January 13: Baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22)

The Baptism Ritual: Symbolism and Efficacy

This is the last in a series of daily notes on baptism, commemorating the dates of Jan 6 and 13 and the Baptism of Jesus. One of the most pressing questions for believers in recent times, regarding baptism, has to do with the efficacy of the ritual. As we saw in the previous notes on Paul’s treatment of baptism in his letters, baptism represented the new life believers have and experience in Christ. However, the question is: does baptism symbolize a situation which already exists independently, or does the ritual in some way confer or transmit this new life to the believer?

In technical theological language, this latter idea is referred to as the “operative power” (virtus operativa) of the ritual itself, whereby the ritual (in this case, baptism) serves as a “means of grace” which functions ex opere operato (i.e., by the [proper] performance of the ritual). Christians with a more sacramental orientation tend hold this view, or belief, regarding baptism—that it serves as a vehicle whereby God transmits the saving power of Christ and the Spirit to the believer. By contrast, spiritualist Christians—that is, those who emphasize the inward spiritual aspect of religion over and against the outward form—would utterly reject such a sacramental approach. Many Protestants share this tendency, treating baptism as a symbol of the new life we already possess through trust in Jesus and the presence of the Spirit.

When we turn to the writings of the early Christians, what they say about baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) is ambiguous in this regard. For the most part, the baptism ritual is symbolic, but at times they seem to indicate that the ritual itself is efficacious. The evidence in the New Testament is, in my view, rather less ambiguous, but direct reference to baptism (especially outside of the Gospels and Acts) is scarce enough to make any conclusions on the matter tentative and uncertain. In fact, there is only one passage which addresses the efficacy of baptism directly—1 Peter 3:18-22; it also happens to be the only direct reference to baptism outside of the Pauline letters.

1 Peter 3:18-22

Verses 18-22 form the conclusion of an instructional section of the letter (3:13-22), exhorting believers to live in a faithful and upright manner, even in the face of suffering and persecution. In so doing, believers will be following the example of Jesus himself (v. 18), whose suffering culminated in his death and resurrection. In previous notes, we saw how Paul interpreted the baptism ritual in terms of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; and here the author (Peter) seems to have something of the same idea in mind. Part of Jesus’ death (and burial) is said to have involved his proclaiming “to the spirits in (the prison) guard”, i.e., in the realm of death and the dead. This enigmatic tradition has been much discussed; I will not address it here except to say that it relates in some way to the early Christian idea of salvation, of the work of Jesus delivering and freeing humankind (those who respond in trust to him) from the power of sin and death.

As a prototype for these disbelieving “spirits”, the author draws upon the ancient tradition reflected in Gen 6:1-4ff, of the situation on earth at the time of Noah and the great Flood. The widespread wickedness of that time is paralleled with the author’s own time—seen as the period just before the end (4:7)—with the Flood serving as a type for the imminent coming Judgment (cp. Matt 24:37-38 par; 2 Pet 2:5). The people bound by wickedness in the current end-time are no less “dead” than those to whom Jesus preached (in the realm of death); by proclaiming the Gospel to them, they may yet be saved before the coming Judgment (4:1-6). Believers, too, were dead, and have died to sin, only to come alive again in new life through the Spirit (4:6).

This is the context for the reference to baptism in 3:21, couched as it is within the image of the great Flood. The common motif is that of being submerged in water, which explains how the Flood can serve as a parallel to baptism:

“…in (the) days of Noah, (with the) box [i.e. ark] being put down [i.e. built] in preparation, (and) into which a few—that is, eight souls—were saved through water, which also (is) a pattern opposite [i.e. facing] us now—(the) dunking [ba/ptisma] (that) saves—not (as) a putting away of (the) dirt of (the) flesh, but (the answer) of a good sunei/dhsi$ unto God (in response to) what is asked, through the standing up (out of the dead) [i.e. resurrection] of Yeshua (the) Anointed” (vv. 20-21)

