The True Meaning of Water Baptism in the Book of Acts
This page is actually the second part of the page arrived at by the link: Is there any act that people must do to be forgiven of their sins and thus be accepted by God? The truth about faith and water baptism. Although this page deals with the stand-alone subject of the real significance of water baptism in Luke’s second treatise, I highly suggest that people read the first part of the referenced page in order in understand the doctrinal flow. Also, there are some important additional things written about on that page, including some hard Scriptural sayings and judgments of groups, that are omitted here.
Next I will deal with the many related misinterpretations that arise out of “the book of Acts”. The false position of baptismal regeneration gets a great deal of its footing from misunderstanding much in Acts. Acts has suffered greatly at the hands of many church teachers and leaders, not only by baptismal regenerationists. To start with, Acts is often seen as “the history of the early church”. It goes by the longer name of “The Acts of the Apostles”. Viewing Acts as the history of the early assembly, while strictly accurate, is a rudimentary view. Furthermore, calling it “The Acts of the Apostles” is actually misleading. This title often implies a different orientation and emphasis than Acts has. None of the New Covenant autographs (the original writings of scripture) had titles. Very early in manuscript history, titles were given to the copies of the autographs by scribes. Later, scribes added section and chapter divisions and, later still, verses. These scribal additions serve a useful and beneficial purpose, although sometimes they are actually counterproductive to the message of the scriptures that they seek to aid. Acts has suffered by way of this system. Acts is really an account of the Spirit of Jesus working primarily through the service of two of His Apostles, Peter and Paul, to accomplish the promise of the Father to save the world through His Son. Untitled ancient literature of various genres and times often took the first line of the writing or the opening statement or thought as the identifying title. Following this rule, “Acts” should not be in the title. Neither should “The Acts of the Apostles” be the title. In fact, the word Acts is not found in Acts. Furthermore, “The Apostles” implies all of them. Acts opens with the following words: “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach…” Clearly, this discourse references another one already made by Luke, the author. The discourse he is referring to is the Gospel that goes by his name. That Gospel begins this way: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having investigated accurately all things from the beginning, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of the words in which you were instructed.” Using the ancient system for titles, Luke and Acts should have different titles than they possess through church tradition. In fact, all the Gospels should be named differently. They would all be better served if they had titles in keeping with ancient custom. Matthew could rightfully be titled, “The Book of the Things of the Nature of Jesus Christ”, deriving “things of the nature” from an intended double meaning of the word “generation”. Mark could be entitled, “The Beginning of the Good-Message of Jesus Christ”. John could possess the title, “The Word”. A better title for Luke than the traditional one could be, “The Enumeration of the Matters” or “The Instruction of the Things”. There is nothing wrong with the traditional titles. They properly derive from their authors, even though this practice was not done in the Biblical genres of the New Covenant writings. (I am not suggesting that a campaign should arise to rename New Covenant writings. It would be futile. Even if it would not be futile, there are more pressing issues to accomplish regarding the recovery of proper interpretation.) Acts should be entitled, “Continuing the Enumeration of the Matters” or “Continuing the Instruction of the Things” based on its opening statement. At any rate, in keeping with its traditional title, a better title for it would be, “The Acts (or Service) of Peter and Paul”. This is because the document primarily deals with God working through two people. It starts with the ministry of Peter and finishes with that of Paul.
Now, it is the message of Acts that has been missed that concerns us. It is the message of Acts accomplished through the prominent ministries of Peter first and then Paul that is of utmost importance. The message of Acts is the creation of the one new man in Jesus Christ, according to the eternal purpose of God. Water baptism is extremely significant in this message. It has a unique and pivotal role, accordingly, through each Apostle. As such, the power of its significance is highlighted and the function of its role changes through the ministry of each Apostle precisely because each Apostle had a different main purpose according to the will of God. This is not to say that water baptism is only handled under either Peter or Paul. That is not true. It is true, though, that the meaning of each case of water baptism throughout Acts is subsumed under its significance as revealed through the ministries of either Peter or Paul. All will become clear as we proceed.
