The Relationship of Baptism to the Body of Christ

The Relationship of Baptism to the Body of Christ

The Relationship of Baptism

to the

Body of Christ

Richard Hollerman


  • What Does the Word of God Say?

  • Additional Scriptures

  • A Few Clarifications

  • Implications from Our Study

  • Pointers for Today

  • May We HelpYou?

The Relationship of Baptism to the Body of Christ

From studies over the years, discussions with many people during this time, and observation of religious organizations, I must conclude that the subject of this present work is crucial and a treatment of it is greatly needed. Other studies in print have considered the action of baptism, the meaning of baptism, the purpose of baptism, and the subjects of baptism. Yet the relationship of baptism to the body of Christ is a topic filled with great importance and many practical implications.

Most religious people simply do not understand the relationship that baptism has with the body of Christ or the community of saints.  Some think that God, through baptism, brings one into the universal, “invisible” body; others say that in baptism one becomes a member of a given denomination; and still others say that baptism is a “door” into the local congregation. Many others deny all of this, stating that baptism is only a simple ceremony of a symbolic nature that testifies to a past conversion experience. It is not surprising that in the midst of this religious mixture many are simply confused and do not know what to think in regard to baptism.  Hopefully our examination of this vital topic will prove to be informative, enlightening, and convicting to all who read so that we might come to know the mind of God on this serious theme.

The only way we can adequately answer the question of the relationship of baptism to the body of Christ is to consult the Word of God. Only God can speak to this concern with unerring truthfulness. Only He can reveal His mind and will sufficiently clear that we might believe and practice this will.  Human traditions are not reliable (cf. Mark 7:5,6,7,8,9,13; Col. 2:8). Religious creeds, confessions, and conferences are not infallible. Denominational and churchly pronouncements, standards, and disciplines have been in error. Pastors, priests, prophets, and preachers have been wrong. This shows the need to consult the infallible, inerrant, and authoritative Word of the living God in this area of truth as in all other areas. May we read it with the humility, respect, and receptivity that holy Scripture is due.

What Does the Word of God Say?

Let us simply turn to a number of passages of Scripture, examining them to determine the relationship of baptism to the body of Christ. We shall try to make the truth we discover as plain and clear as possible.

Matthew 28:18-20 (The Great Commission)

This passage is part of Christ’s “Great Commission” to His followers to proclaim His message to all the world.  He begins by saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (v. 18). Based upon this universal sovereignty, what does our Lord command?  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (w. 19-20).

Christ says that His former command to limit the preaching to the Jews (cf. Matt. 10:5-6) has now been superceded by a “greater” commission—to make disciples (followers) of “all the nations.”  What is involved in enrolling disciples and bringing them to perfection? Jesus tells us. Those who respond to the message of good news concerning Christ Jesus are to be baptized. We know, of course, that people must repent of their sins and place their faith or reliance upon God through Christ, but in this place our Lord especially emphasizes the importance of baptism into union with God and becoming a disciple.

Notice, however, that this baptism is of a special character.  They are to baptize “into the name of” the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Most of our readers are aware that the New Testament was originally written in the Greek language. Greek authorities state that the phrase, “into the name of,” had a technical meaning in the first century.  As it is connected with baptism, the phrase denoted that “the one who is baptized becomes the possession of and comes under the protection of the one whose name he bears” (Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-­English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v. onoma, p.572). It means, “baptized into the possession of the Father, etc.” (Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, p.451). It signifies “union, the passing into new ownership, and loyalty, and fellowship” (The New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Name,” p. 861). It implies “a transference of ownership” (F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p. 66). In summary, this phrase means that the one who is baptized becomes the possession of, comes under the protection of, is under the control of, establishes a vital union with, passes into the new ownership of, and enters into a fellowship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We can see the implications of the meaning of baptism quite clearly. This relates not only to individuals who have been truly baptized, but also to all who have been baptized. All of those who have been genuinely baptized have mutually entered into this blessed relationship with God.  It is simply part of the entire meaning of Scriptural baptism.  Not only are truly baptized persons sharing in this spiritual fellowship, but Jesus says that these baptized believers are to be taught “to observe all that [He] commanded” them (Matt. 28:20).

We must ask what is the context in which this teaching activity occurs. The answer is obvious. The apostles and others are responsible to teach the newly-baptized believers to obey all of the commands of Christ. This is a corporate activity. It is to be carried out in relationship. Obviously, it is to be done within the body of Christ or the community of believers. Not only are believers “baptized” into the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, but they enjoy a relationship with all others who have experienced this same baptism, and then they continue to be taught, nurtured, built up, and strengthened as they continue within this relationship.

