The subject of water baptism has long been called a great issue and no doubt has been made such by many church leaders of the past and present. In our study of it, let us first consider its importance, or the necessity of being baptized.
Christian water baptism is an ordinance instituted by Jesus Christ. If it is not important in the plan of God, why did Jesus command it in Matthew 28:19? And why did Peter follow up by saying, “Be baptized every one of you,” and by commanding the Gentiles to be baptized (Acts 2:38; 10:48)? We must remember two points about the importance of water baptism. First, whatever Christ definitely established and ordained cannot be unimportant, whether we understand its significance or not. Second, Christ and the apostles showed the importance of this ordinance by observing it. Jesus walked many miles to be baptized, though He was without sin, saying, “For thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (See Matthew 3:13-16.)
It is true that water itself does not contain any saving virtue, but God has chosen to include it in His plan of salvation. Peter explained, “Baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 3:21). According to Luke 7:30, “the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized.”
According to the Scriptures, the proper mode of baptism is immersion. “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water” (Matthew 3:16). “And they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him” (Acts 8:38). “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). A corpse is not buried by placing it on top of the ground and sprinkling a little soil on it, but by covering it completely.
According to the World Book Encyclopedia, “At first all baptism was by complete immersion” (vol. 1, p.651). And the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “In the early centuries, all were baptized by immersion in streams, pools, and baptisteries” (vol. 2, p.263). Immersion was not convenient after the Catholic church instituted infant baptism; thus the mode was changed to sprinkling. (See Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 3, pp.365-66.)
Repentance identifies us with the death of Christ, and baptism identifies us with His burial. Coming forth from the watery grave of baptism and receiving new life in the Holy Spirit identifies us with His resurrection.
Jesus commanded His disciples to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). He did not command them to use these words as a formula, but He commanded them to baptize in “the name.” The word name is used here in the singular, and it is the focal point of the baptismal command. The titles Father, Son, and Holy Ghost describe God’s relationships to humanity and are not the supreme, saving name described here, which is Jesus. “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Jesus is the name in which the roles of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are revealed. The angel of the Lord instructed Joseph, “She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus said, “I am come in my Father’s name,” and, “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost,…the Father will send in my name” (John 5:43; 14:26). Thus by baptizing in the name of Jesus, we honor the Godhead. “For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
Luke 24:45-47 records that just before His ascension, Jesus opened the disciples’ understanding. It was necessary that their understanding be opened, and many today need this same operation in order to understand the Scriptures. Then Jesus said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day.” The disciples had their understanding opened so that they could grasp the vast importance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Verse 47 describes the commission that Jesus then gave: “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations [Jews and Gentiles], beginning at Jerusalem.”
Peter was one of that number to whom Jesus had spoken and whose understanding had been opened. After having listened to these instructions, a few days later he was inspired by the Holy Ghost to preach on the Day of Pentecost. The hearts of the hearers were pierced and, feeling condemned, they cried out to Peter and the other apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter did not hesitate but boldly answered, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized, and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
Some say that Peter told them to be baptized in Jesus’ name because they were Jews and this baptism was to make them acknowledge Jesus Christ. But let us go with Peter to the house of Cornelius several years later. Cornelius and his household were Gentiles, yet there again Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48). (Most translations actually say, “In the name of Jesus Christ.”) If Peter was wrong on the Day of Pentecost, he surely had ample time to be corrected before he went to the house of Cornelius.
Was Peter wrong on the Day of Pentecost? When the hearers were prickled in their hearts, they spoke to Peter and to the rest of the apostles (Acts 2:37). This included Matthew, who wrote Matthew 28:19. Moreover, when Peter preached, he stood up with the eleven Acts 2:14). Matthew was there, yet we find no words of correction from him. He surely would have spoken up if Peter had disobeyed the Lord. But all the apostles understood and carried out the Lord’s commission. As Jesus said in prayer, “I have manifested thy name unto the men [the apostles] which thou gavest me out of the world…and they have kept thy word” (John 17:6).
The Samaritans, who were not Jews, were also baptized in the name of Jesus. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them….”But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women…. They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:5, 12, 16).
Let us see how Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, baptized. He went to Ephesus many years after the Day of Pentecost and found some disciples of John the Baptist there. “He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:2-5). Although these disciples had already been baptized, the name of Jesus was so important as to cause them to be rebaptized in His name.
We do not believe that Paul changed the formula or mode of baptism when he baptized Lydia and her household (Acts 16:14-15) or the Philippian jailer. The latter came trembling and fell down before Paul and Silas, saying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And he took them the same hour of the night [shortly after midnight], and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway” (Acts 16:30-33). How can we doubt that Paul baptized these people using the same mode and formula that he used elsewhere, that is, immersion in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Paul was not with the apostles when Jesus gave his finial instructions to them in Matthew 28:19 and Luke 24:47, yet Paul baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. How did he know what to do? He said that his gospel was not a tradition of men but a revelation from God. “I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). Paul was chosen to bear Jesus’ name to the Gentiles, and he wrote many divinely inspired epistles to the church. To this apostle, God revealed the mystery of the church, “which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5). Paul claimed to have divine authority: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (I Corinthians 14:37). And Paul wrote, Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Colossians 3:17). Water baptism is done in both word and deed. We cannot afford to overlook this command to the church.
