By Blood And Water
The True Story and Meaning of Christian Baptism
PART 4 - Apostles’ Baptism: The New Testament Reflection In Context
XVI. Introduction to Apostles’ Baptism
As Hebrews told us, “When [Christ] had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Alluding to Old Covenant holy water, he showed us how Christ’s bodily water alone cleanses from sin through the baptism of faith.
Nevertheless, after the Lord set up the new priest-king order heralded by John, He had his disciples continue hosting the same water baptism received from John and which they had been practicing under His personal guidance ever since:
19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in[to] the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28
By recommissioning John’s baptism, the Lord converted what had been a shadow of His own baptismal sacrifice into a reflection of it. This after-image baptism, hosted by the Lord’s followers (not by the Lord or His Spirit), is rightly called Apostles Baptism.
- Why Water?
Let’s stop right here and ask, “If the Lord’s sacrifice nullified Old Testament baptism for purifying from sin, why did He have His apostles keep using a rite inherited from an Old Covenant priest (John) to induct believers into eternal life through faith?”
This is a good question! It’s like asking, why did the Lord also have us continue eating and drinking Passover bread and wine even though his sacrifice already fulfilled the reality behind these elements?
Interestingly, no apostle directly answers this question! No one tells us why the Lord kept an after image of Old Covenant practices to promote His New Covenant of faith. It’s through the gap of this unanswered question that the carnal mind makes its bid to assign spiritual efficacy to baptism.
Though no one says why the Lord recommissioned water baptism, the Scriptures in whole more than show us its intended meaning and purpose. They show not only that Apostles’ Baptism is a reflection of faith-baptism into Christ, but tell us what it actually signifies. Together—the commission in its context, the comparing of the apostles’ baptizing and preaching, and Peter’s specific teaching on water baptism—will give us the Spirit’s mind regarding Apostle’s baptism after the cross.
Beginning here with Part 4, the next four parts thoroughly examine these evidences. In Part 4, we look at everything the disciples understood leading up to the commission. In Part 5, we study the commission itself. In Part 6, we consider the complete record of the apostles’ baptizing against their message. And in Part 7, we study the apostles’ actual teaching regarding baptism and the new birth.
XVII. The Historical Context Behind the Lord’s Commission
The first and greatest reason for error over the Lord’s command to baptize is our removal of it from its original framework in John’s baptism and His own ministry. Normally, we see the Lord’s commission only in context of His just accomplished death and resurrection—as if the Lord was issuing a brand new ordinance traced just to that event.
But this isn’t the case at all! Far from issuing a brand new command, the Lord was ordering the apostles to continue a practice which He and the disciples had inherited from John and then developed under His own ministry for three and a half years. This means that, even though baptism will now reflect Christ’s Real Baptism from the cross, it derives its nature and effect by direct descent from John’s ministry.
Only by reviewing the truth about John’s baptism and seeing how the Lord developed it can we correctly understand the Lord’s recommission of it after the resurrection. To rightly perceive its purpose—ie, what the apostles would have understood it to accomplish, we must understand this context. Any explanation of baptism that ignores this perspective can only lead to stunted, erroneous conclusions.
XVIII. The Context of John
John’s call was to prepare a separately identifiable group of repentant people to receive Messiah’s authority and forgiveness. Building on the idea of cleansed reborn identity from Gentile convert baptism, John used baptism to cement the expectant repentant faith of his believers into a new body of spiritual disciples by whom Messiah could be visibly welcomed and proclaimed king. That was its purpose and effect.
But that was all it could do. As an Old Covenant rite, John’s baptism couldn’t actually work forgiveness of sins, produce spiritual rebirth, or establish kingdom authority. All of these could only come by Messiah Himself, to Whom John pointed.
That John Himself understood this is clear. As seen earlier, had John taught that his baptizing could effect forgiveness of sins, not only would he have perpetuated people’s trust in ritual—which he already despised—and not only would he have made Messiah’s ministry unnecessary, but he would have been stoned for blasphemy.
If John understood that forgiveness and new birth were to come through Messiah—not through his baptizing—so did his disciples. This is important because some of these disciples will straightway become Messiah’s own disciples. What they understand here about John’s baptism will be foundational to them when Messiah again commissions them to baptize after His resurrection.
From this point out, the critical question becomes: Will the disciples’ apprenticeship under Messiah confirm their belief that repentant faith—not water—works forgiveness, or will it prepare them for later believing that baptism itself is to become mandatory for forgiveness and new birth?