Those who have entered into a saving relationship consequently they have a relationship with all others who have entered into the same relationship. Further, they ideally are exposed to the same transforming instruction of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 2:38-47 (The Day of Pentecost)

Soon after the Lord Jesus gave the “great commission” (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15ff; Luke 24:44ff), He sent forth the Holy Spirit to empower the apostles to bear witness to His saving death and resurrection (Acts 2:1-21).  On the great Day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the good news of Christ in its fullness and accused his audience of rejecting and killing the promised Messiah (vv. 22-36). The convicted hearers asked, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (v.37). In response to this sincere inquiry, Peter declared, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v 38). We further read, “And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved [save yourselves] from this perverse generation!” (v.40). Did any respond to this divine demand? Indeed they did. “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (v.41).

Once again, in this passage we see the importance of baptism in relationship with the community of believers. In order to respond to the gospel message, the convicted sinners were to repent or have a change of heart, mind, and purpose (Acts 2:38a). They were also to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Our purpose here is not to discuss the act or action of baptism, but, simply stated, baptism is an immersion or submersion in water (a momentary lowering into water and then being raised from the water as one identifies with the saving death, burial, and resurrection of Christ). In the passage above, Peter also tells the inquirers the purpose of their repentance and baptism: “. . . for the forgiveness of your sins” (v.38). The Greek is eis aphesin ton hamartion humon and it means just what it says.  Further, he tells them of the gift of God that will be provided: “. . . and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v.38). These sinful hearers could be mercifully forgiven and given the promised Holy Spirit!

But what relationship does this have with the community of saints? Verse 41 tells us that “those who had received his word” (through faith and repentance) “were baptized.” Were these repentant baptized believers then thrust out on their own?  Were they left to fend for themselves?  No, the record states, “And there were added that day about three thousand souls” (v. 41).  Later in the chapter we find these additional words: “The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47b).  Those who had been truly baptized (immersed) as an expression to genuine repentance and heartfelt faith and had thus been forgiven and given the Holy Spirit were added “together” (Marshall) or added to others who had likewise repented and been immersed.  Notice that this was not an additional or subsequent process—but it was the automatic consequence of responding to the gospel. They not only entered into a relationship with the Savior but they also entered into a relationship with the saved!

This is not the full account. Notice what happened after these repentant, baptized believers responded to the Lord: “And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).  These believers “continually devoted” themselves to or “were continuing steadfastly” Marshall) in various corporate activities. When they came together, what did they do? They were devoted to:

(a) Hearing and learning the apostles’ teaching (which was the Lord’s teaching—Matt. 23:20);

(b) Fellowship (a sharing and participation with each other);

(c) The breaking of bread (probably a reference to remembering the Lord’s death by breaking bread (Luke 22:19; Acts 20:7);

(d) Prayers (cf. 4:24-31; 12:5,12).

These repentant, baptized believers shared their lives with each other and centered their thoughts on heavenly things (cf. vv. 44-47). Surely we can see that their baptism was directly related to life in the body.

Acts 8:26-39 (The Ethiopian)

After Philip proclaimed Jesus in Samaria, and a number of people believed and were baptized (8:12-13), the Lord had this proclaimer encounter a devout worshiper from Ethiopia. The record states that Philip “preached Jesus to him” (v. 35).  Evidently the Ethiopian was convicted of his sins and convinced that Jesus was the crucified and risen Son of God, for he responded, “Look!  Water!  What prevents me from being baptized?” (v. 36).

If this convicted sinner had been living today, some preachers would say, “Well, this prevents you from being baptized: We must take you back to Jerusalem (or Samaria) and you need to be voted on by the ‘church board’.  You will then need to learn the catechism for two years. Then in a ‘public service’ of the church you may be baptized.” (There are many variations to the procedure.) Gratefully, the Ethiopian did not live in our day and Philip agreed to baptize this repentant believer. Some later manuscripts state that he confessed his faith in Jesus and there is little doubt that some kind of confession did occur. Then Philip and the Ethiopian descended into the water, Philip baptized him, and they returned to the shore. We can understand how Luke could write, “[He] went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39).

This account differs from the previous one (in Acts 2) in at least one major way. The man was baptized relatively alone (rather than in a crowd as on the day of Pentecost) and evidently there were no other believers in Ethiopia at the time. Perhaps there were, but we simply do not know. This account reveals to us that when one is baptized, he is not baptized into a local assembly or congregation.  (He surely is not baptized into a denomination.)  In the case of the Ethiopian, there was no local assembly!  There were no human denominations on earth.  But, as in the previous passages we examined, this baptized believer had entered into a relationship with God through Christ and had also entered into a relationship with every other genuinely repentant, baptized believer in the world.  In other words, he was part of the body of Christ or the community of believers.  Without question, if there were other truly baptized believers in the country to which he traveled, he would have been united with them.  If there were none, every other person he brought to Christ would be part of the body of believers and they would be responsible to live in community.