The church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20). The apostles not only preached baptism in Jesus’ name, but they practiced it. Nowhere can we find that they baptized using the words “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Instead, we find them baptizing in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. In baptizing in Jesus’ name, they fulfilled the command of the Lord in Matthew 28:19.
Paul said, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Let this be a solemn warning to us.
Some say that they will accept the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:19 but not those of Peter in Acts 2:38. But Peter spoke on the Day of Pentecost under the anointing of the Holy Ghost. Peter was one of the apostles, and to him had been given the keys of the kingdom, so we have no right to discredit his words.
In Mark 7:8 Jesus said, “Laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men.” History tells us that it was not until many years after the apostles that the mode and formula of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ were changed. (See Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p.241.) Which means more to you, the command of the Lord or the tradition of men?
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19)
The New Testament church was established and the door was opened in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Since the church was founded on the Day of Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit, today those who receive the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues as did the disciples in Acts 2 are called Pentecostal.
The Gospels describe the ministry of Jesus and His wonderful work in laying the foundation for the New Testament church, the spiritual kingdom in this age. The Gospels record Christ’s commands to repent and to be baptized and His promise to pour out the Holy Spirit, but Christian water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit did not take place until after Jesus was crucified , rose form dead, and ascended to heaven. In the Gospels, Jesus spoke of the founding of His church in the future tense: “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). During that time, “the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). After Christ ascension, the church was established when his followers were baptized with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues as the Spirit gave utterance (Acts 1:4-9; 2:1-4).
The Book of Acts
Matthew, John, and the other apostles were all present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was first given. They were all witnesses to Peter’s marvelous message and supported him as he opened the door of salvation (Acts 2:14). When the audience cried out under the conviction of sins, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).
Peter had the authority to proclaim the way of entrance into the church, for Christ had given him the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). No one disputed his answer or his authority to give it. Repentance was accepted as essential to entering the kingdom. Moreover, the formula Peter gave for water baptism was not controversial, for the apostles understood the identity of Jesus as the one God manifested in flesh (Colossians 2:9; I Timothy 3:16). They realized that He was the embodiment of the eternal Spirit of God, whom He as a man called his Father. Therefore, there was no argument when Peter commanded water baptism to be administered in the name of Jesus Christ. Finally, the promise of the Holy Ghost was not new since Jesus said that all who believe on Him would receive the Spirit (John 7:38-39).
Peter used the same to open the door of salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10), and they received the same experience that the disciples did on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Moreover, the same keys were used were used in proclaiming the message of salvation to the Samaritans; they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 8). A few years later the Apostle Paul rebaptized the disciples of John the Baptist in the wonderful name of Jesus, and they too received the Spirit and spoke in tongues (Acts 19). Thus, the Book of Acts consistently presents the same keys- the same plan of salvation.
The Epistles contain instructions to various churches, such as the church at Corinth and Ephesus, and to individuals, such as Timothy and Titus. They were written to instruct people who had already entered the door of salvation. The Book of Acts records the founding of many of the churches to which these letters were written, and the Epistles frequently refer to the readers’ prior repentance, baptism in Jesus’ name, and baptism of the Holy Spirit. (See, for example, Romans 6:1-4; I Corinthians 6:11; 12:13; Galatians 3:2, 27; Titus 3:5.)
Opponents of the Pentecostal truth err by going first to the epistles and virtually ignoring the Book of Acts where, the plan and experience of salvation is recorded. Many passages in the Epistles explain how salvation is made available to humanity, namely, by grace through faith based on the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Romans 3:21-26; Ephesians 2:8-9.) Moreover, many passages describe qualities that characterize the life of true Christians, such as “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” and “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (I John 3:14; 5:1). But none of these statements cancel the command of Acts 2:38 and the actual experience of the new birth as promised in the Gospels, received in Acts, and referred to in the Epistles.
The gift of tongues mentioned in Paul’s first epistles to the Corinthians church is one of nine spiritual gifts that a saint, a person who is filled with the Spirit (not an unbeliever), may or may not receive. No one can exercise the gift of tongues or any of the nine gifts who has not previously received the Holy Spirit with the initial sign of speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4).
The Gospels point to the way of salvation and the Epistles confirm it, but the door of salvation is opened in the Book of Acts. The born again experience, which consists of repentance, water baptism by immersion in the name of Jesus, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by the heavenly witness of speaking with other tongues, has never changed since the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4, 38). No one has the authority or power to change it, not even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8). The gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). This experience is imperative if we are to be ready for the soon coming of the Lord.