An overly simplistic approach to the Scriptures has robbed many of very much of the meaning of water baptism. We must begin with the declaration of Paul about the eternal purpose of God in sending the Gospel to the world. He said to the Roman believers, “The Gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone believing, for the Jew first and (then) the Greek (the Gentiles).” This meaning of this statement was not fully comprehended by many Jews because it was not in keeping with the long standing notion in Israel has to how God would save Gentiles. Israel had always expected there to be a strong redemption of the world by God. However, they held that it would happen by Gentiles becoming proselytes to Judaism, adopting the Law and Jewish ways and customs. But, Paul declared that it was the intention of God all along to redeem not only the Jews, according to His ancient promises to them, but also, through their Messiah, to redeem the rest of humanity per se. In other words, God had eternally intended to save all Gentiles as Gentiles, without their having to adopt any of the Law of Moses or any of the ways and customs of Israel! The Gentiles could keep their sinless ways and customs intact and be redeemed through the Messiah of Israel. Not only so, but God declared that the Gentiles were equal to Israel; they were fellow-heirs of the inheritance of God and even of the same body in Himself. This is commonplace to us but was revolutionary to those who first heard it. This new understanding was so radical that it is called “the mystery” in various places in the New Covenant Scriptures. It was very, very hard for nascent Jewish Christians to comprehend. It became the grounds of a great disagreement between Peter and Paul, drawing Paul’s strong rebuke of Peter. The way that both Jews and Gentiles were made fellow-heirs and of the same body was by God breaking down the barrier between them and creating them as one new man in Jesus Christ. This action was done once for all, but it had a process. This is the revelation of the book of Acts. This process had an appropriate and predetermined starting place. This glorious event started with the Jews and then extended to the Greeks through the operation of the Gospel. Indeed, Israel was its obvious starting point. The Jews were already in place as God’s chosen people and it was through the Jews that divine things came into the world, even if there was a predetermined change for many of these things in the counsels of God. Not only had Paul stated to the Romans that God would start with the Jews, but at the beginning of Acts Jesus told his Jewish disciples, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Here Jesus said that you shall start the message of redemption in Jerusalem, the Jewish capital. Then you shall take it throughout the land of the Jews. Then you shall take it to the racially mixed half-Jews (the Samaritans). And last of all you shall take it to all of the Gentiles who had no Jewish bloodline. This was His method of operation in creating the one new man in Himself. As already indicated, in this new creation water baptism had a highly important and extremely pivotal function. It is its true significance and function that has been misinterpreted by baptismal regenerationists and not properly interpreted by very many others. Having laid this needed groundwork, it is now time to take up the issue.
John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, came to the Jews preaching the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus submitted to John’s baptism. This is highly instructive regarding the nature of John’s baptism. In fact, the nature and meaning of John’s baptism will resurface again later in Acts. At this point it suffices to say that it is clear that John’s baptism was a new movement rite. More specifically, it was the signet of the “dedication to God movement”; as such it was the initiatory sign proclaiming that the baptized (signed) person belonged to the movement. Everyone who underwent it declared his submission to God in the new movement of holy living that was then occurring in Israel. When John was asked a series of questions about what should be done next by willing participants, his answers all had to do with living a godly and holy life. Obviously, as sinners, the followers of the movement would be required to repent from previous and hindering sins in order to live this holy life. Just as obviously, Jesus, Who is God and cannot sin, could not repent of sins that He was not guilty of committing. The message of repentance did not apply to Him, since He was uniquely God. However, being the Son of God Who was just setting out on His mission to proclaim and secure the very power of repentance from sins and holiness to God that John preached for all of the people of the movement, He submitted to John’s baptism as Head and Benefactor of the dedication movement. He submitted in order to wear the sign that He was the Source and Leader of the new movement of God. Water baptism was, therefore, highly significant and thusly pivotal as the indicator that the new movement of dedication to God as foretold in the Prophets had begun AND that everyone who wore this dedication sign belonged to God by belonging to the movement! The thoroughgoing power of this sign will be seen immediately through the Jews in Acts at the beginning of Peter’s ministry.
The second chapter of Acts is pivotal in many respects. The churches are amiss in their interpretations of the event recorded here. Neo-Pentecostalism is grounded in it as its locus classicus. This relatively modern movement is delusional. Indeed, it is founded on the fallacious premise that what occurred here in the opening of Acts was the first instance and pattern of prominent progression in sanctification according to God’s eternal purpose for the following generations of all believers. This is a fundamental and categorical misinterpretation of this event. The events of Acts chapter two were unique. They were just as unique as the events of Calvary or the events of the giving of the Law of Moses at Mount Sinai. Like these two events, the events of the feast of Pentecost that occurred fifty days after the Passover that marked the sacrifice of Jesus could not, in the very nature of the case, ever be repeated. No more could the crucifixion of Jesus on Golgotha be repeated than could the Day of Pentecost as recorded by Luke be repeated. No more could the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai be repeated than could this Pentecost be repeated. Non-Pentecostal churches properly don’t take the view that these events reveal an ongoing pattern for sanctification which should be repeated in the lives of God’s people, but they also miss the meaning of the high significance of these things. They, like Pentecostals, undervalue the grand, once-for-all event that was unfolding. The uniqueness of this event was that it was the first harvest; indeed, it was the gathering of the first-fruits of the scattered children of Israel to God through Jesus Christ! This event did not and could not have anything to do with Gentiles per se. The only Gentiles that experienced this event were proselytes to Judaism. They lived under the umbrella of the Mosaic Law and as such were functionally Jewish. The feast of Pentecost