Acts 9 and 22 (Paul the Apostle)

The conversion of the apostle Paul (then known as Saul) adds a little more to our study.  Scripture tells us that he was on his way to Damascus to persecute those who believed in Christ. The Lord appeared to him and said, “Rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6; cf. 22:10). After being blind, fasting, and praying for three days, Ananias went to this miserable, convicted, and repentant man, and said, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His [Christ’s] name” (Acts 22:16). The record says that “he arose and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened” (9:18-19).

Paul was now a believer.  He had been baptized. His sins were “washed away.”  He had been “baptized into Christ Jesus” and “baptized into His death” (Rom. 6:3; notice the personal pronoun, “us,” in this context).  Did Paul now see himself as a lone individual?  No, he now recognized that he was part of the very group of believers he had formerly sought to destroy!  The record states, “Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus” (9:19b). He immediately felt a spiritual kinship with others who had turned from their sins, who had believed in Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah, and who had been immersed to “wash away their sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (cf. 22:16; 2:21). He was now part of “the community of God” which he formerly tried to “destroy” (Gal 1:13; cf. v.23).

Acts 16:13-15 (Lydia)

A beautiful account of the conversion of a woman and her household is recorded in Acts 16.  When Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke went to the Roman colony Philippi, they must have found few, if any, Jews. Instead of going to the Jewish synagogue (the Jews insisted that it required a quorum of at least ten Jewish men to have a formal synagogue), they went to the “riverside” (16:13) where Jews and God-fearing Gentiles normally met for prayer. These servants of the Lord “sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled” (v. 13b).  The record then tells us that Lydia listened to the discussion and the Lord opened her heart to respond (v.14). Now notice verse 15: “And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us” (v.16).

This account reveals little about Lydia’s conversion to Christ other than the fact that she was baptized (evidently immersed in the river were they had assembled—v. 13) and the fact that she knew this was necessary to be “faithful to the Lord” (v.16).  This mention of baptism emphasizes the importance of this crucial initial response of repentance and faith to the preaching of Christ.

The question that concerns us is this: Was she added to a body of believers? At this time there had been no other people who responded to the gospel in this location. Only four traveling proclaimers were in the city.  In a sense, they might be considered the body of Christ in Philippi, but they definitely were not a deeply rooted and established assembly.  Thus, Lydia and her household (which must have consisted of at least two other responsible persons—perhaps older, responsible children or servants) constituted the “core,” nucleus or beginning of the assembly in Philippi.  Later, the jailer and his household (16:30-34) and other “brethren” (v.40) were also members of the body of Christ in this city.

From all of this we can see once again that when one is baptized, he is not baptized into a local congregation (especially a denominational congregation).  Rather, by entering into a relationship with God, Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, the baptized believer becomes part of the body of Christ on earth.  If there is a local manifestation of the body, he is part of this, but if he is the first true believer in a geographical area, he represents the beginning of a work of God in that locality.  Others who are saved thereafter likewise become part of the body of Christ and become part of the local manifestation of this body.

Acts 16:25-34 (The Jailer)

Some time after the above conversion, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison for their faith in Christ.  In the middle of the night, God sent a great earthquake, which freed them from the stocks and their chains (Acts 16:22-26).  This event led to the jailer’s earnest question of Paul and Silas: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30).  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (v. 31).  They went on to proclaim to him and his household “the word of the Lord” (v. 32).  In an evident expression of remorse, compassion, and repentance, the jailer washed the wounds of Paul and Silas (v.  33a).  The record then states, “Immediately he was baptized, he and all his [household]” (v. 33).  After his immersion, “he [the jailer] brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household” (v. 34).  The jailer could rejoice greatly because he was now saved (v. 31).

But let us ask: In subsequent days, would he consider himself as alone individual?  Definitely not!  Instead, he would recognize quite clearly that he was part of the body of Christ—especially that segment who lived in the city of Philippi.  He did not need to “apply for membership” or learn a catechism for a year to qualify for membership.  Why?  Because he became a member of the body at the very same time he entered Christ Jesus.  He was part of the Philippian assembly by virtue of his entrance into Christ, the Head of the body.  It was not a “two step” process—but was an automatic occurrence simultaneous with his salvation from sin.

Acts 18:8 and 1 Cor. 12:13 (The Corinthians)

On his second journey, Paul proclaimed Christ crucified at Corinth in Achaia (1 Cor. 2:2).  Luke tells us of the results of Paul’s labors: “Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized” (Acts 18:8).  When Paul later wrote to these baptized believers, he addressed them in this way, “To the church [community] of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling” (1 Cor. 1:2).  When these people turned to the Lord in faith and baptism, they entered the community of God—also  referred to as a “temple of God” (3:16) and “the assembly of the saints” (cf. 14:33).  They had been sanctified “in Christ Jesus” and thus become saints.  All of this was related to their original response of faith and baptism.  (Incidentally, this was the very response that Christ required in the “Great Commission”: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16: 16).

All of this becomes even clearer as we read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13: “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  Notice first that this speaks of an event in which all of the Corinthian believers had participated: “We were all baptized into one body” (v. 13).  This agrees with the “Great Commission” baptism, which every single disciple has experienced (cf. Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16).

