Acts 2:38. Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins?

Peter in his sermon at Pentecost connects baptism to the forgiveness of sins. Does baptism really forgive sins? If so, what about the unbaptized?

The connection of baptism with the forgiveness of sins has already occurred in Luke-Acts, for in Luke 3:3 the author has already mentioned "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (so also Matthew 3:6, 11; Mark 1:4). What is more, baptism is connected to salvation in 1 Peter 3:21. Thus what we are looking at is not an isolated text, but the function of baptism, not only in Acts, but also in other New Testament documents. In effect, we are asking about the process of Christian initiation in the New Testament: how does one come into the Christian faith?

In Acts Peter outlines the process in logical steps. First, there is repentance. That is, (if a person acts in logical order) one first realizes that he or she is in a bad position. In Acts this repentance is a turning from their identification with the crucifixion of Christ (brought about by their leaders) and the judgment that that was a just act. In Luke and the other Gospels this is defined as a turning from specific sinful acts, specific ways one has lived life independent of God. Repentance in general is turning from one's own way because now he or she knows that it is not God's way.

The second step could be broken into two parts. Peter expresses it as being "baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ." If repentance is a turning from, this is a turning to. It is not enough to simply reject one's former way of life as not being God's way; a person must turn to go God's way. What constitutes God's way is Jesus Christ. The early Christian confession was "Jesus is Lord" (Romans 10:9, 10). "Faith in Jesus" could also be translated "commitment to Jesus" or "trust in Jesus." In other words, the person acknowledges and Jesus is indeed God's Anointed One (or Messiah or Christ), God's designated ruler (not a criminal justly condemned), and Jesus is living (for one cannot follow a dead man) and worthy of obedience and worship.

If that is the commitment, how does one make it? The answer given by Peter is baptism. It is in baptism that the early Christian (and in many places, the Christian today) made his or her official pledge of allegiance to Jesus. That is why 1 Peter 3:21 refers to a "pledge of a good conscience," that is, the pledge to God to follow Jesus made, not deceptively, but in good conscience. It is no wonder, then, that baptism is connected to the forgiveness of sins, for without commitment to Jesus there is no forgiveness of sin, and this is the normal way in the New Testament to make that commitment. In other words, baptism is viewed in Acts something like a marriage ceremony: it is the time when one takes the pledge of identity with Jesus. It is how one expresses faith.

The third step in the process is not one which the person does, although on at least some occasions in Acts the leaders of the church do function as vehicles for it (Acts 8:17; Acts 9:17; Acts 19:6). In this step God grants the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul will argue that a person can know that they are truly a Christian by the fact that they have received the Spirit (Romans 8:9), and Acts agrees. With this response of God, the process of Christian initiation is complete. The person is a full part of the church, equipped for all that God has called him or her to do, although there will certainly be a process of learning and maturing to go through as they begin to live out the new life.

The reason that Peter's statement in Acts seems so strange to us is that in the modern church we sometimes do things differently. Because so many different understandings of baptism exist, evangelists who work across denominational lines generally avoid talking about it. Even those working within a single denomination often separate baptism from the conversion process. Thus in some Baptist groups one "prays a sinner's prayer" and/or signs a "decision card" at the point of conversion and then may be baptized as part of "joining the church" or "giving a public testimony" to one's faith. Yet the individual is recognized as a full Christian even without baptism. On the other hand, some (but by no means all) people baptized in mainline denominations may have grown up in families that rarely attended church. They come to adulthood with a baptismal certificate and no conscious faith. Then they hear an evangelist and make a conscious commitment to Christ. They too pray a prayer and/or sign a card. But unless they decide to leave their old denomination, they will not be baptized. They will perhaps say, "I have finally personally actualized those vows that my parents spoke over me." In either case the prayer and decision card substitute for the role of baptism in Peter's speech.

So what of the unbaptized believer? The critical issue is the making of a pledge in good conscience. God looks on the heart.

See also comment on §1 Peter 3:21.

Acts 8:1. All Were Scattered?

The persecution in Acts 8:1 raises some questions. Didn't a major Jewish leader call for tolerance in Acts 5? And isn't it strange that when the church was persecuted the leaders of the church would be allowed to remain?

More is going on in this passage than meets the eye. Returning to Acts 2:42 and Acts 3:1, we note that the apostles (and the church in general) had been born within Judaism and lived their lives as pious Jews. They attended the temple at the three times of prayer (morning and afternoon sacrifices and again at dusk) and followed the other pious practices of good Jews, such as generous charity. What distinguished them was their belonging to a fellowship that believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, or deliverer, of the people, a fellowship that ate meals together and followed the living direction of this Jesus through the Spirit.

