BAPTISM IN CONVERSION:
ISRAELíS PROMISES FULFILLED FOR THE BELIEVER IN JESUS
Jon A. Weatherly, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament, Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary
Stone-Campbell Adherents Study Group
Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting
November 18, 1999
In most respects, the question of baptismís connection to conversion in the New Testament is more settled than it has been at any point since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Since the publication nearly forty years ago of G. R. Beasley-Murrayís definitive work, it has become more and more common for works on New Testament interpretation to affirm that though the New Testament nowhere sets forth systematically a reflective understanding of baptism, it nevertheless assumes that baptism belongs normally in the context of conversion and results in any or all of the benefits associated with conversion. Certainly, though one still reads arguments against such an understanding of particular texts, or that continue to speak of baptism only as a sign of things already accomplished in a conversion already complete, opinion has shifted substantially in a direction that affirms baptism as integral to conversion in the New Testament. Such is so much the case that it is only mildly surprising to discover, in a publication from a well-known Southern Baptist seminary, a well-known Baptist evangelical advocating, like a latter-day Walter Scott, an understanding of conversion in five parts: repentance, faith and confession by the convert, regeneration or the gift of the Holy Spirit by God, and the administration of baptism by representatives of the Christian community.
Certainly adherents of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement welcome such a developing consensus. In light of that consensus, one approach to the subject of this presentation would be to follow advice given to Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War: declare victory and go home. However, with the responsibility of an assigned topic, I will attempt to bring something more to this subject. What I am attempting is prompted by two relatively recent developments, closely related to each other. One is the modification of our speech about and understanding of what we have in the past easily labeled as "conversion." The second is the broad reorientation of New Testament studies to the social and political matrix of second-temple Judaism. In consideration of these two factors, what will be done here is not so much to revise the emerging consensus on baptism drastically but to tweak it mildly. I suggest that baptism in the New Testament is accurately described as belonging to the context of conversion, but more accurately as an act in which the promises of God to Israel come to fulfillment for the individual, both visibly in what the tangible act represents and invisibly in the promised action of God.
Converting Conversion Language
Certainly within evangelicalism and only to a somewhat lesser degree in Protestantism in general it has been customary to speak of the process of becoming a believer in Jesus as "conversion." Awkward as that language is to apply in some situations common to our experience (e.g., the coming to faith of a child whose parents are Christians), we have nevertheless seen the category of "conversion" embracing all experiences of coming to faith in Jesus and receiving the benefits of salvation. Thus, in summarizing such experiences in the book of Acts, we have spoken comfortably of the conversion of three thousand at Pentecost, of the Ethiopian eunuch, of Saul of Tarsus, of Cornelius, of the Philippian jailer, and so forth.
In regard to one of those events, however, we have been brought up short. In a celebrated article Krister Stendahl argued provocatively that Paul himself never described his Damascus Road experience as a conversion but as a call. Stendahlís argument is unsatisfactory for several reasons: its glib false choice between mutually exclusive categories of "conversion" and "call" (no less suspicious because the two terms alliterate), its doctrinaire privileging of Paulís epistles over Acts, and its argument from the silence of our present collection of Paulís occasional letters, among others. Nevertheless, Stendahl did bring to our attention something that was undoubtedly a part of Paulís own religious self-definition: that he understood himself not as a convert from Judaism but as one who remains a true Jew and true Israelite for whom Godís promises have now come to a climax of fulfillment.
What would be true of Saul/Paul would also be true for several of the other converts enumerated above. The Jewish Pentecost converts certainly remained Jews but with a different perspective on their Judaism. For the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius, the God of Israel was already the one true God; their devotion to him is nothing new, though their understanding of their access to him and membership in his people is radically altered by the gospel. Such people Luke habitually styles "those who fear God," a description fitting on either side of their so-called "conversion." Only for the pagan converts like the Philippian jailer or the former pagans of the Thessalonian church (1 Thess 1:9-10) should we rightly think of a full conversion from one religious outlook to another.
