All Christians recognise that baptism is - in the true, as distinguished from the superstitious sense of the word - a sacrament; that is, it is an outward symbol to represent a spiritual truth. But most even of those who reject that root error of apostasy, baptismal regeneration, cling to the belief that the truth which the rite symbolises is the new birth.
This is one of the many amazing vagaries of religious thought. For, as already noticed, Scripture in the plainest possible way connects baptism with death; and there is not one solitary passage in which it is mentioned in connection with regeneration or birth; not one which connects it in any way with the operation of the Holy Spirit, or the communication of spiritual life.
But, it will be said, there are two passages in which, though not expressly mentioned, it is clearly referred to, For the Christian, death implies resurrection ; but we must not confound the resurrection with the new birth. which negative this statement. I allude of course to i John iii. and Titus iii. With these passages therefore I now propose to deal.
The occasion of the Nicodemus sermon was the first Passover of the Lord’s ministry. The fame of His miracles was abroad, and many were led thereby to “believe in His name” They were miracle made dis ciples. Theirs was a political faith, for the hope of a Messiah was part of the politics of every Jew. Nicodemus, however, seems to have had deeper aspirations, which led him to seek out the Lord, albeit he came to Him in secret. The multitude thought only of a greater Judas Maccabus; Nicodemus hailed him as a God sent teacher. He was as much in advance of the sensual crowd as is the Pharisee of our own day, but he was just as far from the Kingdom. Therefore he was "answered" at the very threshold by the overwhelming announcement," Except a man be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God."
The retort of Nicodemus was not the expression of ignorant coarseness. Coming from such a man, it betokens rather his impatience at being met by what may have seemed to him an enigmatical subtlety. Possibly it was a weariness of such subtleties, the stock-in-trade of the Rabbis, which brought him to the Saviour. But his question only brought out the still more explicit statement, "Except a man be born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
Now, first it is essential to notice that this is not a twofold birth (of water, and of the Spirit), but emphatically one - a birth of water-and-Spirit, in contrast with the birth which is of flesh. This is not obvious in a translation; but in the original it is unmistakable. And the context emphasises it, for in the very next sentence, and again in verse 8, the water is omitted altogether, and the new man is spoken of merely as "born of the Spirit." It follows, therefore, that whatever the water signifies it must be implied in the words "born of the Spirit," and every one who has been "born anew" has been "born of water and the Spirit."
Secondly, it is certain that the doctrine here implied ought to have been known to Nicodemus; for the Lord rebuked his ignorance of it. But what is called "Christian baptism" had not yet been instituted. Even "the Twelve" knew nothing of it: how then could Nicodemus have known of it? The only baptism then known was that of the Baptist, and that baptism was expressly contrasted with the Spirit’s work Matt. iii. ix). It was a public confession of failure and sin, preparatory to receiving a coming Messiah. But "Christian baptism" was a public confession of faith in Christ already come and gone back to heaven, and a public submission to the Lordship of Christ on the part of those who professed to have been already "born of the Spirit."’ That is to say, baptism followed the new birth.
When Cornelius and his household were brought in, the question was not "Why should not baptized persons receive the Spirit?" but "Can any man forbid water that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" Their baptism was not the completion of the new birth, but the recognition that they were already born of water and the Spirit.
(Acts xix. i - 6 gives in a marked way the contrast between the two baptisms. The disciples then were re-baptized, not to make them Christians, but because they were Christians. And the coming upon them of the Holy Spirit, as theiEe mentioned, had reference expressly to the exercise of Pentecostal gifts. )
But all this is negative. The water of John iii. does not refer to baptism: the question remains, What is its symbolism ? Here we must keep prominently in view that the truth involved ought to have been known to Nicodemus. "Art thou the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?" the Lord exclaimed in indignant wonder at his ignorance. Therefore in speaking of the new birth by water and the Spirit the Lord referred to some distinctive truth of the Old Testament Scriptures, which ought to have been familiar to a Rabbi of the Sanhedrin.
Before we turn to the Old Testament, it is important to inquire whether any further light can be obtained from the New. The second passage already mentioned at once suggests itself: "According to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus iii. 5).
Each of the prominent words here used occurs but once again in the New Testament: "renewing" in Rom. xii. "regeneration" in Matt. xix. 28; and "washing" in Eph. v. 26. The word rendered "washing" is a noun, not a verb. This loutron is, strictly speaking, not the washing, but the vessel which contains the water. Certain expositors of course wish to read it "font" or "laver" ; but this is a false exegesis. The New Testament is written in the language of the Septuagint version of the Old; and we turn to that authority to settle for us the meaning of any doubtful term. Appeal may here be made to a weighty minority of theologians, from Calvin to the late Bishop Ryle (of Liverpool). Dr. Ryle’s "six reasons" for rejecting the popular exegesis are conclusive. In his Commentary on John iii. 5 Calvin writes, "I cannot bring myself to believe that Christ speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate."