Because they were a growing popular religious movement, they threatened the temple hierarchy (who were not in any way popular). The priestly leaders of this hierarchy in turn arrested and persecuted the apostles (Acts 4:1; Acts 5:17, both of which name the Sadducees as the source of persecution). But in order to convict them before the high court, the Great Sanhedrin, the Sadducees had to convince the Pharisees, who were also part of the court, that the apostles were guilty of some major crime, such as blasphemy. The Pharisees certainly rejected the beliefs of the church, for they were a fellowship still awaiting the appearance of the Messiah, believing that Jesus had been rightly executed for blasphemy. Gamaliel's defense of the apostles in Acts 5:34-39 shows a typical Pharisaic attitude: as long as the Christians are living like pious Jews, there is no need to attack them. Orthopraxis (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right teaching) was the Pharisees' main issue. As they saw it, the church was not doing anything wrong; it was just wrong-headed. The apostles were beaten (perhaps "just for good measure"), but nothing else happened.

In Acts 6 we discover two groups in the church, the original Aramaic-speaking group, among whom were the apostles, and a new group of Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians. This group perhaps began with some of those converted at Pentecost and grew as other pilgrims were converted when they visited the city. Due to their linguistic differences such Jews went to separate synagogues in Jerusalem. Within the church they probably met in separate house churches. Stephen belonged to this Greek-speaking group.

Stephen was arrested for "speaking against [the] holy place and against the law" (Acts 6:13). In his defense he argued that Israel had at every turn rejected God and his messengers, including Moses and especially Jesus. He also argued that the temple was not where God lived, but was another example of Jewish disobedience (Acts 7:48-50). This was enough to unite the Pharisees with the Sadducees in lynching Stephen, for they saw in this statement the implication that temple worship, one of the pillars of Judaism, was not important. (In fact, another Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian, the author of Hebrews, later argued that the Pharisees' worst fears were in fact true. Jesus had superseded the old system.) Thus Christians do not need to follow Jewish customs. To the Pharisees, this was teaching Jewish-Christians to do something wrong and would lead to the defiling of the nation and the delay of the coming of Messiah; it was far worse than being wrong-headed. One of the leaders in this execution was Saul, a Pharisee (Acts 7:58; Acts 8:1).

This background explains the persecution. In the eyes of the authorities the Greek-speaking Christians (already suspect because they came from outside Palestine and spoke only Greek) were the problem. They were persecuted and scattered, pursued as far as Damascus (Acts 8:1; Acts 9:1-2). But the Aramaic-speaking Christians, including the apostles, were not suspect. Were they not known to be people of exemplary piety, frequently in the temple? The persecutors, principally the Pharisees, did not consider them in the same category as their Greek-speaking brothers and sisters.

Persecution would come to the Aramaic-speaking Christians about a decade later (Acts 12), but even then it would come from Herod, not from the Sanhedrin, and would not be enough to drive them all out of Jerusalem. They would remain until the Romans began to surround the city in the war of a.d. 66-70. In the providence of God, then, the Greek-speakers, linguistically and culturally equipped to fit into other areas from which many of them had originally come, were scattered to bring the gospel to the Roman world. At the same time the core of the church remained in Jerusalem to carry on the Jewish-Christian mission in the very heart of Judaism.

Col. 1:15. Christ the Firstborn?

We read in Colossians that Christ is "the firstborn over all creation." What does this mean? If Christ is eternal, how can he be firstborn? Does this mean that he was simply the first thing that God created?

The term "firstborn" appears 107 times in the NIV, but only two passages create difficulties, this one and Hebrews 1:6: "And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him.' " Most of the other passages are in the Old Testament and refer to firstborn children of human beings. Two passages refer to Jesus as Mary's firstborn (Luke 2:7, 23), which is like the normal Old Testament use. Two refer to Christ as the firstborn from the dead (Rev. 1:5) or the firstborn of many siblings (Romans 8:29).

Col. 1:15-20 is a poem (or at least poetic prose) about Christ, which many scholars believe to be a hymn of the early church. This poem appears to revolve around the first word of the Hebrew Bible, "in the beginning" (one word in Hebrew), which contains within it the words for "first" and "head." The poem divides into two sections. In the first (Col. 1:15-17) Christ is presented as the source of creation. In the second section (Col. 1:18-20) he is presented as the source of new creation or redemption. Even a quick reading will reveal that the two sections are rough parallels of each other, like two stanzas of a hymn.