XIX. Messiah Comes For Baptism
When Messiah finally arrives to be identified by John as the One who “takes away the sins of the world,” events are triggered that will lead to a full transfer of ministry from John to Messiah—including the transfer of water baptism. Certain factors surrounding this transfer will further develop the meaning of baptism in the apostles’ minds by the time of the resurrection.
The very first thing that happens—a most unusual thing—is that, on arrival to John, Messiah receives John’s baptism for Himself. This is a move that catches even John off guard.
To this point, baptism associates strictly with the idea of repentance ahead of forgiveness and new birth. Yet Messiah has no need of repentance, forgiveness or new birth! The only need the Lord has is to “fulfill all righteousness.” As He explains to John,
15 "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Matthew 3
How does the Lord “fulfill all righteousness” by receiving baptism? More importantly, how will His receiving baptism affect its meaning? And how will this then affect its meaning for those who follow Him afterward?
By receiving John’s baptism, Jesus fulfils two things: one by substitution, the other by example. Watch carefully, because the elements of substitution and example are the pillars of the Lord’s ministry.
There are some things only the Lord can fulfil in our place. Without them we cannot be saved. There are other things the Lord fulfils as an example to be emulated. Without them, we cannot fulfil our destiny to be conformed to His image. These pillars apply to baptism.
- By Substitute: Fulfilling the Law of Baptisms
As our substitutionary High Priest, Jesus was baptized to fulfil the priestly requirements of the Law. As Hebrews said, everything about the Old Covenant—its sacrifices and its baptisms—was fulfilled in Christ. We know that the Lord was sacrificed for us. We also need to know that He was baptized for us.
The Lord fulfilled the overarching requirement that priests be baptized prior to entering their ministry. As we saw in Exodus:
40:12 Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the doorway of the tent of meeting and wash them with water.”
Aaron, of course, was baptized for the same reason as all men—to wash away impurity. But Jesus is a different kind of High Priest. He has no impurity. As Hebrews 7:27 notes, Christ—as High Priest—did not offer sacrifice for His own sins like other priests. Similarly, He was not baptized for His own impurities like other priests, but for ours.
What we have here is Messiah, the New Covenant High Priest, fulfilling the Old Covenant’s laws of cleansing and purification on our behalf. By submitting to John’s baptism, He took on Himself every impurity for which baptismal cleansing was prescribed. In so doing, He delivered us from subjection to all rites of washing, eliminating physical washing by water for removing spiritual impurity of any kind. Going forward, impurity can only be removed by faith in Him as the Messiah.
Note the symmetry of this: Jesus opens His ministry as our substitute through water baptism, and closes His ministry as our substitute through blood (and water) sacrifice. This covers the entirety of His High Priestly ministry. The Lord did not become our High Priest beginning at His death, but from the inauguration of His ministry through baptism. This widens the meaning of His coming "by blood and water."
This substitutionary element of the Lord’s baptism has great implications for the question of baptismal regeneration. It shows we can no more literally wash our sins away through baptism than we can atone for sins by submitting to crucifixion. Only the “lamb who takes away the sins of the world” could be baptized to this effect. And this is part of what the Lord was fulfilling when baptized by John.
If nothing else, this single act by the Lord as our Substitute High Priest more than proves that any further baptism of followers must have a meaning other than the literal washing away of inner impurity.
- By Demonstration: Ongoing Discipleship of the Father
Neither John nor his followers understood the substitutionary nature of what Messiah was accomplishing by receiving John’s baptism. That is why John was surprised—just as all are later surprised when Messiah submits to being crucified. Nevertheless, this is what He was doing.
But the Lord was fulfilling more than a role as our Substitute. He was also establishing a Pattern to be followed by righteous example. In the first case He performs as High Priest on behalf of His people. But in the second case He acts as the Son to be emulated by His followers!
By submitting to John’s baptism, the Lord declares His own ongoing obedience to the Father. He is manifesting His own identity as a disciple of the Father. This is the meaning it is to have to Him personally. Again, Jesus has no need to repent. He needs no forgiveness. For Him, baptism is a matter of clarified identity—even as the Father Himself testifies that day:
17"This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased." Matthew 3
By this example, the Lord begins pressing the emphasis of baptism past forgiveness-through-repentance toward identity-through-ongoing discipleship. As if at an inaugural, the Lord uses baptism to set the pace for what will become His major emphasis on continual hungering for—thirsting for—seeking of “the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Mt. 5:6; 6:33)—including the end-salvation of soul resulting from this steadfast pursuit (Mt. 10:22).
This shift toward associating baptism with enduring discipleship is missed in the usual discussions. At the beginning, neither John nor his disciples will grasp this meaning of the Lord’s own baptism. Yet as an emphasis the disciples will come to regularly hear under Him, it will become key to their understanding of the Lord’s commission to them after His resurrection.
