Buried With Christ

The Acts of the Apostles – really “some of the acts of some of the apostles” – is a riveting multi-decade history of the development of the infant church of Christ.

From the ascension of Christ back into Heaven and the thrilling arrival of the Holy Spirit through the ministries of Peter and Paul, the writer weaves a narrative that is both doctrinal and inspirational. The early Christians were men and women of great faith and courage, and their evangelistic efforts throughout the world were tireless and effective. The great commission to take the good news beyond Jerusalem was accomplished in astonishingly short order, allowing “the word of the truth, the gospel” to bear fruit and increase “in the whole world” (Colossians 1:5-6) before the seventh decade had concluded.

The Acts of the Apostles records stories of conversion, sometimes numbering thousands at once, but on other occasions focusing upon a single person. At least ten of these conversion records explicitly mention the punctuating act of water baptism, described by the inspired apostolic writer as “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (First Peter 3:21). It is the one baptism identified by the Holy Spirit as an obedient response to the gospel invitation, an act of faith by which the penitent believer is added to the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:5, Galatians 3:27, Acts 2:47).

These ten conversion records include:

  • Pentecost: Peter and the apostles preached the gospel before those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the holiday, convicting them of killing the son of God, and instructing those who wished to be forgiven to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
  • Samaria: The apostles’ evangelistic success led to a Jewish backlash and the scattering of saints out of Jerusalem. One of them, Philip the evangelist, settled in Samaria, where he preached Jesus to the residents, and “they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12). 
  • Simon the sorcerer: Even a popular Samaritan magician believed and was baptized, although his faith quickly was challenged by his ambition for power and fame (Acts 8:13-24).
  • Ethiopian Eunuch: Philip then studied with a man traveling between Jerusalem and Ethiopia, when the sight of water along the road provoked him to wonder what prevented him from being baptized. Their chariot was stopped and Philip baptized the eunuch right there in the desert (Acts 8:30-39).
  • Saul of Tarsus: The conversion of a persecutor named Saul is told three times in Acts as the apostle Paul is born again of water and the Spirit. Far from being saved while on the Damascus Road, Saul was met by a preacher in the city and asked, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16; see also Acts 9:18, Matthew 1:21).
  • Cornelius: A pious Roman centurion was miraculously introduced to Christ’s apostle Peter so that the integration of the kingdom could be illustrated in a Gentile household. Upon witnessing evidence of God’s approval, Peter asked the Jews who had accompanied him, “‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:47-48).
  • Lydia: Along his journeys, Paul met a Philippian seller of purple goods and worshiper of God named Lydia, with whom he reasoned along the riverside on the Sabbath. “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And … she was baptized” (Acts 16:11-15).
  • Philippian Jailer: Trouble in town led to the temporary imprisonment of the apostle, but a miraculous midnight release gave him the opportunity to teach the despondent jailer himself, who asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? He was told he needed to believe in Jesus and following a period of instruction, “he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:33). 
  • Corinth: Paul worked in Corinth during a period of intense persecution of the Jews, but found success among the Gentiles, “And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
  • Ephesus: The conversions described in Ephesus were required because the men there had only been taught about the defunct baptism of John and needed to be immersed into Christ. “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).

In each of these examples, baptism is a climactic act in the conversion of people to Christ. Baptism was not a substitute for faith, but an expression of trust and confidence in Christ, “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). It is implicit that each of these individuals was willing to admit his faith in Christ, for “with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:10). Each, likewise, was repentant that their sins might have been blotted out (Romans 3:19). Finally, each was baptized in water, not in a misguided attempt to merit undeserved grace, but to express newfound submission to the lordship of Christ. Thus they declared God just while any who would resist water baptism would reject the purpose of God (Luke 7:29-30).

There remain further allusions to conversion in the Acts of the Apostles where baptism is only implied, however, often through metonymy and the actions of believing or turning. (Metonymy is “a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)).

  • In Acts 4, for instance, the apostles defied warnings to stop preaching Jesus, and “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).
  • Peter’s resurrection of Tabitha created quite a stir in Joppa “and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42).
  • Some who were scattered from Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen made it as far as Antioch and preached to the Hellenists. “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21; see also Matthew 18:3).
  • When Paul punished Elymas the magician with instant blindness, Sergius Paulus, the intelligent proconsul of Paphos, “believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12).
  • Preaching before most of the city of Antioch of Pisidia, Paul described Jesus as a light unto them. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
  • A Jewish backlash made them flee to Iconium, where they “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1).
  • The fairness of the listeners in Berea was superior to that in Thessalonica, for “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (Acts 17:11-12).
  • Results in Athens were mixed, “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:34).
  • While the other Corinthians’ conversions are explained in more explicit terms, we also learn “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household” (Acts 18:8).
  • While visiting Jerusalem, Paul met with James and the elders, who told him, “how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed” (Acts 21:20).

Submitting to water baptism is the believer’s response to the gospel invitation, following overwhelming evidence from the New Testament in examples, commands, and implications. The great commission itself mandated that the apostles make disciples in all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Water baptism, with its imitation of a burial and resurrection as one descends into and arises from the water, is essential in the union with Christ: 

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5)

 Submitting to water baptism – or insisting upon its significance and essentiality – is not a denial of reliance upon grace, but a demonstration of trust in the power and authority of God (Colossians 2:12). There is nothing particularly meritorious about it – no cause to boast in being baptized when one’s sins required the son of God to die to begin with (Romans 3:27-28). 

At the same time, however, there is nothing very faithful about reading the New Testament and its voluminous discussions of baptism and then rejecting it as an offensive work or meaningless ritual. Jesus asked such an audience, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you” (Luke 6:46)? He likened the disobedient to those who build their houses upon the sand then suffer destruction when storms inevitably arise, but compared obedience to building upon the rock and weathering every tribulation. 

Whether water baptism is commanded, implied, or exemplified, the humble believer will hasten to comply, not in a quixotic attempt to put God in his debt, but to throw himself before the mercy seat of the Almighty, where undeserved favor is dispensed to the penitent and converted.