J. M. Frost - 1916
J. M. Frost. The Baptist Standard, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 18, 1915.
EXCEPTING the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the baptism of Saul of Tarsus at Damascus was, perhaps, the most remarkable and startling single baptism in the whole course of Christian history. It was quiet enough, having nothing akin to the spectacular, nothing, so far as we know, which would attract public attention. He was baptized, probably, by Ananias, who went to him as the Lord’s special messenger, and also probably in one of the rivers about which Naaman boasted when he dipped himself seven times in the Jordan: ”Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” In our study, however, of the ordinance in this concrete case, as with his conversion, we must distinguish between what is remarkable and startling, and what is basal and essential in its meaning. For this baptism was as other baptisms, except, like his conversion again, the ordinary is set in the frame-work of the extraordinary. And yet, as a ceremonial service in the Christian system, the commanding importance of the ordinance was given tremendous emphasis by the character and history of the man, while baptism, itself, was greatly magnified and crowned with honor by the circumstances in which it came.
The joyous submission of Saul of Tarsus to this simple, though beautiful, Christian ordinance, the baptism of this Hebrew of the Hebrews, this Pharisee of the Pharisees, who started for Damascus from Jerusalem, breathing out threatening and slaughter against everything Christian, marked a revolution powerful and sudden in his own character and life, with a moral and religious upheaval in current events. The news must have come as a cyclone in at least two cities, friend or foe not knowing what it meant. The Power, which was thought dead and out of the way, had suddenly reappeared; and, with new fire, touched a magazine in which was gathered the best product of Hebrew culture and life - and there was an explosion, the undoing of the old to make way for the new.
”Immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales, and he received his sight forthwith, and arose and was baptized” Acts 9:18. This is the entry in the record of his baptism which marked the boundary between the old life and the new - his life of persecuting Christians at Jerusalem and his life in Damascus of preaching Christ crucified, the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of sinners-with only a few days intervening. Radical changes had been wrought within and without. There had been an exchange of commissions - the authority from the high priest of hate and death being displaced by the commission from the Lord, his new King, who met him in the way.
That change is told by himself in his defense on the stairway at Jerusalem and before Agrippa at Caesarea twenty-five or thirty years later, when his spiritual life had been deepened and seasoned by suffering and service, mellowed and enriched through new and larger experiences: ”At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining around about me, and them that journeyed with me. ... I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. ... And I said. What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do. And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus” - ”not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”
In this meeting, so simple and august, there had been an encounter, man with man, sinner with his Saviour, and Saul of Tarsus surrendered to ”the Lord, even Jesus, who appeared to him in the way as he came” - surrendered in intellect and will, in his religion and life purpose. God had touched him, and he was willing in the day of God’s power - acquiesced, consented, purposed a new purpose, and chose a new course in life.
Saul of Tarsus henceforth was a new man in Christ Jesus-a sinner conquered, indeed, but a sinner saved. His baptism, as ceremonial service, followed at Damascus, as if to raise a banner at the point where conquest had been made - a signal of victory for his new King. Jerusalem and Damascus were only a few days apart literally, but in his experience the poles asunder. It marked a new life, a new fellowship, a new brotherhood, as recognized by Ananias, whom the Lord sent to Saul to ”tell of the things appointed for him to do,” that he might receive his sight and the gift of the Holy Spirit to further fit and equip him for his new and special mission.
This gives the historical setting of his baptism and lays the base lines for the larger study of its fuller arid richer meaning. Our present concern is not with his conversion in its overpowering greatness, but with his baptism, in which, as a ceremonial service, that conversion found its first expression, and he avowed for the first time his allegiance and loyalty to his new King as Lord and Saviour. That act, so simple, yet so heroic and morally sublime, is best seen in his own great utterances concerning it, for some of the noblest things left on record, as he came more and more into the larger service of life, were expression of what is meant when he was ”buried with Christ in baptism,” in one of ”the rivers of Damascus.” It was the glory of his life in struggle and conflict, and forecast the coming glory in the presence of his King.