- But What of the Disciples Now?
We've just outlined what Yeshua's baptism by John meant to Him personally, as well as what it portended baptism was to become. But obviously, neither John nor his disciples grasped any of this. What we really want to know right now is: What immediate impression would Yeshua's baptism leave on John's disciples? How would it affect their present understanding of baptism in relation to forgiveness of sin?
As we noted, in coming for baptism Yeshua caught John off guard. If so, He also caught his disciples off guard. Why? Because John associated baptism with sinners and their need to repent. But Messiah needed no repentance, and John knew it, and so did his followers. John taught that Messiah would take away sin, not that He had sin that needed to be taken away.
Then what does Yeshua's baptism tell John and his disciples? It can only tell them one of two things. Either 1) Messiah is a sinner like everyone else after all, or else 2) as a sinless one receiving baptism, Messiah has just personally confirmed what they already must believe—namely, that water baptism itself has nothing to do with actually taking away sin.
Since John and his disciples are not about to conclude that Messiah is a sinner like everyone else, they can only be confirmed in the latter understanding. Thus, on their very first encounter with Messiah, John's disciples, some of whom shortly are to become the Lord's own disciples, are met with a demonstration of baptism that separates it from association with forgiveness of sins.
XX. Context of Messiah’s Ministry: Transition to Disciples’ Baptism
In receiving John’s Baptism, the Lord comes much as a relay runner comes to receive the torch from his forbearer, or as a new commander to relieve the previous commander. The torch and the command remain the same. Only the bearer and the office holder change. Eventually, He will pass the same torch to His disciples.
Once baptized and returned from the wilderness, the Lord immediately moves to take His first followers from John’s group. These include John and Andrew, quickly followed by Peter, Phillip and Nathaniel. All five have been baptized by John, having repented so as to become John’s disciples. All have been prepared to await Messiah’s authority, forgiveness and new birth preached by John.
Peter’s early role here is especially important because he will become the chief articulator of the meaning of baptism after the resurrection. As the five transfer to Jesus, several experiences in their ministry will shape their understanding of baptism in relation to forgiveness and new birth.
- The Disciples Continue Practicing John’s Baptism
As they proceed with Messiah, the first thing Jesus’ new disciples notice is that the Lord has them continue baptizing under His direction, preaching the same repentance and forgiveness message as John. They are doing this even while John is still baptizing, directing his own followers over to Jesus.
Two ministries are now proclaiming the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. There is no difference in their power—no hint that baptizing under Messiah’s direction now has a power that John’s does not—as if one is better than the other or replaces the other. The Lord’s new disciples are instructed of no new effect now that they are baptizing directly under Him. The only difference is that, in the Lord’s group, the One to Whom the baptism points is actually with the group.
Soon, John’s ministry ends, leaving Messiah’s disciples alone hosting baptisms. Really, they end up taking over John’s ministry, baptizing throughout the Lord’s ministry under His oversight. What has been John’s baptism now becomes the Disciples’ Baptism. But it is the same baptism.
With no further instruction from Messiah, the disciples continue preaching John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” while retaining John’s understanding about its purpose and efficacy. Though Messiah is now with them, they still understand that their baptizing is pointing out Messiah, testifying to Messiah, witnessing to Messiah. But it doesn’t actually produce forgiveness or new birth. It can only bring men into identity with their movement, being the badge of repentance.
- Messiah’s New Disciples Are Never Re-Baptized
Another equally important observation comes to the disciples to reinforce the first: When they transfer from John to Messiah, they are not baptized again. They receive no “upgraded” baptism so they can receive their own actual forgiveness and new birth directly from Jesus. They’re not even rebaptized in order to signify their new followership of Him. Messiah neither rebaptizes them Himself nor orders them to rebaptize one another.
In the end, after 3 ½ years with the Lord, it turns out that the disciples are never baptized again—not during His ministry, not after coming to direct faith in the Lord—either before or after the resurrection, nor even after their recommissioning. John’s baptism is the only baptism they will ever receive.
This one fact will be critical to their understanding when the Lord commands them to baptize again after the resurrection. They will know that 1) John’s baptism didn’t wash their sins away or give them new birth; 2) Messiah never had them get baptized again once they came to their own saving faith in Him and 3) they will not be ministering anything to others that they themselves have not already received.
Thus, at the recommission, they will only be able to believe that the purpose and effect of the baptism received from John will be the same of the baptism they are recommissioned to impart.