In the first stanza Christ is presented as the visible presence ("image") of the invisible God and the agent of the whole of creation. What is more, he sustains creation. Likewise in the second stanza he is presented as the One through whom reconciliation came to humankind. He is therefore the source of the church, the One who brought it into being. In both cases Christ stands apart. He is not part of the creation, but the One who made it. He is not part of the church, but the One who brought her into being. It is clear in this passage that Christ is being viewed as God (Col. 1:15, 19), exercising the creative and redemptive prerogatives of God.

How, then, can Paul use "firstborn" language? Generally in the Old Testament "firstborn" means the son who was born first (daughters were not counted if there was a son born after them). That child had a leading place in the family and normally took over as head of the family upon his father's death. However, even in the Old Testament this is more a right conferred by the father than a place in the birth order. For example, in Genesis 25:29-34 Esau can sell his birthright, his place as the firstborn, to Jacob, although this sale was apparently not recognized by their father, for Jacob later has to trick Isaac into giving him Esau's blessing as the firstborn (Genesis 27:19). A generation later Jacob makes it clear that it is not the son born first (Reuben) whom he considers to have the rights of the firstborn, but Joseph, the one born to his favorite wife. He demonstrates this by having a special garment made for his heir designate (Genesis 37:3-4). In this case a younger son is designated as firstborn, arousing the jealousy of the others, especially when he exercises his designated leadership. Even later Joseph brings his own sons to Jacob, who puts the one born second before the one born first (Genesis 48:13-20). Again "firstborn" will not mean the one born first, but the one who will be the leader or the greatest. Even when talking about literal families, then, "firstborn" can indicate a favorite son rather than the one born first. So in Micah 6:7 and Zech. 12:10 the "firstborn" is the most loved child, the one the parent is most loath to give up.

In Exodus 4:22 we find another meaning of "firstborn" when God calls Israel his "firstborn son." This is taken up in Jeremiah 31:9. In neither of these passages (nor anywhere else in the Old Testament) is there even a hint that God in some way gave birth to Israel. What he is saying is that he has designated this nation as his number one nation, the one closest to his heart. To injure this nation is to injure God and to feel the consequences. The symbolic consequence in Exodus is that Pharaoh loses his own literal firstborn son. Thus we see that a nation put in the number one place can also be called a "firstborn."

Finally, in Psalm 89:27 we discover that the Davidic king will be appointed God's "firstborn." Again there is no hint that God actually has a hand in this man's procreation. What is meant is that God symbolically adopts him and places him in the number one position in his family. "Firstborn" is thus the place of honor and leadership which the Davidic king is said to occupy.

Now we see why a poetic person steeped in the Old Testament might use the term "firstborn." He was already thinking in terms of "heads" and "beginnings" or, in other words, of the number one place in the universe and in redemption. Drawing on the language of Psalm 89:27, he points to Christ as the one who is number one in God's family, God's designated "heir" and the ruler next to God. Of course it is also true, as the poem points out, that Christ was before any other parts of creation, although the use is still metaphorical, for a firstborn son does not procreate the rest of the family, while Jesus is said to create all that is created.

The term "firstborn" is flexible enough that it can also be used of Christ as the firstborn from the dead, for he is the first to rise to unending life (although others before him were raised from the dead to temporal life) and also the chief or leader of all those who will rise from the dead.

So Paul is using the language about a firstborn son metaphorically, as the Old Testament does. Jesus is not presented as a creation of God or as a child of God born through some goddess (as was common in pagan mythology), but as the chief of God's family, whether the old family of creation or the new family of redemption. He is before it. He is the cause of the family. He is the leader of the whole family. In every way he is first. Yet he is not part of the creation, nor even one of the redeemed, for he is the image of God and the One in whom all the fullness of God dwelt.

Hebrews 12:15. What Is the Bitter Root?

We all know the truth that "suffering produces perseverance" and other Christian virtues (Romans 5:3), but at the same time we know people who have experienced suffering or sickness (which are treated as quite different categories in Scripture) and have become bitter rather than better due to the experience. Bitterness, to be sure, is no Christian virtue, even if it is at times overlooked in people of faith (see Ruth 1:20-21 for the example of Naomi). It is not addressed directly in Scripture, except possibly in this one verse, Hebrews 12:15. Yet this text still raises a number of issues. What is a "bitter root"? Does it have anything to do with the vice of bitterness? Why is it connected to missing "the grace of God"? And how does it "defile many"?