was also known as the Feast of Harvest and the Day of First Fruits. This particular feast recorded by Luke was the fulfillment of the gathering in of the harvest of the first fruits of Israel by Jesus Christ in God’s eternal purpose to harvest all of the children of Israel according to the grace and foreknowledge of God. When the day had arrived for the accomplishing of this particular purpose, Jews from all over the known world were dwelling in Jerusalem and were faithfully attending to the Jewish feast calendar. In all, fifteen different ethnic regions where these Jews originated were mentioned by name. The significance of this event was that now the new Day Age was dawning in Jesus Christ! Before now, Israel was reconciled to God through the Mosaic Law and this standing was witnessed to through the sign of circumcision. But now in Jesus Christ all had changed and was being worked out! The new and eternal order of things had arrived! Israel, in the first-fruits to God, was now reconciled to the Father through the sacrifice of His own Son and the sign of this reconciliation would be their baptism in Jesus’ name! Their baptism witnessed to the fact that they were now in the new realm or movement of God. Only through Jesus Christ was reconciliation to God in His movement possible. No one could move in this realm without receiving forgiveness of sins. Only in Jesus Christ was this forgiveness possible. Accordingly, when the Day of Pentecost had come, God, through Jesus, poured forth His Holy Spirit upon His disciples who had gathered in the temple to celebrate this feast and wait for God’s promise to Israel. This event occurred with great phenomena. At this awesome fulfillment of Pentecost, the Jews from the fifteen regions were present and declared that they were hearing these Galilean Jews speak, not in their own Galilean dialect, but in each foreign language of the fifteen different homelands! As expected, they were astonished! Other Jews mocked. In reaction to this mocking, Peter took his stand with the eleven apostles and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ to all present as the fulfillment of the prophets who foretold this specific event. At the end of his first specific quote of the prophet Joel, he declared “and it shall be that everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved!” Then, at the end of the entire prophetic quote he proclaimed, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ - this Jesus Whom you crucified.” The reaction of the Jews to these things was that they were pierced to the heart and asked what they should do. Peter declared that they must repent and that they would be forgiven of their sins after submitting to Jesus Christ and that in this submission they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This submission had its outward beginning in the rite of water baptism in Jesus’ Name. It was Jesus Who was head and benefactor of the movement of reconciliation to God. Israel’s sign that it was reconciled to God was not in Mosaic circumcision any longer. It was now in water baptism accomplished in Jesus Christ. The baptism did not effectuate the forgiveness, as baptismal regenerationists fatally believe. Rather, it witnessed to it as secured in Israel’s submission to Jesus Christ through faith. This is the same faith that Abraham, the father of faithful Israel had that accounted him righteous because he believed God; which faith was witnessed to through his circumcision - not made existent because of it! Nothing about faith and faithfully believing ever changed! What changed was the realm in which the faith was revealed and the outward sign of its manifestation. Faithful Israel had always stood justified before God because of forgiveness of sins just as Paul declared when explicating this very topic by quoting David: “How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not reckon sin! How blessed is the man who has been forgiven!” But now in Jesus Christ this realm was vindicated and this forgiveness was manifested and fulfilled! Since water baptism was the outward sign of pre-existing faith, do we have any indication of that faith in these particular Jews? Indeed, we do! The faith was alive in the fact that the Jews believed Peter’s preaching about Jesus Christ being Lord and Christ of Israel. It was alive in their question, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And it was revealed in their response to repent toward God through Jesus Christ. The believing, the question, and the resolve to repent had no act which made them real. They were all real in their very existence and were part and parcel together in God’s grace of initial salvation. What happened at this particular Feast of Pentecost was that the creation of the one new man in Christ Jesus was initiated and set underway through the gathering in of the first fruits of natural Israel. This was in keeping with God’s eternal purpose as foretold in the Scriptures. God would save all of chosen Israel and would bring the Gentiles in through them, too! “You shall be witnesses to Me (first) in Jerusalem.” This unique event had this in common with that of Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai Israel was once-for-all ratified as a reconciled, covenanted nation. At Pentecost, the body of Christ was ratified as new and beginning. The new man in Jesus Christ was being created. The Jews who were the first fruits and beginning of this new movement body could only come in through submission to Jesus Christ, Head of His own body. This was the only significance of the water baptism. It witnessed to them – it affirmed them, it corroborated them as accepted through faith in Jesus! As such they would be forgiven and gifted. This is the meaning of “Repent (Israel), and be baptized in the Name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and your children and all (the Jews) who are far off, for as many (Jews) as the Lord will call to Himself.” This command was not for Gentiles. This is not only clear by the immediate context that only has to do with natural Israel, but it will also be abundantly clear as we proceed through Acts.
To summarize this very important and unique fulfillment of Scripture, these Jews and they alone were commanded to be baptized in the Name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins in order to receive the Holy Spirit because they were God’s chosen people, the natural children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were living at the end of the Mosaic Age and who were the direct benefactors of the fulfillment of the grace and mercies of God Who was redeeming His elect people out of the Law of Moses and into the Grace and Truth of Jesus Christ. The revelation that they were of this election of grace was manifested in their submission to Jesus Christ through the outward deed of water baptism in His Name, which was itself the beginning of the obedient holy life of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus’ Name! Acts chapter two has nothing to do with Gentile believers whatsoever. In fact, it only applied to these specific Jews who were living at the time of the change of God’s administration from that of Moses to that of Jesus Christ! This was the fulfillment of the Feast of Harvest (or Pentecost) of the Old Covenant Scriptures!
