What's going on in baptism? And why were people like an Ethiopian eunuch asking to be baptized by early Christ-followers like Philip? It's about a new exodus of sorts.
The following is an excerpt from Rob Bell & Don Golden's terrific book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: Learning to Read a Dangerous Book. We encourage you to check it out or buy it here.
God’s desires for humanity are thriving. There’s a body of people putting flesh and blood on the divine, and it’s called the church. And it’s not just about the reclaiming of Sinai, but the speaking in other languages takes us all the way back to the Tower of Babel, where foreign tongues were introduced that threw people into confusion because they were unable to understand each other. The outcome at Babel was the global sociological consequences of human rebellion. The story of the people building a tower reflected the growing human awareness that if technology and power and resources aren’t handled with great care and wisdom, all of humanity will suffer. And now, in Jerusalem, at the celebration of Sinai and the inaugural ceremony of the church, people are not being divided by difference but are being united by the Spirit. People from all over the world understanding each other. And on a road leaving Jerusalem, we have an African asking questions about Jesus, hearing the significance of Isaiah’s words explained in a language he can understand. It makes so much sense to the eunuch that as he and Philip pass a body of water, the eunuch asks if he can be baptized. This question about baptism takes us back to Egypt, to Moses’s leading the Israelites through a body of water, which is referred to as the baptism of Moses. The water symbolized their death to the old and their birth in the new, the movement from bondage to freedom.
Baptism is a picture of exodus.
And the eunuch wants to be baptized. His exact words are, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
Lots of things, actually.
Remember Philip’s background and the conservative religion of his time? According to the law, a eunuch is excluded from the assembly. The law is very clear on that point. As a Jew, Philip should have viewed the eunuch as “damaged goods” and refused to baptize him on that basis. If Philip baptizes the eunuch, he will be breaking a serious rule. A rule that determined your standing with God.
This is the tension throughout the early church. What do you do when your religion isn’t big enough for God? What do you do when your rules and codes and laws simply aren’t enough anymore? What do you do when your system falls apart because the new thing that God is doing is better, beyond, superior, more compelling? This isn’t just a tension for Philip; it’s one of the central struggles of the early church. For many of the first followers of the Way, Jesus was wrapped in layer upon layer of Jewish culture, custom, and lifestyle. A Jewish messiah, from the line of the Jewish king David, raised by Jewish parents in a Jewish region of a Jewish nation.
For Philip, the eunuch’s question about baptism raises a far deeper set of questions about what it even looks like to follow God. One of the first Christians, a man named Paul, confronted this tension again and again in the early days of the church. We first meet Paul (whose name originally was Saul but is changed to Paul after he meets Jesus) in Acts 9 when he’s “breathing out murderous threats against the LORD’s disciples,” getting permission from the high priest “so that if he found any there [in Damascus] who belonged to the Way . . . he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” Damascus is a city in Syria. Damascus isn’t in Jerusalem. It’s beyond Jerusalem. It’s beyond Judea and Samaria. Paul’s concern is that this gospel of Jesus may have left Jerusalem and maybe even Judea and Samaria— it may have even gotten as far as Syria.
Which is what Jesus had said would happen. And Paul wants to arrest any followers of the Way in Damascus and bring them back to Jerusalem. Paul wants the gospel to travel in the opposite direction from the direction Jesus gave his disciples. Paul wants to bring it back, so that it can’t go to the ends of the earth. But on the way to Damascus, Paul has a blinding encounter with Jesus, one that changes him. He’s told to “get up,” which is a subtle allusion to the prophet Ezekiel, and then he’s taken by the hand to Damascus, where he makes contact with followers of the Way, who are, naturally, terrified of this man who had presided over the killing of followers of the Way. But Paul is not who he was, and over time people realize that something profoundly transforming has happened to him. One of them is convinced that Paul is going to take the message to “the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” He’s Jewish, born and raised in Cilicia, trained in Jerusalem, fluent in Greek, versed in the customs of Moses, schooled in the philosophers and poets of the day— he’s as global as they come.
In Acts 15 Luke writes, “Certain individuals came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.” What’s this sharp dispute about? First, notice the direction. These “certain individuals” were coming from Judea to Antioch. Antioch was one of those non-Jewish ends-of-the-earth type of places. The kind of place that Jesus had told his disciples the message would eventually go. And it has gone there. People are responding to the gospel in Antioch and joining the Way.