A frequent interpretation of this verse is that it simply warns against bitterness or "bitter root judgments." Since the term "bitter" appears in the verse and all of us know individuals who have for one reason or another become bitter, such an interpretation sounds reasonable. The verse, then, would rightly point out that such attitudes (and the judgments of others that flow from them, like poison seeping out of a festering wound) can injure those who hold them, blocking these people from the many good things God has for them. In addition, it can injure the whole Christian community, infecting it with a fractious negativity and smearing the character of its leaders. Such observations have been made by most pastoral leaders. The question is whether the author has these observations in mind.

The answer to that question must be no. The context of the passage in Hebrews 12 is that of holding on to the faith despite difficulties. Where commitment has grown weak, it is to be strengthened; the "lame" in the community are to be healed; "level paths" are to be made for their feet (Hebrews 12:12-13). The "level paths" (from Proverbs 4:26) are the ways of holiness without which no one will see God (Hebrews 12:14). Having called for a firm commitment, the author continues with a series of warnings. Esau, an irreligious man, had an inheritance and lost it, being unable afterward to regain what he had so lightly sold. Israel was disciplined severely at Mount Sinai for their disobedience, but the Christians to whom Hebrews is addressed have come to an even more glorious place and therefore will be so much more severely disciplined if they reject God. What might they be in danger of rejecting? They might reject the message of the author, who is calling for them to hold fast to Christ and not abandon him in apostasy.

The phrase "bitter root" is an Old Testament allusion, for it is very similar to a phrase in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version normally quoted by the author of Hebrews. In Deut. 29:18 we read, "Make sure there is no [person] among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison." By comparing the two contexts, we see the point the author is making. To miss or fall short of the "grace of God" is the equivalent of turning away from the Lord in the Old Testament. Simply put, it means apostasy, a failure to commit oneself to God's grace. Such an apostate is a "bitter root" or, to use the Old Testament phrase, a "root that produces bitter poison." Just as one apostate in Israel could influence many neighbors to serve gods other than Yahweh, so one apostate among these Christians could lead others to forsake their faith. This, then, is the meaning of the text within its context.

Bitterness is not good. It is, in fact, a form of anger (that is, a nursed anger that has been allowed to smolder within), a topic about which the New Testament has much to say (see Galatians 5:20; James 1:19). It can also be a characteristic of jealousy, which is condemned in James 3:14. Thus, if bitterness is broken down into its root vices, one will discover that Scripture has a lot to say about it. But this passage is not about bitterness; it is about apostasy. If bitterness is not good, apostasy is devastating. It means missing the grace of God and coming into judgment before the God who is "a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29).

Rev. 7:4. Who Are the 144,000?

The doorbell rings on a Saturday morning and two people stand on the porch offering literature about the return of Christ. If questioned, they might reveal that they are Jehovah's Witnesses. Their motives for their door-to-door activity are not simply to gain converts for the movement, but rather to gain merit for themselves through their exemplary zeal. Their hope (faint though it may be, given the number of Witnesses worldwide) might be to become one of the 144,000 who will reign with Christ. While there are certainly a number of more important places at which orthodox Christians would take issue with these Witnesses in terms of doctrine, what they say about the 144,000 remains troubling, not because it is believed, but because we ourselves do not know what this number means.

The problem with the number is that it is clearly symbolic, but the question is, Symbolic of what? Three major scholarly options have been given. The first is that this figure is symbolic of a group of Jews whom God will redeem at the end of the age. The second is that this is symbolic of a group of martyrs whom God preserves for martyrdom. The third is that this number is symbolic of the whole of the church, which God will protect through the tribulation at the end of the age. Only an examination of the data will show which of these is most likely to be correct.

John's picture draws on two Old Testament images. The first is that of Passover (Exodus 12:12-13), during which the blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews' homes was a sign protecting them from the judgment that the Egyptians were receiving. The significant elements in Exodus are that the world around the Hebrews was experiencing judgment and a God-given sign protected the people of God from this judgment. The second Old Testament image is that of Ezekiel's man with an ink horn (Ezekiel 9). Again, the context is one of judgment. Again the people true to God are marked to be spared. In this case "a man clothed with linen who had a writing kit at his side" goes through the city and marks a Hebrew tāw, which in those days was an × or a +, on the forehead of each person faithful to God.

