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The Acts of apostles was written by Luke as a continuation of the book of the Gospel according to Luke. It aims at telling how Jesus’ early followers, inspired by the Holy Spirit spread the Good news about him. The book of Acts of Apostles is written as a history of the early church and it shows how the church grew and spread from Jerusalem to the whole of the Roman Empire.
Luke wrote an orderly account of the events that had unfolded during the time of Christ and after his ascension of his Roman friend Theophilus, a well respected government official. He hoped that by giving him an accurate, eyewitness account (Luke 1:1-4); his friends and other readers would make up their mind about Christ.
The purpose of his writing was not to engage in philosophical arguments about God or his principles; instead, he hoped that by setting out a carefully researched report, the people whom he wanted to become Christians could see and hear themselves (Baker. 1979, 884).
Luke was a trained doctor, in his profession he was trained to listen carefully, pay attention to detail and arrive at informed conclusions. He had an eye for the sick, socially handicapped, children and those who did not fit well in the society. He was constantly involved in human problems and in solving them. In his life he became a friend to Paul, the famous church leader and teacher and together they travelled through land and sea together.
Paul would later refer to him as “our dear friend the doctor” in his letters. Luke established a high reputation as a historian (Marshall 1998, 78). His work was confirmed to be accurate and impressive and he is believed to be one of the best historians in the ancient biblical world as well as an exemplary evangelist.
The book of Acts begins with Jesus meeting his disciples for the last time before his ascension to Heaven. He instructed his disciples not to leave Jerusalem before receiving the gift that God the father had promised (Acts1:4), (John 16:7, 13). Jesus told his disciples that they would be filled with power of Holy Spirit and they would become “his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts1:8).
He told his disciples that whereas John the Baptist baptized with water, the disciples would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts1:4-5). The mention of these words of Christ in his last physical meeting with the disciples at the beginning of the book of Acts sets the agenda for the whole book.
Indeed throughout the whole book, baptism became the most important feature in the lives of the disciples and the work of the Holy Spirit in promoting the early church which was undergoing exponential growth.
In his writings, Luke demonstrates that Jesus continues to live but since he had already left for Heaven, he lives through the disciples by the way of Holy Spirit. The works that Jesus did when he was on earth like healing, teaching, casting out demons, challenging false teaching were continued by the disciples who were being directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.
It was the intentions of Luke to show that “Jesus remained active and alive in the early church; it’s only the manner in which he worked that changed. No longer in the flesh, he continued to do and teach through his spirit” (William 1990, 98).
This research paper seeks to find out the role of baptism in the book of Acts, and how Luke interpreted it. The role of baptism in God’s plan of salvation and the relevance of baptism in today’s church is also analyzed.
History of baptism
The word “baptism” is derived from the Greek word “baptisma”. The word means to immerse, submerge, to cause something to be dipped or to overwhelm. Thus to baptize something in water means to put it under the water. To baptize someone means to put that person under the water. In Christianity baptism is a ritual that symbolizes death, burial and resurrection similar to Christ (Romans 6:4).
It identifies Christian with the life of Christ who died and rose again. In biblical history, the act of baptism as a rite for Jews was started by John the Baptist. “So John appeared in the desert, baptizing and preaching, “Turn away from your sins and be baptized,” he told the people, “and God will forgive your sins” (Mark 1:4, 3).
His teachings drew the attention of many from Judea and Jerusalem and multitudes went out to the wilderness where he lived to listen to him. They confessed their sins and he baptized them in the River Jordan (Mark 1:4, 5).
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John is believed to have been the one prophesied by Isaiah who would come to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (Isa 40:3). He taught those he baptized, that “The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:5, 6). Jesus actually began his ministry when he was baptized by John in Jordan.
It was immediately after his baptism that Jesus received the Holy Spirit. John’s taught the Israelites to repent and God would forgive their sins. Those who accepted his teaching had to repent and confess their sins before John could baptize them.
Biblical scholars and historians believe that, John adopted the practice of immersion in water from the rites that non Jews underwent when they wanted to join the Jewish faith. Gentile proselytes would immerse themselves in water as a symbol of cleansing from their past.
It should also be noted that various forms of washing characterized Jewish way of life, for example the Pharisees could not eat without elaborately washing their hands and Jesus once washed the feet of his disciples before a meal.
However some Jews especially the elites, did not think that, as the covenant people they needed to be baptized, therefore the call for people to repent and demonstrate their sincerity by baptism like Gentile converts was rejected by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, (Luke 7:30), but many people especially the tax collectors obeyed and were baptized by John (Luke 7:29).