But now these religious people are coming from Judea to Antioch, telling these new followers of Jesus about the old religious rituals they’re going to need to go through to be legitimate in God’s eyes. They use the phrase “according to the custom taught by Moses.” They’re still stuck in the old covenant, the old way. And not only are they still stuck back there, but they’re propagating it. They’re spreading the wrong gospel in the wrong direction. And it makes Paul furious. In one letter, his rant reaches such a pitch that he says he wishes “they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” It makes him furious because, for Paul, there are two fundamental modes of existence, two pervasive and ultimate realities in which humanity exists: the old condition of darkness and sin and slavery, and the new reality of light and forgiveness and freedom.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul calls the old condition “the body of sin,” which is the dark side of human existence, the resident evil, the sin and death that exist in the cosmos to which human beings are subject. And in another place in Romans he calls it the “body of death.” Many read the word “body” and immediately think of our individual, physical bodies. It’s natural for us, then, to assume that Paul is teaching us something here about how to live good, moral lives free from sin. And yes, in a certain sense that is what he’s talking about. But that’s not his primary point. Paul uses the phrase “body of sin” or “body of flesh” in a very communal Jewish sense to refer to the reality of the sinful mode of existence of all humanity. It’s the realm and reality of the powerful’s fearful coercion of the weak, whether they’re using tanks and bombs or “the customs of Moses.” It’s anywhere that power is misused. And that’s what’s happening in Antioch. These people are hearing of Jesus and the new exodus and are responding with a yes. They’re joining the church, they’re learning of the new reality in Christ, and new life is surging through them. And then these religious leaders who are still trapped in the old reality come from Judea and tell them that unless they take part in the religious customs of Moses, none of their newfound freedom means anything. Paul sees their insistence on a reversion to the customs of Moses as a form of violence.
What he’s against is religious rituals that replace the freedom, the liberation, brought by Christ. When people are manipulated with guilt and fear, when they are told that if they don’t do certain things they’ll be illegitimate, judged, condemned, sent to hell forever— that’s violence. It doesn’t matter what spiritual language is used or what passages in the Bible are quoted, it’s destructive. It’s the misuse of power. And central to the way of Jesus is serving, which is the loving use of whatever power you possess for the good of another. Paul continually returns to his conviction that there are two fundamental modes of existence: the body of sin and the body of Christ. And the Way is the medium of transport from one to the other— the ultimate exodus of humanity. For Paul, this sharp dispute in Antioch is about the deepest cosmic dimensions of the message of Jesus. He’s convinced that in Jesus, Egypt has been left behind. Who would ever want to return? Paul uses new exodus language again in his second letter to the Corinthians, insisting that, in regard to sin and death, through the way of Jesus we have “come out from them.”
“Coming out” is what happened when the slaves left Egypt. They came out. And as a result of coming out, they found themselves in a whole new reality of freedom, a reality in which the forces of Pharaoh and slavery no longer held sway over them. Freed from the Egypt within, redeemed from the body of sin, joined to the body of Christ. Paul writes to the Corinthians that if “the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here,” and to the Galatians he writes that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”
New creation. For Paul, this goes all the way back to Genesis, to the creation of the world. There is a new creation, one brought into being through the death of the old and the resurrection of the new, and everybody everywhere can be a part of it.
Which takes us back to the road leaving Jerusalem, to Philip, standing there trying to decide whether to baptize this eunuch from Africa. Philip would have been circumcised when he was eight days old, as all good Jewish boys were. That’s one of the ways you took part in the covenant, the one that established and affirmed your relationship with God. Philip would have been taught that circumcision was an absolute, a necessity, something that must be done to be in good standing with God. But what about the eunuch? Something that the religion of Philip’s day held as central to life with God is irrelevant for this African standing before him, for obvious reasons. You can’t mess with the goods if you don’t have any. This is the story of Acts, the story of the early church, the story of the Jesus way as it left Jerusalem and headed to the ends of the earth.
It’s the story of a thousand little everyday decisions these first Christians made to free the message from its cultural and religious trappings so that it would truly be good news for all who encountered it.
- pp. 93-101