- Messiah Is Baptizing No One
The next observation the new disciples will make is this: One one hand, Messiah proclaims with them John’s message of preparation and repentance for forgiveness. Yet strangely, Messiah Himself is not baptizing anyone (Jn. 4:1-2). Instead, He leaves baptism purely to them. Perhaps they also remember John telling them that though he (John) baptized with water, Messiah was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit—that is, with something comparatively more important than water.
By preaching repentant forgiveness without actually baptizing anyone Himself, the Lord sets up an image in the disciples’ minds that separates the offer of forgiveness from actual baptism. If baptizing itself is intrinsic to forgiving the people and bringing them to new birth, and if forgiveness comes only from Messiah, surely Messiah must be taking the lead in baptizing the new followers! But no.
So—between observing that Messiah baptizes no one, and per chance remembering John’s word that reduced water baptism’s importance compared to Messiah’s Spirit baptism, the disciples have only more reason to believe that water baptizing witnesses to repentance and heralds Messiah’s arrival, but does not actually effect forgiveness and new birth.
- Messiah Issues Forgiveness Without Baptism
Not too long into the course of the new ministry, the disciples begin witnessing something they’ve never seen before and which, had John tried it, would have earned him death by stoning. They watch as Messiah begins quietly extending personal forgiveness to people as they are healed and/or come to Him seeking forgiveness.
But not just this. They particularly notice that whenever Messiah forgives, He does so apart from any baptizing. Whenever Messiah says, “Your sins are forgiven,” He never queries whether the man has been baptized. Nor does He ask any disciple to take a man out for baptism so his forgiveness can be completed. There’s not one demonstration of a disciple baptizing anyone in connection with receiving forgiveness from the Lord.
If nothing else, Messiah’s continuous forgiving with no connection to baptizing confirms for Peter and the rest that baptism can’t be intrinsic to receiving either forgiveness or healing from the Savior. The only thing they ever hear the Savior telling people in proximity to their forgiveness is: “Your faith has made you whole.”
- Messiah’s Teaching on the New Birth
It’s appropriate here to remark on Jesus’ own teaching on the new birth and its relationship to baptism. The record of this comes through John the Apostle, originally a follower of John the Baptist, and one of the Lord’s first two disciples. In the first months of ministry, Jesus discusses the new birth with Nicodemus, the head of a rabbinic academy:
3 "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." 4 Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" 5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, `You must be born again.'” John 3
This entire conversation, and particularly the phrase “born of water,” has been removed from its historic and cultural context to commonly contend that Messiah insisted baptism is mandatory to spiritual rebirth. But when we restore the context, we plainly see otherwise.
- John’s Idea of “Born Again”
The Lord’s teaching on new birth comes directly from John’s adaptation of the Gentile convert baptismal ceremony. The term born again was derived from this ceremony. Refreshing our memory, when a Gentile converted to Judaism and was baptized, he was called “born again,” signifying his new national identity.
John applied this term however to spiritual rebirth and identity change. He did this while using baptism to witness to repentance and induct people into visible identification with his messianic movement. As already proven, John did not / could not possibly believe that by receiving his baptism, repentant ones became spiritually born again.
Then, under Messiah’s new direction, the disciples continue baptizing, retaining John’s understanding of the relationship between baptizing and spiritual rebirth. Together with Yeshua they are preaching spiritual identity change, using Gentile-convert baptism as a type of this to gather repentant followers into the new movement begun by John. No change in message or effect of baptism has occurred because of the transfer to Messiah.
The discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus occurs during this early transition period when John and Jesus’ disciples are both preaching and baptizing in close consort. Their message of new birth is identical—as are the effects of their baptizing. They are all preaching the new birth derived from John’s adaptation, using baptism only as a portrayal of spiritual new birth.**********
This context shows two important things. First, in speaking to Nicodemus, whatever Jesus meant by “born again” vis-à-vis “baptism” was what John meant by it. They were of one movement, one message and one understanding. Because John could not have believed that baptizing produced spiritual rebirth, neither did Yeshua.
Second, the “born again” concept was not new with Nicodemus. As a chief rabbi, he was quite familiar with it. Nicodemus already knew baptism was involved with Gentile “new birth.” Yet he asked the Lord instead about returning to his mother’s womb.
That Nicodemus asked about physical rebirth suggests he understood Jesus was talking about some kind of new birth for which none of the proselyte conversion rites—including baptism—was the means. Otherwise, he would have asked the obvious question, “Are you saying that by baptism, sacrifice and/or offering I can be spiritually born again?” But no. Nicodemus knew something less obvious was in play—something he didn’t already understand. The idea of baptism was already “off the table.”