”And now, why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16). This is his word when many years from the scene at Damascus, and long since had become the Apostle Paul, he now repeats the story of his baptism, standing on the stairway at Jerusalem with a mob clamorous for his death - not ashamed in such presence that he had been baptized, calling on the name of the Lord, even Jesus. The word so brief yet emphasized two vital and momentous points in the wonderful meaning of baptism as a ceremony, viz.: its calling to the new man for obedience to the new King, and its symbolic import, showing the twofold efficacy of the blood for the remission and the washing away of sin - even his sins, which always seemed greater to him than the sins of others. It magnified in glorious fashion the ceremonial beauty and significance of the great ordinance - symbolizing the fountain opened in the house of David to ”Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure.”
It is a dangerous perversion and painful letting down of this ceremony in the Christian system, to count it a purchase price in baptismal remission, or any sort of efficiency in literal washing away of sin, or effiacious and operative in baptismal regeneration; as compared with its lofty symbolic intent to mark the highway of obedience for such as know the grace of God in the forgiveness of sin, and to emphasize the importance of serving God in the line of his commandments. Baptism, both as symbolism and obedience, would appeal mightily to Saul of Tarsus, having had the highest training as Hebrew of the Hebrews, to keep the Law of the Lord, to walk in his statute, and to observe his ”ceremonies to do them.”
All this, of course, assumed new and loftier meaning when, in the experience of the riches of mercy, he came into new relation with the Lord Jesus, and lived in the glorious gospel of the grace of God. Not less, but more obedient, the love of Christ meanwhile always constraining, and the joy of the Lord increasing his strength with the increase of service. He had a very passion for obedience, born of the mightiest power of the soul. ”Not disobedient to the heavenly vision,” was the key to his great life, at the first and on through all the succeeding years to the finish. His views of baptism, so lofty and strong, carried into the evangelical preaching of today, would create new evangelistic power and augment the efficiency of its appeal; would be a rock of defense for the evangelical faith, a living and powerful apologetic for the Cross and the risen Christ.
The word baptize signified that he was immersed when baptized at Damascus. This is confirmed in Romans 6: 3-4 and Colossians 2:12; 3: 1, where he appeals to the ordinance in the form of immersion, and shows its symbolic import, its wonderful spiritual meaning and its practical worth in calling the believer to a godly life in Christ Jesus. Baptized into Christ - baptized into his death - buried with Christ in baptism - raised up also with him - with him to walk in newness of life, having the affections set on Christ at the right hand of God - these are his words and are of tremendous import. They show the believer’s union with Christ - died with him - risen with him; crucified with Christ, nevertheless, they live in him. It shows also the believers’ union with one another in a common experience of grace in Christ Jesus, and the outward bond and badge of their fellowship in the one baptism.
This is the far-reaching significance and power of the apostle’s great word, and the meaning of his baptism is written in immersion as the form essential to observance. The spiritual finds expression in the physical and outward. It is the testimony of believers being in Christ and Christ in them the hope of glory. It gives emphasis to experiential grace, and to individual responsibility in observing the ordinance in its outward form-each one for himself. And the ordinance itself is exalted in the power and glory of its mes- sage, being everywhere the emblem for the gospel of resurrection power; Christ’s own chosen signal of his conquest over sin and death, and of how he brought life and immortality to light. This is its meaning, whether for Saul of Tarsus, for believers at Rome and Colossae, to whom he was writing, or for all who should come after, even to our own times.
Dr. Plummer, a Presbyterian, says: ”It is only when baptism is administered by immersion that its full significance is seen.” Conybeare and Howson, of the Church of England, say: ’This passage (in Romans) cannot be understood unless it be borne in mind that the primitive baptism was by immersion.” Dr. William Sanday, also of the Church of England, and foremost among Greek expositors, says of this text: ”Baptism expresses, symbolically, a series of acts corresponding to the redeeming acts of Christ; immersion equals death, submersion equals burial (or ratification of death); emergence equals resurrection.” The emergence - lifting the person from his submersion-is not only a physical necessity, but is essential to the symbol and completes its symbolic import, showing Christ risen from the dead and the believer risen with him in the experience of grace.
