Baptism: a visible sign of the gospel (Acts 8:26-39)

Baptism can look like such a simple, ordinary practice. Yet being baptised or watching others be baptised can be a profound, deeply moving and encouraging experience for Christians. It can also be very dangerous, Christians in many parts of the world have suffered greatly and even died as a result of being baptised. Baptism can also be controversial or confusing. There are a variety of views on baptism. Yet at the heart of baptism is a clear, powerful message.  I’d like to look at three common questions concerning baptism: 1) The necessity of baptism: why should Christians be baptised? 2) The meaning of baptism: what does it signify? 3) The purpose of baptism: what does it do?

1. The necessity of baptism – why should Christians be baptised?

a) To obey the clear command of Jesus and his apostles

In Acts 8:36 we see the Ethiopian official say to Philip, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” What makes him ask that question? If you look in the previous verses you see that he and Philip have been discussing Isaiah 53, which speaks of God’s servant dying for the sins of his people. Phillip begins there and explains to this official the gospel, or good news about Jesus (v35).  The gospel tells us that though we all deserve God’s judgement because we are rebels who live for ourselves rather than God. Yet  Jesus died and rose again so that all who turn and trust in him can be forgiven by God and made right with Him. The official wants to respond to this gospel by being baptised.

Phillip was a deacon, not one of the twelve apostles, but he’s telling this official the same message the apostles had been preaching. When Peter had explained the gospel of Jesus to a large crowd in Jerusalem, they became convicted of their sin, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter, what should we do? Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38). Later we see how: Many of the Corinthians on hearing Paul, believed and were baptised (Acts 18:8). Repentance, faith (believing) and baptism all go together in the New Testament. They are all associated with becoming a follower of Jesus.

The apostles like Peter and Paul told people to be baptised, just as Jesus had said: 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Some today try to downplay the significance of water baptism. They say that when the Bible refers to baptism, it speaks of Spirit baptism, not water baptism. However, water and Spirit baptism are closely connected in the Bible. It’s very clear that Jesus’ followers understood the command that his disciples be baptized, as referring to more than Spirit baptism. You can see that if you look closely again at the words of Acts 8:36 “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” It is very clear that Jesus and his apostles taught that those who become disciples of Jesus should be baptised not just in the Spirit, but also with water.

One issue we have, particularly as protestant Christians, is that we are so keen to say that baptism does not magically save you, that we begin to talk about baptism as though it is optional for Jesus’ followers, but it is not. If you are going to follow Jesus, baptism is not something you can decide for yourself whether  to do it, it is a clear command of Jesus and his apostles.

b) To follow Jesus’ clear example

When John was calling people to repent and be baptised in the Jordan, Jesus came to him to be baptised. John did not want to baptise Jesus at first, he did not feel worthy to baptise the Messiah. Jesus didn’t have anything to repent of, yet Jesus said: Let it be so now, it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).

How did Jesus being baptised fulfil all righteousness? The word ‘righteousness’ bring to mind Isaiah 53 which Phillip and the Ethiopian official were reading. It speaks of God’s righteous servant who will justify many and bear their iniquities (v11). Jesus knew his role was to be that righteous servant, to die for the sins of others. Jesus baptism was a picture of what he would later do on the cross as he submitted himself to his Father’s will.

Jesus followers can’t follow his example in everything, but we are called to follow his example in many areas. You may never walk on water, you can’t die for the sins of others, but you can be baptised as Jesus was, identifying yourself with him, pointing in your own baptism to what his baptism pointed to, his submission to the Father, his death on your behalf.

c) To continue the model of the early Christians

The Ethiopian is not the only one baptised in Acts 8. Prior to him, we read how Phillip had been in Samaria preaching the gospel of Jesus and when they believedthey were baptized, both men and women (Acts 8:12). In Acts 9 we read of Paul being baptised, in Acts 10 of Gentiles at Cornelius’ house believing and being baptised with water (v47-48). In Acts 16 in Philippi first Lydia, then the Philippian jailor and all his household who believed in Jesus were baptised. In Acts 19 many Corinthians heard the gospel and were baptised and so it goes on.

An early Christian document called the didache, was written in the second century, not longer after the New Testament which was all written in the first century.  It encouraged people to fast before baptism, indicating that baptism was for believers, not for infants. It directed Christians to be baptised in running water, or if there was no running water in a standing pool. It allowed for the pouring of water three times if necessary instead of immersion but only if neither running water or a pool was available.[1] Up till at least 200BC the only baptisms we have any record of are of believers being baptised. In the 4th century when Christians first begun to build church buildings to meet in instead of homes, those first church buildings were built with large baptisteries.[2] Their size shows they weren’t for sprinkling babies, they were large enough to immerse adults who had become believers.

The command of Jesus and his apostles, the example of Jesus, and the model of the earliest Christians all show us that baptism is not an optional extra, it is part of Jesus call to become his follower.

George Muller is a Christian well known for his work in caring for orphans. Some years after he had become a Christian, he began to think about baptism.  He did what many others had done and started studying baptism in the Bible for himself. It became obvious to him, that baptism was part of the gospel call that he had not obeyed, so he was baptized. He said at the time “I am simply doing, what I ought to have done years ago!”[3]

Perhaps like George Mueller you’re a Christian, but you haven’t obeyed Jesus command to be baptized. Is it possible, that like him you haven’t realized its significance? If so, let me encourage you to do what he did. Go home and prayerfully look at the New Testament yourself, feel free to take one of the baptism books from the foyer table if it will help you to think about it.

