Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
When Paul went to Ephesus, the people there knew only of John’s baptism. Let’s take a look at this situation in Acts 19:1-7:
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.
Something was insufficient in receiving John’s baptism, as they lacked the Holy Spirit until Paul gave it to them. This tells us that the Holy Spirit is the true mark of a believer. Jesus taught this as well, saying,
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you will know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14:16-17).
Notice that the world can’t even comprehend the Holy Spirit, but only those who believe in Christ. This means that the presence of the Holy Spirit is a definite mark for one who truly believes. Jesus even mentions that gifts of the Holy Spirit will accompany believers:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well (Mark 16:17-18).
So how can people say that a water baptism is a part of salvation? Consider again Cornelius. When he and his family heard the word about Christ they believed and began to exhibit a sign of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues; it was only after this that Peter baptized them. Let’s grab the Scripture one more time:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 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” (Acts 10:44-47).
Now, what if Peter was so shocked and excited about the situation that he forgot to baptize them right then and there, and then overnight someone of Cornelius’ house died? Would that person go to hell even after clearly displaying the mark of the Spirit? If not, then can we really argue that baptism is necessary for salvation?
Jesus also brought up John’s Baptism one time while talking with the Pharisees after being asked about his authority. Scripture records,
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism –where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’ –we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Matthew 21:24-27).
The Pharisees couldn’t answer the question, so Jesus refused to tell them. However, it is implied that John’s baptism was from heaven. After all, Jesus did establish that John the Baptist was a prophet:
“But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist (Matthew 17:12-13).
Now, if water baptism was from heaven through the prophet John, then it was a gift of God. Likewise, in the Old Testament, the gift of the Sabbath was given to men through Moses. But wait, isn’t keeping the Sabbath a command? Absolutely; Exodus 20:8-10 records,
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.
And so the Israelites kept the Sabbath religiously and do so to this day. However, Jesus clarified the purpose of the Sabbath when he came: “Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath is a day of rest given by the Lord. Nothing is required for it…well actually; the requirement is not doing anything (that is to say, resting). The Sabbath serves God in no way, but helps believers (and their animals and crops) get the rest they need to be the best they can. Therefore keeping the Sabbath (although commanded) cannot be counted as a work since it was made for man not for God. Baptism likewise is not a work, but a way to press the reset button on your life physically as you do so spiritually. Paul explains it like this,
Or don’t’ you know 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 (Romans 6:3-4).
Baptism helps us to feel that new life we gain through gaining Jesus as our Lord and Savior. This helps us to make changes in our lives and gain a stronger emotional connection to our new lives. This is a gift to help believers, just like the Sabbath.
Paul, speaking of circumcision, tells us,
Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reasons for such confidence (Philippians 3:2-4).
He says that we shouldn’t put confidence in our flesh. He also wrote,
Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation (Galatians 6:13-15).
Although Paul focused on circumcision (since it was a major issue back then) we can apply this more broadly as a lesson not to take pride in the things we do. In fact, no weight should be put on our works; no matter how good they are (such things are between the believer and God). We are only to boast about Christ and his work in our lives. And so we read in 1 Corinthians 1:31, “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” When the circumcisers of Paul’s day wanted to boast about people’s flesh it sullied the act of circumcision (a command and a representation of Abraham’s covenant with the Lord). Likewise, by preaching baptism as a required work for salvation one sullies what is a wonderful gift from God.
But doesn’t Jesus actually command his disciples to baptize? Yes he does. Scripture records, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’” (Mark 16:15-16). Take note, though, that Jesus doesn’t say “whoever isn’t baptized isn’t saved” no, he says that whoever doesn’t believe isn’t saved. This means that baptism isn’t actually a condition for salvation. Rather, the way Jesus speaks confirms Paul’s conditions for salvation in Romans 10:9-10,
…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.
Luckily, everyone in the church seems to agree that belief is needed for salvation so people are still saved even if their doctrine isn’t perfect. This works along the same lines as some of the “super apostles” of Paul’s day, who were preaching either for money or to enforce the Law on people. Paul wrote of them, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). So even if the doctrine you have received so far isn’t spot on, as long as belief in Christ is a cornerstone of salvation, then you need not worry about your place in heaven.
Salvation cannot be a work as it is an act of grace from God that we absolutely do not deserve. Paul wrote on God’s overall decision in matters,
For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
And I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy (Romans 9:15-16).
Only one who is called by God can be saved by God. Most of us don’t really understand the Lord’s election process so instead we should just focus on doing what has been commanded of us:
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).
If you are able to, then get baptized, as God told us to do so. But when you do, make sure you are baptized with joy and worshipfulness. Paul reminds us that, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Therefore, our acts of obedience should be out of a purified and happy heart in Christ; baptism as well. Do not be baptized as some sort of required act in fear that you won’t be saved otherwise, that’s not good worship. Isaiah wrote of fasting,
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
And in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
And expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
Only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
And for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
A day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice
And to untie the cords of the yoke,
To set the oppressed free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
And your healing will quickly appear;
Then your righteousness will go before you,
And the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:4-8).
This is the model for all acts of obedience. When we think “fasting” we think of not eating, but when the Lord thinks of it he sees it as a denial of self because we’re too busy helping others. When your being baptized, it’s not just getting wet to be welcomed into a church; when being baptized you’re dying with Christ and being raised up in your new life (symbolically). Baptism is leaving behind your old, worldly life. Be baptized, but do so knowing why you’re getting wet in the first place! God’s commands are not meant to be done under the gun, but rather as an extension of your freedom in Christ Jesus; this is no different when it comes to baptism. That’s why Paul was able to write in Romans 2:14-15,
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)
We see this in action when Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch. After having the gospel properly explained to him by Philip, the Ethiopian automatically acted out of the spirit in his heart to obey God:
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”
Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”
The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him (Acts 8:36-38).
The eunuch didn’t get baptized because Philip pushed him to, but rather his heart (touched by the Holy Spirit) burned to obey God as soon as possible. This is true baptism in action, and all obedience should follow likewise.