Biblical scholars associate other past events in bible history to baptism such as the passage of Israelites through the Red Sea. The ancestors of the Israelites were baptized under the cloud and the Sea as they crossed from Egypt into the Promised Land (1Cor:10:1-2).
The cure of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army, a highly respected and esteemed person who was told by Prophet Elisha to dip into the River Jordan seven times is considered by biblical scholars as a form of baptism. He obeyed and was healed (2King 5:14).
In the book of Matthew, Jesus Christ gave his disciples the great commission telling them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you… ” (Matthew 28:19-20). Thus, baptism here was a sign of a new covenant and a mark of a new life.
Those who were baptized were referred to as followers of Christ and they their lives changed since they learned to follow the laws they learnt from the apostles
Baptism in the Early Church
On the Pentecost Day, the disciples were gathered together in one place in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit came upon them, filled them and they begun speaking in other languages (Acts 2:4). The people near them were amazed but some of them thought they were drunk. Peter filled with the Holy Spirit gave a powerful sermon and as a result many were convicted (Acts 2:17-37).
The people begged Peter and the disciples to tell them what to do to. Peter told them that they must turn away from their sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for their sins to be forgiven (Acts2:38). Peter told them that by doing so, they would escape from the punishment that was coming upon this wicked world.
It is then that they would receive the gift of God, the Holy Spirit. Many believed that day and were baptized; in fact, 3,000 people became the first converts of the early church (Acts2:41). The church continued growing and every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
From this we can draw the following conclusion, first before being baptized it was necessary for one to repent and after being baptized in the name of Jesus, forgiveness of sin would come upon a person.
After forgiveness, a person would get salvation that is an escape from the punishment that was coming up against the wicked people of the world. It’s only after receiving salvation that the Holy Spirit, the gift that God the Father had promised would come upon a person.
It is thus clear that the first Baptism that Peter and the Apostles administered on the 3,000 first converts was water Baptism and not the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit came after repentance, water baptism and salvation, in that order. Luke records that the church continued to grow everyday with more people becoming saved (Acts 2:47).
The process of salvation mentioned above i.e. repentance, baptism, forgiveness and salvation applied to those who joined the early church.
Before becoming a member of the early church one had to undergo water baptism. Baptism therefore denoted entry into the early church and a conversion from previous faith. Everyone who got converted in the early church got baptized, it is clear that baptism was a must for anyone who wished to get salvation.
In Acts Chapter 8:26, An angel of the Lord appeared in a vision and led Phillip to the road on which respected and righteous dignitary was travelling on his way back home from a pilgrimage in Jerusalem. The man was an Ethiopian Eunuch, a senior officer of his queen’s government.
He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was on his way back. He was reading the book of prophet Isaiah but did not understand it well. Phillip guided by the Holy Spirit helped him understand that the portion of scripture he was reading had been fulfilled through the coming of Christ.
When he had received the good news the Eunuch saw some water by the road side and asked Phillip to baptize him. Phillip baptized him and afterward the spirit of God took him away. The Ethiopian eunuch continued on his journey “happy” (Marshall 1998, 53). Here we see again that he heard the good news, was convicted of the truth and he was baptized being converted into Christianity.
Saul was another person who underwent baptism; a member of the Jewish Council, he and other members of the council were furious because of the teachings of the apostles. They were also furious because the church was growing steadily. Saul sought to persecute the church and he went from house to house dragging believers and throwing them into jail.
As a result the members of the early church scattered all over in an effort to run away from him. He pursued them wherever they went. One day on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians there, he encountered the Lord, he fell down and he lost his sight.
The Lord identified himself and told him to go to Damascus and wait there. Saul prayed and fasted for three days in Damascus before a man named Ananias would come and lay hands on him and pray for him (Acts 9:9). After being prayed for, he regained his sight and was baptized and he became full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17-18). His name was changed from Saul to Paul.
Paul would later become the strongest leader and defender of the gospel in the early church. Biblical scholars argue that though Paul had been praying and fasting for three days, he got filled with the spirit only after he was baptized and had hands lain upon him.
Therefore they claim that repentance and confession does not bring salvation but baptism does. It is common for people to get a new name during baptism indicating the start of a new life just like Paul.
When persecutions increased in Jerusalem, some of the Christians ran away to other town like Samaria where they continued to teach about Jesus. Many people received them and were baptized into the faith (Acts 8:4-16).
However they did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John came and laid hands on them later (Acts 8:17). It’s important to note that Simon a man who practiced magic wanted to buy the powers to work miracles for monetary gain from the disciples.
He was rebuked by Peter and John and he repented. It’s clear that the purpose of the Holy Spirit baptism was not for personal or monetary gain. The first Gentile to be baptized was Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:1-48). He was a Roman officer, but he was also a believer.
