AN ACT OF OBEDIENCE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Some of the best things in life can be so bad. It is somewhat shocking, but Lewis B. Smedes in his book Caring and Commitment points out that even commitment can be a bad thing. The purpose of the book is to get Christians more committed, but he points out the negative side of this very positive virtue. Albert Speer in his memoirs, Inside The Third Reich, tells of how he made a commitment to Hitler and spent most of his life devoting his brilliant talents to the building of his evil empire. It was blind commitment, and he never repented until it fell and he was forced to face his folly.
Just being committed is not itself good, for evil people are often totally committed to their awful goals. Nebuchadnezzar was tricked into committing himself to throw Daniel in the lion's den. He kept that commitment even when he realized it was folly. Herod did the same thing when he was forced to cut off the head of John the Baptist. He regretted his commitment, but he went ahead and did it anyway. Here were men who were committed to their commitments, and they would not alter their path even though it was costly and agonizing for them. This should be noble, but it was not. It was stupid. They did evil and violated their own conscience because they could not see that doing what is right and good and God's will is more important than keeping commitments.
If you take a fork in the road and discover 5 miles later that you made a mistake, you do not say, "I have made a commitment to this way, and I'll stay on it wherever it goes." This is what the followers of Jim Jones did, and they followed him in drinking poison and the mass suicide. That was commitment alright, but it was also stupid. The wise person says, "When I make a commitment to the wrong way, and I see it as wrong, I go back and find the right way and forget my commitment." Commitments made in ignorance are not more important than truth. Commitments to what is bad are not more important than what is good.
Commitment is a conditional virtue. It is only good when the goal one is committed too is good. If the goal is bad, then the commitment to it is also bad, and it is a vice. The world is filled with committed people who are all the more evil because of their commitment. They are committed to that which is out of the will of God. We want to focus our attention on one of the most committed people in the Bible whom God honored in a very special way because he was so committed to what was good, right, and the will of God. He made commitment a virtue that God was so pleased with that God by special providence saw to it that he was brought into the kingdom of God by faith in Jesus Christ. God is committed to seek and to save those who are committed to finding the Way.
The Ethiopian Eunuch was a long way from home because he was committed to finding out about the God of Israel. We don't know who told him about the God of the Jews, but he had come all the way across Africa and the vast desert wasteland in order to get t Jerusalem to hear and see for himself, and to worship this God of Israel. He had also invested a sizable chunk of cash in purchasing a copy of the book of Isaiah. There were no printing presses, and so copies were made by hand, and the cost a great deal of money to purchase. This man had a hunger to know the will of God, and so he bought this expensive portion of the Word of God. There was so much he did not know, but he was committed to learn all he could about God.
God was so impressed with this man's commitment that he called Philip a way from a great revival in Samaria to take the Gospel to this one man crossing the desert. Philip was seeing great crowds come to Christ, and so great was the fruit of his labor that the Apostles in Jerusalem sent their two big guns-Peter and John-to check it out. It was amazing what was happening there and it was all happening through the labor of one who was not even an Apostle. Philip was not even ordained as a Pastor. He was a layman who had been chosen as one of the first deacons of the church. He had the gift of preaching, however, and so when the problem with the widows being cared for had been solved, he took off preaching the Gospel, and God blest his ministry.
Then all of the sudden God called him out of the city to head for the barren desert. It does not make sense to the eye of man. Why leaves a thriving ministry to go to the wilderness? Philip was also a committed man, and so he did not question God. His goal was to obey God whether he could make sense of it or not, and so he just went. He had to act fast and obey immediately, for if he was not at the right place at the right time he would not ever meet this Ethiopian in his chariot. The whole thing called for precise timing, and it could never have happened without a committed layman like Philip who was committed to be where God wanted him to be, even if it looked more logical and important to be somewhere else.
The whole account is based on two people who are committed to knowing and doing the will of God above all else. God can use such people to change lives and history. This passage is an ideal hunting ground for seeking New Testament insight into the significance of baptism. What do these two committed men teach us about baptism? First of all they teach us that it is an individual decision. The Ethiopian had obviously been told by Philip that after one receives Jesus as Savior they are to obey his command to be baptized. As soon as he saw water he said, "Why shouldn't I be baptized right here and now?" Philip could have said, "Because I am only one deacon. We have to get all the deacons together for a vote, or the Apostles must approve of it, or the church has to okay it. You can't just up and get baptized on the spur of the moment. There is a procedure that has to be followed. We have to wait to see if you are a sincere convert or not. We have to wait and see if your walk is as good as your talk."
