Turn to Acts 2. We’re going to read stories in Acts about baptism. The NT speaks quite differently about baptism than I was taught, and perhaps that’s your story too.
The best thing about the Bible’s baptism stories is we’re also talking about the gospel, the message of good news that God sent into the world, the message at the center of every church. It keeps us on track to go over all these things again.
In some churches, baptism is mostly about becoming a member of the church. Baptism is how you join the church. Others teach that baptism is a witness to the world that you will follow Jesus. It is a way of telling the world that you will follow Jesus the Lord.
In some churches, baptism means now you really want to follow the Lord and be a disciple. In some churches, baptism is nearly ignored, and means little.
How does baptism fit into the bigger picture of becoming a Christian? How exactly is baptism part of our repentance and faith and forgiveness and so on?
Acts is very good for us here, because it tells us lots of stories about how baptism actually happened. Luke was a story teller, and he told eight stories about baptism. And from these eight stories, we can figure out quite a bit. And these stories together help each of us understand our own story, yours and mine. They tell us what’s important.
1, Peter Preaching at Pentecost – Acts 2
This is the first big sermon in Acts, the first time the gospel gets preached after Jesus ascended to heaven. At the end of the sermon the crowd knows that they are in big trouble with God, and they have no idea how to make it right: “What shall we do?”
Acts 2:37-39 – When the people heard Peter’s sermon, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “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.
What should they do? Repent and be baptized. They were Jews; they had rejected and crucified Jesus their Messiah. How could they be rescued from this mess? Turn away from that sin, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Repent and be baptized.
A few verses later we read how the crowd responded (Ac 2:41) – Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Those who accepted his message were baptized. “Repenting” and “being baptized” go together, and “accepting the message” and “being baptized” go together. This is how people respond when they receive the good news.
2, Philip in Samaria – Acts 8
A few years later, Philip preached the gospel in Samaria. Acts 8:12 – But when the Samaritans believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. When they believed, they were baptized. Faith and baptism belong together. Can’t get simpler than that.
3, Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch – Acts 8
Later in Acts 8, an angel of the Lord told Philip to travel down the road to Gaza. On that road Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch, the money manager of the queen of Ethiopia. This Ethiopian had been worshiping God in Jerusalem, and was going home, he was reading Isaiah and was confused. Philip offered to explain Isaiah, the man said “Sure.”
Acts 8:35-38 – Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
The eunuch said he wanted to be baptized. Where did he learn about baptism? It is not in Isaiah. It just says Philip “told him the good news about Jesus.” The good news about Jesus included explaining baptism.
If you were going to tell a person the good news about Jesus, would it include baptism? In our circles, usually not. For Philip, and the whole book of Acts is like this, the good news about Jesus always included baptism.
So out there on this lonely road, Philip baptized the eunuch. Is this to join a church? There was probably not much of a church in Ethiopia at this time. Is this a witness to the world? No, it can’t be, there is no one watching. Baptism is how to tell God you are repenting; it is how to tell God that you believe the good news and want Jesus.
4, Saul in Damascus – Acts 9
The next story is the conversion of Paul, who was called Saul in those days. He was traveling to Damascus to persecute Christians there, and on the way the Lord appeared to him in a bright light. I assume you know that story. He was completely blinded by that light. He went on to Damascus, led by the people with him, and waited.
Acts 9:9, 17-19 – For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything… Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Did you notice the order of events once Ananias came to Saul? Remember that this was now the third day in which Saul had not eaten or drunk anything. First, Ananias spoke. Second, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see. Third, Saul was baptized. Fourth, he ate some food and felt better. They did not wait to baptize, did they.
Also, it sounds here like Saul might have been baptized by pouring. The Mediterranean world was hot and dry, and they did not have pools in every other back yard, and it sounds like they did not go far. Baptism by immersion does not seem likely here.
5, Peter and Cornelius – Acts 10
Peter was preaching about Christ to Cornelius and his friends and relatives. These are the first Gentiles to become disciples of Jesus. They were listening to Peter.
Acts 10:44-48 – While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
While Peter spoke, the group was believing in their hearts, and mid-sermon the people exploded into praises and speaking in tongues. What were the first words out of Peter’s mouth? Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. The other Jewish believers agreed, and they were baptized.
People don’t have to be baptized to receive the Holy Spirit. In Acts, people often received the Spirit when they were baptized. This Scripture does tie them together, though, because it was the coming of the Spirit that convinced Peter they should be baptized.
