"INTO WHAT THEN WERE YOU BAPTIZED?"
What is the purpose of baptism? If you listen to the teachings of men you will hear many different answers. However, if you listen to the message of God's word, you will hear the truth on the matter. Even in the days of the apostle Paul, there were some who did not understand the purpose of baptism as Jesus had taught His apostles to proclaim.
When John the baptizer came on the scene, he began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Mt. 3:2) He also proclaimed that, "There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose." (Mk. 1:7) "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'" (Mk. 1:14-15)
Daniel the prophet had foretold some six hundred years earlier that during the days of the Roman Empire "...the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed....and it shall stand forever." (Dan. 2:44) Jesus confirmed this prophecy by declaring to Peter, "...I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven..." (Mt. 16:18-19) The eminence of the coming of His kingdom was made even more emphatic on that occasion when He said, "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power." (Mk. 9:1)
This gospel (literally, good news) is the message that Jesus gave His apostles the responsibility to proclaim. Just prior to His ascension back to heaven, He told them, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high." (Lk. 24:46-49)
Notice that the message of the gospel involved "repentance and remission of sins" and that this message was to begin at Jerusalem. It would be the first time that "forgiveness of sins" could be proclaimed as an accomplished fact. Prior to this, the animal sacrifices that had bloodied the alters throughout the generations of the Israelite nation had been a constant reminder of their sins, but could not remove their sins. The Hebrew writer confirmed this when he said that "...in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins." (Heb. 10:3-4) Those animal sacrifices which were commanded under the law of Moses, were "...a shadow of the good things to come" (Heb. 10:1) and pointed toward the perfect sacrifice of the Son of God.
On the day of Pentecost after Jesus' death, burial, resurrection and ascension to heaven, the message of the gospel began to be preached in fulfillment of Joel's prophecy some eight hundred years earlier - and quoted by Peter on that day as proof that "...whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Acts 2:21, quoting from Joel 2:32) Those who heard that inaugural message, whose hearts were pricked with the reality of their guilt, also heard the remedy for sin; "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38) "Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them." (vs. 41) Afterward, they were found "praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved." (vs. 47)
Some time later, we are introduced to Apollos, who was preaching in the city of Ephesus. He "...had been instructed in the way of the Lord...and he taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John." (Acts 18:25) Therefore, "...when Aquilla and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately." (vs. 26) Afterward, Apollos left Ephesus to go to Corinth. In the mean time, Paul came to Ephesus where Apollos had been preaching his limited understanding regarding baptism. Upon his arrival, Paul found some followers of Christ who perhaps had been taught by Apollos, because, when Paul asked them some questions that would reveal the level of their understanding, it became obvious that they also knew only of the baptism of John. Therefore, Paul asked them, "Into what then were you baptized?" (Acts 19:3)
Implied in Paul's question is the fact that baptism puts one into something. In reply to Paul's question they said, "Into John's baptism." (vs.3) Paul explained to them, "John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." (vs. 4)
Herein we have the only example of people who were baptized again. This example gives testimony to the importance of understanding the purpose of baptism. It is not uncommon to study the bible with people who have either been taught error or who simply have limited understanding. Consequently, I have had the occasion to see people's understanding enlightened by the scriptures, who drew the conclusion that their baptism failed to meet the pattern found in God's word, or who realized that they didn't understand why they were baptized the first time, and wanted to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins.
This is the right decision when honest-hearted people come to a correct understanding of God's word. As Peter pointed out, baptism is "...the answer of a good conscience toward God..." (1 Pet. 3:21) So why would anyone not give answer to their conscience by obeying what they now know to be the truth as it is revealed in the word of God?