The caution above about Stendahlís glib false choice must continue here, however. Since Stendahl, it has been noted that in the ancient world, no less than in modern sociology, one can speak of experiences like a revision of prior religious understanding or a renewal of commitment to a religion or an identification with a different sect of a religion as "conversion." Understood in these deliberately expanded terms, we rightly speak of all in the New Testament who come to faith in Jesus as having undergone a conversion.
But the narrower definition of conversion is nevertheless helpful, for it reminds us that for many Christians in the early generations, even for most, the matter of becoming a Christian was not so much the repudiation of an old way of life as an affirmation that a hoped-for outcome had occurred. I take it as probable that a majority of Christians in the first century were Jews, proselytes or "God-fearers" who came to understand that in Jesus God had brought about a new state of affairs in the world. Their experience of "conversion" was no less dramatic or significant for all of that, but we do well to remind ourselves that they did not so much renounce an old religion as undertake a radical new understanding of it.
New Testament Language on Baptism in the Setting of Second-Temple Judaism
Among the more salubrious developments in the last thirty years of New Testament scholarship has been the renewed focus on the Jewish matrix of early Christianity. While Hellenistic religious and philosophical ideas undoubtedly influenced early Christian proclamation, few today would question that the primary point of reference for Christian ideas was the beliefs and expectations of second-temple Judaism. Such is the case no less with baptism than with other features of early Christian belief. Earlier attempts to find the antecedents of baptism in the mystery religions have been decisively laid to rest. As with other subjects of New Testament discussion, here we look more fruitfully at the Jewish side of the cultural ledger.
In doing so, we find the New Testament associating with baptism a range of ideas that figure prominently in the hopes and expectationsóor as we habitually say, the eschatologyóof second-temple Judaism. I have been convinced by N. T. Wright that pre-70 C.E. Judaism as a whole, in its various sectarian manifestations, perhaps minus the Sadducees and other aristocrats, understood Israel to remain under the curse of the exile and looked forward to the promised restoration. Therefore, I will describe baptismís New Testament associations in those terms, as elements of Israelís postexilic restoration. The thrust of my observations, however, will not depend on that specific understanding, as by most readings of the Jewish Scriptures and noncanonical literature, the elements associated with baptism in the New Testament clearly were objects of Israelís hope.
Johnís Baptism: Anticipation of Israelís Restoration
Discussion of Johnís practice of baptism in the context of Judaism generally focuses on the question of its antecedents: in proselyte baptism, in the lustrations of the Qumran covenanters, or elsewhere. At this stage, this particular question is probably at an impasse. The problems with both of these proposed forebears are well known (proselyte baptism is perhaps not early practiced prior to John, the Qumran rites were repeated, both were self-administered).
We can, however, make several reasonable observations about Johnís practice against the general background of Jewish ritual washing. One is that, as far as the New Testament is concerned, his action of baptizing was characteristic enough that he was labeled "the baptizer," (baptisth,j [baptistes]; Matt 3:1; 11:1-12; etc.). Here the very difference with Jewish lustrations is probably important, for Johnís practice was administered by him to the baptizand, not self-administered as were other washings. This distinctive practice is coherent when set against the association of Johnís baptism with repentance and escape from Godís wrath. As the prescribed response to his preaching of a coming crisis of judgment and deliverance, it signified Godís purifying of a remnant in Israel who would be endure the crisis and receive the blessing that resulted (Matt 3:7-10//Luke 3:7-9). Warnings about the coming greater one who would winnow Israel and burn the chaff with fire (Matt 3:11-12//Mark 1:7-8//Luke 3:15-17) necessitated a divine cleansing from sin for those who in response to the prophetic warning repented and brought forth the "fruit of repentance," lives reflecting Godís intention for his people and anticipating a restoration of that people by means other than the political (Luke 3:10-14). For John, Israelís restoration would mean that God would purge the nation both by eliminating the ungodly and by purifying the lives of those who remained. He looked for the cleansed remnant promised by Isaiah (1:9, 16; 66:20), Ezekiel (24:13; 36:33), Zechariah (3:1-10) and others, a cleansing associated with the promised pouring out of the Spirit (Joel 2:28-32; Ezek 36:25-27; 39:29; Zech 12:10). Baptism, as an image of cleansing received by some and not others and administered not by supplicant but by Godís prophet, distinctively summarized this thrust of Johnís message. No wonder, then, that Johnís authority to baptize was questioned (Matt 21:25//Mark 11:30//Luke 20:4; John 1:25-26): the act itself was distinctive, but the claim behind it was audacious. And the claim could not be separated from the act.
