What does the “great commission” say or imply regarding water baptism?
The history of Christianity makes clear that the primary assumption concerning baptism is that it involves water, whether immersion or pouring or sprinkling. We find this assumption with most all of the Christian groups or denominations. Debates concerning its nature (sign or sacrament), its timing (infant baptism or believer’s baptism), and its method (immersion or pouring) continue, but all involve water. Is water baptism biblical in a post-Christ’s death/resurrection Christianity?
to baptize with water?”
That is the first sentence in James H. Moon’s book: WATER BAPTISM: A PAGAN AND JEWISH RITE, BUT NOT CHRISTIAN: PROVEN BY SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY, CONFIRMED BY THE LIVES OF SAINTS WHO WERE NEVER BAPTIZED WITH WATER
How’s that for a book title? It was also published under the title Why Friends (Quakers) do not baptize with water. I think we know where Rev. Moon* stands on the subject of water baptism. My ideas in this post are influenced and guided somewhat by Moon’s, who, I believe from the title of his book, was a Quaker. I would, however, point the reader to Rev. Moon’s book (and any other similar book) rather than this post to fully dig into this subject.
Let’s take a look at Christ’s command to his apostles to carry forward the message of the gospel. There are seven places in scripture (that I know of) where the so-called great commission is declared or referenced. They are as follows in the ESV translation:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)
My notes: Here we have baptism mentioned. Does this baptism have to be with water? Is it required to be water by the text? No. One will, of course, assume water baptism if that is the expectation, but it is not clear from the text.
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16:15)
My notes: Here baptism is not even referenced. If baptizing converts is so critical to salvation, or even just being accepted into the visible/local church body, why is it not called out here? One could argue that proclaiming the gospel includes baptism, but that would be a stretch. When Christ came proclaiming the gospel, he was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. In Matthew 4:17-25 we read of Jesus beginning his ministry, teaching in the synagogues, healing, gathering his disciples, etc. Nowhere in this passage does it say that Jesus baptized his disciples into his ministry, or baptized others, or called for baptism. It is unlikely that Jesus had a low view of baptism, for he was just baptized by John the Baptist—even insisted on it—but we don’t see Jesus carrying on John’s baptism. Thus, it does not appear that proclaiming the gospel necessarily required baptism such as John preached, at least not from these verses.
Curious: What does “to the whole creation” mean? I assume this only means people, but maybe St. Francis was right.
. . . and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47)
My notes: Here again we have the key message to be carried by the disciples to all the nations, and it does not specifically call out baptism. What it calls out is repentance and forgiveness of sins. And again we could link baptism to this message, especially repentance since that was connected to baptism with John the Baptist’s preaching. But the connection might also be a stretch, and it is not made in this verse. Given the importance placed on baptism in the history of the church (only the baptized could partake of the Eucharist), one would guess that Luke would have know the importance of baptism and called it out here, but he does not. What does that say about the traditional understanding of baptism?
Also: It is interesting that “beginning from Jerusalem” is included. This highlights, intentionally or not, the particularly Jewish origins of the gospel. I think we can easily forget this.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)
My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. This verse calls us to examine how the Father sent Jesus, since that is the way the disciples are being sent. We should take a look at the context (John 20:19b-23): Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me,even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Notice that the “commission” to the disciples comes right after Jesus showed them his wounds. Could it be that that is how they should be sent, that is, as servants willing to lay down their lives for Christ’s sake? Then the words, “as the Father has sent me” point to an orientation of their hearts, to their primary commitments, rather than to a method of converting others, such as through baptism. This does not negate baptism outright, but it does seem, by implication, to relegate it to a lesser or non-essential position. What it does foreground is the role the apostles will play in forgiveness, a role I am not able to unpack at this time. Regardless, Christ sends the apostles into the world and does not mention baptism.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Here we have the “commission” calling out the witness nature of the apostles ministry. From what I can tell there is no mention of baptism, at least not water baptism. However, could it be that “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” refers to a spiritual baptism? Is that how we are to understand Christian baptism, as from the Holy Spirit rather than through water?