It is in baptism that we enter into Christ, in whom is found forgiveness of sins. Paul said to the Christians in Galatia, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Gal. 3:26-27) He also asked the Christians at Rome, "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." (Rom. 6:3-4) To the church at Ephesus he said, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ." (Eph. 1:3) He also said that "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace." (vs. 7)
These passages make it clear that baptism puts us "into" something. Baptism is that submissive act that symbolizes Jesus' burial in the tomb after He died on the cross and three days later overcame Satan by being raised from the dead. Baptism is where we die to sin. It is when we come up out of the water of baptism that we begin to "walk in newness of life." Until one is baptized into Christ, he is outside of Christ, outside of the heavenly places where all spiritual blessings are to be found, and he remains inside his spiritually dead body of sin. Not until one is baptized into Christ, can he be released and resurrected out of that dead body.
It is no wonder that Paul asked those whom he found at Ephesus who knew only of the baptism that John the baptist had preached, "into what then were you baptized?" (Acts 19:3) Paul explained to them that "John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people (referring to those who were being baptized, gvw) that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus." (vs. 4)
Keep in mind that there is no mention of John's baptism putting anyone into anything. Christ had not yet died on the cross, therefore those who were baptized with John's baptism were not baptized into Christ. In fact, John's baptism looked forward to Christ - the One who would come after John. On one particular day "John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, 'Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.' I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water." (Jn. 1:29-31) Herein John stated the purpose of his baptism.
On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) when the gospel began to be preached in Jerusalem, those who were baptized for the remission of sins were looking back to Christ's death, burial and resurrection as the hope of their salvation. It was on that day that those who were being baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ" were being added to the church by the Lord. (vs. 47)
Those whom Paul met in Ephesus who knew only John's baptism had not yet received the Holy Spirit and what's more, had not even "..heard whether there is a Holy Spirit." (Acts 19:2) They obviously had no knowledge of the fact that the Holy Spirit had been given on the day of Pentecost. This prompted Paul to ask them, "into what then were you baptized?" (vs. 3) John's preaching looked ahead to Christ and His kingdom which would take place on Pentecost after His resurrection and ascension. It looked forward to the promise spoken of by the prophet Joel who said, "And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh." (Acts 2:17, as quoted from Joel 2:28)
We see the fulfillment of those words taking place on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and we hear it in the words of Peter in answer to the plaintive cry of those convicted of sin on that day; "Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." (vss. 38-39) The gift of the Holy Spirit was given to those who were baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ" - not in the baptism of John. Therefore, John's message of repentance and his baptism looked forward to this gift which was conditional upon being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Once those men in Ephesus understood the meaning behind being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized for the remission of sins. (Acts 19:5) Today, their example gives testimony to the necessity of understanding the purpose of baptism. The act of baptism is meaningless if it is not with the understanding of its purpose. If I grabbed someone off of the street and forced them under the waters of a nearby pond, it would be meaningless - first of all, because it would not be a willing act on their part, and secondly because they would probably wonder what I was trying to do to them. In this ridiculous illustration we find an example that is not unlike the "baptism" (?) of an infant (sometimes called "christening" where water is poured or sprinkled on an infant). They know nothing of its intended purpose at the time nor anything about it unless they are told about it when they are grown. It is a meaningless act. Therefore, they need to be baptized with the understanding of the purpose of baptism - for the remission of sins.