Second, we must recognize that there are different ways of understanding this baptism.  If we translate the Greek en as “by” we have the Holy Spirit the agent of the baptism: “By one Spirit we were all baptized.”  If we look upon the term en as “in,” we would see the Spirit as the element into whom they were baptized.  We can at least say that the Holy Spirit is very much involved in baptism (we saw this already in Matt. 28:19 and Acts 2:38, and it may also be seen by comparing Gal. 3:27 with 4:6 and perhaps by noticing Titus 3:5).  In other words, baptism in water is not merely baptism in water for there is a dimension of the Spirit that must not be overlooked. If the Holy Spirit were removed from baptism there would be merely an empty form, devoid of significance.  At the point of baptism the Spirit has convicted the sinner, the Spirit has drawn the sinner, the Spirit is revealing Christ the Savior to him, the respondent is entering the Spirit and the Spirit is entering him! (cf. John 3:5-8; 16:7-11; Rom. 5:5; 8:9; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Gal. 3:3, 5, 14; Eph. 1:13-14).

The point that we can emphasize here is that all the believers at Corinth had been baptized (Acts 18:8) and Paul assumes that this is the case (cf. 1 Cor. 1:13-17).  Further, all of them had been “baptized into one body” (12:13). Whether the Spirit is the agent or the element, He was very much involved in their salvation and their entrance into the body of Christ.

Again we can see how important baptism is and how it relates to membership in the body or community of the Lord.

Acts 19:1-6 and Ephesians 4:5

When Paul arrived at Ephesus he found the rather unique situation of twelve men who had only been baptized with John’s baptism of repentance (Acts 19:1-3). They had not heard of the Holy Spirit, thus Paul knew that they did not know of the “Great Commission” baptism which is into the Spirit (Matt. 28:19) and brings “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). When these honest disciples understood Paul’s explanation, “they were baptized into [eis] the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5).  At this point we do not know the size of the Ephesian community of saints.  Evidently Priscilla and Aquila, as well as Apollos, and other “brethren” were part of the assembly there and perhaps others (cf. 18:24-26; evidently Apollos had departed for Corinth before Paul arrived). Now twelve men were added to the number.  After Paul’s labors for three years in the area, there were many more brought to faith and baptism (cf. 19:8-10; 20:18-21, 31).

Later Paul wrote a letter to the saints in Ephesus (it may have been a circular letter, intended for other assemblies as well, since “at Ephesus” [Eph. 1:1] is missing in some of the earlier MSS).  In it Paul declares that there is only “one baptism” (4:5). Since we know that the baptism of the Great Commission was intended until the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20), surely the “one baptism” about which Paul writes is this same baptism. Here we might notice the grounds of unity that all of the members share with each other within the body that is entered through faith-baptism.

All of the members of the body at Ephesus could find unity as they were committed to the principles in this section of Ephesians (4:4-6).  They were members of “one body” and were partakers of “one Spirit.”  They held to the wondrous “one hope” before them.  They were committed to serve the “one Lord.”  They had believed in the “one faith” and held to its sacred and saving truths.  They had all submitted to the “one baptism” and were thereby children of the “one God and Father.”  Once again we can see that baptism has a crucial place in relationship to the body of believers.

Additional Scriptures

In addition to the foregoing passages of Scripture we could examine several others that have a bearing upon the relationship of baptism to the body of Christ.  Consider the following.

Mark 16:16 and 1 Peter 3:21 with Acts 2:40,47

Christ told His followers before His ascension: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.  He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).  This could hardly be clearer.  The Lord said that the good news concerning Him should be proclaimed to all.  Those who would believe this gospel and be baptized would be saved.  Those who chose to disbelieve the message would be condemned. We might picture it this way:

Believe + Baptized = Saved

Another passage that would supplement this would be Peter’s statement: “Corresponding to that [the salvation of Noah by water], baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).  The apostle clearly says, “Baptism now saves you.”  Of course, it does not save by any inherent worth within the act or any semi-magical power within the act.  This view is often called “baptismal regeneration” and it is rightly condemned as false, a perversion of the Scriptural teaching on both baptism and salvation through Christ.  How then does baptism “save” the repentant believer?  It “saves” through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus (compare 1 Peter 3:21 and Romans 6:3).  Salvation resides in God’s gracious saving work in Christ Jesus.  Yet once again we see the importance of baptism—it “saves” from sin and the judgment.

As we compare these passages with the proceedings in Acts 2 we can see a connection between baptism and the community of the saved.  In verse 40, Peter warned the hearers, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (NW).  Then, later in the chapter, Luke informs us: “The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v.47).  The context, of course, reveals that when the convicted sinners repented and were baptized (vv. 38, 41), they, in fact, did “save themselves” from the judgment resting upon sinners—and the Lord did “add” them to the believing community.  In this way we can see that when one is baptized (expressing sincere repentance), he becomes a part of the body of believers—the community of saints.

