I don’t know why this eluded me for so long, but in the past few days I had this hunch about the Acts 2 events, as pertaining to the question of baptism. Here’s an interesting twist that I’ve discovered.
Please follow me through Acts 2, all the way from the beginning of the chapter.
37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
[ … ]
41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.
pay close attention to v. 41. The ones that gladly received the word were baptized, and the same day were added 3000 souls / persons to the number of the outcalled (ekklesia, or church).
All the events in v. 41 – they heard the word, they gladly received it, were baptized, and they were added to the rest of the believers – all of these happened in the same day. That much is 100% clear from the passage. The specific question that I want to address is: can we clearly establish at all, as per the passage, that they were or were not water-baptized? Well, it turns out, we might be able to.
All of this happened in Jerusalem during the day of Pentecost. By that time, Hebrews were dispersed into many nations, hence you see so many languages and lands represented:
5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
The gathering was customary, and furthermore, it was mandated by the law of Moses:
14 “Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: 15 You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); 16 and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field.
17 “Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.
22 “And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end.
23 “Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord, the Lord God of Israel.
9 “You shall count seven weeks for yourself; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 You shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide. 12 And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.
Pay attention to v. 11 – the festival is to be held “at the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide”. Since the construction of the temple by Solomon, on through its subsequent restoration initiated by Nehemiah / Ezra, and up until the destruction of the temple by Romans in 70 AD, the observance was temple-centric, which would be in geographic Jerusalem of the time.
Notice a key part – the text prescribes rejoicing before the Lord with the family, servants, local civil / religious servants that should have been brought along, and with the needy (orphans / widows) at that place. The text adds a further caution to “be careful to observe these statutes” on that day in the prescribed manner. That’s the law.
It’s very important to note – one had to observe the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot / Pentecost) in the manner prescribed in the Mosaic law. It was a holy convocation and a special Sabbath.
Now, here comes the other key part. You’ve seen how the gathering as described in Acts 2 matches the Mosaic law prescription up to this point. Here are the rest of the prescriptions:
16 Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the Lord. 18 And you shall offer with the bread seven lambs of the first year, without blemish, one young bull, and two rams. They shall be as a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering made by fire for a sweet aroma to the Lord. 19 Then you shall sacrifice one kid of the goats as a sin offering, and two male lambs of the first year as a sacrifice of a peace offering. 20 The priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. 21 And you shall proclaim on the same day that it is a holy convocation to you. You shall do no customary work on it. It shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.
In addition to what the previous passage specified, people would bring certain items of produce and livestock, and religious ceremonies and sacrifices would be performed. That’s the only work that should be done, the day is a “holy convocation” – i.e., separate for that purpose. No other work that’s done customarily should be done on the day.
Lev. 23 describes what are generally referred to as “High Sabbaths” – i.e., special Sabbaths that may fall on any day of the week. So although the feast of weeks (Shavuot, or Pentecost as it came to be known later) may have fallen on Sunday, it was to be treated as a special Sabbath, with its own work regulations. The law spelled out that no customary work was to be done, which would include washings.
Here’s the final passage regarding the observance:
26 ‘Also on the day of the firstfruits, when you bring a new grain offering to the Lord at your Feast of Weeks, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work. 27 You shall present a burnt offering as a sweet aroma to the Lord: two young bulls, one ram, and seven lambs in their first year, 28 with their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil: three-tenths of an ephah for each bull, two-tenths for the one ram, 29 and one-tenth for each of the seven lambs; 30 also one kid of the goats, to make atonement for you. 31 Be sure they are without blemish. You shall present them with their drink offerings, besides the regular burnt offering with its grain offering.
Again – more religious observances, and per v. 30, an atoning sacrifice had to be made, among other things.
Now keep this in mind: this is all happening in a nation where people got stoned for gathering sticks on Sabbath (Numbers 15). The scene is set during a religious holiday, in a city full of observant Jews. A very similar crowd crucified Jesus in the same place a mere 7 weeks ago, during another religious festival.
Keep in mind that the Jewish religious leaders of the day were hyper-literalists, with their own regulations added on top of the law of Moses, accusing Jesus of doing work when he made clay from spitting on the ground and applied it on man’s eyes, or when telling the paralyzed man to take up his bed and walk, or when the disciples were plucking ears of grain, all of which occurrences were on Sabbath. So this is a pretty tough crowd.
