This brings to mind something else that Jesus had to say on the subject. In John 3, we see a leader of the Jews that came to Jesus and confirmed his belief that Jesus was truly from God. Did this belief alone save Nicodemus? Notice what Jesus said to him in John 3:3: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus was quite perplexed by this idea of being "born again" until Jesus explained to him what this meant: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Jesus very plainly teaches here that one of the requirements for entering the kingdom of God is being "born of water," or baptized. But why? It was later, through the Spirit-breathed words of the New Testament writers, that the reason is revealed. But first let's look at some first century conversions and see what part baptism played.
The Day of Pentecost
In Acts 2, we have recorded what is considered to be the first Gospel sermon preached after the Lord's ascension. Peter and the eleven stood before a group of Jews and laid out for them the Scriptural proof that Jesus Christ was indeed the Messiah, that he had come to save them from their sins, that they had rejected Him, and that they had crucified Him (verse 36). Upon hearing these words and being convicted of their sins, they cried out to the twelve, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (verse 37). Did Peter reply, "Your simple act of belief is enough" or "Since you believe and are sorry for your sins, you are saved"? No, there was something else they had to do: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (verse 38). Verse 41 tells us that "those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them."
Philip in Samaria
In Acts 8, we see Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What does it say was the reaction of the people? Were they merely believing in Jesus and confessing their belief and counting themselves as saved. No, note verse 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." We can infer from this that Philip's teaching on "the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" included Jesus' teaching on the necessity of baptism.
The Ethiopian Eunuch
Later in Acts 8, we see Philip led by the Holy Spirit to a man of Ethiopia reading the Scriptures. When Philip asked the man if he understood what he was reading, he replied, "How can I unless someone guides me?” (verse 31). What does it say that Philip did then? "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him" (verse 35). When Philip had completed his preaching, what was the eunuch's next question? “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” (verse 36). Again, we cannot but infer that when Philip "preached Jesus to him" that preaching included Jesus' teaching on the necessity of baptism for salvation. If not, why would the eunuch ask?
The Conversion of Saul
In Acts 9, we see Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul had been greatly persecuting the church of the Lord. On the road Jesus appeared to Saul and asked why Saul was persecuting Him (through persecuting the church). Saul asked the Lord, "what do You want me to do?" (verse 6). Jesus then told him to go into the city and "you will be told what you must do" (verse 6). What was Saul told he MUST do? Jesus sent a man named Ananias to Saul and we have to go to Paul's account in Acts 22 to see what he was told to do: "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (verse 16). Jesus had chosen Saul (later Paul) to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, but he could not do this before he was first baptized.
The First Gentile Converts
In Acts 10, we see Peter being guided by God to preach the Gospel for the first time to the Gentiles. In order to prove to Peter that the Gentiles would also be able to share in the blessings of Christ, God caused the Holy Spirit to fall on Cornelius and his household. Note Peter's reaction to this in Acts 10:47: “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” If baptism were unnecessary for salvation, why would it matter if these Gentiles were "forbidden water"? Also, note the verse following (emphasis mine): "And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord." Peter was being guided by the Holy Spirit and baptism was a command from God.
The Conversion of Lydia
Acts 16 shows us the conversion of a woman named Lydia (and her household). Again, let's note how her conversion happened:
And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us. (Acts 16:13-15)
There is no doubt that Paul preached the Gospel of Christ to Lydia and her household. But what MUST that teaching have included? It must have included Jesus' teaching on the necessity of baptism.
The Philippian Jailer
Acts 16 also includes the conversion of the Philippian jailer. When God opened the doors to the prison for Paul and Silas, we see that the jailer was about to kill himself (verse 27). Paul admonished him to do himself no harm. The jailer then asked them a question much like the one asked on Pentecost: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (verse 30). We are then told that Paul told him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. We have already discussed that this belief must be an ACTIVE belief. Note what happened when the Gospel was preached:
Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And
immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them
into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God
with all his household. (Acts 16:32-34)
If part of what Paul taught them was NOT the importance of baptism, why the urgency (they were immediately baptized)? At what point did the jailer rejoice and at what point was he counted as "having believed in God with all his household"? It was AFTER his baptism.
Conversions at Corinth
Acts 18 shows us the conversions of Crispus, ruler of the synagogue at Corinth, and many of the Corinthians. The Scripture very simply describes their conversion: "Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized" (Acts 18:8).
We have already seen what happened when Lydia and the Philippian jailer "believed with all [their] household." We can very safely infer that baptism occurred in the household of Crispus, as well. What better illustration of Mark 16:16 than what we see the Corinthians doing here?
The book of Acts is a history of the first century church of our Lord. Every conversion recorded in that book includes baptism. If we are seeking to serve our Lord as the Christians in the first century did, how can we deny that baptism is necessary and essential for salvation with "so great a cloud of witnesses" testifying to its necessity?
Next, we will examine the "why" of the necessity of baptism for salvation.