Water baptism has the following unique meaning everywhere that it appears in the New Covenant Scriptures: It attests to faith that already exists! It is not the faith itself. It witnesses to it as pre-existing; just like in father Abraham, the father of faithful Jews and faithful Gentiles! This fact will be seen in the rest of the important instances of water baptism in the treatise of Acts.
The following very important facts about water baptism will also be clearly seen through the revelation of Acts: the meaning and significance of this sign changes as it is applied to different races of men and kinds of men. This was according to the eternal purpose of God in creating one new man in Jesus Christ! Also, the phenomena that witnesses to the baptism of the Holy Spirit changes in like manner. This is important because, just as in its first record in Acts chapter two, the baptism of the Holy Spirit operated very closely with water baptism in God’s eternal purpose of the creation of the new man in Christ Jesus. The baptism (also, filling) of the Holy Spirit was the spiritual reality while water baptism was the outside testimony of the creation of the one new man.
The next occurrence of water baptism is in Acts chapter eight. As indicated above, it, like chapter two, is highly and uniquely significant. At this point in Luke’s record, Stephen is martyred. On that very day a great persecution arose against the Jewish assembly at Jerusalem. Because of this, the Jewish believers, except the twelve apostles, were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria where they went about proclaiming the Word of God. Philip entered into the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Word to them. They were listening to him and believing because his message was witnessed to by the same miraculous signs that attended the preaching of Jesus and His apostles. Luke states that, “when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.” At this point, Luke makes a very noteworthy statement. He said, “Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.” The report got back to the apostles in Jerusalem that the Samaritans had become believers and had been baptized in Jesus’ Name. However, they had not received the gift of the Holy Spirit! Clearly, just as the apostles expected faith in Jesus to be witnessed to by water baptism, they also expected this particular, - I repeat - this particular event of salvation to be witnessed to by miraculous signs. Why was this? Unlike the churches of today, the apostles knew what was transpiring in this new event when people believed in Jesus and were, accordingly, baptized in His Name, and received the gift of His Holy Spirit. The apostles themselves had believed (their status from their beginning with Jesus), been baptized, and been baptized with the Holy Spirit. This last event had occurred very recently at the Feast of Pentecost and had been witnessed to by supernatural signs. Because they understood the great epochal event that was occurring, they expected the baptism of the Holy Spirit to be manifested in the same way that happened to themselves. According to the Scriptures, epochal changes in God’s purposes were witnessed to by supernatural signs. This was part of Israel’s history. The Apostles understood this. God had ordained that the baptism of the Holy Spirit revealed the fulfillment of ingathering into the kingdom of God. More specifically, the baptism of the Holy Spirit characterized the fulfillment of the process of the creation of the one new man in Jesus Christ. The question then is what was significant about these Samaritans becoming fellow-believers? This was the first time that people who were not full-blooded Jews or full proselytes to Judaism were incorporated into the kingdom of God! Not only so, but these particular people had been, up to this point, held at bay by Judaism. The two groups of Jews and Samaritans had held very strong racist views against one another and avoided one another as much as possible. They both vigorously looked down on the other race and thought that they alone were the true people of God. We know that the Samaritans were wrong, but they were very adamant to the contrary. God in His wisdom and plan held back the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans until His appointed Jewish apostles could arrive at Samaria and be an integral part of His salvation of the race of Samaritans. God was creating the one new man in Christ and the body of this new man would be built upon the foundation of His holy apostles. The new man could not stand any other way. It wasn’t until the Jewish apostles laid their hands on the Samaritan believers that God poured out His Spirit upon them – thus marking the ongoing creation of one new man out of different races of men and also underscoring the authoritative unity that is essential to this body! It is not stated, but it is implied that the Samaritans’ salvation was witnessed to by God through supernatural signs in the same way as with the Jews! Once again, this event in Acts chapter eight has nothing to do with Gentile believers or any believers who were not Samaritans living at the end of the Mosaic Age. This Samaritan event can properly be seen as the second significant occurrence in the creation of the new man in Jesus Christ!
Immediately after this great event, Luke records the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch under Philip’s teaching. Philip interpreted the prophet Isaiah to the eunuch so that he understood this and other Scriptures to preach Jesus Christ. The Word implies that Philip taught the eunuch that believers in Jesus where baptized. This would be totally expected in light of the Samaritan events. The addition that Philip said to the eunuch, “if you believe with all you heart you may be baptized” to which the eunuch replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” is a scribal gloss. The significance of this episode is that while Acts focuses on Peter and Paul, other significant people are also emphasized to reveal the outworking of God’s eternal plan. This event was part of the fulfillment of the prophecies of Jesus that His gospel would be taken to the ends of the earth before the end of the Mosaic Age. The eunuch was from the farthest southern region of the known world of Africa.