5, Lydia in Philippi – Acts 16
Paul was in Philippi, and on the Sabbath day he found a group of women meeting by a river. He told them about Jesus. Acts 16:14-15 – One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.
She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
First the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond. Then she and her household were baptized, and then she became hospitable: “you and Silas and Timothy should come stay at my house.” And they did.
6, The Jailer in Philippi – Acts 16
Still in Philippi, Paul and Silas were caught by an angry mob. They were severely whipped, and thrown into prison. Their feet were fastened in stocks. At midnight, they were praying and singing hymns to God.
There was an earthquake, and all the stocks were opened and all the doors of the prison were opened. The jailer in charge of the prison was ready to kill himself, because if anyone escaped he’d be executed for sure. But Paul said, “Don’t! We’re all here!”
Acts 16:30-34 –The jailer then brought Paul and Silas out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
The order of events: first, Paul and Silas told the jailor and his household the gospel. Second, the jailor washed their wounds, did some first aid on their torn up backs. Third, the jailor and his household were baptized. It does not say they believed or repented, does it. Just that they were baptized, because that means they repented and believed. Fourth, they all ate together and celebrated. And this was all before morning.
Here again, baptism was an important part of becoming a child of God. And this is another story that sounds like they were baptized by pouring. How else would all these people be baptized in the middle of the night? I prefer to baptize by immersion, and I have never baptized any other way. But I was taught that immersion was the only right way of baptism, and I cannot find that in here.
7, John’s Disciples in Ephesus – Acts 19
Acts 19:2-7 – Paul asked some men who were disciples, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.
These men, these disciples, did not have the Holy Spirit, had not even heard about the Holy Spirit. And the first question Paul asked them was about their baptism. How did he get there? I was baffled. Furthermore, he was right. They did have a baptism problem.
Once they’d been baptized in Jesus’ name, the Spirit could come.
I grappled with this in my first year of teaching seminary, I was teaching Acts, and I could hardly believe this story. It dawned on me that I knew nothing about baptism.
So I threw out most of what I’d been told, and I started over, reading every baptism Scripture I came across, and paying close attention to what it actually said. And I found some scholars who were doing the same, and they helped.
8, Ananias and Paul – Acts 22
Turn to Acts 22, and we’ll look our last story. Paul was back in Jerusalem, about twenty-five years after he became a Christian. He is telling his story to a large crowd of angry Jews, he’s telling how he went from being a persecutor of Jesus to a follower of Jesus. He’s telling about being blind and hungry for three days in Damascus.
Acts 22:12-16 – A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
Listen again to that last line: And now, what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name. Hurry Paul, don’t wait!
Paul met the Lord on the road three days earlier, and Paul had already decided that Jesus really was the risen Lord, and Paul had decided to obey Jesus. That’s all done, and Ananias knew this. But it was not finished, because Paul was not baptized and his sins were not forgiven. Be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.
Paul wrote Titus, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.
He saved us by the washing and by the Holy Spirit. What kind of washing is this? “What are you waiting for, Paul? Be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on the Lord.”
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and reminding them of their conversion, he wrote, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified.” You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified. What kind of “washed” did he mean? Be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.
Jesus told Nicodemus, Unless you have a water and Spirit birth, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is a “water and Spirit birth”? Peter said, “Believe and be baptized, and you’ll receive the Holy Spirit.”
There is nothing magic about water, and the point is not to get dirt off our bodies. But baptism was how you called out to the Lord. Baptism is how we tell the Lord, “yes, I believe the gospel message; yes, I repent, I will live in your ways, I want in. Yes!”
Let us keep baptism as one an essential part of coming to the Lord. When we repent and come to Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God. We receive the Holy Spirit, and we receive eternal life. We tell God we want all this by being baptized.
And if there is someone listening to this who has not repented and believed and been baptized, then by all means do so. Pursue this. Talk to me, or to someone. As Peter says, “save yourself from this wicked generation.” Amen.
PRAYER: O God, thank you for the gospel. Thank you that you open our hearts to receive the message, and that at some point this happened to each one of us. Thank you for explaining this to us in such simple ways. Thank you for all the people in the world who have heard this message and responded. Millions and millions, Lord, we are so glad. May more people come to you today in faith to be baptized. Amen.
BENEDICTION: May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen. Go in God’s peace to love and serve the Lord.