Romans 6:3-5 and Galatians 3:26-27

These passages are exceedingly important but we must do little more than briefly comment upon them.  Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3).  Galatians 3:26-27 adds, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  Read each word in these verses very carefully.  Notice that Paul is describing an event common to all Christians.  He says “all of us .  .  . have been baptized into Christ” and “all of you . . . were baptized into Christ’ (Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27).  In other words, if anyone at Rome or in Galatia was a truly saved person, in union with Christ Jesus, Paul knew that he had been baptized into this relationship.  He knew of no exceptions.  This leads one writer to rightly say, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament” (F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p.77).  Of course, the reason it cannot be found in the New Testament is that baptism was an integral part of one’s believing, repentant response to Christ within the conversion event itself

Since these passages state that one is “baptized into Christ” and that all of those who are “in Christ” have been baptized into Him, we can see how Scripture likewise affirms that those who are in Christ’s body have been baptized into it. One cannot be “in Christ” and not be in Christ’s “body”!  Neither can one be in Christ’s spiritual “body” and not be “in Christ” Himself!  The very response of faith and repentance that brings one into a saving relationship with the crucified Christ also brings one into a saved relationship with all others who are saved and within Christ’s body.

Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph 5:26; Tit. 3:5; Heb.10: 22

Do you recall our discussion on the salvation of Paul the apostle?  We noticed that Ananias told Paul, “And now why do you delay? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His [Christ’s] name” (Acts 22:16).  The term “wash” here is apolouo and it means “to wash off or away” (W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p.1211).  It is used metaphorically here to indicate a “washing away” or cleansing of Paul’s many sins.  He would be forgiven of his sins and thereby be pure and clean.  The same term is found in 1 Cor. 6:11 where Paul refers to the conversion of the Corinthians: “You were washed [apelousasthe, from apolouo], but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.”  Just as Paul was to be baptized and “washed away” his sins, so the Corinthians had been “washed” of their spiritual impurity or forgiven of their sins.  Again notice that this was the common experience of those who were saved at Corinth.  If any were saved they had been “washed” from their sins—evidently in believing baptism. It occurred individually—but it also was a corporate experience.

In Ephesians 5, Paul likens the community of Christ to the beloved “wife” of Christ: “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (w. 25b-26).  It is not clear, but there is a possibility that Paul once again has baptism in mind when he says that the believing community had been “cleansed” “by the washing of water with the word.”  The term “washing” here is loutro, from loutron, which denotes “a bath, a laver” (Vine, p.1212).  The “bath” was with the “word.”  Perhaps this is a reference to the same “word” to which Ananias referred in speaking to Paul: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).

A similar reference that uses the same term, “wash” (loutron), is Titus 3:5: “He [God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.”  If this is a reference to baptism, as many Bible students affirm, it is interesting that it is joined with the “renewing by the Holy Spirit.”  The connection between baptism and the Spirit is found various places, as we have already seen (cf. Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; Gal. 3:27 with 4:6; perhaps John 3:5; 1 Cor. 12:13; and 1 Cor. 6:11).  (1t is also interesting to note that if this does refer to baptism, it is clearly distinguished from a “work of righteousness”—note also Eph. 2:8-9.)

A final passage would be Heb. 10:22, where we read: “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”  The term “washed” here comes from louo, which means, “to bathe.”  This verse, therefore, may refer to an inner cleansing (the heart “sprinkled”) as well as an outer action (the body “washed” or “bathed”).  If the outer action refers to baptism, it could be similar to 1 Peter 3:21 where there is an outer action (baptism) and an inner response (an appeal to God for a good conscience).  (We might notice here that even in the Hebrew Scriptures “wash” can mean “dip” or “immerse”—cf. 2 Kings 5:10,12,13 with v. 14.)  Although we would not want to be dogmatic about this passage, this very well could be another reference to a “faith baptism” that lies at the beginning of one’s life in Christ.

In these various references it is helpful to notice that the basic assumption is that all of the readers who were truly saved had experienced the very “washing” about which Paul and the Hebrew author wrote.  We know, of course, that the “washing” refers to an inner reality and the blood of Christ is the basis or ground of such washing (cf. 1 John 1:7; Rev. 7:14; 22:14, NASB). Yet what we have seen should be enough to convince us that baptism (as an expression of faith and repentance) has a very important place in one’s initial response to Christ.  The fact that all of the readers, if they are Christians, are assumed to have experienced this is another evidence that baptism lies at the beginning of one’s life in the body of Christ (not some time after).  Not only is the Christian a person who has been “washed” and “cleansed” of his sins, but the community of Christ is a “washed” and “cleansed” body!