And for this purpose the Apocryphal books are sometimes as useful as the sacred Scriptures. Now, loutron is not the rendering for "laver" in the Greek version. The LXX use it twice; namely in Cant. iv. 2 (where it is the washing place for sheep); and in Ecclesiasticus XXX1. 25, where the Son of Sirach writes: "He that washeth himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again what avails his loutron?"
This last passage is of the very highest importance here, and gives us the clew we are in search of. The reference is to one of the principal ordinances of the Mosaic ritual - a type, moreover, which fills a large place in New Testament doctrine - especially in Hebrews - namely, the great sin-offering as connected with "the water of purification" (Numb. xix.).
In Titus iii. 5, as in John iii. 5, a false exegesis depends on separating the words in a way that the original will not permit. The absence of both preposition and article before "renewing," requires that the words shall be construed together : - " the loutron of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit." The reference here is not to a mystical rite established in after times by the Church in its decadence, but to one of the greatest of the types of the divinely ordered Hebrew religion. The great sin- offering of Numb. xix. was burned outside the camp, and water which had flowed over the ashes had cleansing efficacy.
But does Scripture connect this type with the Spirit’s work? First let us note that in Matt. xix. 28 - the only other passage where the word "regeneration"’ is used - it refers to the fulfilment of the Kingdom blessings to Israel, the epoch described in Acts iii. 21 as "the of the restoratian of all things, which God hath from the mouth of all His holy prophets." With this to guide us, we turn to one of the most definite of the prophecies, Ezek. xxxvi., xxxvii. We there read: "I .. take you from among the heathen, and gather you of all countries, and will bring you into your own. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you. . . . A heart also will I give you. . . . And I will put My heart within you." Then follows the vision of the valley of dry bones. The prophet is commanded to say, "thus saith the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O beat and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." - once again the words are repeated, " I shall put My heart in you, and ye shall live."
Here then is the most characteristic of all the propheci of that great revival which the Lord’s own lips have described as the "regeneration " - a prophecy to which the Jew clung with special earnestness, a prophec ignorance of which in a Rabbi of the Sanhedrin was a disgraceful as if an English theologian knew nothing of the Nicodemus sermon! And it was the great truth of this prophecy - salvation through the sin-offering in the powez of the Divine Spirit, that the Lord enforced in His words to Nicodemus, and which the Apostle emphasised in th Epistle to Titus. Thus only could the sinner enter the Kingdom.
We conclude, then, that whatever the water typified ii Ezek. xxxvi. and Numb. xix., it symbolised also in John iii. How could the defiled Israelite gain access to the sacrifice of the great sin-offering for purification? Water which had flowed over the ashes of the sacrifice was sprinkled upon him. We know what the sacrifice typified, what did the water typify? What is the means by which the defiled sinner is brought into contact, as it were, with the great sin-offering, of Calvary? By "the word of the truth of the Gospel." And so we find in the only other passage where the word loutron occurs, the cleansing is by "the loutron of water in the Word" (Eph. v. 26).
Baptism is a public act performed by man, for which man can fix the day and hour. The new birth of water and the Spirit is altogether the work of God; and as our Lord so expressly declares, no man can forecast, no man can command it. "The Spirit breathes where He wills, and thou hearest His voice, but knowest not whence He cometh and whither He goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." It was presumably the obvious reference to Ezekiel which led our translators to render irvEisa by wind. Of course it may have that meaning; just as in English "spirit" may mean alcohol. But the word occurs 370 times in the New Testament (23 times in John), and yet nowhere else is it translated wind.
But the need of all this discussion depends solely on necessity of clearing away the accumulations of error prejudice which obscure and distort the teaching of the passage. In added words the Lord Himself has made His meaning unequivocally clear. In the ninth verse Nicodemus repeats as a humbled seeker after truth, the question which he has previously raised (verse 4) petulant unbelief, "How can a man be born anew And now the answer is vouchsafed to him: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." The new birth is not the result of a mystical human rite, but of faith in Christ - not as a teacher or an example, but as the ant type of the great sin-offering; as "lifted up," that is, crucified (comp. chap. viii. 28, and xii. 32). And as other Scriptures tell us, "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." "We are born again by the living and eternally abiding Word of God" (x Pet. i. 23) Every one who sanctions the baneful delusion that the water of John iii. refers to baptism, serves as a decoy not only for the advocates of baptismal regeneration but also for those who preach salvation apart from the great sacrifice of Calvary.