The syntax here is complex and difficult, as indicated by the literal (glossed) translation above. The number of parenthetical English words I have used shows how poorly the Greek syntax (and much of the vocabulary) has a corresponding equivalent in English. The portion in bold above is especially important, since it is a direct statement—one may say, the only such statement in the New Testament—regarding what the ritual of baptism actually accomplishes for the believer. It is framed as a contrast, with the negative clause given first:

“not (as) a putting away of (the) dirt of (the) flesh”
ou) sarko\$ a)po/qesi$ r(u/pou

In other words, the water of baptism does not (concretely) wash away the sinfulness (or “dirt, filth”) of the flesh. This is in spite of the longstanding idea of baptism as symbolizing a cleansing from sin, going back to the original Johannine dunkings (Mark 1:5 par; cf. Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11). In more conventional religious language, we may paraphrase 1 Peter here as saying that the ritual of baptism itself does not effect the forgiveness and cleansing of a person from sin. What, then, does baptism accomplish? The author indicates this in the positive statement that follows:

“but (the answer) of a good sunei/dhsi$ unto God (in response to) what is asked”
a)lla\ suneidh/sew$ a)gaqh=$ e)perw/thma ei)$ qeo/n

The Greek is extremely difficult to render into English, as can be seen by the considerable variety in translations. For ease of analysis, it is useful to break down this awkward phrase into two components:

  1. suneidh/sew$ a)gaqh=$. The noun sunei/dhsi$ (syneíd¢sis), which I leave untranslated above, derives from the verb sunei/dw (syneídœ), “see (things) together”, i.e. “see completely”. It refers to a (correct) perception and awareness of how things are, sometimes rendered in English as “consciousness”, or, when emphasizing the moral/ethical aspect of perception, “conscience”. The modifying adjective a)gaqo/$ (“good”), means that one’s awareness and perception is good, or (functions) for the good.
  2. e)perw/thma ei)$ qeo/n. The noun e)perw/thma (eperœ¡t¢ma) stems from the verb e)perwta/w (eperœtáœ), “ask/inquire about”. The noun occurs only here in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek OT (Dan 4:14 Theodotion). However, the evidence from the papyri, for both the noun and verb, shows that it was used in a technical sense, of formal questions and answers made over a contract, etc. In such a setting, the noun can refer to an answer given to a question, in the sense of a confirmation or guarantee (some translations here use “pledge”). This answer is given “unto God” (ei)$ qeo/n), and two specific settings could be in mind: (1) the believer’s response (or ‘pledge’) at the time of baptism, i.e. during the ritual, or (2) in the scene of the Judgment, when the believer stands before God to give answer. Given the strong eschatological context of chaps. 3-4, I am inclined to favor option 2, but it is hard to be certain.

Putting these elements together gives us 1 Peter’s answer as to what the ritual of baptism truly accomplishes. I would perhaps summarize it this way:

By undergoing the baptism ritual, which certainly entailed a public confession of one’s trust in Jesus, such a person demonstrates his/her awareness of how things stand between the believer and God, “for the good” (a)gaqo/$). This perception, confirmed through the ritual, means that the believer will be able to stand before God at the Judgment and give an answer, without fear or doubt. But the believer’s response at baptism (i.e. the confession of faith, etc), also functions as a pledge to God, to remain faithful and live in a holy manner befitting the new life one has in Christ. It is in this sense that a person is saved now, in the present, with the truth of salvation realized even prior to actual moment of the Judgment. The dunking “saves” a person in two respects: (1) as symbol of salvation, following the parallel of the ark, and (2) as sign of the believer’s awareness of what has been achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 21b-22), with confidence/certainty that we can stand before God at the Judgment.

February 8: 1 Peter 4:6, 17, etc

In the previous note, I discussed the use of the verb eu)aggeli/zomai in 1 Peter 1:12, 25; today, I want to look at two more occurrences of the eu)aggel- word group in chapter 4 of that letter, before surveying briefly the remaining occurrences in the New Testament.

