The history and development of baptism

Where did baptism come from?  Who was the first to practice it?  The answer to this question is a bit elusive.  It’s likely that many ancient religions practiced something like baptism, though it wouldn’t be until the days of the early church that we see the word “baptism” emerge as a uniquely Christian practice.  So what are its origins?  How did it develop?

BAPTISM IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

While other ancient cultures had their own ceremonial rites, Israel’s worship was unique in every way.  You might already remember that Israel’s religion was expressed in a series of laws governing the categories of “clean” and “unclean,” symbolically reflecting the purity of God’s character.  Something of this might be in view when Ezekiel describes the formation of God’s relationship with Israel:

8 “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. 9 Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. (Ezekiel 16:8-9)

Some point to various sorts of “precursors” to baptism in the Old Testament—even the apostle Peter would draw some loose connection between baptism and Noah’s flood.  In another setting, Elisha instructs a leper to wash himself by dipping his body into the Jordan river seven times—purifying him of this disease (2 Kings 5:1-14).  So we might find some “hints” of what baptism might look like in the future.

But the clearest examples of regular purification rituals comes from the system of Levite priests.  The book of Leviticus even specifies purification routines centered around the great “Day of Atonement:”

He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. (Leviticus 16:4)

23 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. (Leviticus 16:23-24)

Priests were often “sequestered” for a week prior to this event in order to minimize the risk of any sort of contamination.

JOHN THE BAPTIST

Jesus was famously baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist:

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

What’s going on here?  John the Baptist was a born a preacher’s kid, but it’s speculated that when his father passed away John would end up spending his time with a group of desert people called the “Essenes.”  These folks were the hippies of the ancient world, dwelling in caves in the wilderness as a form of separation from the Roman establishment.  Yet when John returns from the wilderness, he doesn’t seem to have adopted their practices as much as reinvented them.  So John is introducing a new form of baptism, which in some way involves a new form of repentance.  Given John’s role as the “forerunner” for Jesus, it’s as if his baptism is a way of saying, “Come and be baptized as we enter into the age of the Messiah.”  So it seems as if John’s baptism had a lot more to do with identification with Jesus’ initial movement.  And we should notice that John would say that his baptism was very different from the actual ministry of Jesus, saying:

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

John seems to have envisioned Jesus as having a unique ministry in the future, and it’s this ministry that helps us clarify baptism today.

IN THE AGE OF THE CHURCH

After the resurrection, Jesus gathered his closest followers to issue the “marching orders” of the Church.  The purpose of all God’s people is worship, but the Church is now commanded to gather others together that we might all worship God in spirit and in truth.  So when Jesus tells his followers to share the good news, he includes instructions to perform baptisms:

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Baptism is not optional.  This practice is commanded by Jesus himself.  In the pages of the book of Acts, we find Jesus’ followers obeying this command.  We can draw three conclusions based on their practice:

  • Baptism symbolizes salvation

Whenever we see baptism performed, we see it performed as a symbol of a declaration of faith.  To be clear, baptism is never described apart from a personal, faith commitment.  Salvation therefore doesn’t come from baptism, but baptism is a sign of obedience.  But what we also see in the New Testament is that baptism immediately followed conversion.  For example, in Acts 2 Peter’s sermon brought thousands to Christ:

41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

Some English translations say “those who believed.”  Baptism comes only after a faith commitment.  Likewise, in Philip’s ministry:

12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.  (Acts 8:12)

Again, baptism comes only after a faith commitment.  And in the most famous of Philip’s stories, he shares the good news with a spiritual outsider.  A high-ranking eunuch is riding a chariot and reading a portion of the Bible.  Now, in those days people would often read out loud, so Philip—having been guided by the Lord—overheard him.  After a brief conversation, it became clear that the eunuch was spiritually curious, but didn’t understand that the scriptures he was reading were about Jesus:

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”  38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.  (Acts 8:35-36, 38)

Once more, it’s hard to imagine this scene as anything other than a public profession of personal faith.  And apparently the early church agreed, because some later manuscripts would include the addition: “And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (included in some Bibles as Acts 8:37).  Granted, this verses is an addition, and not original to the Bible, but it shows that many in the early church did agree that baptism was merely an outward symbol.

  • Baptism is therefore reserved for believers

This conclusion follows from the previous principle.  If baptism symbolizes salvation, then of course the only ones being baptized would be believers.

But this wouldn’t necessarily only be adult believers.  While we can find no explicit reference to a child being baptized, we do find the Bible describing baptism applied to whole households:

30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (Acts 16:30-34)

Admittedly this seems confusing to us since we see faith as something so deeply personal.  What should probably see here is that the entire household placed their faith in Jesus, and the whole household was baptized as a way of expressing that.  This, I think, helps us make sense of this passage in light of the others.  What I don’t think we should see, however, is evidence suggesting infant baptism.  So while children may believe in the gospel, baptism might not be for the very young.  The normative expression in the New Testament seems to be the baptism of believers.