The emblematic power of the ordinance is in its form; its power of utterance is in its form; its very self is in its form - form which expresses wonderful meaning-the emblem of what grace has done and will do. It is surpassingly great in the uniqueness of its message; shows ”how Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose the third day, according to the Scriptures.” As figure and symbol baptism has no message for ”salvation by education,” or through ”evolution of character,” or through ”culture” in some high way. It speaks only of atonement - atonement through the blood of the everlasting covenant, for new birth and new heart by the Holy Spirit, and for becoming a new creature in Christ Jesus. This is its one word - the word which must not be broken, or weakened, or altered forever: ”God has made him who knew no sin, to be made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Wherever this emblem goes, this great truth for human redemption is set at the front as a message of grace.
The apostle, concerning his baptism, makes a bold change of figure, and, like the others, full of meaning. His baptism was his Christ uniform, which he wore to mark his alignment and allegiance. ”Ye are all the children of God through faith in Christ. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27). This is wonderful putting of words together, the expression of experience and salvation, of sublime thinking and teaching, God’s children - faith in Christ - baptized-putting on Christ by baptism - enough to overpower and confuse in thought, yet distinct and exalted in its meaning. Such setting of the ordinance shows its exceptional character and important service in Christian life, and gives fresh emphasis to the study of the baptism of Saul of Tarsus.
Its fundamental principle is clear and may be marked throughout the Scriptures. Faith in Christ is the means and method of becoming a child of God, baptism is the means and method for its public expression and for public alignment with the followers of Christ. It is a Christian service - a service for God’s children, and worthy ”the child of a King.” So it was with Saul of Tarsus, so it must be with all who would follow him as he followed Christ. It is their obligation, only there should be no waiting for obligation; it is their privilege, the impulse of love, their joy to walk in the way their Lord went - the baptized Saviour of a baptized people. No others can wear its badge of honor, and it draws a line of demarcation between the children of God and those who walk the ways of the world.
It is the Christ uniform, and gives the believer a badge of distinction, and demands that he walk worthy of his calling and have his conversation as becometh the gospel of Christ. A uniform does not make a soldier, but marks him as to his allegiance and service, and becomes his outward bond of union and fellowship with all who have walked in this way of the Lord - a common baptism with him and with all who know him as Lord in like obedience and wear this common uniform. It is a distinction for believers and for the brotherhood of believers. This was the apostle’s honor, and so he counted it among Christians everywhere - the mark of the soldiers of the cross and its triumphant badge on every field.
There are those, however, who insist on the lower level, while deluding themselves that they walk the ”higher heights” of spiritual experience and service. Born of God, they say, and with the new hope in their hearts, they have no need of baptism or church membership; that baptism, not being essential to salvation, has, therefore, no value or place in the walks of the kingdom - as if it were nothing to honor the Lord’s ordinance, nothing to walk in his appointed way and in his method of grace. Not so with Saul of Tarsus, but in the glow and glory of his vision he was immediately baptized, joined himself to the disciples, and began to tell the good news of salvation.
Let us back, then, to our starting point, to the baptism of Saul of Tarsus at Damascus. Many years had intervened when he sent his lofty words to Rome and Colossse, to Ephesus and the churches of Galatia. Since then he had gone far abroad with the gospel of grace, but all the while his baptism at Damascus was a precious memory, giving strength and inspiration in its sublime lessons. He and others like minded and of kindred spirit, serving under the one banner of one King, had borne it into far-away cities and distant countries of the world.
But always and everywhere, the simple, beautiful ceremony which he observed at Damascus was the one baptism-the same in symbolic form, the same in lofty, obedient spirit, the same in its one great purpose of expressing in figure the achievements of grace - to glorify Christ and crown him King in the heart and life - the ”one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” This was the unbroken, unvarying testimony of Saul of Tarsus, from the day he met his Lord in the way to Damascus, until the end came, and he went home to receive his plaudit and his crown.