I was six years old when my parents were baptized. I watched them be immersed, completely submerged in water, a function the word itself implies. After the service a number of folks from church came to our home and visited with us. They were congratulating my parents and welcoming us into the family of God. I knew there was something special about baptism.
Baptism has always played a significant role among the people of God. Jesus was baptized and later commissioned his disciples to teach and baptize people (Matthew 28:19,20). The early church taught and baptized (Acts 2, 8 and 10) in the name of Jesus Christ. Today, we still proclaim the Gospel of Christ and baptize in his name. Several important things happen to the life of a person who submits himself to baptism in the name of Jesus.
In the first gospel sermon Peter makes a bold claim about Jesus. "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." (Acts 2:32-36).
Three important affirmations are made about Jesus in these verses: He was raised to life from the dead, he was exalted to the right hand of God where he rules over his enemies and Jesus is Lord and Christ, meaning he is the chosen one of God.
Peter preached that Jesus is the one God sent to be Lord, ruler and savior of all men. In verse 21 Peter said, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." What did the people do with this lord, ruler and savior that God sent to the earth? They killed him. "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." (Verse 36)
How would you respond if you helped kill a man that you thought was only a common criminal, but he turned out to be the Lord of the universe? Would that shock you a bit? The Bible says, "When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’" (Verse 37)
I’m not surprised they were cut to the heart and cried out, "What have we done?! What can we do?!" To be cut to the heart means you experience a searing emotional pain deep in your heart, a pain that is not easily extinguished or forgotten.
A Confederate soldier was engaged with the Union enemy when he heard the approach of horses behind him. Thinking he was being hemmed in by approaching enemy soldiers he turned and shot. His lead found a home and the rider fell from his horse. When the Confederate soldier approached the fallen man he found it wasn’t a Union soldier lying on the ground. No, it was Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate General. Can you imagine the stabbing sensation in the heart of that young soldier? "I didn’t kill an enemy! I killed one of the greatest leaders of my own country! What can I do?! Where can I hide?!"
That might be what the people felt when Peter told them, "You know that itinerant preacher you killed? The guy in common clothes who ate with tax collectors and sinners? Well, he is the Son of God exalted to the right hand of the Father."
When they said, "What can we do," I don’t think they were asking a question of salvation. I think they thought they were doomed. The south never recovered from the loss of Stonewall Jackson. I wonder if these men thought Israel would ever recover from the loss of the leader they killed.
Peter replied to the men, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Verse 38).
Repentance and baptism are not new terms to these people. The Jews practiced baptism in the first century for cleansing from sin.1 They would be familiar with John the Baptist: "He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Luke 3:3). John preached that repentance and baptism were for the remission of sins, meaning the forgiveness of sins. Sin is what separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1,2) and condemns us (Romans 6:23). These sins are washed away in repentance and baptism.
Some controversy hinges on the meaning and interpretation of the word, "for." The word here is Eis, meaning "for" or "into," as in, "for the remission of sins" or "into the remission of sins." Our baptism is so that we may receive the remission or forgiveness of sins.
Some people understand baptism to occur after salvation. They translate Eis as "because of," as in "because of the remission of sins." They believe we are saved when we ask Jesus into our hearts and following that "experience" we are baptized as a sign of our salvation, "because of the remission of sins" which is already ours by virtue of the believer’s prayer.
It is interesting to compare Acts 2:38 with Matthew 26:38 where Jesus says, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Would anyone interpret this to say that Jesus was going to offer blood because of the remission of sins?
Here are the two statements side by side from the Greek:
Acts 2:38 - Eis aφεσιν τäν aμαρτιäν ßμäν - for (or into) remission of your sins.
Matt. 26:28 - Eis aφεσιν aμαρτιäν - for (or into) remission of sins.
Matthew 26:28 would not make sense understood as "because of." Why would Jesus shed his blood if we already had remission of sins? "For" makes more sense here, understanding Jesus’ blood as the cleansing agent for sin. Consistency would lead us to translate Eis as "for" or "into" salvation in Acts 2:38.2
There is another perspective in Acts 2:38 to consider. It is the statement, "in the name of Jesus Christ." Repentance and baptism find significance for us only if they are experienced in the name of Jesus Christ. Why is that significant?
John’s baptism lacked something. In Luke 3:16 John said, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." John’s baptism lacked the active agency of the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism was of God. It had efficacy - effectiveness - for remissions of sins. But it lacked the power of the Holy Spirit that the baptism of Jesus would have.
Peter says, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." This is the baptism of Christ: "In the name of Jesus Christ." It is in his name that we confess and are baptized. It is in his name we receive the forgiveness of sins. It is in his name that we receive something those baptized by John did not receive: the Holy Spirit.
There is great emphasis in Acts chapter 2 on the Holy Spirit. In ...
- 2:4 the Spirit comes upon those in the house and they began to speak in tongues.
- 2:5-12 Jews who spoke other languages were amazed because they understood what the Apostles were saying.
- 2:17 Peter quotes from the Old Testament about how God will pour out his Spirit on all people.
- 2:33 Peter says Jesus has poured out the Holy Spirit on the worship service at Pentecost.
- 2:38 the Bible says if the people will repent and be baptized, they will receive the forgiveness of their sins and the Holy Spirit.
I think the Holy Spirit is doing two things in this story and in other conversion stories in Acts. One, He is confirming the preaching of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit confirms God’s means of salvation for all. Two, He is empowering the Apostles and other Christians for the life of transformation and preaching they will be called upon to live for Christ.
The apostles were living in difficult days! They were living in days of rebellion, unrest and war. Soon Israel would be in a war against Rome. Men’s emotions would be pulled in two directions: national defense or extending the kingdom. How would they survive the pulls and tugs on their faith that society imposes? The Holy Spirit.
These men had to be saved from two things, just like we do. One, they had to be saved from their sins. Two, they had to be saved from their own corrupt society. Look at verse 40: "With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’" Repentance and baptism usher in the cleansing of God, and the Holy Spirit keeps us in safe territory. It had to be a stirring day.
On the day a soldier found he killed General Stonewall Jackson there could be nothing but frustration and sense of tremendous loss. Cry all day, "What shall I do?!" and there would be no answer. But on the day the men in Acts 2 found out they killed the Christ there was more than frustration and sense of loss. There was salvation. "Those who accepted the message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number." (Verse) 41). Praise God!
On the day we discover we are dying in sin, suffocating by personal choices and a culture that lives in rebellion against God, we feel frustration and loss. But there can be more. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
1.See Allen Black, "Mark" in The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), pp.42-43.
2.Other verses mentioning baptism for washing away sin and salvation are Acts 22:16 and 1 Peter 3:21. Cf. also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Titus 3:3-5.