Next, before resuming with Peter’s ministry, Luke writes about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the Jewish assemblies, who would become known as the apostle Paul after his conversion. This is not only appropriate because it properly places Saul’s conversion, but it is highly instructive about the function of water baptism in God’s purposes. Luke relates that Saul was very intensely determined to stamp out Christianity. On his way to Damascus for this purpose he was miraculously converted to the Faith by the Spirit of Jesus Himself. While all conversions to Christianity are supernatural, Saul’s was significantly miraculous. A dazzling light, brighter than the noon-day sun, brilliantly flashed all around Saul. He fell to the ground and heard a voice from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” When Saul asked who was speaking, he was told that it was Jesus Whom he was persecuting. Then Jesus said, “Get up, and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” Saul arose and was blind. He was led by the hand into the city by those who were with him and who were awe-struck by the event. There he remained blind and completely fasting for three days. Immediately the Spirit of Jesus appeared to a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. Jesus told Ananias to go to Saul, for Saul was praying and had seen in a vision a man named Ananias come and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight. When Ananias objected because Saul was a persecutor of the Jerusalem believers and had come to Damascus for this very purpose, Jesus said this very significant thing to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My Name’s sake.” The Lord declared that Saul was selected, preferred, specifically appointed to take the message of the Way to all flesh, but especially to the Gentiles and in this task he would experience many particular and unique sufferings. Ananias obeyed and after laying his hands on Saul said this: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, Who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is the first time that the term being filled with the Holy Spirit is mentioned and it is stated as occurring with the restoration of Saul’s sight. The Scripture states, “And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized, and he took food and was strengthened.” These things happened to Saul in Damascus: Ananias was sent by Jesus to him. Ananias laid his hands on him. Saul regained his sight. He was water baptized. He was filled with the Holy Spirit (implied). He ended his fast. Before seeing the deep meaning of Saul’s conversion as highly significant within the creation of the new man, his own recounting of this event must be considered. Later in this account, Saul, now known as Paul, made his defense before the Jews. He started by given his pedigree; he was a qualified and devout Jew who was zealous for the Mosaic Law. He retold the events of his conversion just as they were recorded by Luke earlier but he added this important information about Ananias: “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…” Ananias was, like Paul and his audience, devout according to the Mosaic Law. Not only so, but he was well-spoken of by all the Jews of Damascus. This man had a reputation for true holiness. He was a leading Christian who also had favor with his fellow Jews of Damascus who adhered to the Law of Moses. He stood on the same footing as Peter, John, and James regarding holiness before God and the Jews. He was a righteous man who was respected and listened to. Paul also added this information about what Ananias said to him: “‘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.’” This last phrase is worded almost exactly like Peter’s command to the Jews at Pentecost about how they would be blessed. The parallels are strong and meaningful according to God’s eternal purpose in creating one new man in Christ. They only have to do with Jews as Jews submitting to Jesus Christ! Peter, the apostle to the circumcision, proclaimed to the Jews what they must do to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Ananias, a devout and leading man among the Jews of Damascus, proclaimed to Saul what he must do to receive cleansing. Just like with the Jews at Pentecost, Saul was instructed to manifest his submission to the Lord Jesus Christ (rather than to Moses) in order to be saved. Also just like with the Jews at Pentecost, Saul’s salvation was a process which began when he believed and had its first outward step in water baptism. This specifically commanded Jewish outward step was instantly rewarded. It was indispensable for the Jews living at the end of the Mosaic Age. It testified to the manifestation that the salvation of Israel was only found in submission to Jesus Christ, God’s anointed Son. The difference between the experience of the Pentecostal Jews and Saul was that they submitted to the apostle Peter as the new authority for Israel. Saul submitted to a prominent godly Jew of good reputation. Saul’s submission was not through the new Israel precisely because he was called by Jesus Christ for an altogether different path. While he would testify to all men, his ministry was primarily to the Gentile world. Not only had this been emphasized in Ananias’ word to Paul that Jesus had appointed him to the Gentiles by naming them before both kings and the sons of Israel, but Paul related that immediately after returning to Jerusalem the Lord told him that He was sending him far away to the Gentiles. Peter was the apostle to the Jews. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, even being a Jew and fully submitting to Jesus Christ, did not submit to Peter for the way of salvation. It is not without significance that Ananias means, “Jah(veh) has favored”! Paul’s submission was directly to God. He received his second set of instructions from an initially hesitant Jew appointed by God to reveal His favor to Saul. He received his primary instructions from the Lord Jesus Himself while he was on the road of hate. Just as with the Pentecostal Jews, is there any indication of Saul’s justification before he was water baptized. The answer again is, yes, there is! He believed when he saw the Light of God and heard the Voice of God say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” His faith was initially revealed in the question, “Who are you Lord?” His faith was revealed in his obedient response to the instructions from Jesus, Who immediately identified Himself has the Light and the Voice; the very same Person whom he had been hating. Saul’s water baptism and his baptism with the Holy Spirit were very highly significant in the formation of the one new man in Christ Jesus, a man constituted of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles; of whom Paul was placed as leading apostle over the second group.
