This question has generated much discussion. Some contend that John’s disciples were obligated to submit to the baptism of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38). This assumption is based almost entirely on Luke’s narrative in Acts 19:1-7. Before looking at this matter more carefully, let us make a couple of preliminary observations.
First, there is no clear, definitive statement regarding this theme in the New Testament record. Acts 19:1ff certainly does not settle the issue — it is too ambiguous for that. One must, therefore, assemble all the evidence available, and then attempt to draw what he perceives to be a reasonable conclusion.
Second, this is not a matter that is crucial to anyone’s salvation today. It should not be debated hotly nor should one’s view be pressed. It is not a make-or-break issue that would have any bearing on the present church in practice.
We believe, however, that a strong case can be made for the view that John’s work, in preparing a people for the Lord, was effective, and that those genuinely converted under John’s preaching — or for that matter under that of the Lord’s disciples (cf. Jn. 4:1-2) — were not required to be immersed on Pentecost or afterward.
Consider the following points.
John’s mission was to “make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk. 1:17).
If after Pentecost the people immersed by John were required to do exactly what others (i.e., the unprepared) had to do (i.e., be immersed), then what was the difference between being prepared and unprepared or ready and not ready? Did the prepared or the ready suddenly revert to being unprepared or not ready the moment Pentecost dawned?
No Example of the Lord’s Disciples Being Immersed After Pentecost
Where is the evidence that anyone baptized by John was required to be immersed following Pentecost?
Acts 19 surely does not demand that. It is almost certain that the men in Ephesus had submitted to a form of “John’s baptism” long after the prophet had died. They did not even know that the Lord had already come (i.e., that he had accomplished his mission). Their baptism had been predicated upon an insufficient faith regarding Jesus, and therefore, on that basis, was not valid.
There is nothing in the context of Acts 19 to suggest that John’s original baptism was temporary in its effect.
What About the Apostles?
Is there evidence that any of the original apostles were baptized on Pentecost or thereafter? If the baptism received at the hands of John was invalid after Pentecost, the Lord’s apostles would have been as much obligated to Great Commission baptism as anyone else.
Harlots and Publicans
Though the kingdom of Christ was not fully set in motion until the day of Pentecost, it certainly was in a preparatory phase during the Lord’s personal ministry. Jesus affirmed that his miracle-working ability signaled the fact that “the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 11:20).
In connection with the kingdom motif, the Lord told a parable concerning two sons (Mt. 21:28-32). One of these lads represented the chief priests and elders, the upper stratum of Jewish society, while the other boy signified the publicans and harlots, the offscouring of that culture.
A point then is made regarding their respective dispositions concerning John’s baptism. The Jewish leaders mostly rejected it (Mt. 21:25; Lk. 7:30), but the lower, despised classes were inclined to accept the saving grace of John’s message (Lk. 3:12; 7:29).
It was within this context that Christ rebuked the chief priests and elders, saying: “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go [present tense, but without reference to a specific time period — Lenski, p. 833] into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31), the reason being, they “believed” John’s message and obeyed it (v. 32).
This clearly suggests that the obedience of these folks to John’s preaching granted them entrance into the kingdom of God when it came into being on Pentecost. R.C. Foster noted that those who obeyed the message that John preached were “leading the way into the kingdom when it shall directly be established” (p. 1129).
John’s Baptism Given Because the Kingdom Was at Hand
John’s message was, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). Does not this imply that their surrender to his “baptism of repentance” (Lk. 3:3) would grant them entrance into that kingdom when it arrived? Why require baptism because of the coming kingdom, if that baptism had nothing to do with entering the kingdom?
Forgiveness of Sins
John baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4). If the sincere people who yielded to his baptism did not receive pardon from their sins, then John’s message was deceptive. If they did receive salvation through John’s baptism (cf. Lk. 1:77), why would they need salvation again on the day of Pentecost?
If it should be argued that the same, in principle, might also apply to those Jews who had offered animal sacrifices, we respond that the two cases are not equal. John’s ministry was unique. “The law and the prophets were until John: from that time the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached” (Lk. 16:16; emphasis added).
John’s message prepared honest Jews for entrance into the kingdom. Again we stress the point. If John preached the gospel of the kingdom, the implication is that those who obeyed that gospel would be a part of the coming kingdom.
Biblical typology is not always a clearly defined field of study. A biblical type is a shadow cast on the pages of the Old Testament by a reality that fully comes to light in the New Testament. A type (the figure) prefigures the antitype (the reality) (cf. 1 Pet. 3:20-21). Some Bible types are specifically identified (cf. Mt. 12:40; 1 Cor. 5:7). Others, perhaps, are merely suggested.
Some expositors believe that just as Solomon (who built the temple), was a type of Christ (who built the church; 2 Sam. 7:12-13), even so, David who prepared the material for the temple (1 Chron. 22:2-5) typified John the Baptist.
And, just as David’s material did not need reworking when the temple was being assembled (1 Kgs. 6:7), so neither did John’s material require reworking on Pentecost or thereafter.
Pentecost Converts Added in that Day
As Peter and the other apostles proclaimed the gospel on the day of Pentecost, Luke records:
“They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added in that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
The term “added” renders the Greek
prostithemi, which signifies “to add to something that is already present or exists.” Again, “of persons who are added to a group already existing” with Acts 2:41 cited as an example (cf. v. 47; Danker, p. 885; emphasis added).
It is the view of many scholars that the language of this passage suggests that the “three thousand” represents the sum of those immersed in Jerusalem that day and that these new converts were added to the body of disciples that had been prepared previously.
William Larkin, professor of New Testament and Greek at Columbia Biblical Seminary, writes: “Three thousand souls welcomed the word (compare 28:30), met its conditions and were baptized. They joined the ranks of the apostles and disciples in the nucleus of the New Testament church” (p. 60).
J. A. Alexander argued that those baptized were added to “the previously existing body of believers,” including the company of the 120 persons mentioned in Acts 1 (p. 89). J. W. McGarvey stated that those immersed on Pentecost “were added to the previous number of believers” (p. 45). See McGarvey’s full comments on whether John’s disciples had to be re-immersed on/after Pentecost in his commentary at Acts 19:7 (p. 152). Similar comments could be multiplied many times over.
We do not believe, therefore, that a case can be made successfully for establishing the idea that John’s devout disciples were re-baptized on Pentecost or subsequent thereto.