Perhaps no less important is the setting of Johnís preaching and baptizing: the Judean "wilderness" and the Jordan River. Both are pregnant with meaning for the person familiar with Israelís history. While this was not the same "wilderness" as the one in which their forebears wandered before entering the promised land, the very idea of wilderness appears to have been sufficient to evoke an association with the exodus. John, it appears, was not the first to call people into the wilderness to await the promise of God (though, of course, he did not bid them stay). Likewise, the act of dipping in the Jordan may have suggested not just an act of cleansing but a reinactment of Israelís crossing the Jordan to enter the land with Joshua. Other allusions in the gospels to the exodus experienceóJesusí temptation for forty days in "wilderness," where he succeeds in contrast to Israelís failure (Matt 4:1-11//Mark 1:12-13//Luke 4:1-13); the miraculous provision of bread in the "wilderness" near the time of Passover (Matt 14:13-21//Mark 6:30-44//Luke 9:10-17); warnings about "this generation" (e.g., Luke 7:31); the question of "the prophet" (John 1:25; 6:14; 7:40)ó are thick enough to invite an intertextual connection here as well. Making the connection reinforces the understanding of Johnís baptism already inferred from the other elements of his practice. The action was innovative, but it drew upon widely held ideas about the messianic age as a second exodus (Isa 35:1-2; 40:3-5; Hos 2:14-23: Ezek 20:33-44; 1QS 8:12-16; Rev 12:6, 13-14).
Submission to the Coming Greater One: Baptism "in the Name of Jesus"
Following close on Johnís announcement of the coming greater one in the Synoptics is the baptism of Jesus. This event, with the appearance of the Spirit just after the announcement of one who would baptize with "Spirit and fire," the divine voice, in Matthew with the revealing conversation between baptizer and baptizand, and in John with Jesusí own baptizing of greater numbers (John 2:22-26; cf. 10:40-42) overtly reveals to the reader that Jesus is the coming greater one, though it functions more ambiguously for the characters in the narrative. The divine authority implied in that act is the rationale for the post-resurrection command to baptize "in the name of Jesus." The adoption of Johnís action performed in Jesusí name attests to the fulfillment through Jesus of the promises that Johnís preaching elicited.
Lars Hartman has argued cogently that the expression "baptize in the name of Jesus" is best understood against the background of other religious rites done "in the name" of the deity who is the "fundamental referent" of the rite, "with regard to whom" the rite is performed. The formula is therefore fitting in Matt 28:16-20, where Jesus is worshiped and his universal authority is asserted (cf. Matt 4:8-10) before he commands the making of disciples who will be taught to keep all of Jesusí commands. The participle bapti,zontej (baptizontes, "baptizing") is clearly instrumental here, indicating with "going" and "teaching" the means by which disciples are made. The act of baptism, then, in the name of Father, Son and Spirit has, to speak with only mild anachronism, the triune God as its referent, with a particular emphasis on submission to the authority of Jesus the Son, whose disciples the act initiates.