In this matter Christendom is in direct conflict with Scripture. Christendom teaches that baptism symbolises birth. Holy Scripture declares that it symbolises death. Christendom teaches that it is the putting away of the filth of the flesh. Holy Scripture declares it is "not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward And in the same passage (i Pet. iii. 21) the apostle enforces the symbolism of death by declaring that baptism is the antitype of the Flood. The water which overwhelmed the world bore up the ark.
Noah was thus saved from death by death; as is the sinner who on believing in Christ becomes one with Him in death. But if it be a question of the new birth we are "born again BY THE WORD OF GOD.’ (i Pet. . 23).
The word "baptism" occurs 22 times, and the verb "baptize" 77 times, in the New Testament. But this statement might leave a false impression as to the prominence given it in the doctrinal teaching of the Scriptures. Of these 99 occurences, 55 are in the Gospel narratives, and 27 in the Acts of the Apostles. The rest only are in the Epistles, and in only nine passages. Of these, one (i Cor. x. 2) relates to the Israelites being "baptized unto Moses," another (i Cor. xii. 13) to the Spirit’s baptism and a third (i Cor. xv. 29) to "baptism for the dead."
But a further analysis will show results still more startling. In i Cor. i. 13 - 17, not only is the mention of baptism not doctrinal, but the Apostle there thanks God that he himself had not baptized, and declares that Christ had not sent him to baptize. Could he have possibly used such language if he had been acting under the commission of Matt. xxviii. 19, or if baptism held the place which Christendom has given it?
It appears, therefore, that in the theology of the Epistles there are but five passages where baptism is doctrinally mentioned. They are as follows : - "Are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized unto Christ Jesus were baptized unto His death? We were buried therefore with Him through baptism unto death" (Rom. vi. 3, 4). "For as many of you as were baptized unto Christ did put on Christ"(Gal. iii. 27). "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. iv. 5). "Buried with Him in baptism "(Col. ii. 12). "Which also [i.e., Noah’s flood] in the antitype doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (i Pet. iii. 21). The words of i Cor. vi.ii have been adapted by both translators and revisers to suit the popular reference of them to baptism. But the margin of R.V. gives what the Apostle actually wrote. He specifies sinners of the worst type, and adds: "And such were some of you; but ye washed yourselves, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and "in the Spirit of our God." Now, the "washing" is a figure; sanctification and justification are facts : what, then,, does the figure denote? The typology of the Mosaic ritual will supply the answer. Washing with water always means practical cleansing.’
Ignorance of this has had baneful effects on Christian doctrine, tending, as it does, to make the great Atonement seem an excuse for neglecting practical purity of life. The Apostle’s meaning is thus clear: "You turned from your sins, you were sanctified, you were justified." And this will enable us to understand Acts xxii. (the only other passage where the same expression occurs). The Apostle records the words which Ananias addresseci to him at his conversion: "Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." To suppose that, in direct opposition to his definite, teaching about baptism, the Apostle in this didactic and incidental way intended teach that it was a purging from sin, is too wild for discussion.
Such is its meaning, ex. gr., in Heb. x. 22. It is a reference to the ritual of Numb. xix. The Israelite was cleansed by being sprinkled with the water which had flowed over the ashes of the great sin-offering, and then by bathing himself in water.
His meaning again is clear: "Arise and be baptized, and turn away from your evil courses, calling on His name."
This note would be incomplete without some reference to Matt. xxviii. iv. But the questions to which the passage gives rise are much too large to allow, of their being adequately discussed here. The fact that the commission there recorded remained a dead letter is wrongly used to discredit the authenticity of the words. That the commission was not acted on by the Apostles is clear to every student of the Acts. It directed them to go out and make disciples of the Gentiles, whereas they preached to the Jews only. A special vision was needed to lead Peter to visit the house of Cornelius; and the Apostle to the Gentiles declared emphatically, "He sent me not to baptize." At the Council of Acts xv. no one of the inspired apostles was led to refer to this commission, and there is no mention in Acts of any case of baptism in the name of the Trinity.
All this is urged as proof that the passage is an interpolation. But here the answer is obvious that, were this so, the passage would have been so framed as to avoid such a criticism. The solution of the difficulty is to be found in the essentially prophetic character of the first Gospel, and the well-known distinction between ultimate and intermediate fulfilment. If this distinction be overlooked, many a page of Holy Scripture musts be rejected on the same ground.