A Few Clarifications

We must bear in mind further that when Scripture speaks of the baptism of the “Great Commission,” it does not denote a “baptism” into a denomination, a “baptism” to merely testify to a prior forgiveness or cleansing, or a “baptism” simply “to follow the example of Jesus.”  Rather, the meaning of baptism is rich and multi-faceted.  Repentance and baptism are for the forgiveness of sins” (cf. Acts 2:38).  Faith-baptism is a baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).  If one was ignorant of this New Testament emphasis and especially if he was denying or fighting against this significance, the baptism can hardly qualify as the genuine baptism of the Scriptures.  While people in the apostolic times may have been ignorant of various aspects of the act, evidently they did not deny its basic meaning or purpose.  (See our studies, Were You Baptized for the Wrong Reasons?and Please Don’t Be Baptized!)

We must clearly distinguish between the very meaningful act of baptism we have discovered in Scripture and the later, post-apostolic “sacrament” of baptism that denies basic features of the New Testament act.  This view, which arose in the second, third, and fourth centuries, predominates even today in worldwide “Christendom.”  It looks upon baptism as a semi-magical ecclesiastical water ceremony, usually performed by an “ordained” priest or cleric.  The ritual is thought to bestow salvation, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit upon an infant—separate and apart from conscious faith, deliberate repentance, wholehearted commitment of life, and taking the yoke of discipleship.  In no way does Scripture support this ex opere operato view of baptism—a view that would say that something automatic occurs in the act of baptism itself without a consideration of that which baptism is intended to express.  Baptism has meaning because of that which it embodies (faith and repentance) and because of its relationship to the redemptive death of Christ for our sins (Romans 6:3-4; Matt. 26:28).

This sacramental view reigned during the long medieval period.  The sixteenth century Anabaptists rightly opposed this “baptismal regeneration” theology of the Roman Catholic (and Lutheran) Church, and they were persecuted greatly because of this opposition.   Sadly, many groups since that time, purporting to hold to “believer’s baptism,” have so emptied their act of baptism of Scriptural content that it bears little resemblance to the New Testament act of faith and obedience.  Much of this comes from an over-reaction against the Catholic infant “baptismal regeneration” view, yet some comes from simple unbelief—a failure to take Scripture seriously and believe all that it reveals about the act of baptism.

The Body of Christ is the Community of Christ

When we refer to the body of Christ, we necessarily refer to the community or congregation of Christ. The original term is ekklesia, a term usually rendered “church” in most English translations.  This is a poor rendering, which would better be translated as community, company, congregation, or assembly. The term “church” has a formal, organizational, institutional, and denominational connotation, which the term ekklesia lacked.  In fact, “church” is derived from an entirely different Greek term (kuriakon), which means “the Lord’s house” (Terry L. Miethe, A Compact Dictionary of Doctrinal Words, p.59).

What we are saying is this: When Scripture speaks of baptism, it connects it to entrance into the “body” of Christ or into the “community” or “assembly” of God.  One becomes a member of “Christ’s body” and “individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27; cf. v.12; Rom. 12:4-5) when he responds by faith, in baptism. He becomes part of the company of believers, the assembly of saints, the community of disciples, or the family of God.  Scripture definitely identifies the “body” as the “community” and the “community” as the “body”: “the ekklesia, which is His body” (Eph. 1:22-23); “He is also head of the body, the ekklesia” (Col. 1:18; cf. v.24).

Ideally, this believing community should have various characteristics, deriving from the fact that it is composed of repentant believers who have been baptized, who have been cleansed from their sins, who are being made holy through the work of the Holy Spirit, who are living in active obedience to the will of God, and who are being conformed to the image of Christ. God has directed that each local manifestation of the universal body of Christ (i.e., each local assembly) must:

  • Build itself up in love (Eph. 4:16).
  • Admonish the unruly (1 Thess. 5:14).
  • Care for spiritual needs (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 12:27).
  • Care for physical needs (2 Cor. 8:1-15).
  • Exclude the impenitent (Matt. 13:15-20; 1 Cor. 5).
  • Promote love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25).
  • Carry the message of Christ to others (Mark 16:15).

This, of course, differs greatly from what we often see in the religious world today where there may be:

  • No genuine faith in Christ
  • No heartfelt repentance of sin
  • No true act of baptism
  • No true meaning to baptism
  • No commitment to Christ as Lord and King
  • No glory in Christ as Savior
  • No walk of holiness and righteousness
  • No serious adherence to the Scriptural pattern for the assembly
  • No separation from the world and its evil ways
  • No conformity to the ways of God
  • No serious devotion to the Scriptures
  • No commitment to practical obedience

Much more could be said about the privileges and responsibilities of each local community of Christ.  There definitely is a corporate responsibility to walk in the truth of God (2 John 4; 3 John 4), to live in absolute holiness and righteousness Heb. 12:14; 1 Thess. 5:23), and to grow in genuine love (1 Thess. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:3).  If a local company proves unfaithful to God, Christ will “remove [its] lampstand out of its place” (Rev. 2:5)—a figure evidently meaning that He will cease to recognize it as a true community of His.

