The way the word “baptize” is used in the Book of Acts
David H. Linden, University Presbyterian Church, Las
Cruces, NM, revised December, 2011
This is a post (considerably edited) which I wrote for a discussion group on the Internet a few years ago.
Here is my different view and
sympathetic response to Brother Dennis Swanson's* comment about immersion. Is immersed really a scholarly translation
for the verb in Acts 2:38, while the word baptized
serves as a less specific transliteration? I detect that Dennis is suggesting
something with a bit of friendly teasing in a Presbyterian discussion where he
is ever a cherished soul and also part of a minority. If I read the quip
properly, he is saying that the guy with “Acts 2:38, repent and be immersed” on
his vehicle might have had the correct meaning for “baptized”. *Dennis Swanson,
a Baptist brother, is Librarian of The Master’s College and Seminary in
Did Peter mean immersion in Acts 2:38? I do not think so. BUT first, some reformed people chide me for my respect for my Baptist brothers. No one on earth can make me ashamed of this. Every paedo-baptist (such as myself) ought to read Spurgeon till he comes out our gills. And those like myself, who accept baptism as properly done by pouring, ought to benefit not only from Spurgeon’s sermons but his Lectures to My Students. I have found those lectures to be among the most rebuking, beneficial, edifying counsel I have ever read. Thanks be to the Lord for Spurgeon’s ministry and influence and for all who are like him.
Nevertheless, by some inadequate word study, the conclusion is asserted that the word baptize (either as a verb in Acts 2:38 or as a noun in other texts) must indicate immersion, because they say, THAT is what the word means!
One way out of this tangle is found within Acts itself. Jews were baptized with water in Acts 2. This was repeated for Gentiles in Cornelius' household in Acts 10:47 (a good example of believers' baptism). Note the reasoning in Acts 10 and 11: They had received the Spirit (10:47), and that reception was described in 2:33 as the Spirit being poured out on them. The text does not say that they were immersed by the Spirit. The promised Spirit (Isaiah 44:3) would be poured out, and that is also the way Acts 2:33 expresses it. To understand Acts 2:38, one ought to connect it to 2:33, which says: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he [Christ] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
Peter reasoned in Acts 10:47 that no one should prevent baptism of these Gentiles converts with water because they too had been recipients of the poured out Spirit. The argument of Peter was in effect: Since the Spirit has been poured on those Gentiles, why not the water as well?
Before my Baptist brothers think that I have argued against immersion because the text only appears to support my thesis, there is more. It is true that Acts 10 does not call the outpouring of the Spirit a baptism, but when the visit to Cornelius was reiterated in Acts 11:15,16, there it repeats the baptism verb for both baptisms: "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' "
The ascended Christ poured out His Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:33). John the Baptist had prophesied of that coming ministry of Christ as a baptism. John said, “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit'” (John 1:33).
Thus when his servants baptize by pouring water in the name of the Triune God, that baptism is a visible ritual which parallels the ultimate baptism. Acts 10 & 11 speak of each as baptism: the Lord’s baptizing/pouring from heaven and also the baptism done with water by the hands of men on earth. Therefore, we need not say that water baptism in Acts was by immersion. The evidence does not favor that at all. We have no video of water baptisms in either Acts 2 or 10, but the use of the word in these passages (which is consistent with the meaning of the word!) allows us to consider the water baptism as a pouring. Adopting such a view of the mode seems to be faithful to the way baptize is used in this Scripture.