” (ESV)
Here, the passage implies that Paul was not yet filled with the Holy Spirit before Ananias came to him. Along with Paul’s elaboration on Ananias’s words about Paul “washing away” his sins and “calling on His name”, we can conclude that Paul was not yet converted until Ananias came to him, since Ananias implies that Paul’s sins hadn’t been washed away yet, and he hadn’t yet called upon Christ’s name. Further, the fact that scales fell from Paul’s eyes after Ananias spoke to him suggests that Paul didn’t see spiritually, or understand and believe the gospel, until that time. Thus, Luke is saying that Paul was baptized immediately after believing the gospel by calling on Christ’s name.
The next account of baptism in Acts is Acts 10:44-48:
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter implies that the reason that the Gentiles ought to be baptized is that they “have received the Holy Spirit”. Then, he immediately commands them to be baptized.
After this account of baptism, Luke moves on to Paul’s missionary journeys, with the next baptism being in Acts 16:14-15:
“One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.” (ESV)
Here, note that Lydia’s baptism is described immediately after she pays “attention to what was said by Paul”, implying that she was baptized soon after this. Also, notice that Lydia is said to suggest that Paul judged her “to be faithful to the Lord” “after she was baptized”, showing that the reason she received baptism was to be faithful to Christ.
The next account of baptism is the story of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:32-33:
“And they [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him [the jailer] and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” (ESV)
Notice here that the jailer is said to have been baptized “at once”, or “immediately” after hearing “the word of the Lord”, or the gospel.
After this, baptism is described in Paul’s ministry in Corinth in Acts 18:8:
“Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” (ESV)
The second sentence of this verse literally reads, “and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized” (NASB). In other words, the Corinthians were being baptized almost immediately after believing the gospel that they heard.
Besides Paul’s account of his baptism in Acts 22, the last description of baptism in Acts is in Acts 19:4-5:
“And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (ESV)
Here, the people being baptized are disciples of John the Baptizer, who haven’t yet heard anything about Jesus. However, upon being told that they need to believe in Jesus, they are immediately baptized. In fact, the passage says “on hearing this, they were baptized”.
So, as we can see, every instance of baptism in Acts describes people being baptized almost immediately after believing the gospel. However, there’s one important thing that’s different about these accounts than almost every situation in which someone is baptized in the western world. In every one of these accounts, nothing is said about the person being baptized during a church meeting. However, as we have seen, one of the purposes of baptism is for the church to identify those who act like they belong to the church, since they are willing to follow Christ. If no church is there to see someone submit to baptism, then how does their baptism serve as evidence that they believe in Christ?
The answer lies in recognizing the church context of these baptism accounts. If one understands this context, and the role of the baptizers in them, then he will see that they actually teach that baptism must be a public profession of faith to the church.
2. Baptism must be a public profession of faith to the church.
In order to see this, let’s revisit the passages in Acts that we’ve already looked at.
In Acts 2:41, 3,000 people are baptized in Jerusalem, but only Peter is mentioned in the short passage that we looked at. However, Acts 2:14 says that, when Peter gave his sermon, he was “standing with the eleven” apostles. Just before that, the whole church in Jerusalem are together, and preaching the Word of God. Thus, when Peter gave his sermon, he was among the over 100 church members that were there, and the 3,000 people were baptized by at least some of those church members. In other words, the whole church witnessed these mass baptisms.
In Acts 8:12, Samaritans are baptized, but no church is mentioned. However, it seems unlikely that Philip was alone, and even if he was, the church that witnessed the baptism of the Samaritans was the Samaritans themselves. In addition, Philip, holding the church office of evangelist (see Ephesians 4), was a representative of the church in Jerusalem, and served as an authoritative witness to the baptisms.
In Acts 8:36-38, again a church isn’t mentioned, but again, Philip was an official church representative, and — in the absence of a church — served as the church’s witness of the eunuch’s baptism.
In Acts 9:17-18, it isn’t said that Ananias has anyone with him, but this is unlikely. Even if he was alone, it may be that those who traveled with Paul on the road to Damascus were also converted. Regardless, we must recognize that Ananias, like Philip, was an authoritative representative of the church at Damascus, since he was sent by Jesus Himself to Paul. Thus, he served as an official witness of the church.
In Acts 10:44-48, Luke speaks of “the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter” being witnesses of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, and implicitly, of their subsequent baptism.
In Acts 16:14-15, Luke includes himself among those with Paul by saying that Lydia “urged us”. In addition, Paul seems to have been accompanied by Timothy and Silas as well. Hence, they most likely all witnessed Lydia’s baptism. Similar situations are in the all the rest of the accounts of Paul being present at baptisms — he always had traveling companions with him. Therefore, all the baptisms were public professions of faith to the church. Furthermore, Paul, like Philip and Ananias, was an authoritative representative of the church.
In conclusion, the Book of Acts teaches us that, in the early church, baptism was a public profession of faith to the church, so that the church could recognize those who had believed in Christ. At the same time, it was done almost immediately after someone’s conversion, so that they could be identified as a follower of Christ as soon as possible. Above all, we must remember that baptism is a command given by the Lord Jesus Christ to all His disciples, and is the first observable act of obedience to Him that a new disciple needs to do.
3. Any disciple of Jesus may baptize another disciple.
Finally, I want to emphasize the fact that the command to baptize disciples is a command that applies to anyone who makes a disciple, since that’s what Jesus says in the Great Commission. It seems that, ideally, the one who should baptize someone is the same person who shared the gospel with them on the occasion that they believed in Christ. We see this in the case of Ananias and Philip, who were called “a disciple” and an “evangelist” respectively.
However, Paul himself seems to say that he didn’t baptize some whom he had made into disciples through the gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17a:
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel . . .” (ESV)
Here, Paul explicitly says that he wasn’t sent to baptize, but to preach the gospel. Yet, undoubtedly, he was the first “senior” pastor of the church in Corinth. Thus, someone else had to have baptized those whom he didn’t, and it wasn’t the senior pastor.
However, there’s another thing worth noting about his denial of being sent to baptize — if Paul the apostle wasn’t sent to baptize, then are we going to say that pastors are? Ananias, who baptized Paul, is nowhere said to have been a leader in the church at Damascus, but is only called “a disciple”. Further, are we to believe that only 12 men baptized three thousand people on the Day of Pentecost? It’s possible, I suppose, but unlikely, especially since an evangelist and a simple disciple are said to have baptized people. Furthermore, Christ’s command to baptize others was to be passed on to the apostle’s disciples.
In closing, I conclude that the New Testament teaches that baptism is a public profession of faith to the church that is to be done as soon as possible, and may be administered by any disciple of Christ, ideally by the one who made the disciple being baptized. So, have you changed your mind about the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are trusting in Him, His death because of our sins against God, and His resurrection as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of your sins? If so, have you been publically baptized by another disciple in front of a representative group of church members? If not, you are living in disobedience to Christ, and need to seek to be baptized immediately. If you know of a disciple of Christ who hasn’t been baptized, have you told them that they need to be, and are you willing to do it if no one else is?
““All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”” – Matthew 28:18b-20a (ESV)
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