The same may be said for baptism in the name of Jesus in Acts 2:38. This instruction becomes all the more coherent when read against the text with which Peter begins his sermon, or more particularly the ending of that text: "And it will be that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts 2:21; Joel 2:32). The ensuing speech asserts the authority of Jesus, crucified but now vindicated and exalted by his resurrection, to pour out the Spirit on his followers. The repentance that Peter calls for is most directly connected to their turning from their former rejection of Jesus to acknowledge the authority granted him by God (v. 36). Thus, to be baptized in his "name" and so receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit echoes the closing line of the Joel quotation, so that to be baptized in Jesusí name is to call on the name of the Lord to be saved. This connection is all the more clear when we note that the awkward shift from the second person plural "repent" (metanoh,sate[metanoesate]) to the third person singular "each of you must be baptized" creates a closer parallel with the third person singular "all who call" in v. 21, with the indefinite pronouns pa/j (pas,"all") in the former and e[kastoj (hekastos, "each") in the latter supplying similar universal force.
Further examples of baptism "in the name of Jesus" in Acts occur in 8:16 and 10:48. While both of these episodes raise questions about the reception of the Spirit in relation to baptism that I will address later, here we should note that baptism "in the name" is here applied to formerly excluded peoples as they submit to the authority of Jesus. By this act of submission they are joined to the people of God and so bring to fulfillment the repeated scriptural promise that Israelís God will be worshiped among the nations. So the Samaritans, rivals to the Jews for Israelís heritage and here devotees of a sorcerer, are received into the fellowship of Godís people as they submit to the authority of Jesus in baptism. Likewise with Cornelius: his prayers and righteous acts are answered as in baptism he submits to the authority of the one proclaimed by Peter. In Luke-Acts he becomes the archetype of the Gentile to whom Godís promised swth,rion (soterion, "salvation") is given (Luke 2:30; 3:6; Acts 28:28; cf. Isa 40:5). Although the "name" is not explicitly connected to it, the Ethiopian eunuchís baptism (8:36-39), the climax of a dramatic series of divinely orchestrated events and the response to Philipís preaching "Jesus" (v. 35) certainly registers the same theme. As an Ethiopian, he belonged to a nation conceived by the peoples of the Mediterranean basin as living at the far reaches of the earth. For Israel, Ethiopia therefore signified a faraway place that will acknowledge Yahweh in the age of fulfillment (Ps 68:31-32; Isa 45:14; Zeph 3:9-10). As a eunuch, this man was excluded from temple worship but promised restoration with other "foreigners" in the "house of prayer for all nations" (Isa 56:3-8). Similar remarks can even be made for Saul of Tarsus, whose turning from "persecuting" Jesus to preaching him is marked with a baptism that signifies the washing of his sins (Acts 22:16), sins that took the shape of rejecting the authority of the Risen One. The ace persecutor becomes the hero of the Christian mission as he exits the baptismal waters.
Paul himself attests to the notion of submission to the authority of Jesus through baptism "in the name of Jesus," though he does so indirectly. It is widely noted that his disparaging remark about being baptized "in the name of Paul" (1 Cor 1:13) assumes the practice of baptism in the name of Jesus, as does his comparison to Israel baptized "into Moses" (1 Cor 10:2). Both remarks assume that all the Corinthian Christians had been baptized, though not by Paul, and both assume their submission in the act to the authority of the one whom Paul preached and Moses foreshadowed. The act of baptism becomes definitive for their identity as people under the authority of Jesus.
Thus, as the people identified with Jesus, their unity under the sovereignty of Jesus is patent for Paul. As it is in 1 Corinthians, so it is in Gal 3:26-29: identity with the people of God means sonship, inheritance, and unity for all who have been baptized and so have put on Christ. Likewise, in Eph 4:5 the shared experience of baptism stands amidst the cluster of unifying elements, preceded by the "one Lord" Jesus and "one faith" in him that baptism represents.