After Saul’s conversion, Luke reports about his initial ministry among the Jews as ordained by God and ends this section this particular way: “So the assembly throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” This is the end of the first major phase of the creation of the new man. Israel and Israel’s family had initially been harvested. First, it was full-blooded Jews and proselytes from all over the world. Then it was half-Jews, the Samaritans. Finally it was a prominent Jew with a different harvest mission, Saul of Tarsus, the appointed Jewish apostle to the Gentile world.
After this, Luke immediately returned to Peter. This deals with the second major phase of the creation of the new man in Christ. Before he takes up this subject again, Luke reestablishes Peter’s Divine credentials by reporting the miraculous healing of Aeneas of Lydda and the raising from the dead of Tabitha of Joppa. For the sake of some brevity and so that I will not need to repeat facts, please read the very informative Acts 10:1 through 11:18. This details the harvest of a unique type of Gentile believers. It was precisely because of the kind of Gentile believers that these people were that they were brought in under the ministry of Peter rather than Paul.
Cornelius was an Italian military officer who had one hundred men under his command. He was also a God-fearing Gentile. As a God-fearer, he worshipped the God of Israel with his whole house. The term God-fearer was applied to people of that era who were Gentiles by birth but who adhered to many aspects of Judaism without becoming full Jewish proselytes. They reverenced the God of Israel in the following ways: They attended the Jewish synagogues, read the Jewish Scriptures, prayed the Jewish prayers, and did certain Jewish good works. However, they would not keep the one Jewish rite that would make them proselytes. They would not submit to Jewish circumcision. Even so, they were respected by Jews and were socialized with on a limited basis. After receiving instructions from an angel, Cornelius sent men to Joppa to fetch Peter. Meanwhile, Peter received particular instructions from the Spirit of God telling him to go with these men to Cornelius. When he arrived, Cornelius related everything to him and concluded by saying, “So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” Then Peter made a statement that we will return to shortly. He said, “I most certainly understand that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” Next, Peter gave a brief summary of the Person and ministry of Jesus. He ended by saying, “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Immediately, something astonishing to the Jewish mindset happened. Luke states that “While Peter was still speaking these words the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers (the Jewish Christians) 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.” It is imperative to see what happened here! While Peter was preaching the message of faith to the God-fearing Gentiles, they believed this specific word: “through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Then, immediately upon this faith “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to (believing) the message.” The evidence that the Holy Spirit came upon these Gentiles was the exact same evidence that proved that He came upon the original group of Jews on the Day of Pentecost; they spoke with tongues and glorified God! At the message of Peter, Cornelius and his companions believed that they were forgiven of their sins through Jesus Christ and at that instant they were justified before God – they were saved from their sins. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. This event turns the interpretation of baptismal regenerationists completely on its head. They say that you must be water baptized (or, in liberal interpretation, that you must intend to be, that is, plan to be water baptized) in order to be forgiven and, therefore, saved. Luke declares that the God-fearing Gentiles simply believed in Jesus Christ and were forgiven and, therefore, saved. Their believing for forgiveness was not accompanied by any act whatsoever! They simply believed, trusted, put their faith in Jesus in the very same way that a completely physically paralyzed man would do it. They did nothing but trust in, put confidence in Jesus as He Who forgives sins. After they so trusted and were filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter instructed that they submit to water baptism, the outward sign of the faith that they previously put in Jesus to be saved. The subsequent water baptism not only revealed that they already possessed saving faith in Jesus, but that they belonged to the new man of faith who was being created in Christ Jesus. These momentous facts about saving faith are attested to again by Luke when he relates the opposition that Peter faced by Jewish believers regarding intimacy with Gentiles when he returned to Jerusalem. When they objected to Peter because he had table fellowship with Gentiles, fellowship beyond that accorded to God-fearing gentiles, he related the facts already covered, but he added these clarifying words. When telling about what the angel said to Cornelius, he said “the angel said… ‘Peter…will speak words to you by which you will be saved.’” Then Peter added, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” The baptism with the Holy Spirit and water baptism in Jesus’ Name were the great events that marked the epochal creation of the new man in Christ! This is attested to in the phrase, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as upon us at the beginning.” At the beginning of what? Not at the beginning of the renewal movement of repentance toward God. This occurred under the ministry of John the Baptizer and was witnessed to in his baptism. Peter was there and participated in that. Not at the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. This occurred at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Peter was there and participated in that, too. Rather, at the beginning of the creation of the new man in Jesus Christ – His body! This event began approximately ten years earlier at the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke continued, “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance to (eternal) life.’” Clearly, Cornelius and his household were saved to eternal life by simply believing in the message about Jesus, the forgiver of sins. Their salvation was immediately demonstrated in the miraculous witness of speaking in tongues as the Holy Spirit fell upon them when they believed. After that, they received the sign of their sonship – water baptism in Jesus’ Name – the same sign that all Christians receive as testimonial to God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ!
