Baptism in the New Testament

Research into the history of the concept of baptism and its distinctive features in the New Testament.

A. P. SALOM, Former Professor of Religion and Languages, Atlantic Union College

ORDINANCES of baptism had a long and checkered history before the Founder of Christianity instituted the Christian rite as we know it today. Baptism played an important role in Judaism, both in the ritual cleansing acts and as a rite of proselytizing. Pagan forms of baptism were an important aspect of the Greco-Oriental mysteries. With Christianity baptism attained its highest significance. The immersion of the Christian believer in water signified his entrance by faith into the commun­ion of Christ's death and resurrection, and his regeneration through union with Christ. The fact that baptism existed prior to the advent of Christianity necessitates at least a summary perusal of its background if it is to be correctly understood in its New Testament environment.

Jewish Baptism

Baptism, as it is known in the Judaeo-Chris­tian tradition, had its antecedents in the rituals prescribed for the cleansing of various types of defilements described in Leviticus 15 and Num­bers 19. The ceremonial washing was performed in order that the worshiper might come before his God with a clean heart and a clean body. In the Levitical code the emphasis was placed upon the ceremonial defilement and ceremonial wash­ing. The water was not regarded as having magical qualities; its virtue lay in the fact that it was commanded by God. By the time of the prophets the rites appear to have ceased to pos­sess vital importance and the ritual vocabulary was used in prophetic exhortations to supply metaphors of moral cleansing.' By later Jewish times, at least, as seen in the Mishnah, the ritual bathing for cleansing was by immersion.' It is particularly fitting that Christian baptism, which signifies the spiritual cleansing in the new man, should have such a background.

Proselyte baptism in Judaism goes back to the threefold requirement for Israelites enter­ing the covenant—circumcision, baptism by wa­

 

ter, and sprinkling by blood.' The purpose of proselyte baptism for Gentiles was to cleanse them from the defilement of their contact with pagan gods and practices. The Essenes, a group which have recently come to prominence in connection with the Qumran discoveries, ap­pear also to have laid emphasis on ceremonial washings in which baptism played a part. Thus baptism was no new concept when John came preaching in the wilderness.

Johannine Baptism

The New Testament reveals a marked dis­tinction between the significance of the baptism of John and Christian baptism. John himself explained the difference in the following terms: "I indeed baptize you with water unto repent­ance: but he that cometh after me . . . shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire." 4 The baptism preached by John was not essentially different from that practiced by the Jews in proselytizing. Its significance lay in the fact that John appeared at that particular time, as a forerunner of Jesus, preaching a baptism of forgiveness of sins.

The expression "unto repentance," found in Matthew 3:11, with similar expressions found in parallel passages, has caused not a little discus­sion in recent years. This aspect of the Johan-nine baptism is important because it later be­came a part of Peter's preaching.' The usual meaning of eis metanoian ("unto repentance," K.J.V.) would necessitate the translation, "I baptize you with water for the purpose of ob­taining repentance" or "as a result you shall ob­tain repentance." But the analogy of Scripture would not allow such a translation. J. R. Man­tey attempted to show that eis is casual in this expression.' Thus the meaning would be, "I baptize you with water because of repentance." However, Ralph Marcus has effectively proved that the illustrations used by Mantey to support his theory can be satisfactorily explained on

 

other grounds. It was suggested to me by Prof. A. P. Wikgren of the University of Chicago that eis is here used in the sense of the dative of ref­erence, meaning "with reference to" or "in re­lation to." This suggestion seems plausible in view of the fact that the Septuagint uses eis in the sense of the dative case9 and that in modern Greek sto (=eis to) with the accusative case is used for the dative.

Christian Baptism

Christian baptism consists of three elements: (1) baptism by immersion in water, (2) for­giveness of sins, and (3) the gift of the Holy Spirit. (1) and (2) are to be found also in Jewish proselyte baptism and in Johannine bap­tism, but (3) is new and different from any­thing seen in the past. This is what Cullmann calls "the new element in Christian Baptism." " It is indeed the most outstanding fact associated with baptism in the New Testament. It marks the climax of the revelation of God with regard to the ordinance of baptism. A partial revela­tion is seen in the Jewish ceremonial washing and proselyte baptism and in the baptism of John, but with the coming of Jesus the full revelation is given.

The connection between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is so close that some maintain the Spirit was sacra­mentally mediated at baptism,n i.e., the rite was an actual vehicle of grace ex opere opera to. We cannot agree with this, but it cannot be de­nied that the Apostolic Church expected the gift of the Spirit to accompany baptism. Notice the following passages:

Acts 2:37, 38. Under Peter's preaching the multitude were pricked in their heart and asked what they should do. Peter's reply was, "Re­pent, and be baptized . . . and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Peter spoke with certainty, promising that the Holy Spirit would accompany baptism. The use of the future in­dicative points to an event in the future that the speaker considered would certainly take place.

Acts 9:17, 18. Ananias said that Paul should regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. What actually happened was that he re­gained his sight and was baptized. This is in­direct evidence that in the mind of Luke, the author of Acts, the two events were intimately connected and took place at the same time. This is confirmed by the later account of this inci­dent (Acts 22:16) where, instead of telling Paul that he is to receive the Spirit, Ananias tells him simply to be baptized.

Acts 19:1-7. This passage records Paul's meet­ing with the disciples at Ephesus who had re-


ceived the baptism of John. After further in­struction they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus "and when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them" (verse 6). This reception of the Holy Spirit took place at the time of their baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 10:41-48. This is an example of the Holy Spirit being given before baptism but nonethe­less in connection with it. The reversal of pro­cedure (the gift of the Spirit and then baptism) was apparently because these people were Gen­tiles and Peter's companions were unprepared to accept Gentiles fully into the church until the

gift of the Spirit had demonstrated that they were acceptable to God. Thus Peter could say, "Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (verse 47, R.S.V.).

Acts 8:14-17. The very wording of this passage suggests that it was unusual for baptism not to be accompanied by the gift of the Spirit. When the church in Samaria had received baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus but had failed to receive the Spirit, the brethren at Jerusalem sent down to see what hindered the reception of the Spirit. It was the expected thing that the Holy Spirit be received at the time of baptism.

Acts 1:5. The very close connection between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit was shown by Jesus Himself when He made the distinction between John's baptism and Chris­tian baptism: "For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost." This certainly applies primarily to the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit, but the book of Acts makes clear that the Spirit was also made available to the individual at baptism.

These passages from Acts abundantly illus­trate the fact that the Apostolic Church ex­pected the gift of the Spirit in connection with the ordinance of baptism. This is not surprising when Jesus Himself received the Spirit at His baptism." The fact that it later came to be believed that the Spirit was sacramentally re­ceived at baptism is also indirect evidence that there was a time, earlier, when the effects of the Spirit were felt and seen in the lives of those who had received baptism.

This aspect of the Apostolic Church has

 

largely been lost sight of by Christians today. How many of those attending baptismal classes are taught to expect the gift of the Spirit as a personal possession at baptism? The converts to the Apostolic Church were certainly so in­structed." While we pray for the outpouring of the latter rain of God's Spirit, should we neg­lect the means of grace that lie at hand? If we are to live up to our objective of leading men and women to return to apostolic Christianity, should we be placing more emphasis upon the reception of the Spirit by the individual at the time of baptism? Our message should be that given by Peter, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call." "

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A. P. SALOM, Former Professor of Religion and Languages, Atlantic Union College

September 1958

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