I would have a hard time imagining Peter et al. choosing to violate the holy convocation by baptizing even a couple of folks in water. But getting 3000 folks to agree to publicly violate a very explicit Mosaic legal statute right in the middle of Jerusalem, which on that day was very busy and overflowing with a visiting religious crowd would have broken all of the above mentioned Feast of Weeks regulations. The gathering and all of the activities associated with it were to be held in Jerusalem around the temple, for a specific purposes described in the texts above, and not for anything else. As you saw from the descriptions, it was a very busy day for everyone, with lots of prescribed festal and religious activities.
Had this been a mass water baptism, the procedure would have taken at least a few hours to execute, logistically. Had that happened, it would have been one of the two options:
1) Peter using one or several of a small number of baptistries and / or pools in Jerusalem (naturally filled with “moving water”, from rainfall), which is what some commentaries on this verse speculate as having happened. The problem with this is they completely ignore the fact that Peter had no ecclesiastic authority whatsoever to commandeer the use of baptistries, especially given the fact that doing so during the feast of Pentecost would unequivocally publicly violate feast regulations. Peter wasn’t even a serving Levite or a rabbi, he was just another fisherman. So that’s a very unlikely possibility.
2) Peter taking the 3000 to a nearby river for baptism. You couldn’t just sneak 3,000 people out of Jerusalem on such holiday unnoticed. Again, the problem with this is that this holiday had very specific regulations known to everyone gathered, and taking several hours out of the prescribed observance ritual to perform some newly introduced ceremony would have broken the feast regulations. That would have also likely broken a Sabbath’s length of journey regulation, if such applied on festal Sabbaths.
Either scenario would have also broken the “no customary work” injunction, which would have included washing.
Since Peter’s message indicated that it was around 8-9 am at the time of his speech (v. 15), this procedure, if carried out, would have consumed most of the day, even if they were very apt and did everything very quickly. The morning hours were also the busiest time of the holiday, designated for thousands of morning animal sacrifices, peace offerings, wave offerings, and other related religious activities. You couldn’t just re-purpose a major religious holiday like that without immediate major consequences.
Had all of the above still happened and Peter managed to sneak 3000 people out of bustling Jerusalem and get them to “skip” the feast to get baptized in water somewhere nearby – if Paul was publicly accused of appearing with uncircumcised Trophimus in the temple, and that based on hearsay (Acts 21:29), I can only imagine what type of reaction and havoc the mass water baptism would have caused, and what that would have meant for Peter and the rest of the believers, especially in the context of their subsequent residing and operating out of Jerusalem for years after this event.
Many commentaries I’ve looked at relative to this verse acknowledge the improbability of water baptism by immersion from a logistical standpoint. However, none of the ones I’ve looked picked up on the fact that water baptism would have unequivocally publicly violate the feast regulations, and Peter would certainly not have been allowed to execute a water baptism ceremony of that scope in the religious atmosphere of the day.
So, to sum this all up, and to go back to the original question posed at the beginning of this post – Acts 2:41 can’t possibly be talking about water baptism. With all the information given above, I just don’t see how that view can be accommodated.
Therefore, this passage must be talking about the metaphysical / mystical baptism in the realm of the spirit which happens immediately upon one’s hearing of faith:
Ephesians 1:13 (NIV – the phrasing of this translation illustrates very well how baptism into Christ happens)
13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked [actually, sealed] in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,
Believer’s baptism is not a work of human hands:
1 Corinthians 12
13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free […].
25 And he [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
Now you should be in position to understand what this passage is talking about:
16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
You simply can’t believe and not be baptized into Christ right when you do. The two always go together. Placing trust in Christ is what gets you into Christ, and that happens immediately.
If you read the rest of the passages concerned with baptism, you will see the same pattern: hearing > believing > being immediately baptized / immersed / placed into Christ upon belief. E.g.
12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.
5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
So – did the 3000 get baptized in water? Well, I would assume they did at some point, to follow the established practice. But Acts 2:41 doesn’t specifically speak of that. And whenever they did get baptized in water, it’s highly unlikely it could have happened on that very day of Pentecost.