1 Peter 4:6, 17

The noun eu)agge/lion occurs in verse 6, part of a section of ethical instruction and exhortation with a strong eschatological emphasis. For the author (Peter), like nearly all early Christians, it was believed that the end was imminent (“the completion/end of all [thing]s has come near”, v. 7a), and the Judgment by God close at hand. The final Judgment is certainly in view in verse 6, as we read in verse 5: “…(they) shall give forth an account to the (One) holding readiness to judge the living and the dead”. We find in verse 6 the difficult phrase “the good message was brought even to the dead”, which has tripped up many commentators (cf. the earlier notice in 3:19). The main point to note, however, is that the Judgment of all humankind is to be based on the (Gospel) message of Jesus. Even more significant is that life (for the dead) in the Age to Come (i.e. eternal life) is dependent on the Spirit, which can only be bestowed on persons following reception of the Gospel message. Note the me\nde/ contrast:

    • “(on the one hand) they should live in the flesh according to man [i.e. as human beings]”
    • “(on the other hand) they (should live) in the Spirit according to God”

The same Judgment context, and implicit contrast between those who do and do not accept the message of Jesus, is present in verse 17, were the noun eu)agge/lion occurs:

“(it is) the time of the beginning of the Judgment from the house of God; and, if it is first from us, what (then) is (its) completion for the (one)s unpersuaded by the good message of God?”

The expression “good message of God” is familiar from Paul’s letters, where it occurs several times (Rom 1:1; 15:16; 1 Thess 2:2, 8-9), and was doubtless traditional by the time this letter was written (c. 60 A.D.?). What is unique about this usage in chapter 4 is how thoroughly the eu)aggel- word group is identified with trust in Jesus within the specific eschatological context of the last Judgment.

The Remainder of the New Testament

The eu)aggel- word group is entirely absent from the Johannine writings (Gospel and Letters), but it does occur twice in the (Johannine) book of Revelation—the verb in 10:7, and noun and verb together in 14:6. In 10:7, it is possible that the verb eu)aggeli/zomai is being used more or less in the general sense of bringing good news—in this case, the “good message” involves, not the Gospel per se, but the final eschatological mystery of how/when God will bring the current Age to an end. The dual use of noun and verb in 14:6 is especially dramatic, as would be appropriate for the scene:

“And I saw another Messenger taking wing [i.e. flying] in the middle of the heaven(s), holding the good message of the Ages, to deliver as a good message upon the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, and upon every nation and offshoot and tongue and people…”

Probably the technical sense of eu)aggel- as the (Christian) preaching of the Gospel is more in view here; however, the message is still primarily eschatological (not evangelistic), which can be obscured by translating the expression eu)agge/lion ai)w/nion as “eternal Gospel”, rather than more literally as “good message (of the) Age(s)”—i.e. the good news that the Ages of humankind are coming to an end, and that the New Age of God is being ushered in.

The occurrence of the verb eu)aggeli/zomai in Hebrews 4:2 and 6 is interesting in the way that the Christian meaning is read back into the more general sense (i.e. bringing good news). This is done in the context of paraenesis—ethical/religious teaching—involving the interpretation and application of Scripture (a common preaching technique, then as now). Believers in Christ had the “good message” of Jesus proclaimed to them, and yet are being warned of the danger of falling away. To emphasize this point, the example of the Israelites in the time of the Exodus is brought forth:

“indeed we are (one)s having the good message (declar)ed (to us) even as it also (was) to those (person)s; but the account [lo/go$] (which was) heard did not benefit those (person)s, not having been mixed together with trust/faith by the (one)s hearing.”

The rather complicated syntax in the second half of the verse is a roundabout way of saying that hearing the Gospel preached has to be accompanied by genuine trust from the person hearing in order to have its saving effect. The verb eu)aggeli/zomai is used again in the same context in verse 6.

Finally, we should note three occurrences of the noun eu)aggelisth/$. The common Greek noun eu)a/ggelo$ (“good messenger, messenger of good [news]”) does not occur in the New Testament at all, but only eu)aggelisth/$, which is derived from the verb eu)aggeli/zomai, and thus means “one bringing/declaring a good message”, emphasizing the action of bringing or announcing the message. Even so, this noun is rare, being used just three times, and in relatively late writings: Lukan narration in the book of Acts (21:8), 2 Timothy 4:5, and Ephesians 4:11. Second Timothy and Ephesians are often considered to be pseudonymous by commentators; whether or not this is correct, it is unlikely that either letter was written prior to the early-60’s A.D. The book of Acts was probably written c. 70-80 A.D.