One day he got a vision from God who showed him to look for Peter. He invited Peter to his house who realized that it was God’s wish that the man and his house be saved though they were not Jews. Peter shared the good news with them and the Holy Spirit came upon them, they began speaking in strange tongues and praising God’s greatness (Acts 10:46).
Paul baptized them with water afterwards (Acts 10:47). It was the first time that the Gentiles got saved; in fact, in the whole entire bible it was also the first time that the Holy Spirit came upon people before they had been baptized by water.
Paul went with Silas to Philippi to preach, and when he was preaching to women gathered there, a woman called Lydia of Thyatira who worshipped God, heard the Gospel and she and her household were baptized.(Acts16:15). In the same town of Philippi, Paul and Silas cast out an evil spirit from a woman who could foretell the future (Acts16:18).
She used to earn a lot of money from doing that and her owners were upset when the spirit was cast out of her, Paul and Silas were charged in court and thrown in prison. At night as they were singing and praying to God in prison, the walls and doors of the prison were violently thrown down, and the chains on the prisoners came off. The Jailer saw this and was terrified, he thought all the criminals had escaped and he wanted to take his life.
When Paul and Silas assured his they were all there. He knelt down and asked them what he should do to get saved (Acts 16:30). He realized that the men were indeed of God, Paul and Silas told the man that all he needed to do is to “believe in the Lord Jesus and he would be saved” (Acts 16:31).
The jailer and his family were all baptized that night and they were filled with joy because they now believed in God (Acts 16:34). Paul later went to Corinth to preach and the people led by Crispus, the leader of the synagogue believed in the Lord and his entire household was baptized (Acts 18:8). Many people of Corinth were also baptized.
In Ephesus the people knew of the baptism of John the Baptist only. They had not been baptized into the baptism of Jesus Christ. Appolos was one of the people in Ephesus who spoke the word of God boldly and correctly (Acts 18:24, 28) but did not know all the correct facts because he didn’t know of the baptism of Jesus Christ.
When Paul met Appollos, and realized he had not been baptized in baptism of Jesus, he baptized him and laid hands upon him and others to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:5-6).
Role of Baptism in the Book of Acts
Even before the baptism of Jesus Christ was instituted in the early church, the Jews were aware of the baptism of John the Baptist which signified repentance and a public confession of sin. When practice of baptism of Jesus started, we can see clearly that it was a very important ritual in the early church.
Everyone in the book of Acts, who accepted the Good News, was baptized. Baptism in the early church signified the dying of the old ways of life and resurrection as a new life in Jesus Christ and into his power. It identified a believer with Jesus Christ who himself died and rose again. Baptism was a public show of repentance.
Baptism in the early church was an outward confession of sin and it was a precondition to receiving the Holy Spirit and salvation. Baptism was closely associated with the Holy Spirit and served to strengthen the faith and the commitment of believers in Christ. In the book of acts baptism was carried out in the name of Jesus signifying that the converts’ faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and savior.
By being baptized in the name of Jesus, the church was acknowledging the source of power by which it carried out its activities. Baptism also denoted entry into the Christian community in the early church. It was through the rite of baptism that a person became a member of the early church. Elders would lay hands on the new convert to signify a welcome into the group.
The sequence between repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sin, anointing by the Holy Spirit and salvation is not clearly outlined in the book of Acts. Peter told new believers in Acts 2:38, that to get saved, they had to turn away from their sins, receive baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for their sins to be forgiven, only then would they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
While this happened in the early church, there were exceptions. In Acts 10:44-48 we see that Cornelius was already a believer and God spoke to him in a vision although he had not yet been baptized. The believers in Samaria believed in God, were baptized in the name of Jesus but they did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John laid their hands on them (Acts 8:17).
Appolos was a saved man from Ephesus, he believed in God, and preached his word strongly but he was not aware of the baptism of Jesus. It was only until Paul laid hands on him and he was baptized that the Holy Spirit came upon him and others from Ephesus.
The apostle Peter had insisted that baptism is a part of being saved and as a condition for receiving the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). He later states unequivocally that it is through baptism that one is actually saved.
In the Acts of Apostles, baptism is closely related to the Holy Spirit. In some instances, there is a separation between water baptism and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The writer used the name baptism when water baptism took place and when the Holy Spirit came down on a church or individual.
It is possible that the writer believed baptism in water would result in spiritual baptism i.e. all those who were baptized with water received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
It is possible to infer what actually happened even if it is not accurately written, for example, the Ethiopian eunuch was sad he could not understand the scriptures, but after he had been explained what they meant and had been baptized, he went on his way, full of joy (Acts 8:39).