Finally, there needs to be a word of clarification about Cornelius. As mentioned earlier, Cornelius was a certain kind of Gentile; one that already stood close to God. As a God-fearer, he attached himself to the worship of the One True God of Israel. In a sense, he was predisposed to believing. This is how Peter and other people of his day saw God-fearers. Such was reflected in Peter’s words referred to earlier, “I most certainly understand that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” Cornelius was a God-fearing Gentile and God ordained that through Peter’s ministry these Gentiles would hear His word and believe. Because Cornelius was a Jewish-oriented Gentile, he was brought in through the apostle to the Jews rather than through the apostle to the Gentiles. This honor was accorded to Peter. This great event regarding Cornelius revealed the second major phase of the creation of the new man in Christ; the bringing in of the unique people who stood between the Jews and the Gentiles in the ancient world of Jesus – the God-fearers.
Now we come to the final phase of the creation of the new man in Jesus Christ – the bringing in of those who were purely Gentiles and who were not previously predisposed to the God of Israel, as were the Jews, the Samaritans, and the God-fearers. The following facts should not be lost from sight. In fact, they underscore the importance of all these events in the great eternal purpose of God in Christ concerning the process of the summing up and fulfilling of all that had been written in the Scriptures.
After Luke ends the report about the grafting in of the God-fearers through the house of Cornelius and the Jerusalem (Jewish) believers’ acceptance of this grand event, he immediately resumes where he left off. The stoning of Stephen was the departure point in God’s purpose. From that event Philip proclaimed the Gospel to the Samaritans and they believed and were filled with the Spirit after the endorsement of the Jewish apostles. Next, Philip led a foreigner from the ends of the earth, who needed no such endorsement, into the body of Christ. Then the persecutor Saul was converted, accepted by the Jewish believers, filled with God’s Spirit, and the persecutor of Jewish believers became the persecuted by Jewish non-believers. Then Peter led the God-fearing Gentiles into the body of Christ. After these things, Luke returns to his original departure point, the stoning of Stephen. From this point he emphasized the bringing in of the Gentiles as Gentiles into the body of Christ! Just like before, this was done without the initial work of apostles. And, just like before, this latter fact emphasized that the great events that were occurring were the work of God, accomplished solely and uniquely by His Spirit. There would be no mistake – this great work of God was without the prevenient work of Jewish authority. Indeed, it was altogether above man! It was not dependent on any type of believer or on the authority of any certain kind of believer as the works of God under Moses had been. Rather, it was the strong outworking of the fulfillment of this Scripture: “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.”’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” From the departure point of the death of Stephen, Luke declares, “So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number (of Greeks) who believed turned to the Lord.” He continued, “The news about them (the Greek converts) reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the assembly and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” These facts from Luke are very significant: (1) the disciples of the assembly in Antioch were the first of all believers to be designated with a new descriptive, honorable appellation. Antioch in Syria was the third leading city of the Roman Empire, standing in importance after Rome and Alexandria. It was there that the Gentiles (the Greeks) were prominent in the assembly. The Jewish population of ancient Antioch numbered no more than ten to twelve percent. This fact, taken together with the statement that the hand of the Lord was with those who were preaching to the Greeks, emphasizes that the assembly in Antioch was comprised mainly of Gentile converts. And, it was there that the highly significant and ever enduring name Christian (which means “a follower of Christ”) was applied to them.
[Excursus: It has been repeated many times that the term Christian was meant to be dishonorable and was first applied to the believers by hostile unbelievers. Even though this story has much currency, it has no basis in fact. In fact, it doesn’t even have any intimation as being the case here in Acts. Rather, the implication is that the name was meant as a new designation and was probably meant as honorific. Furthermore, it isn’t even clear whether the name was given to the believers in Antioch by others (unbelievers) or was a self-designation. The honorable appellation may be illuminated and supported by this statement, “And for an entire year they met with the assembly and taught considerable numbers.” Up until this time, the people of God had called themselves “believers”, “disciples”, “brethren”, “followers along the Road”, and “holy ones”. They had been derided as “Galileans”, “Nazarenes”, or “followers of a sect”. They had consisted of Jewish believers, Samaritan believers, and those God-fearers who adhered closely to Jewish customs and ways. But now a new kind of believers arose being in the majority and the Lord put His approval upon them. They were Greeks or Gentiles. In the ancient world the words Greeks and Gentiles were used synonymously. Rather than Luke implying that the new term Christian was one of persecution and dishonor, the weight of the evidence goes the other way. Luke is showing that the believers in Antioch who were comprised of many Gentiles came to be known specifically as those who followed Christ. This was an honorable designation of the believers of the movement as people who were especially attached to the person of Jesus Christ. Before, they had been known as attached to one of His titles, “followers of the Road”, as in “I am the Road, the Truth, and the Life.” Now, they were known as more specifically attached to Him in the same way that devoted followers of Herod were known as Herodians or followers of Herod and in the same way that devotees to Caesar were known as followers of or belonging to Caesar. - End Excursus.]
