Topical Scripture: Acts 2:40-41
We’re walking through Acts 1-4 and the earliest Christian faith, seeking keys to the power of God for our lives today. We began by observing the early church as they prayed for the power of the Spirit at the risk of their lives. They knew that they needed the Spirit’s empowering if they were to fulfill their purpose and find significance. They taught us that when we want God the least is when we need him the most.
Now we come to the results of that Pentecost empowering by the Spirit: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). They believed and were baptized. So it was then; so it is in our church today. But not without some challenges along the way.
You may not know that the pastor wears fishermen’s wading boots under his robe during baptisms. The first time I saw a pastor baptize and return to the service in five minutes I thought it was a miracle. But these boots can be problematic. One Sunday morning in Midland, I was kidding around in the service and told the people that if they ever got angry with the preacher they should go back and poke holes in his waders. That night, baptizing during the Sunday evening service, my waders leaked. I maintain it was a coincidence.
In Atlanta we had a retired pastor on our pastoral care staff. He told us about the time years earlier when a Methodist pastor friend asked to borrow his baptistery, as he had a family who insisted on baptism by immersion. Our staff member was happy to consent. The Methodist baptism was to be that Sunday afternoon; when our pastor got to church that night for the Sunday evening service he found water everywhere. It was all over the baptistery steps and down the hallway. The waders were soaked; everything was a mess.
The next morning his Methodist pastor friend called to complain: “I had no idea baptizing was so hard. We got the first candidate in the wading boots and robe, got them in the baptistery and under the water, and the boots filled up with water. We had to dump them out to get the second person in, but they filled up again.”
So it was with the entire family—the pastor didn’t wear the boots, putting them on the candidates instead. Our pastor concluded, “Methodists aren’t as smart as they think they are.”
I’ve had my boots fill up in the baptistery. I baptized one man who got under the water, then pulled me down with him. I once baptized a woman who was so frightened of the water she wouldn’t get her face wet, then worried that she wouldn’t have a nose in heaven. Baptizing is dangerous—more so, in fact, than you may know.
Today we will focus on this strange and significant act, for three reasons. One: some of you have not been baptized and wonder if you should be and why. Two: some of you have been baptized but don’t really know why and what it all meant. Three: all of us need to be baptized again today. Not physically, but spiritually.
Being baptized every day is the single most important key to the power of God in your life this morning. It is my privilege to explain why that is so.
The word “baptize” comes from a Greek word which means to “dip” or “immerse.” The word was often used in the ancient world to describe the act of dipping a cup in a stream or washing clothing at a laundry. To “baptize” something is, therefore, literally to immerse it in water. It was first done by the Church in the text before us today. This single verse seems straightforward, but there is much to know in its words.
“Accepted” translates a word which means to welcome or receive gladly.
“His message” was the gospel, the good news of God’s love in Christ.
They “were baptized”—the syntax indicates that this happened immediately after they “accepted his message.”
“About three thousand were added to their number” shows that their baptism was the step by which they entered into the fellowship of the church.
“That day” shows that this entire event, from acceptance to baptism to church membership, happened on the one day of Pentecost.
Skeptics wonder how the conversion of 3,000 was possible, much less their baptism on a single day. But the facts make the entire event completely understandable.
Jerusalem had a resident population of 55,000, swelling to 180,000 during festivals such as Pentecost. The Temple precincts could easily accommodate 200,000, and the acoustics were such that nearly all could easily hear Peter’s voice. All could understand enough Greek to make sense of his sermon, as the Spirit convicted them of their need for Christ.
The baptism of 3,000 in one day was very plausible as well. The Temple mount had numerous immersion pools used by worshipers for ritual purifications. There were numerous church leaders present to do the baptizing; if just the Twelve did this, each would need to baptize 250 new believers. If they said over each what I say in our baptistery, they could easily baptize five a minute, or the entire group in less than an hour.
But why did they do this? Publicly dipping someone in water seems a strange thing to do, but the fact is that the Jews had been doing this for centuries. When a Gentile became a Jew, he or she was baptized in public as an act of submission and repentance. The old person was symbolically washed away, the new raised up to life in Judaism.
John the Baptizer took this decision a step further, calling Jews to be baptized as an act of repentance. No one had ever challenged Jews to make this commitment. Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan for this baptism. Matthew reports: “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. 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 lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased'” (Matthew 3:13-17).
By this act Jesus began his public ministry. When it was concluded he commanded his followers to continue this practice: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 28:18-20).
Baptizing new believers became the practice of early Christianity across the book of Acts:
In Samaria: “When they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).