The Jailer in Philippi, was baptized with his whole household, he and his family were filled with joy (Acts 16:34). Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit; therefore we can conclude that all who were baptized indeed received the Holy Spirit.
Baptism in the Book of Acts is closely related to the empowerment of believers to witness Christ and do his works on earth. Peter had betrayed Jesus three times before he was crucified. But when he got baptized with the Holy Spirit, he became bold; he preached the gospel without fear and many people turned to Christ despite that he was imprisoned and cautioned several times by the Jewish leaders.
Luke presents the act of baptism as a very important ritual in the life of any Christian. First it marks the conversion from a sinner into a believer. It empowers those who believe by the receiving the Holy Spirit who had been promised by Jesus to his disciples (John 14:16-18) to be a helper and to reveal the truth to them.
Luke showed that baptism was a symbolic act without any magic powers but it was a powerful outward statement of one’s inward intents regarding his faith. Therefore it was compulsory for one to get baptized before receiving salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Relevance of Luke’s teaching on Baptism today.
Luke does not tell us what to do today anywhere in his narrative, he maintains his style of giving an account of what happened in the early church so that the reader can understand and hopefully make a wise choice from the narrative (Taylor 1971, 55). He is not like Paul and Peter who gave clear instructions on what believers should do.
For example Luke says that when the early church experienced difficulties and complaints regarding equity in sharing resources among members in the early church, they appointed seven men to wait on tables (Acts 6:16). He does not prescribe the same to other churches, though it is clear that any wise church should do the same if faced with a similar challenge (Stonehouse 1951, 35).
It was Luke’s hope that by giving an accurate account of events, the readers would learn God’s will for us and in doing so strengthen our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. It is clear therefore, that the church today should uphold and practice the rite of baptism as it was done in the early church. Luke has shown the strong impact the act of baptism had in the early church and that it was mandatory in order for a believer to be saved.
Paul however says that it is by grace that all men are saved not by work, he cautions men from boasting of their good works, that it is only by God’s mercy that we are saved “For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the results of your own efforts but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it.”
(Ephesians 2:8-9). This conflicts with Luke’s message that says that an individual’s act of baptism is necessary for salvation. The writings of Luke that one must be baptized in order to get saved contradicts modern Christian thinking that salvation was completed at the cross.
There are certain schools of thought that believe man is saved by grace and by his good works and that faith alone cannot save. This school may agree with Luke’s teaching that baptism is a precondition for salvation.
The message of Luke regarding the Holy Spirit is encouraging to the world today. The church should be encouraged to know that through baptism, every Christian receives the Holy Spirit who works in them to guide and direct their activities just like Jesus did when he was here on earth (John 14:16-18).
Christians are equipped to fulfill their mandate here on earth. Luke shows in the book of Acts that the infilling of the Holy Spirit produces a boldness in a Christian to be a faithful witness of Jesus Christ in the face of persecution. With so much persecution in the world today, Christians should be baptized to strengthen their commitment and faith to Jesus Christ and to fulfill the great commission.
There are conflicting opinions on various aspects of baptism in modern church. First should infants undergo the rite of baptism or should the parents wait till they are adults to receive baptism? It is clear from Luke’s narrative that to be baptized, one should be convicted of their sins, confess them, be baptized and only then do they get remission for their sin. This makes infant baptism practiced today to be irrelevant.
Children should be presented to the church and not be baptized. Another major source of disagreement in the church today is how much water should be used in baptism.
Some denominations insist on full immersion, others partial immersion, while others denominations practice some form of washing as long as water flows over the head. The book of Luke speaks of baptism by immersion. Some churches do not baptise at all because they do not consider it to be significant any more
Water baptism is an important ritual in which an individual makes a public confession in Jesus. “It continues to be the visible sign by which those who believe in the gospel repent and acknowledge Jesus as Lord publicly and are incorporated in the spirit and fellowship of the new people of God”. (Bruce 1954, 70) Christians should uphold the sacrament of baptism because it was Jesus who instituted it.
Bruce, F. Acts: The New International Bible Commentary on the New Testament. Miami: William R. Eerdmanns, 1954.
Marshall, I H. Luke, Historian and Theologian. 4th Ed. London: InterVarsity,1998.
StoneHouse, B. The witness of Luke to Christ. London: Tyndale, 1951.
Taylor, Vincent. The Passion Narrative of St Luke: A Critical and Historical Investigation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
Baker, W. Acts: Evangelical Commentary of the Bible. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979.
William, J. Acts. The New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendricksen Publishers, 1990.