In His final post-resurrection appearance, Jesus issued “the Great Commission” to His followers to take His Gospel to all the world: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
“He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). Notice He did not say: “He who believes not and is not baptized shall be damned,” because only believers were baptized!
The emphasis is on believing — not on being baptized. The point is: Only believers are candidates for baptism.
On the day of Pentecost, Apostle Peter's groundbreaking message was: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). The order is repentance first – then baptism. As we shall see, this pattern follows throughout the entire Book of Acts.
Philip the evangelist was directed by the Holy Spirit to travel from Jerusalem to Gaza which is the desert, and he obeyed, going on what could have seemed like a profitless journey. But it was a set-up from the Lord, so that he would meet up with an Ethiopian eunuch who was also the treasurer of the great Queen Candace. At that very moment Phillip came upon him, this man was reading from the scroll of Isaiah 53. Again prompted by the Holy Spirit, Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, which of course, he did not. This opened the door for Philip to preach the Gospel to him as they traveled onward in the man's chariot. As holy serendipity would have it, about that time they came upon water, and the eunuch asked, “Is there anything that hinders me from being baptized?”
Philip replied: “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Then Philip baptized him, and the man went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:26-40). Only when he had firmly stated his belief in Jesus Christ was he ready to be baptized. Baptism is conditional upon belief in Jesus Christ for salvation.
Probably the greatest conversion in the New Testament is that of Apostle Paul who had been the greatest persecutor of the church, which persecution he carried out with great fervor and anti-Christian zeal. But when Jesus Christ met him on the road to Damascus, where he was headed to arrest more Christians, he was struck with physical blindness by a blazing light, which also plunged him into holy conviction for the ugly darkness of his soul. Jesus spoke from Heaven and told him where to go in the city to wait until someone came to pray for him to receive his sight.
When Ananias arrived three days later, he laid hands on Paul and prayed that he might receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost, at which time scales fell from his eyes and he received his sight. Immediately he arose and was baptized (Acts 9:9-18). In this case, Paul not only believed upon Jesus Christ and received forgiveness of his bloody sins, but he also received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Again, we understand that belief precedes baptism.
The Door Opens to the Gentiles
Up to this time, the infant church was made up of mostly Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, but the Lord had told them to go into all the world and teach all nations, and they had not implemented this Gospel commission. One day, as Apostle Peter sat in meditation upon the rooftop waiting for his lunch to be prepared, he received an open vision, which interpretation was a clear mandate to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. As he pondered this, several men arrived at his house, who had been sent by Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to request that he return with them to Caesarea. He had also received a heavenly visitation and was instructed to send for Peter who would tell him what to do. In obedience to God, Peter went and preached the Gospel of Christ to him and his family and friends. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as they heard the word, and they begin to speak with tongues and magnify God. This astonished the Jewish believers that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit baptism.
Then Peter declared: “Can anyone forbid these water baptism, who have received the Holy Ghost just as we have?” He then commanded them to be baptized (Acts 10:17-48). The pattern is constant: Whoever believes, and only those who believe on Jesus Christ, can be baptized.
It was important that all new believers be baptized, and in every case, when the Gospel was preached and believed, baptism of the believers followed: A Gentile woman named Lydia heard Paul preach on the riverbank of her hometown of Thyatira, “whose heart the Lord opened as she heard what Paul said.” First God opened the door to the Gentiles; then He opened their hearts. She and her household believed and were baptized (Acts 16:14-15).
Following this, Paul and Silas were thrown in jail at Philippi for preaching the Gospel and casting a demon out of a girl, but at midnight as they sang praises to God, there was a great earthquake and the prison was opened and their shackles fell off. When the jailer saw these things, he was ready to commit suicide thinking that the prisoners would escape and he would be held responsible. But Paul and Silas assured him that would not happen, and he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” Then they preached the Gospel to him and to all his house, and that same night they were all baptized (Acts 16: 25-34). Paul stipulated that in order to be saved, you must believe on the Lord. Only then are you a candidate for water baptism.
Their next road trip was to Corinth where Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed the Lord with all of his house, and many Corinthians hearing the Gospel also believed and were baptized (Acts 18:8). Soon after, Paul visited disciples in Ephesus and asked them “whether or not they had received the Holy Ghost since they believed?” They said that they had not even heard of the Holy Ghost! This proves that Paul and the apostles had to baptize according to Matthew 28:19: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Had they been baptized in this way, they would have heard of the Holy Ghost!
They had been baptized “unto John's baptism”, which was the baptism unto repentance (Matt. 3:11, Mk. 1:4 & 8). Then Paul preached to them Jesus the Messiah, and when they heard this, they were baptized.
How Baptism Parallels Circumcision
“In whom also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also you are risen with him…” (Colossians 2:11-12).
It is clear that baptism in the New Testament is equal to circumcision in the Old Testament. This being the case, we must ask the question: Was Abraham saved — justified —declared righteous before he was circumcised or after? And the answer is before: “And he believed in the Lord, and he (God) counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
“Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? When he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised…” (Romans 4:8-11). Circumcision was the outward sign of the inward work of righteousness.
“…That he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also…. who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised ” (11-12).
Don't let all this verbiage confuse you! If you simply go back and read these verses and exchange “baptism” for “circumcision,” you will understand the point: Just as circumcision was a “seal of righteousness,” so is baptism, and just as our father Abraham was justified before he was circumcised — so are we before we are baptized!
Just as circumcision represented “putting off the deeds of the flesh”, so does baptism. They are both outward signs of an inward work: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 3:21). Peter is abundantly clear: Water baptism cannot wash away the sins of the flesh, but it is the right response to testify of our right relationship with God.
“Know you not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death? Therefore, we are buried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should also walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Jesus had to die before He could be buried, and He had to be buried before He could be raised – And so it is with us – We must die to sin before we are buried in baptism and raised up to walk in the new life in Christ! “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (v.5).
Baptism Does Not Save!
If water baptism were the means of salvation, why didn’t Jesus and Paul baptize? Jesus did not baptize; His disciples did (John 4:2), and yet no details of their baptizing anyone is recorded in the Gospels. In the accounts where Jesus forgave sins, He never commanded anyone to be baptized. For example: The woman at the well and the city of Samaria (John 4), the cripple at the pool of Bethesda (John 5), the woman caught in adultery (John 8), the paralyzed man let down through the roof (Luke 5 ), the sinful woman who washed His feet in the house of Simon (Luke 7), and Zaccheus the publican (Luke 19).
Paul testified that he baptized only a few: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius… And I also baptized the household of Stephanas. I know not whether I baptized any other…. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect…” (1Cor. 1:14, 16-17). Clearly, baptism is not as important as preaching the Gospel, because baptism does not save.
“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God…. For it pleased God, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe (vv.18&21).
It pleased God by preaching – not baptizing to save. Preaching the cross of Christ is the Gospel. The preaching of the cross is the power and wisdom and means by which God has chosen to save. This should be the bulk of preaching (not prosperity which is more popular in today’s pulpits). Believing the Gospel saves. Believing proceeds baptizing and not vice versa.
“For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles…. Now ye are the body of Christ and members in particular” (ICor.14:13&27).