Baptism plays a crucial role in the story and plot development of the book of Acts. We will look at some of the critical passages in future posts, but first, we must make a few preliminary observations about the role of baptism in the book of Acts.
Baptisms in Acts
The difficulty with discussing baptism in the book of Acts is that the book refers to numerous different types of baptism. Take Acts 19:1-6 as an example. Within the span of six verses, three different types of baptism are mentioned, though in the passage, only two are called “baptism.” There is the baptism of John (19:3-4), the baptism into Jesus Christ (19:5), and the baptism of the Holy Spirit (19:2, 6). This third type is not specifically called “baptism” in Acts 19, but other passages do refer to the coming of the Holy Spirit as a baptism.
So as we look at the subject of baptism in Acts, we must recall that not all references to “baptism” refer to dunking somebody under water.
One other curious aspect about baptism in the book of Acts is that the number and frequency of baptisms decreases as the book progresses. This decreasing emphasis on baptism continues throughout the rest of the New Testament, until at one point, Paul specifically declares that he is glad that he baptized so few people because God didn’t send him to baptize, but to preach the Gospel (1 Cor 1:14-17). Paul elsewhere indicates that the real washing occurs with the water of the Word (Eph 5:26), and even Peter himself seems to disregard water baptism as having any real significance (cf. 1 Pet 3:21).
Why this decreasing emphasis on baptism in Acts and the rest of the New Testament? It is possible, of course, that water baptism continued to be practiced as frequently as ever, and the writers simply stopped mentioning it, but when we understand the cultural and religious significance of water baptism in the first century Mediterranean world, and specifically the role of baptism within the book of Acts, it becomes clear that water baptism served a special and specific role within the early church which became unnecessary later on.
Baptismal Transitions in Acts
What is the role and purpose of water baptism in the early church, and specifically in the book of Acts? Water baptism is a key indicator for transitions in Acts. Each reference to water baptism indicates that the Gospel of the Kingdom of God has arrived to a new people group. The Gospel and water baptism begins with the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2), and spread to Samaria (Acts 8), God-fearing Gentiles (Acts 10), and eventually to the entire world (Acts 16, 19).
In every case, it is Peter who goes and uses the “Keys of the Kingdom” to unlock the door of the Gospel to a people group that was previously cut off from God and the Gospel (cf. Matt 16:19; Eph 2:11-18). Acts uses baptism to show the advancement of the kingdom to include all people who were formally shut out and cut off. Acts shows that the dividing wall of hostility has been torn down. The barrier is no more.
Future posts will look at individual baptism passages in Acts in greater detail.