When I look at my own heart, I see that I’m sometimes reluctant to obey Jesus because of laziness, or because I’m afraid of what others will think, but neither of these are a good reason to disobey the King of Kings are they? Whatever reasons you may have for putting off baptism, bring them to God’s word and ask what the official in Acts 8:36 asks: Why shouldn’t I be baptized? Baptism is part of the call to respond to the gospel – repent, believe and be baptized.

2. The meaning of baptism – what does it signify?

In Acts 8:38-39 we see this Ethiopian doing what may seem undignified for such a high ranking treasury official: going down into the water with Philip, being baptised, then coming back out of the water – obviously dripping wet. We’ve seen why he did that, but what does it all mean?

a) Forgiveness, cleansing and regeneration

We saw earlier how Peter told the crowd in Jerusalem “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38). There is a clear link between baptism and forgiveness. Later we read that Ananias said to Paul: And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name (Acts 22:16). His baptism is linked specifically to having his sins washed away. I remember watching a medical doctor wash his hands and I asked him how many times a day he had to do that, he smiled and said  ‘a lot!’ We’re encouraged to wash our hands and our bodies for cleanliness. Yet as we look across our very religious planet, we see people trying to wash themselves spiritually. Millions of Hindus wash in the River Ganges in India every year. Billions of others try to follow the paths of various religions, going on pilgrimages, fasting, praying or observing a variety of rituals and ceremonies, because they have a sense of being unclean on the inside.

If you’re not a Christian this morning, do you ever have this sense of needing to be forgiven for wrong you’ve done? Is it possible to get rid of that sense of uncleanness? It is through Jesus. The Bible describes some of the clear rebellion members of the Corinthian church had demonstrated before they trusted Jesus, then it says: you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Putting your trust in Jesus and being baptised belong together. In being baptised you symbolise what happens inside you through faith in Jesus: you are forgiven, washed, renewed, sanctified and made right with God.

 b) Union with Christ in his death and resurrection

The New Testament writers often encourage Christians to look back on their baptism, and see its significance. Here’s a well known example:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4)

The essential meaning of baptism, is that of being united with Christ. It is more than just following his example in being baptised, it is uniting yourself with him. Many commentators point to the powerful symbolism of baptism: We go down into the water, symbolising Jesus death, we go under the water, symbolising his burial, and we come up out of the water, symbolising his resurrection …having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:12). Baptism powerfully signifies that you have been united with Christ. His death and resurrection are life changing for Christians. Through them you are made spiritually alive now, and one day you will physically rise in your new body, just as Jesus did.

c) Incorporated in Christ’s body

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Being baptised means being incorporated into the body of Christ. Paul’s referring here to Spirit baptism, but we’ve seen already how Spirit baptism and water baptism are closely linked. I once had someone say to me they wanted to be baptised, but it became clear after awhile that they saw baptism as merely a private thing  they wanted to do,  they didn’t want to have anything to do with the church afterwards. That’s not the way the Bible sees baptism. You are baptised recognising that you are becoming part of something bigger than yourself, you are being incorporated into Christ’s body. If you don’t want to be actively involved in your local church, then you shouldn’t be baptised, because baptism symbolises you joining Jesus’ body.

Baptism is not a meaningless ritual involving someone getting wet, it is rich in meaning. It is a powerful symbol of spiritual washing and cleansing, of being united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, and being incorporated into his body, the church.

3. The purpose of baptism – what does it do?

a) Appeal / pledge of a good conscience towards God

this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 3:21)

This is a difficult verse at first, because it says baptism now saves you. If you’re a protestant Christian, you think: hang on baptism doesn’t save you does it? Isn’t baptism the outward sign of the internal change? But there it is, baptism that now saves you. Yet have a close look at what he says – it’s not the water of baptism that saves you, not the removal of dirt from the body. It’s very clear, the water of baptism does not save you, then he goes on to give a great definition of what baptism is: the pledge of the good conscience towards God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’re saved not through anything we do, but through appealing to or entrusting ourselves to what Jesus has done through his death and resurrection.

When someone comes to be baptised, they are asking God to save them, not through the water, but through Jesus. You are entrusting yourself to his saving work, trusting God to apply Jesus’ death and resurrection to you.

b) Teaches, encourages and assures

In Acts 8:39 we see that the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. He’d heard the gospel of Jesus, was baptised and now is full of joy. Jesus has left us two visible signs of the gospel, one is baptism, the other is the Lord’s supper. Both are simple, yet powerful and effective signs, able to do what Jesus wants them to do. If you take communion as a Christian, it actually encourages and strengthens your faith as we remind each other in a tangible and visible way of Jesus sacrifice for us.

In the same way baptism, though it involves washing in ordinary water, is a powerful sign of what God has done through Jesus. Martin Luther helped many to see that salvation is in Christ alone, through faith alone, by grace alone. He was often tempted to despair as he thought of his own sins, and in those moments he would remind himself – I am baptised. [4] In doing so his soul was encouraged as he was reminded that he really was united with Christ.

The effect of being baptised can be a great encouragement to your faith. You are publically declaring your faith, visibly committing yourself to Jesus, identifying yourself with his death and resurrection, putting your trust in him alone. Being baptised can be a powerful encouragement to other Christians who have been baptised, it can be a powerful testimony to those who are not yet Christians, as together we’re reminded of Jesus, whose death and resurrection are able to wash us, cleanse us, and bring us into God’s family forever.


[2] Mark Dever, Baptism in the context of the local church, in Believers Baptism, 332

[3] Brian Russell, Baptism, 53.

[4] Brian Russell, Baptism, 104.

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One response to “Baptism: a visible sign of the gospel (Acts 8:26-39)

  1. Nice to read a clear biblical statement on baptism from an FIEC geezer, if I may say so.

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