Philip said none of these things. He simple went down into the water and baptized the man who had just been converted. Philip had no idea what kind of a life style this rich and powerful man had. He never asked if he had any plans to witness of his faith, or to send a tithe back to the church in Jerusalem. He just baptized him because the man wanted to obey Jesus. This is the New Testament pattern. Everybody in the New Testament who is baptized is baptized because they as individuals say that they want to obey Jesus as Lord. This is not a church decision, a deacon decision, or a board decision. It is a individual decision. It is a matter of freedom of choice.
Baptism is an act of obedience to Jesus who said to go into all the world and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was an act of obedience on Philip's part to baptize the Ethiopian and act of obedience on his part to be baptized. Because it is an individual choice there is no need for witnesses. When you get married you need witnesses, for it is not only a personal choice, but it has social implications and so society demands two witnesses. Baptism is between a man or woman and God. God alone is the witness, and so this Ethiopian was not asked to drive his chariot back to the nearest town where they could get a couple of witnesses. He never even got a baptism certificate. He got nothing but the personal satisfaction of obeying the final words of Jesus to his church before he ascended to heaven.
The next thing we see is that baptism is an informal experience. There was no special music, and no group gathered to put a stamp of approval on it. There was no special water heated to fit the bodies comfort. There was no special robe or any certificate to record the event. All of this has changed, and we have come along way from this day, but the fact remains that the Bible is our supreme authority for faith and practice. What we see in the book of Acts is to be our guide and not all of the traditions that we have attached to baptism. Every New Testament scene of baptism is one of informality. John the Baptist had people lined up by the hundreds as he dunked them in the Jordan. The Apostles and layman baptized 3000 on the day of Pentecost. It was on the spur of the moment as they responded to the Gospel. There was no preparation, but the people just entered the water as they were to be baptized.
Paul's conversion takes up many verses in Acts, but his baptism is only one line in Acts 9:18. It simply says that, "He got up and was baptized." There was no formal service called. It was just an act of obedience in an informal setting. There was no big deal made of it. It was his decision and it was a private matter that nobody else was asked to vote on. In Acts 10 Cornelius and his relatives and friends were baptized when Peter came to them. It was a spur of the moment act of obedience. When Lydia accepted Christ on the river bank she and her family were baptized right there. The Philippian jailer and his family were baptized in the middle of the night by Paul and Silas right after his conversion. All the baptism we see were informal. They were not services, but just individual events where people made a choice to obey Jesus. There was never any official action or planning by any local church. It was all individual and informal.
The New Testament picture is like someone today visiting a family having fun in their backyard pool. The Gospel is shared and they say what hinders us from being baptized right now? According to the New Testament you should baptize them on the spot if that is what they choose to do. You don't have to be ordained to baptize another person. If you are a Christian you are under the orders of Jesus to go into all the world and baptize. It was not just the 12 who were to do this. This is the great commission to all Christians. The reason you never hear of lay people baptizing is because we have departed from the New Testament and have made baptism a church decision and a formal experience of conformity to the will of an organization. In the New Testament it could be done by anyone, anywhere, at any time, if that was their choice to obey Jesus.
I don't know how many hundreds of people I have baptized in my ministry, but I do know that only 4 of them were private and informal. They were individual choices carried out in very informal settings just like those of the New Testament. I am convinced that there would be many more people baptized if this was the rule and the exception. People would feel more free, and feel like it was an act of obedience to Christ. When it becomes a formal act of conformity to a church's policy, it is more like obedience to man rather than God. If people felt free, like the Ethiopian, just to say to any Christian they knew, "I feel like I ought to be baptized and obey Christ. Let's go to the river or lake, or to my pool in the back yard." And if Christian lay people felt more free to obey Christ and honor that request, we would very likely see more people obeying Christ.
I doubt if it can ever be changed back to New Testament days, for it is now so institutionalized. It would take a revolution to alter what is now tradition. It is not that tradition is all bad, or that the way we do it is in any way wrong. It is just not the way it was in the New Testament, and something has been lost of the individuality and the informality. Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America in Providence, Rhode Island in 1639. How did he become a Baptist in a land where there were no Baptist churches? He asked a Christian layman to baptize him. Then he baptized 10 others, and this began the Baptist church in America. The individuality and informality of the New Testament was still alive then.
