37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.“Acts 2:37-38
I have spent several weeks fretting about this verse in advance of today’s sermon. It looks to me like Peter is saying that you must be baptized before you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirt.
But my church teaches, and I believe in, believers’ baptism, which suggests that one isn’t ready for baptism by water (an ordinance, not a sacrament) until after one has been baptized into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
The only way this verse would make sense (to me) is if Peter is talking about baptism by the Spirit, not baptism by water.
In fact in this morning’s church service our Pastor spoke for about 10 minutes about the logistical difficulties of baptizing 3000 people with water in one day. (Acts 2:41)
I waiver back and forth between thinking it’s important to figure this out, and thinking this is a distraction from the main point. I mean, however you look at it, it’s a Miracle that 3000 souls were saved in a single day following a single sermon. But at issue here is Luke’s history of the early church. My understanding is that poetry, prophesy and parables may be interpreted figuratively, but that history recounted in the Bible is history, and it’s God’s inerrant Word.
I need … REALLY need … to remember to pray about this puzzlement and ask God how He wants us to understand it — not just try to use my own worldly brain to make sense out of His Word without turning to Him for His guidance.
4 thoughts on “Acts 2:37-38”
Considering that baptism in many churches is performed on infants, who have no articulable understanding of God, and considering that we don’t have written records of all Jesus’ apostles and close followers being baptised, I’d say that baptism by water mainly has a symbolic function. I don’t think there’s any specific part of the New Testament that talks about a clear order for baptism, or even any hard-set rules about what a baptism looks like in the Bible. It seems like a symbolic act of cleansing and dedication, either taken on by a person mature enough to declare their own faith, or by a caretaker who wants to dedicate a child to God.
Rituals are important specifically because of how they mark time. Often there’s a time of prep for a ritual, the ritual itself, and a changed state that continues post-ritual. I feel like that’s the function of water baptism, to aid people in internalizing the idea of themselves as clean and dedicated to a Divine purpose. For ppl mature enough to choose baptism, this process is a conscious one, and they’re obviously already moved by a connection w/ Spirit to do so. The baptism is just a confirmation of that connection. For kids and babies, I think this is more for the parents to consciously prepare to raise a child in a certain way, and as that child grows up, they get to either decide that Christianity doesn’t work for them, or that they wanna be Christians and affirm their baptism through service to God.
Claiming that one needs to be water-baptized to be able to know God, and to be united with God in the afterlife gets kinda harmful when ppl start saying that infants that died before baptism go to hell… like that’s an incredibly traumatizing thing to say to a grieving parent. (Not saying that’s what you’re arguing in your post!)
I feel like if your heart is dedicated to God, you’ve already cleaned the inside of the cup (Matthew 23:26), and everything you do on a day to day basis to materially remind you of that connection is a sort of baptism in itself. I’ve got a pretty vibes-based take on Christianity tho lol.
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Wow, you’ve obviously thought about this a lot already! Thank you for your thoughts on this.
Yes, my church doesn’t do infant baptism, although they do have an infant dedication ceremony for parents who want to present their new babies to the church family, have the church bless the child, and pray together for the child’s safety and health, for God’s help raising them in a Christ-centered home where they can come to know Jesus, etc., etc.
Thank you for your great comment, which will take me a while to fully digest.
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That dedication ceremony sounds beautiful 🙂
I think the other thing that’s important to note is that Peter first calls people to repent, which is an acknowledgement that the cup hasn’t been clean on the inside. It’s looking at the gross stuff, realizing you don’t wanna do that anymore, and letting it go. Once your cup is clean and empty, there’s more space for the Holy Spirit to dwell in it. I’d argue that baptism is a ritual that helps people move past the dirty cup “oh no I’m so full of mistakes and badness, how could I receive Love/God??” to clean cup “the old gunk has been washed away, and I have space for God/Love.” Your quotation begins with these people feeling “cut to the heart.” When you come to a deep understanding of the ways you’ve betrayed God/Truth/Love/others/your deepest self/etc., you experience an intense pain that can be easy to get stuck in. The thing that makes Christianity so cool is that we’re called to forgive others and ourselves and move on.
I think water baptism is a beautiful bridge (through water instead of over it lol) from the pain of realizing the ways you’ve let fear run your life onto the new way you can be in the world.
It’s a letting go of your old life and an acceptance of a new way of being that literally parallels passing through the waters of birth. You can’t go back into your mom’s uterus, but you can symbolically reemerge from these baptismal waters of rebirth. (John 3:4-6) To be reborn of water and spirit, in my immediate interpretation, would mean to cleanse yourself internally and externally. You literally move through the world in a different way when you have a fresh new pair of white sneakers, right? You don’t go splashing in mud in those shoes–they’re set apart. Baptism, especially for gentiles in ancient Rome, would have been a useful ritual to remind them that they literally can’t do some of the things they used to, in order to stay clean, they need to navigate the world in a new way.
Looking at these things symbolically from multiple angles (water = rebirth, cleansing, refreshment) helps me take my mind off of “getting it right” (which I struggle with *intensely*) and increases my awareness of the spirit behind the action. I honestly haven’t thought much about baptism logistically, but my spirit responded to what you’d written and I went with it, and now I feel like I have a better understanding of the importance of water baptism lol.
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Yes, I wrote about my own baptism at
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