  • Baptism is usually performed by immersion

Even the Greek verb baptizo means “to immerse” or “to submerge” or even “to drown.”  In the New Testament baptism was performed by being placed under the water.  It wasn’t until later when the early church put together a collection of documents known as the Didache, or the “Teaching(s).”  This resource clarified that if water was scarce, it was acceptable to pour water on the convert’s head and this would be sufficient for baptism.  Again, baptism usually came so quickly after conversion that they just wouldn’t wait until they found a body of water.

I know many conservative folks who would object to this, since baptism is meant to be immersion.  I don’t know that I’d join them in their objection.  If baptism is a symbol, then I’d say that while immersion would be the ideal, if someone came up on Sunday morning and wanted to be baptized right there on the spot, that a Styrofoam cup full of water would be insufficient to make that happen.  It sounds silly, but the public declaration is what matters more than the ritual itself.

But this also highlights the deeper meaning behind baptism, which we will return to tomorrow.  For now, I’d simply challenge those of you who claim to follow Christ yet haven’t been baptized to think about what it is you’re waiting for.  This isn’t a salvation issue, but it is a matter of obedience.  If you want to sign up for baptism, contact myself or one of us on the Church staff, and we’d love to be a part of that declaration of faith.

The Music of the Gospel (Acts 16)

Arpeggio.  Decrescendo.  Fermata.

For some of you, these words must sound like some sort of European shopping list.  But if you read music, each word means something very specific.

The gospel works like this.  To those outside, the language of the church must sound alien—maybe even intimidating.  It would be the same as handing someone a page of sheet music.  If they can’t read music, the page must seem like a foreign set of symbols.  Even if they read music, they may catch only a sense of the composition—something only made complete by hearing it out loud.   We would call that “mission.”  To be on mission means to live out the gospel in every facet of life, so that those who don’t speak our language can hear the gospel “out loud” in the lives of Christ’s followers.

Yesterday, we learned how Paul’s church-planting efforts led to the conversion of a woman named Lydia.  Now, we return to his church-planting efforts in Philippi to understand some of the cultural background of Paul’s journey.

THE GOSPEL OUT LOUD

For some, like Lydia, Christianity becomes attractive through rational conversation.  But there are many others who need an experience to hang their faith on.  Listen to the amazing story of what happened with Paul and Silas:

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.  17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”  18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.  (Acts 16:16-18)

If you’re reading this story in the original Greek, you notice the text says that the girl was afflicted with “a spirit, namely a python.”  A snake???  In his commentary on Acts, Bruce Longnecker notes that this image had a lot of cultural baggage:

“The Python was a mythical serpent or dragon that guarded the temple and oracle of Apollo, located on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to  the north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was supposed to have lived at the foot of Mount Parnassus and to have eventually been killed by Apollo (cf. Strabo Geography 9.3.12). Later the word python came to mean a demon-possessed person through whom the Python spoke—even a ventriloquist was thought to have such a spirit living in his or her belly (cf. Plutarch  De Defectu Oraculorum 9.414).” (Longnecker, Acts… p. 462)

In other words, there are many people who try to manage their lives by trying to order the world around them through spirituality.  Here, the slave girl seems to be the possession of some sort of evil spirit.  But it gets worse.  Even after Paul heals her through Christ’s power, we see that her bondage persists:

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.  20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city.  21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.”  22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.  23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.  24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:19-24)

She’s not merely enslaved by an evil spirit; she’s also enslaved by a culture that takes advantage of her for profit.  There’s a lesson here.  Christianity will always be attractive to some—like Lydia—but offensive to others.  And when the gospel challenges the prevailing songs of self-satisfaction that come from “personal spirituality,” well, then you have a recipe for ridicule, disbelief—even persecution.  So when this happened to Paul and Silas, they were placed in prison.

TESTIMONY FROM A JAIL CELL

What happened next stretches past our wildest belief:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them,  26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.  27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.  28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.  30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.  34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.  35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.”  36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.”  37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.”  38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens.  39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.  40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:25-40)

The only thing more staggering than the earthquake was the fact that Paul and Silas didn’t use it as an opportunity for escape.  Jailers were often older, retired military servicemen.  They had one job: to keep the prisoners in jail.  If they failed?  They could expect death—or worse, torture at the hands of the Roman officials.  So the jailer saw suicide as preferable to facing his superiors.  Paul’s choice to remain saved the man’s life.

Together they went to the man’s household—where the entire family heard the gospel.   “Believe in Jesus,” Paul says, “and your whole house will be saved.”  What does he mean?  Surely he’s not saying that if the jailer believes, the rest of his family can be “grandfathered in.”  No; I think what Paul is saying is that the belief in Jesus is what saves—regardless of whether you personally witnessed such a miracle.  Sure, the jailer witnessed something powerful.  But ultimately it was faith in Jesus that brought him deliverance, and the same became true of his family.

The point?  Most of us will never spend time in a Roman prison.  But all of us have opportunities to live out the gospel in front of others.  In that sense, we are all missionaries to the various parts of our culture, and to a world that longs to hear the gospel’s beautiful melody in a world full of static and noise.

