Barry Newman's Blog

September 11, 2009

Biblical Baptism (part VI)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 2:51 am

Baptism – an obligation or a custom?
However, what are we to make of the numerous references particularly in the Acts of the Apostles to people being baptised in a water ceremony by people such as Peter, Philip and Paul?  Surely, we might say, the baptismal water ceremony is being carried out in conformity with a command from Jesus.  We need to remember that John the Baptiser was baptising people well before the instruction recorded in Matthew 28: 19, 20.  And there is no indication that John the Baptiser was baptising people in conformity with a command from God, though we might rightly conclude that what he decided to do had God’s blessing.  We know that towards the end of the 1st century, if a gentile wished to become a Jew he or she had to undergo a full water immersion – a type of baptism.  (In the Greek language such a practice however, for whatever reason, was not described by the word, “baptizo”.  Another significant difference between this proselyte type of baptism and the baptism carried out by the apostles and others was that the gentile wishing to be become a Jew baptised him or herself whereas the person who had newly responded to the grace of God in Christ was baptised at the hands of another.)  Perhaps this proselytising ceremony was already in force by the time that John began his ministry.  If that is the case then possibly, John, in calling his fellow countrymen, Jews, to be baptised, was indicating that they should regard themselves as no better than the gentiles.  This would make sense of what John said to many Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see what he was doing – that they should not say to themselves that they are children of Abraham, that is that they are not gentiles, presumably implying that they believed they had no need to be baptised (Matt. 3: 9).  We also know that the disciples of Jesus baptised people during the ministry of Jesus, probably because Jesus instructed them to do so, though such an instruction is not recorded.  It is not clear but perhaps their baptisms were accompanied by a similar message to that of John the Baptiser -“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 3: 2), Jesus making a similar proclamation   (Mark 1: 15).

What was happening in the days of the early church was a continuation of that practice but now with a focus on Jesus, the one whom God had sent, whom had been crucified and whom God had raised from the dead.  It was an extraordinarily powerful symbol of a person’s complete change of life, indeed a coming into new life, and a washing away of sins as they turned in faith to Jesus.  There were good reasons for this practice to continue not only among the Jews but also in the world of the Gentiles as well.  The practice had become so well known that an Ethiopian Eunuch upon coming to faith in Jesus and seeing water nearby exclaimed, “Look, here is water.  Why shouldn’t I be baptised?” (Acts 8: 36)

Imagine for a moment that the word, “marriage” signified the actual union of a man and a woman as husband and wife but not a ceremony and that the word, “wedding” signified a ceremony that accompanied it.  Let us further imagine that the “wedding” is normally highly formalised.  For example – normally held in a church building, the bride normally dressed in white, hymns normally sung etc.  If someone then says to an engaged couple, “Get married and have a wedding”, he or she would not be claiming that the wedding, in spite of all its formality, would be obligatory but that it was the normal custom.  It would be getting married that was fundamental.  In the Acts of the Apostles, repentance towards Christ was fundamental, while baptism was the established custom.

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