Saul of Tarsus had been a persecutor of Christians, but when he discovered the truth of the risen Christ, he was humbled and penitent. He prayed, blind and lost, for three days, no doubt begging God to forgive him for his many crimes. Ananias, sent by Jesus to preach to the penitent Saul of Tarsus, said to him: “What are you waiting for? Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16). »
Saul was not without hope, God could and would wash away his sins, healing him. What a beautiful thought and what a beautiful message! Also quite relatable…we all understand the concept of washing and God repeatedly uses this concept to help us understand His salvation.
Concerning the Church and the love of Christ, we read: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, to sanctify her, having purified her with the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church in its splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, that it might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27; ESV ). Similarly, about Christians in general, Paul also wrote, “You have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 11: 26; ESV)”, and, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the bath of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3: 5; ESV).”
This image of sins being washed away was also used in the pages of the Old Testament. David, in the Psalms, prayed, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin,” and again, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:2, 7; ESV). Isaiah, in his ministry, took up the same theme, sharing God’s words with Israel: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourself; purify yourselves (Isaiah 1:15-16; ESV).
Yet, although the thought of washing was used in the Old Testament, in the New Testament we find the image joined to the practice. Specifically, Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize in his name for the remission of sins (cf. Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38). It is thus that Ananias, in ordering Saul, linked the act of baptism, which is an immersion in water, to the washing away of sins. If Paul had not been baptized, he would not have washed away his sins.
When Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the cleansing of the church, he specifically said that Christ cleansed the church, “by the washing of water with the word.” Likewise, the author of Hebrews wrote, “Since we have a high priest over the house of God, let us approach with sincere hearts, in the fullness of faith, with hearts purified from a bad conscience and body washed with water (Hebrews 10:21-22; ESV).
The apostles assumed that all Christians were washed with water at baptism. Not a bath of filth, as the apostle Peter makes clear, saying that baptism is not “the removal of filth from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21; ESV), but nonetheless immersion in a body of water in obedience to Christ’s command.
Peter’s remarks also illustrate that it is not water itself that does spiritual cleansing, although water is commanded and therefore essential. Peter says it is the resurrection of Christ, a resurrection in which we participate in baptism (cf. Romans 6:3-5) and Paul, writing to
Ephesians says it is the blood of Christ through which we have redemption from our sins (cf. Ephesians 1:7). Elsewhere, in John’s vision in Revelation, John sees a multitude arrayed in white, the saved saints of God, and it is said of them, “They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14; ESV). The blood of Christ is taken in connection with the death of Christ, and again it is in Baptism that we are joined, not only to the resurrection of Christ, but also to His death.
There are many who are aware of their sins and aware of their need to be cleansed from those sins. For those today, God’s message remains the same: “Why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized!
Jonathan McAnulty is a minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. The views expressed in the article are the work of the author.