In Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus had been resurrected, three thousand individuals were baptized. On that day the apostle Peter had preached a sermon which was the first public proclamation of the gospel following the completion of Jesus’ mission and His ascension back to heaven. Before His ascension, Jesus had told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem and not begin preaching the gospel until the Holy Spirit came upon them — and it was on the Day of Pentecost that this happened and the gospel began to be preached.
When the multitude heard the gospel explained to them — and it became obvious that the man they had crucified was indeed the Son of God — “they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s answer was clear and concise: “And Peter said to them, ‘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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself’” (vv.38,39).
In the next verse, we are told that “with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’” And we can’t help but be thrilled to read the result in v.41: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
With this narrative in mind, let’s briefly consider three things about baptism in the New Testament that people today are sometimes confused about:
(1) Who? In the New Testament, it was always believers in Christ who were baptized and not infants. The only people baptized were those old enough to repent of their sins and confess with their lips that they believed Jesus to be the Christ.
(2) What? Today, people are sometimes sprinkled or have water poured upon their heads, but in the New Testament baptism was an immersion in water, a “burial” that recalled the burial of Jesus following His crucifixion (Romans 6:3–5).
(3) Why? As we saw in Acts 2, people in the New Testament were baptized for the remission of their sins. They understood that their sins had not been forgiven until their faith had moved them to obey this command of God (Acts 22:16).
God has designed the gospel of Christ in such a way that baptism plays a key role. We certainly do not earn our salvation by being baptized, but the Scriptures clearly teach that it is in the act of obeying God’s command to be baptized that we participate with Christ in the sacrifice by which He made our forgiveness possible. In baptism we die with Christ, and the benefits of His death become available to us. Paul put it this way in Romans 6:3: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In vv.4,5, he continued, “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.” This is consistent with what we read in other texts like Galatians 3:27 and Colossians 2:12.
It is indeed a new life that we lead after our baptism (Romans 6:4). Baptism is by far the biggest turning point in our lives; it is the line of demarcation separating the old from the new. As life unfolds, we’ll learn how to live our new life more consistently, by God’s grace and with His help, but it is at the point of baptism that we commit ourselves to the new life. Forgiven of our sins, we rejoice in having been reborn — and we gladly begin living in fellowship with others who have died with Christ and are now living their lives in Him.
I have always enjoyed reading the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26–40. As they rode along in the Ethiopian’s chariot, Philip had taught him the gospel of Christ, beginning in the prophecy of Isaiah 53 concerning the Suffering Servant. In the course of explaining the gospel, Philip taught the Ethiopian about his need to be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, because when they came to a body of water, the Ethiopian said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (v.36). In v.38, we read that “he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.”
The next verse says that the Ethiopian, having been baptized into Christ, “went on his way rejoicing.” We know nothing about the rest of this man’s story. It is a fact that today, two thousand years later, there is a large community of Christians in the same region as ancient Ethiopia. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what role this man played in the spread of the gospel in that part of the world? But whatever happened to him afterwards, what we do know is that his baptism into Christ was the most important thing that ever happened to him.
And the same thing is true today. When we, having repented of our sins and confessed our faith in Christ, are baptized into His death, we embark on a life that is so new that we can say along with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).