Against the backdrop of first-century Jewish experience, all such notions of submission to the divine authority of Jesus come across as fulfillments of Godís promise to reassert his authority over all creation and all rival authorities. The concept is so familiar that I need scarcely mention texts like Isa 13-26, which begins as a catalogue of judgment against the nations, both the Gentiles and Israel, and ends with God triumphant and the nations gathered to share in the blessings of Godís restored sovereignty. Likewise Danielís vision of beastly empires brought to their end by "one like a son of man" expresses the same hope (Dan 7:1-28). The experiences of Greek and Roman rule served only to intensify such hope for many in Israel. Jesus identified that hoped for "kingdom of God" with his work in the world. The Christian gospel, proclaimed to all the nations, identified the risen Jesus as the one through whom that hope is realized, through whom Godís rule is restored. Baptism in Jesusí name, then, is the evocative symbol and normative occasion of entry into that rule.
Identification with Jesusí Death and Resurrection
Baptismís association with Jesusí death and resurrection in Rom 6:3-4 and Col 2:12 is easily recognized. The connection may have roots in the Synoptic saying that refers to Jesusí death as a baptism (Mark 10:38-39//Luke 12:50). But regardless of the merits of such a connection, I would here call attention to the obvious eschatological tenor of Jesusí death and resurrection and so of the believerís participation in it through baptism. Resurrection in the prophets is part and parcel with Israelís restoration, as either the means to it or a way of referring to it (Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1-14; Hos 5:15-6:3; Dan 12; cf. 2 Macc 7). It has become a commonplace to observe that Jesusí resurrection revises the hope of Israel as the resurrection of all at the end of history is inaugurated with the resurrection of one in the middle of history.
But we can press this point further in the Pauline texts that connect baptism and resurrection. In both passages, the believer dies and rises with Christ and so enters into a new sphere of behavior, characterized by newness (in Romans 6) and victory over the cosmic powers (in Colossians 2-3). Such new life is itself characteristic of the age in which Israelís promises are fulfilled (e.g., Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26), all the more so when it embraces both Israel and the nations (Isa 25:6-8).
Receiving the Spirit
The connection between baptism in water and receiving the Spirit in Acts, though disputed with good cause, is central to the understanding of the book. As noted above, Acts 2:38 echoes the promise of 2:21 that in the "last days" (v. 17) all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. The closing remark of v. 38 about receiving the Spirit thus further echoes the announcement in vv. 17-21 that Joelís promise of the Spiritís outpouring is fulfilled. As v. 39 continues the point, the extension of the promise to "your children" and "all who are far off" again recalls v. 17 with its "sons," "daughters," and "all flesh" as recipients of Godís Spirit. The community thus formed by receiving the word and being baptized evinces its Spirit-filled life by means of the activities described in vv. 42-47. The contrast between Johnís baptism in water and the coming baptism in the Spirit (Acts 1:5) now has its resolution as those baptized in water in the name of Jesus receive the fulfillment of Johnís promise about the coming greater one.
But this reception of the Spirit is problematic in certain texts elsewhere in Acts. In 8:16 Samaritan believers receive the Spirit only after Peter and John lay hands on them and pray for them; baptism "in the name of Jesus" does not bring this outcome. The argument that the faith of the Samaritans was somehow defective suffers both from Lukeís description suggesting the opposite (they "believed" and "received the word," vv. 12, 14) and from the remedy, prayer and laying on of hands, not addressing the problem in any direct way. While I am sympathetic to the viewpoint that Luke refers here to the withholding of some visible manifestation of the Spirit rather than the gift of the Spirit per se, I believe that his absolute expression cannot be so tidily limited. But neither does this text indicate that Luke does not understand the Spirit normally to be received in connection with faith and baptism. The second clause should probably be understood not as the cause of the Samaritans not having received the Spirit but as a concession: they had received baptism in the name of Jesus only, that is, without the concomitant receiving of the Spirit normally expected in the context of baptism. When we remember that in Acts Luke recounts conversions with full narratives when something exceptional about them demonstrates the ongoing work of God through the church, not necessarily to establish by narrative repetition a specific ordo salutis, then the exceptional nature of this episode as far as the Spiritís reception is coherent. For Luke it underlines the unity between Jewish and Samaritan followers of Jesus, demonstrated by the apostolic prayer and laying on of hands, and provides the occasion for the decisive confrontation between the apostle Peter and the sorcerer Simon.