From these combined background factors, we see that in speaking of being born of water, Jesus was not telling Nicodemus—nor did Nicodemus believe—he must be baptized as part of some new ritual to become spiritually born again.
- Born of Water
But there is an even simpler truth to all this based in Jewish terminology. It just so happens that among the Jews, the phrase born of water was a common every day idiom for natural birth. It meant merely to be “born of the flesh.”
The Lord’s use of the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” is a parallel to his follow-up statement: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” And it is contextually in direct response to Nicodemus’ specific question about physical rebirth. All the Lord was telling Nicodemus is that, to see / enter the kingdom of God, one must not only be born naturally (“of water of the womb”), but spiritually.**********
Later, in Part 7, we will make a connect from all this to the apostles’ teaching that confirms the disciples retained an understanding of new birth that excludes any idea of baptism.
- Messiah’s Teaching on Discipleship: Baptism and the Cross
At the outset of His ministry, Messiah receives baptism from John—in part to exemplify His own ongoing obedience of the Father. At the time, this meaning isn’t perceivable to John or his followers. Later, as His ministry moves into its mature phase, Messiah teaches more and more on the ongoing nature of continuous discipleship.
In that later phase, He sends out the disciples on “practice runs” for what will eventually become their apostolic ministry without Him. There, the Lord stresses to them the elements of discipleship, not initial faith. The thrust of all the Lord’s teachings to them and to the people is that He is looking for—not mere believers, but—identifiable enduring followers.
We already noted the High Priestly element of the Lord’s ministry beginning with his own baptism and ending with His crucifixion. There we saw a symmetry in the way the Lord opened His ministry as our substitute through baptism, and closed it as our substitute through crucifixion.
A similar symmetry exists regarding the exemplary aspect of both crucifixion and baptism. In His teaching, the Lord highlighted both baptism and cross-carrying as spiritual realities to be emulated:
24 If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. Matthew 16
38 "…Are you able … to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" 39 They said to Him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "…you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.” Mark 10
We are familiar with the Lord’s use of cross-carrying as a metaphor for ongoing obedience. But he also conveys to the disciples the idea of baptism as a co-metaphor for such obedience. In so doing, He begins to bring the exemplary purpose of His own original baptism by John into view, as well as His own destined crucifixion. Again, what a symmetry between the blood and water!
The thrust of all this is that over the tenure of His ministry, the Lord transformed the meaning of baptism into one of discipleship emulation, well past its first association with initial repentance ahead of forgiveness for sin. This final transformation in baptism’s emphasis from forgiveness to discipleship seals the complete context that brings us to the full meaning behind the Lord’s command to baptize after the resurrection.
XXI. Final Transition to Apostles’ Baptism: Recapping What the Apostles Already Understand
The preceding development from John to the crucifixion provides the total framework for what the apostles understand about baptism when the Lord recommissions them to baptize after rising from the dead. Let’s recap what they have observed since they began. In total, the apostles know that:
1. Their baptism from John evidenced they had repented in preparation for Messiah, but that actual forgiveness was to come through the Messiah-Lamb who takes away the sins of the world;
2. Their baptism was a take-off from gentile convert baptism, signifying their new identity as John’s disciples, and that they needed to be spiritually born again, but they did not become born again by receiving John’s baptism;
3. The One Who John said was the Messiah came to receive baptism, but He confessed no sins. But He did receive approval from a Voice from heaven. Rather a mystery. Something about His baptism had nothing to do with repentance and forgiveness of sins.
4. Once they followed Messiah, He kept them preaching repentance, forgiveness and new birth while baptizing just as they did with John—even while John was still baptizing. But He didn’t teach them that their baptizing was accomplishing something more powerful than John’s;
5. When they left John to follow Messiah, He did not require them to be rebaptized, either to receive their forgiveness directly through Him, or to become born again by believing in Him, or even to signify they were now following Him instead of John;
6. Messiah preached with them the message of repentance, forgiveness and new birth, but He didn’t baptize anyone with them;
7. Messiah started forgiving people their sins directly, declaring that they are saved, but never required them to baptize these new forgiven ones so they could seal their forgiveness;
8. Messiah’s emphasis increasingly moved from initial repentance to enduring discipleship in pursuit of the Father, the Kingdom, and His righteousness. Messiah has just recently spoken to them about baptism itself in this context—as a sign of ongoing discipleship.
9. As they have just come to their own points of saving faith in Him since the crucifixion, they see that Messiah still has not required them to be rebaptized. The only baptism they have ever known or preached came from John and has never changed except to emphasize discipleship beyond repentance.
[In Part 5: Apostles' Baptism: The Commission]
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Page updated October 27, 2005