Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Note: This article follows right on the heels of “Member-ship Part 1,” and assumes that you’ve already read that. If you haven’t already read the first part, I recommend you do that first.
Alright, so we have established that circumcision is not necessary for salvation. Ah, but what of baptism? Let’s continue our journey as the Holy Spirit leads us through Scripture.
Now, it should be noted that Cornelius and his crew all were baptized on the day the Holy Spirit came upon them. His story ends,
For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days (Acts 10:46-48).
Once, when Paul was in prison, the Lord showed his power to the prison’s jailer and brought him to salvation. On that day Paul made sure to baptize the jailer and his kin. History records,
The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved- you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God- he and his whole family (Acts 16:29-34).
Not only that, but Jesus actually told his disciples (and us by extension) to baptize; for it is written,
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).
So, right off the bat it seems that in New Testament times (continuing into the present age) baptism has replaced circumcision as the symbolic gesture that gains one entry into the assembly of saints. Logically this makes sense too because baptism is more inclusive than circumcision since women can also be baptized, just as gentiles can also become Christians. Now here is the question of the day: Is baptism required for salvation?
First let’s look at what baptism actually is. Baptism is a ceremonial washing (usually through dunking, though also done by sprinkling) that is a physical representation of our desire to repent and our being cleansed of our sins. Paul instructed husbands,
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Just as husbands are to cleanse their wives with the water of the word, so too does Christ cleanse us through his Word and physically with water through baptism (as commanded in the Word of God). John the Baptist came specifically help Israelites repent in preparation for the coming of the Lord. History records,
It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
Who will prepare your way”-
“A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
Make straight paths for him.’”
And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:2-4).
By being baptized we die to our old lives and begin our new ones. Paul explains this in Romans 6:3-5,
Or don’t you no that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
This is why “dunking” (full submersion) is the preferred method for baptism. You go into the water as your old sinful self, then “die” when you are submerged, and are “reborn” as you come out clean and fresh into your new life as a Christian. It is a symbol for your new life and a symbol of the eternal life you’ll share with Christ later when your mortal body expires.
But for all its beauty and symbolism, at its heart baptism is still just a less-invasive circumcision. It is a(n optional, as covered in the last article) representation of our salvation, but not an actual part of it. But wait, doesn’t the Bible say in John 3:5, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’”? It absolutely does. However, you can’t ignore the context of the conversation surrounding it. Jesus explains further, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7). Jesus doesn’t say, “You must be born again…and then one more time.” No, when he speaks of a water birth, Jesus means a natural birth- that’s the flesh birthing flesh stuff. Then the Holy Spirit births the spiritual being. These are the two births that open the way to heaven. John the Baptist also felt that what he was doing was insufficient for salvation; check out how he explains his baptism to people:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:15-16).
If John felt that his efforts were nothing more than a warm-up act for Christ, who are we to argue otherwise? The Bible tells us that Jesus didn’t even participate in the baptism of others. John 4:1-2 notes, “The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”
“But wait, even though he wasn’t active in baptizing others, wasn’t Jesus baptized too?” Yes, actually, he was. And the whole thing confused John to no end. Scripture records the scene,
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented (Matthew 3:13-15).
I like the note that John deterred and later consented, meaning that at first he refused. Anyway, as Jesus was baptized, God endorsed his ministry,
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lightning on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).
Surely this means something, right? Yes it does, but probably not what you think. We already know that baptism is separate and not required for the Holy Spirit, as Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit before they were circumcised or baptized. What Jesus’ baptism does is show us that Jesus is greater than Moses. Just as Moses had to obey God and circumcise his family before starting his ministry (as we saw in Part 1), Jesus too began his ministry obeying the Lord by being baptized. These events happened even though neither circumcision nor baptism give any direct spiritual benefits- something John had already cited. And so Hebrews 3:5-6 notes,
Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.
Through his obedience, Jesus showed that he was greater than Moses and thus started his ministry through an obedient act (even though, as John protested, it seemed kind of backwards and odd).
The conclusion to be drawn is that, while baptism is a great work of obedience and symbolism, it does not factor into salvation; as the Holy Spirit comes when it so chooses and the Holy Spirit brings about the real second birth (as noted by Jesus above). Then how is one to be saved? Paul explains it in Romans 10:6-13,
But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Salvation is not found through good deeds (trying to ascend to heaven) nor is it found through plunging your head underwater (descending into the deep); rather it is through your heart and your lips that salvation is found. Paul makes sure to note that there’s no difference between the Jews (the people of circumcision) and the Gentiles (the people of uncircumcision); so why then do Christians try to split hairs with baptism in the same way God’s people used to over cutting one’s member? Paul makes his finality clear: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Audible Period. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be baptized, you should because the Lord commands it and it is therefore an act of obedience; but don’t lose any sleep if you haven’t been baptized yet as salvation is not based on it.
Still not satisfied? Well then check out Part Three by clicking on the link!