Similar remarks can be made for Corneliusí reception of the Spirit prior to baptism in Acts 10:47, recounted in 11:16-17. The entire episode is shot through with exceptional circumstances that underline divine intervention to bring the Roman centurion Cornelius into the community of Jesusí followers. The response of Peter to the Spiritís pre-baptismal reception (and its dramatic manifestation) is coherent in the narrative if Corneliusí experience is outside the norm, one that recalls the foundational Pentecost event (11:16-17) and not garden-variety conversions.
On similar terms, the unusual case of the twelve "disciples" in Ephesus (19:1-7) assumes that the ordinary experience is to receive the Spirit as a consequence of baptism in the context of faith in Jesus. Paulís question about their baptism (v. 3) can have little relevance to their ignorance about the Spirit unless Paul assumes a connection between baptism in Jesusí name and receiving the Spirit. The recognition that followsóthese are followers of John the Baptist who know little or nothing about the coming greater oneóprobably explains the term "disciple" with which these are first described. Luke apparently uses the term there from the limited perspective of Paul rather than his ("omniscient") perspective as narrator. To Paul these at first appear as "disciples" of Jesus, though they prove to be disciples of John soon converted to following the coming greater one. The account thus serves to underline the testimony of John about the one who brings the Spirit in contrast to Johnís ministry of preparation. The assumption that reception of the Spirit normally is the consequence of baptism in the name of Jesus is reinforced by the narrativeís outcome. Paulís laying on of hands (v. 6) probably serves as an adjunct to the act of baptism rather than a supplement to it. Such an action, an appropriate posture of prayer for reception of the Spirit, may have occasionally or even regularly accompanied baptism in the early church. But Lukeís mentioning of it on two occasions, and the near silence of the rest of the New Testament on the practice (cf. 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) suggest that when observed, laying on of hands and prayer in the context of baptism were understood as reinforcing the supplicatory action of baptism itself (see discussion of 1 Pet 3:21 below).
What, then, does this episode tell us about the preceding one concerning Apollos? It has been widely observed that Apollos appears in the story in a more salutary condition: he has been instructed and so teaches accurately about Jesus, probably by the power of the Holy Spirit, though æÝùí ô² ðíåýìáôé (zeon to pneumati, "fervent in Spirit") may refer to a zealous manner of presentation. His one defect is knowing only the baptism of John, and though instructed by Paulís associates on this subject and subsequently joining with them in their mission, he may or may not have responded to that teaching by being baptized in the name of Jesus. Lukeís silence, in contrast to the following pericopeís explicit detail on the baptism of the twelve, is taken by many as the equivalent of denial. Apollos is not baptized in the name of Jesus because he already has the Spirit, demonstrated by his fervent and accurate preaching, while the twelve are baptized because they have no knowledge of the Spirit, let alone evidence of the Spiritís presence. I would suggest, however, that Lukeís concern is again less to clarify the relationship between baptism and the reception of the Spirit in such narratives than to portray the ongoing, expanding unity of the church under the authority of its messiah, the one about whom John the prophet testified. That faith in Jesus issues quickly in baptism with the result of reception of the Spirit is the norm assumed by Lukeís narrative. Exceptions and silences (including the baptism of the twelve or 120 at Pentecost) are indifferent for Luke as long as the identity of the church as the one people of God under the divine authority of the one messiah Jesus is central.
The same may be said for Paulís statement in 1 Cor 12:13. For Paul the shared act of baptism in water signifies the unity of the church under Christís authority (a "body" under him as head) made actual by the Spirit. The notion that the expression "by one Spirit baptized" is entirely metaphorical, referring only to reception of the Spirit and not to baptism in water, probably puts too much stock in the notion that something like "Spirit baptism" functioned as a technical term in early Christianity. The fact that "baptized in the (Holy) Spirit" occurs unequivocally only in contrast to Johnís action in baptism cautions against such a conclusion. We are on firmer ground to observe that a reference to baptism in water is an effective appeal to unity only if Paul assumes here, as in Gal 3:27 and Eph 4:4, that it was the experience of all of his readers in their conversion.