Regarded as a prophecy, the commission belongs to the day, still future, when "the Lord shall be king over all the earth," and "all peoples, nations, and languages shall serve Him." And when that day comes, the question will not be of individual faith in an absent and rejected Saviour and Lord, but of submission to Divine sovereignty, openly declared and enforced on earth. And baptism will become "the outward and visible sign" of that submission. The intelligent Bible student will here turn at once to passages like Daniel vii. 13,14, Zechariah xiv., and the many "kingdom" Psalms (such as xcvi. to c.). And now we can understand still more fully why it should be at the close of Matthew’s Gospel that this commission is recorded, and why it is to the Gentile nations that the messengers are sent forth, blessing to Israel being assumed. The reason is simple and clear, namely, that prophetically the commission belongs to the age when the Church of this dispensation shall have passed to heaven (i Thess. iv. i6, 17), and When the true remnant of Israel - the "all Israel" of Romans Xi. 26 (see ix. 6, 27), typified by the "five hundred brethren" who gathered round the Lord upon the mountain - shall be the missionaries to the world!
( It is generally admitted that this was the appearing mentioned in x Cor. xv. 6. If not, then this, the most important event of the "forty days," is unnoticed in the Gospels - an incredible suppositioh. I may here remark that the English reader is apt to be misled by the "then" and the "they’s" of Matt. xxviii. i6, i7. These words, which seem so emphatically to limit the appearing to the Eleven, are in fact not in the Greek at all. "Then" is "the 8s resumptive," often untranslatable, sometimes (as in verse z) left untranslated. It here marks that verse s6 is not a continuation of a consecutive narrative, but the record of a special event, and the pronouns are merely implied in the verbs used. The Eleven are expressly mentioned, no doubt, because every one knew that the "five hundred brethren" were there, and the Lord’s command to the Apostles to remain in Jerusalem might have a cast a doubt upon the fact that they were present.)
May I add that any one of "the five hundred" could have framed a narrative of all the appearings of the "forty days"? The omission of such a record in Matthew is not to be explained by ignorant talk about "fragmentrary materials," &c. As I have said elsewhere, those who profess to account for the Bible on natural principles can give no explanation of the omissions of Scripture. The first Gospel ignores the Lord’s appearances in Jerusalem for the same reason that it ignores Jerusalem altogether, so far as it was possible to ignore it, in the record of the Lord’s ministry from first to last.
The purpose of the four Gospels in the Divine scheme of revelation is to present Christ in different aspects of His Person and work, as Israel’s Messiah, Jehovah’s Servant, Son of Man, and Son of God. It is with the first that we have here to do. Galilee was prophetically and dispensationally connected with the godly remnant, which, in the apostasy of the nation, was divinely regarded as the true Israel. Therefore it is that to the Lord’s ministry in Galilee such prominence is given in the Hebrew Gospel. According to Matthew, the last words spoken to the Eleven before the agony in Gethsemane were that after He was risen again He would go before them into Galilee (Matt. xxvi. 32). And the first message sent to His "brethren" after the resurrection, first by the mouth of the angel who appeared to the woman at the sepulchre, and afterwards by His own lips, was that He would meet them in Galilee (Matt. xxviii. 7, so).
What then was needed to complete the book? But for the guiding and restraining Spirit of God, the Apostle would doubtless have given a record of the events of those forty days. From a practical and common-sense point of view, it is idle to talk here of "fragmentary materials." Any one of the disciples could have compiled such a narrative, but it would have been wholly foreign to the scope and purpose of the first Gospel. As it is the Galilee ministry which is the burden of it, all that remains is to record how, in the scene of that ministry, the Lord gathered His disciples round Him, and gave them the pregnant and prophetic words with which that Gospel closes.
As regards the meaning of this difficult text, 1 Cor 15:29, Bengel declares that "baptism for the advantage of the dead came into use from a wrong interpretation of this very passage." "Nor is it to be believed," Bloomfield writes, "that the Apostle would for the sake of a very precarious argument countenance so grovelling a superstition." And yet we are told that the reference is to "a practice not otherwise known to us" (Alford). If it be so, it is a most pitiable collapse of a sublime passage - " a splendid outburst of mingled rhetoric and logic." Indeed the suggestion is as silly as it is irreverent. If, as Alford supposes, it is an ad hominem argument, it must be an appeal to the common faith and practice of all Christians everywhere. The solution of the enigma is to be found in correcting the punctuation. Verses 20 - 28 are in a separate paragraph. And resuming at verse 29 the argument of verse 19, the Apostle exclaims, "What shall they do who are baptized?" For while baptism connotes death it implies resurrection; and if this be gone both the blessing and even the meaning of the ordinance are gone with it. "It is for corpses if the dead rise not: why are they then baptized for them?"
See Dr. Bullinger’s Figures of Speech, pp. 41 - 44). 15