By not following the biblical record the church has made a number of errors in their view of baptism. There was hardly any church that is fully biblical in their practice. Those who baptized babies neglect the fact that all the New Testament baptism were of people who made the choice to be baptized. It was an act of obedience, and not an act forced on them by others. A baby cannot make this choice, and so it has to be an act done for them by other wills then their own. This is not found in the Bible, but it is a tradition of men.
On the other hand, there were children baptized in the New Testament. You have the family of Cornelius, the family of Lydia, and the family of the Philippian jailer. We do not know how old any of them were, but they were old enough to say yes to Jesus and follow their parents in this act of obedience. Those who refused to let children be baptized for lack of maturity are not doing so with Scripture authority. All of these kids were baptized the very day they heard of Jesus. They had no class and no time to demonstrate their faith. All they had was belief, and on that basis alone they were baptized.
The church in the early centuries developed the idea that baptism was for only the very virtuous, and there was to be no sin in one's life after baptism. This led even famous Christians like Constantine to wait and be baptized on his death bed. It was fairly safe then that he could die without sinning. This foolish idea led to some tragic delays for youth. Augustine of Hippo begged to be baptized as boy, but his mother would not consent, for she felt he was immature and could certainly sin a great deal more in his life. She right, of course, and he became an awful sinner, for he reasoned that one should sin furiously in youth and get it out of the system, and then be baptized when he had his full. The church actually encouraged living a sinful youth by this false view of baptism. Augustine bitterly resented this when he became older and a committed Christian.
When I was a deacon in a Baptist church, we had a 4 year old girl come to us asking for baptism. She knew the Lord as her Savior, and she knew the Bible better than most. It was debated, but we did finally say okay. I am grateful we did, for the New Testament teaching makes this a principle: If a person is old enough to ask to be baptized, they are old enough to be baptized. It is not our job to figure out if they will be good Christians or not. In the New Testament we see people baptized who did not turn out to be good Christians. But that could not be the criteria for their being baptized or not. In this very chapter of our text we read of how Simon the Sorcerer was baptized in verse 13, and he followed Philip everywhere. Philip did not say follow me for a year, and if you are a good Christian I will baptize you. He baptized him on the basis of his profession of belief in Jesus with no other questions asked.
In the following verses we learn that he was a rotten Christian. He tried to buy the Holy Spirit with money, and Peter said to him, to the devil with you and your money." The English translation tones it down, but that is what Peter said in the Greek. In verse 21 Peter said to him, "You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God." In verse 23 he says, "You are full of bitterness and captive to sin." Why would Philip ever baptize a jerk like this? He was just using Christianity for what he could get out of it. He was wicked conniving man, and yet he was baptized. It was because he chose to be, and it was not anybody's right to say no to him and deny him baptism. It was not something that was evaluated and voted on. It was an individual choice, and if someone said they believe and want to be baptized, it was honored.
Obviously Simon was not benefited by his choice. He had a lot of repenting and changing to do. But my point is, the New Testament does not reveal people being chosen for baptism. People chose it, for it is their individual decision. Once you depart from this principle you are out of New Testament territory and into man made tradition. You say it is harmless to have traditions, but the Christian church has often become a source of great evil by exalting their traditions over the Word of God. If you want to know why it is so hard to win Jews to Christ, just read the history of how the church forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to be baptized against their will. Gentiles by the millions have also been forced to be baptized against their will. One of the reasons Baptists came to America was because in Sweden they were forced to have their babies baptized by the state church.
Traditions have led to terrible abuses of baptism. It has been used by the church through history to control and manipulate people. In the Bible we see none of this. It is an individual choice, and an informal experience. This Ethiopian had no church to go to, and so it had nothing to do with church membership. He just got out of the water and headed home with no commitment to any church, but only to Christ as his Savior. His baptism was an end in itself as an act of obedience. It was not a means to some other end such as becoming a member of the church. He went on his way rejoicing, for he had obeyed his new found Lord. It was an end in itself with no other goal but that of being obedient to Christ. That is what baptism is. It is an act of obedience to Christ.
Everything can become a tradition, and I don't know if we can ever get back to the biblical experience where people are saved and obey Christ in an informal setting. The woman of Samaria was saved by the well. The penitent thief was saved on the cross. Lydia was saved by the river bank. The Philippian jailer was saved in a jail. Paul was saved on the dusty road to Damascus, and this Ethiopian was saved in a chariot in the desert. People came to Christ in informal settings and they obeyed Christ in baptism in informal settings. Maybe we can never get back to New Testament practices completely, but we must always maintain the New Testament ideal which makes baptism a personal act of obedience.