There may also be a New Testament background for John's picture. In 2 Cor. 1:22, Ephes. 1:13 and Ephes. 4:30, Paul writes that Christians are sealed with the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit is not said to protect believers from anything, the image is one of security. Likewise, "the Lord knows those who are his" stands as a seal in 2 Tim. 2:19. While there is no evidence that John had read any of these books, the fact that Paul used sealing language implies that it was used around the church before John wrote.

In the picture in Rev. 7 the judgment of God announced in Rev. 6 is held back until the sealing is complete. The sealed are identified as "the servants of our God." The image is that of Ezekiel, both in the placement of the seal on the forehead and in the idea of only a remnant (in Ezekiel a remnant of Israel) being sealed from the judgment. This theme is picked up again in Rev. 9:4 in the fifth of the trumpet judgments, in which the "locusts" are to hurt only those "who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads." The sealed are protected in the midst of judgment all around them.

In Rev. 14 the 144,000 are "the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth." They are described as celibate virgins, which in Revelation means that they have not been seduced by the forces of evil nor made a compromise with idolatry. They are also totally truthful. "They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb" (Rev. 14:4). The firstfuit picture appears in James 1:18 for all Christians in relation to the world and in Romans 11:16 for Gentile believers in relation to the full repentance of Israel.

Who are these 144,000, then? The theory that they are the martyrs of the last days is attractive, but in the end unconvincing because nothing is said in these passages of their being martyrs. Instead it appears that all of the "servants of God" are sealed. These "servants" are part of a larger group that is not serving God. That many of these folk might become martyrs is reasonable, given the persecution described in Rev. 13, but John says nothing to make us think that they are exclusively martyrs.

The theory that they are the Jewish believers of the end time is also attractive since the tribes of Israel are named. However, there are also problems here. Both the order of the tribal list and the names included are unusual. For example, both Manasseh and his father, Joseph, are included (Joseph apparently standing for Ephraim). Dan is missing, although he is present in Ezekiel's end-time list (Ezekiel 48). Thus John appears to indicate that the list stands for something other than any known form of Israel. Yet another problem is that most of "Israel" is not saved (that is, is not in the 144,000), while Paul's expectation (Romans 11:26) is that "all Israel will be saved." If both John and Paul have versions of Christian expectation about the Jews, there must have been two competing expectations in the early church. Finally, in Rev. 7 these folk are called simply the "servants of God," which is not a term unique to Jewish believers. Likewise the description of them in Rev. 14 could fit any believer who is faithful to God and does not compromise with the "beast" and the "false prophet." In Rev. 9 all who are not sealed are tormented. Does this mean that Gentile believers are tormented while Jewish ones are not? And doesn't a Jew-Gentile distinction within the church run counter to all of Paul's arguments about God's breaking down the walls between the races? These reasons persuade me that this cannot be the correct explanation.

The 144,000, then, stand for God's faithful people, Jew or Gentile. They are, just as the text says, "the servants of our God." The image of Israel is probably drawn from the picture in Ezekiel 9. Just as all of the tribes of Israel present in Jerusalem (the last stand of Judaism before the exile) were included then, so all of the tribes of humanity will be included in the end. The 12 × 12 × 1000 stresses the completeness of this number; all of God's servants from all of humanity are sealed. The purpose of their sealing is to protect them not from temptation or martyrdom, but from the judgment of God. This is God's church of the end times, when God's judgment is coming to a peak. Since they are faithful, there is no reason for judgment to fall upon them. In Rev. 7 the image of the 144,000 protected on earth is coupled with a parallel image of the church in heaven, an encouragement to persevere. In Rev. 14 the 144,000 are in heaven, for in the same chapter is the harvest of the earth. The final judgments, which will destroy everything and everyone in their path, are about to begin. No wonder that the church is withdrawn before that final curtain comes down.

What does this image say to the church today? On the assumption that we live in the last days (which in New Testament thought runs from the time of Christ to the end), our Jehovah's Witness friends are right to wish to be numbered in the 144,000. The sad thing is that they are going about it the wrong way. It is not a limited number to which one gains entrance by merit, but the complete number of God's faithful servants. One is counted in that number if he or she does not compromise the faith by going after the idols of the world and does not live in falsehood, but speaks and lives in truth. Another way of putting it is that "they follow the Lamb wherever he goes" (Rev. 14:4). In the context of Revelation this means that they follow him in heaven (and perhaps in his conquest of earth in Rev. 19), but they do so in heaven because they have already been his followers on earth, whatever the cost.

—Hard Sayings of the Bible