In passing, we would note that an assembly need not have a hundred or more Christians in its number.  It need not have fifty, twenty, or even ten.  Obviously, a single Christian could not constitute a community in a given area.  There would need to be two or more.  Jesus suggested this at Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.”  Perhaps Matthew 18:15-17 might suggest even several in number.  As we noticed earlier, Lydia and her household (this would be at least three people) must have been the nucleus of God’s family in Philippi (Acts 16:14-15).  But a Christian in the unique position of being alone at any given time (e.g., the Ethiopian, Acts 8), surely would not constitute a local community—although he would be part of the universal body of Christ or ekklesia of God.  Again, he became a member of the body when he, through faith and repentance, by one Spirit, was “baptized into one body” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Acts 8:36-39).

Implications from Our Study

We have covered many passages of Scripture and learned that baptism indeed has a direct bearing upon one’s membership in the body of Christ or the community of the Lord. Let us consider several more implications from our study.

First, one enters the body of Christ at the point of salvation.  There are many blessings related to salvation (forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, an inheritance, the Holy Spirit, sonship, rebirth, etc.)—and membership in the ekklesia, the community, the body of Christ, is one of them. When a sincerely convicted person, in true faith (John 3:15-18) and genuine repentance (Acts 3:19) is baptized into Christ (Acts 2:38-41; Romans 6:3-5), God graciously adds him to the community of the saved or the body of Christ (Acts 2:41,47; 1 Cor. 12:13).

Second, one automatically becomes a part of the local manifestation of the body of Christ at the point of conversion or baptism.  We have not seen a two-step process or three-step procedure that a convert must go through to become a member of a local community.  Those repentant, baptized persons in Jerusalem did not need to wait three years, one year, one month, or even one week after they were baptized to become part of the believing community (Acts 2:38-47; cf. 5:14).  Repentant, baptized believers constituted the Jerusalem community!

Third, there is no indication that when one was saved and forgiven that he would become a lone Christian—providing there was an assembly of faithful and obedient believers in the given location.  It was simply a “given” that one would be part of the local manifestation of the universal body of Christ.  Thus, there was no provision for individualism among the early saints.  We know, of course, that there were exceptions (such as the Ethiopian and perhaps others) and there will be exceptions today.  In this day of unbelief, disobedience, unholiness, and apostasy, many who claim to be Christians really are not genuine Christians.  Thus a Christian may find himself alone until God works to change the circumstances.  But we must look upon this as the exception and not the rule.

Fourth, consider the composition of the body in apostolic times.  The members were believers.  They were repentant believers.  They were repentant believers who had been baptized (i.e., immersed—lowered momentarily in water and raised from the water). They were repentant, baptized believers who were walking in the fear of the Lord (Acts 9:31), walking in truth (3 John 4), walking in love (2 John 5-6), walking in holiness (Heb. 12:14), and walking in fellowship and true worship (Acts. 2:42). We speak ideally here and this should ever be our earnest desire.

Fifth, the early believing community definitely was not a religious “club” or organization.  It was very much different from the Lions or Rotary clubs. It was unlike the Masonic, Odd Fellows, or Eastern Star lodges.  It was unlike any social club or secular or religious organization.  One could not “join” it as one might a club or association.  Instead of being an institution or “organization,” the early community of saints was actually an “organism”—a living body composed of living members, vitally and savingly connected with the Head, Christ Jesus the Lord (Eph. 4:15-17). The body is also likened to a family, God’s own “household” (Eph. 2:19), composed of brothers and sisters (James 2:15; 1 Cor. 7:15) who are beloved children of God (1 John 3:1-2), sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father (2 Cor. 6:18).

Sixth, surely there were differences between the various members even though they were within the one body.  Paul says, “Just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5; cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-30).  Paul does mention the diversity within the one body: “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).  In another baptismal context, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28; cf. Col. 3:11).  All of the believers had become “sons of God through faith” (v.26). They were sons of God “in Christ Jesus” (v. 26b).  And they had entered Christ Jesus in baptism: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (v.27).  Within the body there is expected and legitimate diversity.

Seventh, although there is a proper diversity, there must also be a profound unity and togetherness!  The members are to become increasingly united.  Paul gives this amazing directive: “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10).  In another place Paul makes the same entreaty: “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Phil. 2:2; cf. 1:27). Those baptized into the body of Christ should increasingly agree on the will of God, increasingly share a common lifestyle, and increasingly view circumstances and the world with a common perspective—that of God Himself revealed in Scripture.