With all these questions that arise in our day, however, we probably obscure what was the paramount truth for the New Testament: that the coming of the Spirit in connection with baptism in Jesusí name represented the climax of Godís fulfilling his promises to his people. The future outpouring of the Spirit is a well established prophetic topos (e.g., Isa 32:15; 44:3-4; Ezek 39:29; Joel 2:28-32; Zech 12:10). Such texts collate this event with Israelís restoration; indeed, it is the pouring out of the Spirit that effects that restoration. So for the New Testament writers, the reception of the Spirit brings that restoration to reality among Jesusí followers, who in turn live the lives of unity and godliness that characterize the people of God in the age of fulfillment. That such a gift should be predicated on an act like baptism is surprising only for those who have assumed that such divine gifts must be by definition disassociated with any particular form of response to the divine initiative, including one that by its nature portrays that divine initiative.
Cleansing from Sin
Earlier I made the observation that Johnís baptism probably evoked the prophetic promise of Godís cleansing his people in the last days. Hence, it is connected to the "forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). The same is explicitly true for Christian baptism as well. Here again we turn to the much cited and maligned text, Acts 2:38. We can with confidence affirm that eivj a;fesin tw/n a`marti,wn (eis aphesin ton hamartion, "for the forgiveness of sins") is indeed telic and not causal. Further, to connect it only to "repentance" not only strains the sentence structure unduly but also obscures the image of cleansing that was probably most prominent in the action itself.
The same connection is implied by Acts 22:16, where the first command "be baptized" is followed by a second "wash away your sins," the image of the second clearly drawing upon the image of the first. The participle that completes this utterance, "calling on his name," is clearly enough not an action separate from the one previously described but a further explication of it. Baptism here serves as an act of cleansing insofar as it is the baptizandís submissive plea to the Lord for cleansing.
The image of cleansing inherent in baptism is probably exploited by Luke on one other occasion. In Acts 16:33 the jailerís late-night washing of the prisoner Paulís wounds, certainly an exceptional action in such a social context, is followed immediately by his baptism by Paul. With the next scene of a shared table, Luke drives home his point that the Roman jailer and the Jewish prisoner are now united in a relationship of mutual love through the gospel. The promised cleansing by God has been realized, with the effect that traditional barriers are overcome.
Most striking, however, is the image of cleansing in 1 Pet 3:21. This text is replete with textual, syntatical and lexical questions. Though it is sometimes construed to contrast baptism with cleansing, the contrast is not with cleansing as such but outward cleansing of the "flesh" (in the literal or non-Pauline sense) with inner cleansing. The expression evperw,thma (eperotema) provides a difficulty. The noun is a biblical hapax legomenon and not common prior to the second century. In legal papyri of the second century it is used for the formal question and answer by which a contract is ratified. On this basis the word is commonly taken as "pledge," so that baptism is viewed as an acted promise to live according to the cleansing signified by the act, a pledge to keep the conscience good. If, however, evperw,thma derives its sense from the underlying cognate verb evperwta,wdia, (eperotao), then the sense would be more akin to "request." In this case the point is all the more compatible with the rest of the sentence: baptism "saves" not as an act that removes outward filth but as a request addressed to God that the conscience be cleansed or made "good." Baptism thus is viewed as the new believerís prayer of supplication for cleansing from God. Its saving action accords with prominent Petrine themes and with the typological comparsion to the flood: the saved are delivered by Godís provision, few in number, and saved "through" (dia, [dia] ambiguously spatial or instrumental) water.