And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42)
My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Preaching and testifying make up the work of the “commission.” However, the next several verses say this: While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “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. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44-48) Here we have water baptism clearly called out, but only after those to be baptized have had the Holy Spirit fall on them. They do not get baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit, at least not here. It is also clear that that falling of the Spirit produced visible evidences. Water baptism follows divine baptism. Is Peter merely adding a Jewish custom to a new Christian custom? Why the need for water at all?
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)
My notes: Here the apostle Paul clearly makes a distinction between baptizing and preaching. In his mind the act of baptizing was either secondary to preaching, or not important at all. It was the telling of the gospel, and the hearers believing it, that was critical. If the church has traditionally made baptism a requirement for either entering church membership or for salvation (or both), why does Paul take such a low view of baptism? If I had to choose Paul’s view or church tradition I would choose Paul.
It is important to quote James H. Moon at this point:
Peter did preach to the people and the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had fallen upon others of them in the beginning, at Pentecost. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he said “John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Here Peter was made instrumental in baptizing with the Holy Spirit through Gospel preaching, and he recognized this to be the same baptism which his Lord had promised should supersede John’s water baptism and the same as that with which they were filled eight years before, in the beginning at Pentecost, and the Pentecost baptism he said was that which the prophet Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh; upon sons and daughters, servants and handmaidens, and that they should prophecy.
Can anything be plainer than that this Pentecost baptism and that the baptism which was poured out upon the household of Cornelius as Peter preached, and the baptism which our Lord promised in the place of John’s water baptism and the baptism which Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh are all one and the same baptism, and does it not follow that this is the baptism of the commission, the one baptism of the Gospel, and that this is Christian baptism and that there is no water in it?
Because Peter and others continued to baptize with water is no evidence to the contrary. They continued their old Jewish customs generally. They pronounced it necessary to abstain from certain meats. They insisted that Paul should adhere to circumcision. They refused to eat with Gentiles. With such Jewish proclivities how could they at once abandon water baptism? (p. 7-8)
I am not yet convinced that the apostles continued the practice of water baptism merely because they couldn’t completely abandon their Jewish customs. However, the power of culture is remarkable, and it could be true. I also do not know how often and in what contexts they performed water baptism, and in what contexts they did not.
What is fascinating to notice about the so-called “great commission” references is not only that baptism is rarely mentioned, and that water baptism seems absent altogether, but that there is no baptismal or liturgical formula given. They are all different in wording even if they are all the same in their underlying meaning. This would imply that in the early church the perspective was not formulaic regarding the “process” of becoming a Christian, rather there is the recognition that the Holy Spirit works to change men’s hearts, the gospel is proclaimed (in many possible ways and contexts), and receptive souls are added to the growing number of faithful. The apostles were told to take that message of hope to the world. They were not told, it would clearly seem, to convert people with baptism, though they are not barred from performing baptisms. I am not against Christian traditions growing up and becoming standard practice, at least not in principle, but it does not appear, at least from this brief overview, that our popular baptismal formulas go back as far as the apostles. If this is so then what we may have inherited are extra-biblical Christian traditions, for better or for worse. It must be emphasized that we are only looking at “great commission” verses here and drawing some conclusions.
Tentative conclusion: The early church may have practiced water baptism because they inherited that practice from their Jewish and pagan cultures. However, the apostles were not specifically told to baptize with water, rather to take the gospel to the world. Our various church traditions around baptism may be more Jewish and pagan than about following Christ. Though I cannot say for sure.
This leads me to several more questions. Can we derive a thesis statement like this: Without the gospel water baptism is meaningless, and with the gospel it is unnecessary. Or is that going too far? Was water baptism assumed and thus there was no need to specifically add it to the apostles charge? What do we do with Matthew 28:19, which does mention baptism? What do we do with church tradition?
* not Rev. Sun Myung Moon (just in case you were wondering).