Eighth, when one turns to Christ in repentance and baptism, he becomes a part of the body of Christ—but he does not become part of a human denomination or sect.  As we have observed, the New Testament assembly was not institutional, nor denominational, nor sectarian.  The believing community was simply that—a company of individuals who were united to Christ the Head and therefore were united to each other in the bond of love (Col. 2:2; 3:14).  If one somehow believes that through baptism he is becoming part of a human denomination, institution, church, or religious organization, surely he has misconceived Scriptural baptism as well as the body of Christ.  If one’s baptism is a denominational baptism, surely it is not New Testament baptism—the baptism of the Great Commission—thus he has not been genuinely and Scripturally been baptized.  If one has experienced a defective baptism, it is an invalid, unscriptural baptism, and he needs to be re-baptized (actually, baptized for the first time, and this time Scripturally!).  (See our study, Were You Baptized for the Wrong Reasons?)

Ninth, in this study we have not discussed at length all of the meanings and purposes of baptism.  We have alluded to the fact that baptism actually is an immersion in water.  The Greek term baptizo actually means to immerse, to submerge, to dip, to sink, to plunge, to overwhelm (see The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, pp.88-89; Wesley J. Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, p.66; Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, pp.131-132).  (See also chapter 3 in our study, A Friendly Discussion on Baptism, and our self-study, The Scriptural Teaching on Baptism.)  In all of the scriptures that we have examined, we should bear in mind that when Jesus or Paul or Peter refer to “baptism” they have in mind an immersion or a submersion in water—and not contemporary substitutes of moistening, sprinkling, or pouring.  This has a bearing upon the import of this entire study.

Pointers for Today

As we conclude this study, let us make several applications.

First, whatever your religious situation is at a present, you need to turn to the Lord and obey Him.  If you have not truly believed, you need to place your faith in the crucified and risen Lord.  If you have not repented of your sins, you need to have a change of heart regarding your sins and your relationship with God.  If you have not been baptized (immersed), you need to submit to the Lord’s will in this.

Second, if you are near a group of true believers who are living in truth and holiness, you need to be with them.  If you question whether a group of your acquaintance meets this description, you will want to determine for sure whether they have turned to the Lord just as Scripture directs and have actually become part of the one body through Scriptural baptism.  Although there are many religious groups and churches in our day, few have complied with the Lord’s will in this area as well as in other areas.  Become part of a community that conforms to the Scriptural directives in true baptism (immersion) and in other elements of truth and holiness.

Third, if there is no local manifestation of the body of Christ in your area (that you know of), begin to share Christ and His will with others.  As the Lord brings spiritually needy people your way, and as they are baptized into Him and into His body, begin to assemble with each other for edification, fellowship, worship, and other Scriptural activities.  Read the New Testament for your “blueprint” and conform each aspect of the believing, baptized community to its directives.  Remember that you are accountable to God and not to a human denominational governing board or ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Fourth, if you know of a genuine community of Christ elsewhere, you may choose to move to be closer to the believers there.  You may be nurtured in such a setting and you could also build up others in the faith.  Yet, as mentioned before, be cautious until you are assured that they are walking according to the will of God in regard to true faith, purity, baptism, the inner workings of the community, and all other areas of truth.

As each sincere truth-seeker views the spectrum of churches, assemblies, fellowships, and house groups in the world today, he must pay special attention to a number of crucial factors. He must consider their love for God and His Word, their emphasis on Christ and the work of the Spirit, their love and warmth within the community, their interest and compassion for the weak and troubled, and their passion and outreach toward the lost.  He must consider whether they are separate from the world and whether they exclude unrepentant members.  He must question what they believe about Scriptural overseers-elders, servants, proclaimers (preachers), and teachers.  He should consider whether they carry on New Testament worship—prayer, singing, mutual edification, teaching, and weekly breaking of bread.

And surely of fundamental concern, the truth-seeker and fellowship-seeker should examine whether the members of the body have truly repented, have exercised saving faith, and have submitted to a Scriptural baptism—a burial and resurrection that identified them with Christ and the gospel, that was for the forgiveness of sins, and that brought them into the Lord’s body of believers.  Certainly the latter is a priority that must not be overlooked nor minimized.  Since Christ placed so much importance in baptism, we must do the same.

May We Help You?

We have discussed important issues in this study—ones  that affect your daily life, your relationships, and your future both on earth and in eternity.  Scripture says that “the manifold wisdom of God” is now being “made known, through the community [ekklesia], to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly [places]” (Eph. 3:10).  Christ’s spiritual body of believers is precious to Him. God’s family or household is near to His heart. It is vital that we be part of this body since Christ is “the Savior of the body” Eph. 5:23). It is essential that we become part of “the community of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

In this study we have examined how baptism relates to this body or community.  We have seen that it has a direct bearing upon entrance into the spiritual body of Christ.  As one responds to the good news of the crucified and risen Lord, as he places his trust and reliance in the “lifted up” Savior, as he turns away from his sins and his self-life, and as he is baptized into Christ Jesus, God will add him to this redeemed community.  Christ will add him to His spiritual body.  The Spirit will indwell him as He does the community of God as a whole.  Let us run to him with open arms and accept this abundant grace as seen in the glorious body! 

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