Other texts explore the cleansing image inherent in baptism (1 Cor 6:11; Tit 3:5; Heb 6:2; 9:10). As Johnís baptism evoked the expectation of Godís great action of cleansing in Israelís restoration, so we can observe the same associations with the Christian rite. Christian baptism is implicitly compared to Jewish lustrations (Heb 6:2), collated with concepts of the Jewish scriptures like holiness and righteousness (1 Cor 6:11) or rebirth (Tit 3:5). Granted that religious ideas of cleansing were common in Hellenistic religion as well, the fundamental orientation of New Testament discourse to Jewish categories argues that the point of reference in baptism is to be found there. Those less familiar with the traditions of Israel could no doubt understand the hope of cleansing from their own cultural contexts, but the action of baptism was proclaimed to signify something grounded in Israelís hopes. The individual who submits to Christ in baptism entreats God for the cleansing promised to Israel in the time of restoration.
Conclusions: Prophetic Actions, Divine Action, Contemporary Praxis
Now, what, if anything, does all this say about the issues that probably motivate us to look once more at the issue of baptism? In one respect, I have said very little that is new here. To revise our speech about conversion and baptism toward terms that suggest Israelís restoration involves no sea change as far as the traditional understanding of the subject in the Stone-Campbell Movement is concerned. And it is unlikely to change the mind of anyone who differs with the Campbellites on things baptismal.
But I would suggest that this reorientation does provide some points that address these larger concerns. First, by speaking of baptism less as the churchís sacrament and more as an action that evokes the fulfillment of Israelís hopes, we are better able to see it against the tradition in Israel of the prophetic action, the deed of the prophet that at once proclaimed divine action and was concomitant with it (cf. 1 Kgs 11:29-30; Jer 19:1-13; Ezek 4:1-17; 5:1-4; etc.). In such a context, the thought that an invisible action of God could be promised in a visible action of Godís representatives is entirely thinkable, perhaps more than for Western Christian theology forged in the perspectives of the Reformation that tended to separate the intangible or "spiritual" from the tangible or "physical." We have been warned in the past that such a tendency to separate the two spheres undermines other notions like the incarnation, atonement through the physical death of Christ, and the resurrection. That warning is reinforced as we observe that the New Testament moves in a world where the two realms are not easily separated.
The connection of visible and invisible in baptism is all the more consonant when coupled with the observation that baptism in the New Testament is with few exceptions performed immediately after the baptizand has come to faith. Kept together in experience, coming to faith, being baptized and receiving the benefits of salvation can easily be kept together in theory as well. Thus, we do not understand that the power to effect salvation is imputed by God to the act of baptism itself (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-6). Rather, baptism is the normative and immediate response of faith to the gospel and so has the promise of salvation predicated upon it by God.
So settled was this matter for the first generations of Christians that the New Testament writers had no need to set forth a detailed ordo salutis. Paul was thereby freed to appeal to baptism as an experience among his readers commonly shared and understood that therefore could establish for them their identity with its implications for behavior. Luke was thereby freed to narrate exceptional conversions rather than normative ones. Those exceptions portray what is also assumed: that God remains sovereign over his gifts and their bestowal. He did indeed grant them to some before or even apart from baptism. But such occasions do not alter the fundamental understanding of baptismís significance: under ordinary circumstances, the gospel calls the repentant new believer to address himself to Christ and to God by submitting to baptism, an action performed not by but on the baptizand, in the tradition of the actions of Israelís prophets that expressed visibly the essentially concurrent action of God.
Such observations appear to me to call for a reformation of contemporary praxis as much as theory. Before baptism can be understood in a context where Godís promises are applied to the one baptized, it must occur near to the point of faith. As long as baptism is delayed by weeks or months while conversion is initially ritualized by means of pre-composed prayers, signing printed statements or the like, the belated baptizand will have difficulty relating his own experience to the New Testamentís testimony. When baptism is the first consequence of new belief, such difficulties appropriating the biblical outlook will largely disappear. If such an outcome can reestablish harmony among the many who long for the promises of Israel to be fulfilled for all nations, then it is worth pursuing.