In all three passages, eu)aggelisth/$ appears to be used in the established Christian sense of a specific ministry role, or position, within a group of believers (or congregation)—i.e., one who is specifically devoted to, and gifted in, preaching the Gospel message. The absence of this noun in the undisputed letters of Paul, and in the rest of the book of Acts, makes it unlikely that it was widely used prior to the 60’s A.D. It is possible that 2 Tim 4:5, if genuinely Pauline, represents the earliest surviving use of the noun, which was a word essentially coined by Christians. I am not aware of any occurrence prior to the 1st century, nor in any contemporary non-Christian context.

February 7: 1 Peter 1:12, 25, etc

Having discussed Paul’s use of the eu)aggel- word group in the previous notes, it is necessary to supplement that discussion with a brief survey of occurrences in the letters where authorship is disputed. After this, we will survey the remainder of the New Testament evidence.

Usage in the disputed Pauline Letters

Colossians and Ephesians are often regarded as pseudonymous by many critical commentators. For my part, I consider Colossians to be authentically Pauline (on objective grounds), without any real reservation; however, I must admit to a little doubt in the case of Ephesians, where there appears to be more evidence for unusual wording and the development of (Pauline) thought and expression. In any case, the noun eu)agge/lion occurs twice in Colossians, in expanded expressions:

  • Col 1:5—”the account of the truth of the good message” (o( lo/go$ th=$ a)lhqei/a$ tou= eu)agge/liou):
    “…through the hope th(at is) being laid away for you in the heavens, of which you heard before in the account of the truth of the good message th(at is com)ing to be alongside unto you, even as it also is bearing fruit in all the world…” (vv. 5-6)
  • Col 1:23—”the hope of the good message” (h( e)lpi\$ tou= eu)agge/liou):
    “…if (indeed) you remain (well-)founded upon the trust and settled (down), and not being stirred over (away) from the hope of the good message which you heard, th(at) is being proclaimed among every (creature) formed (by God) under the heaven…”

It is possible that this reflects a development of the Pauline mode of expression. Certainly it is a more expansive kind of statement than we typically see in Paul’s letters, though rooted in his own style and vocabulary. For the expression “truth of the Gospel”, see Gal 2:5, 14; “hope of the Gospel” does not occur elsewhere in the letters, but cf. Rom 5:2ff; 8:24-25; Gal 5:5; 1 Thess 1:3, etc. The phrasing in Col 1:5 is quite close to Eph 1:13, and involves the critical questions of authorship and the relationship between the two letters. The noun eu)agge/lion itself occurs four times in Ephesians (1:13; 3:6; 6:15, 19), and the verb eu)aggeli/zomai twice (2:17; 3:8). Even scholars who believe Ephesians is pseudonymous must admit that it is derived and inspired by authentic Pauline tradition and expression:

  • Eph 1:13: “the account of the truth, the good message of your salvation”; cf. Col 1:5 (above). Vv. 13-14 represents a more systematic theological formulation.
  • Eph 2:17: “he [i.e. Jesus] brought the good message (of) peace to you the (one)s far (off), and (also) peace to the (one)s (who are) near”. This statement utilizes traditional language (cf. Acts 10:36 and the prior note), and does not reflect the technical Christian meaning of eu)aggeli/zomai as “preach the Gospel”.
  • Eph 3:6 and 8. The first half of chapter 3 (vv. 1-13) presents a detailed summary of Paul’s view regarding his role as minister of the Gospel (to the Gentiles), fully in keeping with what is expressed in his other letters, though not in such a clear and systematic manner as we find here. Verse 6 states concisely the Pauline doctrine that Gentile believers are heirs together (and equally so) to the promises God made to Israel, which are fulfilled for believers in Christ. This takes place “through the good message” (dia\ tou= eu)aggeli/ou). In verse 8, Paul declares once again that he was appointed by God “to bring the good message”.
  • Eph 6:15 and 19, where we find two developed Pauline expressions: “the good message of peace” (v. 15) and “the secret [musth/rion] of the good message” (v. 19, cf. Rom 16:25; Col 1:26-27, and earlier in Eph 3:6.