THE CHURCH IN PHILIPPI

All of which brings us to the church in Philippi.  Paul opens his letter with a customary greeting:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:1-2)

By this time, Paul is surely in prison in Rome.  In our next posts, we’ll look at the way Paul leaned on this fledgling church for support—and cautioned them about the rough days ahead.

Living above the Circumstances – Acts 16:1-15

Welcome to Day 1 of our new devotional series on the book of Philippians. There will be a total of 15 writings and readings that come out daily on Monday to Friday of the next three weeks.

Today and tomorrow Chris and I begin by giving some of the background of the Christians who comprised the church at Philippi, which was one of the better fellowships of those we see in the New Testament Scriptures.

Something I have been profoundly impressed with in recent months is the number of people whom I know well and who are living with ALS – a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. I know of four godly people suffering with this condition. In each case, these are among the most joyful and vibrant Christian folks that I know! One might say that they are “living above their circumstances.”

It was my old Dallas Seminary professor friend and renowned Bible teacher Howie Hendricks who used to often include in his messages a conversation with a certain Christian acquaintance, where Howie would ask, “How are you doing?” … to which the response would be some version of “Not bad under the circumstances.”  And Howie’s humorous retort would be to say, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”

The letter to the Philippians rings with a theme of joy. We can have joy in all circumstances, even if we don’t always have happiness. It depends upon our measuring stick. If our measuring device is only limited to the circumstance and events of our immediate physical world, well, we are going to come up short quite a bit. But if our measurement is calibrated in eternal numbers and true realities, we are in possession at ALL TIMES of God’s magnanimous grace and the promise of His eternal relationship with us.

When we calibrate our earthly sorrows and challenges against the greater spiritual reality, well, we see the smallness of our problems, along the lines of the old hymn that says “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Philippians is a prison epistle – written by Paul while chained to a Roman soldier. But you’d never know it by the joyful tone of his writing.

Philippi ruins

Philippi ruins

The church at Philippi was begun when Paul and Silas were on a missionary journey – one that has a lot of travel details. Let’s pick up at the beginning of Acts 16 …

Timothy Joins Paul and Silas

16:1  Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. 2 The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

Paul and Silas pick up a new partner in Timothy. This occurred in Lystra – the same place where, on the first missionary journey, Paul was stoned, believed to be dead, and dragged out of the city. He dusted himself off and went back into town to finish his sermon, and it was then that Timothy was saved and came to belief in Christ. (Actually, I don’t really know if that is how it happened – I just made that up! But in that Timothy is later called by Paul “my disciple in Christ,” it would appear certain that he came to faith during the prior ministry of Paul in that town.)  Here, in Luke’s fashion, he briefly introduces Timothy – a young man who will be a major player later in the Acts narrative.

The churches of the South Galatian region were revisited, and Paul used the opportunity to encourage them with the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and to continue to build them up in the faith.

6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.

As they travelled on to the northwest, it seemed that the Spirit was closing door after door that one would presume should be open! It is a pattern of the Christian experience that when God closes doors, it is to move us on to a greater open door we might not have otherwise found on our own. And so Paul and his companions travel all of the way to the Aegean Sea – to the town of Troas. Here we see in verse 10 the first mention of the pronoun “we,” which certainly indicates that Luke himself had now become a part of the travelling team.

Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia

8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

God’s Manifest Destiny

You have probably heard the phrase, “Go West, young man!”  This was the quote of the famous 19th century newspaperman and author Horace Greeley – who greatly favored American expansionism to the west in the then-popular concept of Manifest Destiny. While the justice of this era of American expansion may be debated, God had a manifest destiny for the Gospel message to spread to the west. And today’s passage records one of the great moments in world history – when the message of Christ went from Asia to Europe.

In Troas, Paul has a dream that he understands to be from God – a vision of a man of Macedonia calling to him to come there. This is the region of northern Greece; and to travel there would require a multiple-day trip by sea. The group ends up in Philippi – a significant Roman city named after the father of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon.

11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.

Lydia’s Conversion in Philippi

13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

On the Sabbath day, the group goes to a place along the river – a place known to be a spot for prayer. And there they meet a business woman named Lydia, who is described as a worshipper of God. Though not a proselyte, she was one who believed and worshipped the one true God, and the Lord brought the truth of the Gospel to her and her household … and to the European continent!

Lydia was apparently very successful in the purple cloth industry that was especially associated with her hometown of Thyatira, producing a highly-valued product in the Roman world. Her hospitality is immediately evident as she hosts the missionary team. Philippi would be among the finest of the churches founded by Paul, consisting of people who were generous in supporting God’s work – as we read in Philippians 4:15-16 …

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.

God’s expansive grace reverberates down through the corridors of time and across the centuries to our own day. And his desire continues to be that we too look for those open doors he will supply for us to press through and share the message of Christ’s work with those who are yet to know God personally.