(2) With telling omission, water baptism is not even mentioned in this pivotal portion of Acts like it is in the other pivotal portions (listed above). This highly underscores the fact explicated above that, in Luke’s second work, water baptism was, in a special way, a Jewish and Jewish-oriented rite that signified that the first believers, who were composed of these very groups, were fully submitted to Jesus in the very same way that circumcision revealed that Jews were fully submitted to Moses. This fact has completely been overlooked by Biblical interpreters. Salvation only by grace through faith is solely emphasized in the experience of the Christians of Antioch. The sign of water baptism is not even mentioned.
Until now, water baptism had signaled the bringing in of the previously disjointed peoples in the creation of the new man in Jesus Christ. With the new emphasis upon the Gentile believers in Antioch the omission to emphasize water baptism in their experience was highly significant. Its omission declared that the creation of the new man was now complete.
From here until the end of Acts water baptism is mentioned in a less important capacity than earlier in Luke’s writing – less important, but still important. From this point, the new recordings of water baptism apply to either individual believers or believers and their households. The sole meaning of water baptism in each of these episodes is that the people of interest were immediately committed to Jesus Christ as Lord through their faith – water baptism was the revelatory sign of this submission. Yet, in this group there is one episode that stands out and needs to be considered. It does not concern an individual or an individual and his or her household. Neither is it like the previous points of focus in Luke regarding ethnic peoples (Jews, Samaritans) or ethnic-oriented peoples (God-fearers). Rather, it concerns a movement that was embodied by a small group of men. Their appearance here is to finalize that everything was now summed up in Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of all things was rapidly occurring. Luke states “that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country (in Galatia) and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples.” Luke doesn’t say why Paul asked the following question, but clearly something was obviously amiss to cause Paul to ask it. He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” This is not to be taken to mean that they had not even heard about the existence of the Holy Spirit. Rather, what they clearly meant was that they had not heard whether the Holy Spirit was manifested according to Paul’s probing question(s). This is understood by the fact that they were at least rudimentary disciples who caused Paul to question the extent of their faith. This is also seen in what follows. Paul continued, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John's baptism.” They had experienced the baptism of the forerunner but had not advanced beyond the rudimentary faith of that baptism. John’s baptism was one that called its adherents to repent from their sins and make themselves ready for the coming One who would later baptize them with His Holy Spirit. They had not advanced. Obviously, their experience was wholly in the first portion of John’s message. They were not even aware of the events that had taken place in Jesus Christ. Clearly, they were a group of isolated and primitive disciples. Immediately Paul declared to them the complete message of faith and life. He told them, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”
Luke states that “when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It is also very significant that these specific people were the only people in all the Word of God to be rebaptized in the movement of God in Christ. This fact reveals that their initial baptism was meaningless because it did not witness to actual and living faith in Jesus. This is supported by the fact that Paul had to explain to them the full meaning of John’s baptism. After they were water baptized a very amazing thing happened. Paul laid his hands upon them and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit much like the apostles themselves and the Samaritans before them received Him. They spoke in tongues and prophesied just like the apostles and company did on the Day of Pentecost and they received this gift after the laying on of apostolic hands, just like the Samaritans. This singular event was the experience of these heretofore much unenlightened disciples. These men were not specified as constituting any ethnic group. Instead, they were singled out as belonging to the movement of John the Baptizer, even though their purpose was ill-informed. The fact that they were focused on as a movement is supported by Luke’s particular phrase that “they were in all about twelve men.” This particular way of describing them is peculiar. It is not specific as would be expected when referring to such a small number of people. The imagery is immediate. Luke was comparing them to the twelve apostles as constituting a movement. By this event the Holy Spirit was signifying that at that point in time all peoples and all righteous causes were being summed up in the Lord Jesus Christ! The creation of the new man included the bringing in of all things under Christ. No longer would there be diverse peoples groping for God and no longer would there be different voices under God. All people were being made one and all things were becoming unified.
After this event Luke mentions water baptism one more time in Acts, but that time is simply Paul retelling about his conversion. There are no new instances.
In conclusion, in Acts water baptism is the supreme sign that disjointed humanity was being created new and one in Jesus Christ and that all things were, therefore, submitted to Him. Water baptism was the sign of the existence and submission of faith in Jesus, first among the Jews and then among the Gentiles according to the determination of God. Water baptism did not and does not in any way constitute faith, that is, it is not in any way or to any degree an equivalent of faith or a part of faith being necessary for justification before God as the baptismal regenerationists assert. Rather, it testifies to faith’s preexistence and reality! It is ONLY God’s grace that justifies believers.
Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”