The Ethiopian eunuch: “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?’ 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).
Saul of Tarsus: “Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (Acts 9:17-19).
Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles: “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).
Lydia in Philippi: “One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 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” (Acts 16:14-15).
The Philippian jailer: “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” (Acts 16:29-33).
The symbolism of baptism is simple: we bury the person we were before trusting Christ as our Savior and Lord, and are raised up as new people, born again as the children of God. We do this publicly to stand for Jesus and to invite others to stand for him. As he died publicly for us, we die symbolically and publicly for him. This is the most powerful single witness we will ever give to our faith. The most significant way Billy Graham ever preached the gospel was the day he was baptized. So it is with us.
What about other traditions?
As you know, baptizing believers by immersion is not the only way churches understand this ritual and event. Here’s a very quick summary of the reasons why.
Three centuries after Christ, Christian theologians had concluded that sin is transmitted sexually, so that babies are born with inherited original sin. They had also concluded that baptism washes away sin. Neither position is biblical, but that’s what they thought. You wouldn’t want to immerse babies, so they began sprinkling them to wash away their sins. Thus began the practice of infant baptism, still continued in Catholic churches today.
When the Reformation began in the 16th century, many chose to keep whatever the Catholic Church did so long as it was not unbiblical. The Bible nowhere forbids the sprinkling of an infant, so they continued this practice. They changed its meaning, however, to that of dedicating a child to God. So it is that Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and similar traditions baptize infants.
Other reformers chose to keep from the Catholic Church only what is biblical—that which the Bible commands. Nowhere does the Bible tell us to baptize infants, so they returned to the original practice of immersing converts. Baptists come from this tradition, as do many other Christian denominations.
If you were baptized as an infant, your parents wanted to dedicate you to Christ. Their desire was both beautiful and commendable. Your baptism as a follower of Jesus in no way repudiates their faith—it fulfills it. It is as though they arranged your marriage, then you chose to accept the one they chose for you. Your wedding day fulfills their arrangement. Your baptism fulfills their faith in committing you to God.
Note that we are baptized as believers, not so we can be saved but because we already are. We do this not as an act of salvation but as an act of obedience.
The thief on the cross at Jesus’ side, the moment he made Christ his Lord, was promised: “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Though he could not be baptized, he could trust in Jesus. All who have followed his example, whatever their baptism tradition, are children of the same Father and members of the same family.
I often explain baptism as a wedding ring. Wearing such a ring does not make us married. Nor does the absence of a wedding ring prove that we are not married. Rather, a ring shows the world our marital status. It is a public symbol of a personal commitment.
So it is with our baptism as Christians—we tell the world that Jesus is our Lord, inviting others to join our faith. If those who witness our baptism trust Christ because we have, our baptism fulfills its most significant purpose, to the glory of God.
Years ago, a machinist at Ford Motor Company in Detroit became a Christian and was baptized. He took his baptism seriously. He had been stealing parts and tools from Ford for years. The morning after his baptism he took all the stolen parts and tools back to his boss. He explained his situation and his recent conversion and baptism, and asked for forgiveness.
This response by an employee was without precedent. Mr. Ford was visiting a European plant at the time, but he was cabled concerning the details of this matter. His response was requested. Mr. Ford immediately returned a cable with his decision: “Dam up the Detroit River, and baptize the entire city.”
Jesus went even further. In his Great Commission he ordered his church to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19). Today we have learned why.
You may not yet have been baptized as a believer; if not, I encourage you to follow Christ in this act of obedience. You may have been baptized as his follower; if so, I encourage you to be baptized again today. Not physically, but spiritually. Do today what you did then: choose to follow him as your Savior. Say to him the words, “Jesus is my Lord.” Submit your life to him, privately and publicly. Choose to declare your faith to the world.
Such obedience does not earn his power, but it receives it. God gives us his power as we are willing to fulfill his purpose. When we make him our Lord, we have his strength. When we don’t, we don’t.
This week has been one of the most difficult I have experienced. Mom’s death last Sunday evening; making final arrangements on Monday; speaking at her graveside on Tuesday and her memorial service on Wednesday; giving away her furniture and clothes on Thursday; preparing this weekend to preach to you today.
Each step of the way I have been faced with a decision—will I submit this to Jesus or not? Will I surrender to him as my Lord, or do this in my strength and ability? Will I yield to him as my Master or will I refuse? Each moment I baptized, each day I surrendered, was a good moment and a good day. Each day I did not, was not. What needs to be baptized in your life today?