Likewise, those who have been taught to pray the sinner's prayer and to invite Christ to come into their heart so He will become their personal Savior - and afterward are baptized as an outward show of an inward faith (believing that they were already saved before baptism), have been taught something that is not found anywhere in the bible. (I challenge anyone to find any passage in the bible that teaches this!) When those who have believed this false doctrine are confronted with the real truth of the gospel, they need to be baptized with the new understanding that "...even baptism doth also now save us...by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (1 Pet. 3:21, kjv)
The question that Paul asked those Ephesians who had only known John's baptism, prompts us to consider the purpose behind baptism. Their lack of knowledge regarding the baptism that had been commanded (for the remission of sins) beginning at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), prompted Paul to ask them, "Into what then were you baptized?" (Acts 19:3)
If it was important enough for them to give thought to that question, it is important enough for all who have been baptized to do likewise. It is the single most important act in our lives that we will ever give consideration to because it has to do with our eternal destiny. It involves a choice that we make in this life that will effect our future eternity! And as we consider their response to Paul's question, it becomes quite obvious why he asked. They needed to be convinced of the truth and act upon it. Their answer came back as a response of their conscience to a doubt that existed and needed clearing. By their very act of submission in baptism, they were answering that question. That answer came back as a statement that they had not previously understood but now did understand that baptism is "into Christ" (Gal. 3:26-27) and "into His death" (Rom. 6:3) "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38)
There is no shame in admitting that we did not understand or that we were mistaken. That's what repentance is all about. When one learns the truth, it is time to turn away from doubt and error and turn to the truth as "...the answer of a good conscience toward God..." (1 Pet. 3:21) This is what Paul had done. Prior to having understood the truth, Paul could have said, "Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." (Acts 26:9) But after he learned the truth, he turned away from his error and began to "declare first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance." (vs. 20)
The real shame is when people hear the truth and then fail to embrace it. Those Ephesian men did the right thing when "...they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 19:5) because now they understood the truth.
Understanding is the key to obedience. Paul admonished the Christians at Ephesus to "...not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is." (Eph. 5:17) How can you obey that which you do not understand? This point is made clear in the example of the Ethiopian eunuch, who, when asked by Philip, "Do you understand what you are reading?" (Acts 8:30), he responded, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (vs. 31) In that example we find that Philip "...opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him." (vs. 35). Not until the eunuch was taught did he understand enough to be obedient. "Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, 'See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" (vs. 36) His response shows us that he understood what Philip had taught and what he needed to do to have his sins forgiven. Philip's response to the eunuch's question was, "If you believe with all your heart, you may" (vs. 37) We know from the rest of this account that the eunuch did believe and confessed that conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and subsequently was baptized. There is no doubt that he understood before obeying.
Purpose is also inseparably linked to understanding when it has to do with obedience. Unless one understands the purpose of baptism, it becomes a meaningless act. Consider this scenario; I go up to a man walking down the street and forcibly drag him to a nearby pond and, against his kicking and struggling, baptize him. While I may have properly "buried" him (as opposed to sprinkling or pouring water on him) there is no doubt that it was done against his will and without understanding of what my motive was in "dunking" him under the water. Would we have any doubt that, upon coming up out of that water, he was the same man who went down into the water - that "the old man" had not been "crucified with" Christ, nor that "body of sin" been "done away with?" (Rom. 6:6) Would we question the obvious - that the Lord did not "add" him to the church? (Acts 2:47)
While that may be an unrealistic illustration to make my point, consider this scenario which is an actual fact multiplied many times over; An infant is taken to a "priest" who sprinkles water on him or dips his finger in water and rubs it across its forehead, calling it baptism (or christening). That baby knows nothing of what is being done or why. Then, when that infant is grown, he has in his possession a "certificate" that states that he was "baptized" or "christened" on such a date as a matter of record. When I meet this person and point out from the Scriptures that sin is not inherited from Adam or passed down from generation to generation (Ezek. 18) and therefore no sin existed in his innocent childhood; when I show him that baptism is "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38), that it's symbolic of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection, and is where we "die to sin" (Rom. 6:3-11); when I point out that baptism is "the answer of a good conscience toward God" (1 Pet. 3:21); now they understand the purpose of baptism and willingly respond in obedience to what they have learned by being baptized.
What about those who have been baptized in order to keep peace in the family, or are baptized in order to stop the constant nagging of family and friends to do so? Then there are those who have been baptized to please their parents or their spouse. Many people are baptized for many reasons other than the right reason - for the remission of sins. Then there are those who were taught that they were already saved when they "prayed through" and "accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior" - and then were baptized as "an outward show of an inward faith" - who all their life thought they were saved and then find out that what they were taught was not the truth. In all of these cases, it is in order for one to be baptized with the proper understanding of the purpose of this great act of faith and submission. Once honest-minded people learn the truth, they will be baptized into Christ for the remission of their sins..
- Gary V. Womack - October 2005