The Pastoral letters are also generally considered to be pseudonymous by critical scholars (and even some traditional-conservative commentators). The greatest doubt surrounds 1 Timothy (which has the largest concentration of unusual vocabulary and expression), while, in my view, 2 Timothy appears to be authentically Pauline (on objective grounds). The noun eu)agge/lion occurs 3 times in 2 Timothy (1:8, 10; 2:8) and corresponds entirely with Paul’s usage of the word. The expanded expression in 1 Timothy 1:11 is more unusual: “…the good message of the splendor of the blessed God”.

1 Peter and the rest of the New Testament

The eu)aggel- word group occurs 12 more times in the New Testament: the noun eu)agge/lion twice (1 Pet 4:17; Rev 14:6), the verb eu)aggelizomai seven times (Heb 4:2, 6; 1 Pet 1:12, 25; 4:6; Rev 10:7; 14:6), and the derived noun eu)aggelisth/$ three times (Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5). The largest concentration (4) occur in two passages of 1 Peter.

1 Peter 1:12, 25

1 Peter 1:3-12 is essentially a single long introductory sentence, climaxing in verse 12, with the key declaration that the death and resurrection of Jesus (and its saving effect) was first revealed to the Prophets, and then subsequently made known to people (believers) through the Gospel:

“…the(se thing)s which now were given up as a message to you through the (one)s bringing the good message to you [in] the holy Spirit…”

The parallel between Prophets and Apostles (i.e. preachers of the good message) was traditional in early Christianity, with both groups seen as uniquely inspired, moved by the Spirit. There is similar traditional language used in the next section of the letter, the exhortation in vv. 13-25, which concludes with an important expository sequence:

  • The declaration in verse 23:
    “your trust and hope (is) to be unto God {v. 21}…having come to be (born) again, not out of decaying seed, but (out of seed) without decay, through the living word [lo/go$] of God (that is) also remaining (in you)”
  • The paraphrased quotation from Isa 40:6-8 in vv. 24-25a, which ends with a similar statement:
    “…but the utterance [r(h=ma] of the Lord remains into the Age” (cf. Isa 40:8b)
  • The statement in verse 25b identifying the eternal “word of the Lord” with the “good message” proclaimed by the apostles:
    “and this is the utterance being brought as a good message unto you”

In the previous note, I argued that the words lo/go$ (“account”) and r(h=ma (“utterance”) were more primitive, earlier terms for the Gospel message than eu)agge/lion. In Acts 10:36-37a, where the early message (kerygma) is proclaimed during Peter’s sermon-speech to the household of Cornelius, both of these words are used in tandem, along with the verb eu)aggeli/zomai, just as we see here; indeed, the declaration in vv. 36-37a introduces the Gospel. The use of eu)aggeli/zomai there does not refer to the preaching of the Gospel in the technical sense used by early Christians. We are, perhaps, closer to that here; certainly, there is distinct theological (interpretive) development at work. We may be able to trace this development by working backward in the syntax of this passage:

    • the eternal, undecaying seed which brings new life for the believer; this “seed”, which dwells and grows in the believer is elsewhere identified with the Spirit (of God and Christ)
      • this seed is identified as the living “word” [lo/go$] of God
        • it is part of the eternal creative power associated with the spoken word (“utterance”, r(h=ma) of God
          • lo/go$ (“account”) and r(h=ma (“utterance”) were both terms used by the first Christians to refer to the proclamation of the Gospel (kerygma)
            • the early/first preaching of the message of Jesus by the apostles, bringing “good news” (vb. eu)aggeli/zomai)

The occurrences in 1 Peter 4:6, 17, and the rest of the New Testament, will be discussed in the next daily note.