“For you will be a witness for Him to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now, why delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name.’ “After I came back to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple complex, I went into a visionary state and saw Him telling me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me! ’ “But I said, ‘Lord, they know that in synagogue after synagogue I had those who believed in You imprisoned and beaten. And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I was standing by and approving, and I guarded the clothes of those who killed him.’ “Then He said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” (Acts 22:15-21 HCSB)
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at Paul’s confrontation with the Jews in the Temple at Jerusalem. He has been attacked and beaten and, at first glance, you might think the central reason for the Jew’s response would be the claims of Jesus as the Messiah or Christ. However, if you pay close attention to the story line you will notice that the Jews do not react violently towards Paul and his proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. However, they do react in a violent way at the mere mention of this message being taken to the Gentiles and I’d like us to focus in on this aspect of the gospel message and how we might be responding similarly, in our own context.
Before we jump into the “deep waters” of the gospel’s response to our various forms of prejudice (next week), I want you to notice how Ananias calls Paul to respond to the truth regarding Jesus and the Gospel. Ananias calls Paul to respond to the Gospel through baptism, a confession of sin, and to “call upon” the name of Jesus. Each of these areas is important and helps us understand a specific aspect of our transformation through Christ, so we will briefly explore each.
First, to understand the importance of and the role baptism plays in salvation we must understand its historical relevance and role in the mind and life of a Jew and in the Gospel story. To a Jew, baptism would refer to the process by which a sacrifice was prepared to be offered up to God on the altar and the process by which an outsider (or non-Jew/Gentile) would become a Jewish convert and worship the one, true God of Israel. In the gospel story, we find John the Baptist (or Baptizer) coming onto the scene and “preparing the way” for the Christ. In other words, John’s baptism was a personal acknowledgement or declaration of personal repentance of sin and a symbolic washing “away” of that sin in preparation for the coming of the Messiah or Christ. So, baptism (in the mind of the Jews) was the outward expression or physical acknowledgement by which the worshiper prepared and offered himself in service and obedience to God. As Ananias calls upon Paul to submit to “Christian” baptism we must recognize that it carries the implications of this historical meaning.
However, Christian baptism adds one unique element and is almost universally recognized throughout the New Testament – in the name of Jesus. While Jesus commands the Apostles to “go and make disciples” and to baptize them “in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (see Matt. 28:19), we find that the pattern of the early church was to shorten this to “be baptized in the name of Jesus” (see Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5 for example). So, what does it mean to be baptized “in the name of Jesus”? Is it simply a verbal queue or tag line that we add onto the end of a phrase for focus? No, it is much, much more. While the phrase “in the name of” appears in all three Biblical languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine (common) Greek, it doesn’t appear in Classical Greek. In Koine Greek it is often found in business or accounting documents and references “to the account of” the person. In Hebrew the phrase references ownership or possession and is very closely aligned with the Greek phrase. So, to be baptized “in the name of Jesus” is to imply ownership or possession by Jesus of the person being baptized.
In our modern culture, whenever we make a significant purchase, like an automobile or a home, it comes with a title or deed of ownership. Once purchased, You then go through the process of registering or transferring that property “into your name” as proof of ownership. If you are ever asked to show your registration or deed, it identifies you as the legal owner of that property. Baptism is very similar, in that, when we confess our sin and profess our faith in Jesus as Lord (or owner of and authority over our lives) we then “register” that ownership deed or title of our life to Him through the act of Christian Baptism. So, the New Testament affirms that while ownership of our lives is achieved through faith that ownership is identified, affirmed and acknowledged through baptism.
Next, notice that Ananias calls upon Paul to “wash away” his sins. In the past, it would have been easy for me to breeze right past that statement and assume it was universally understood and acknowledged. That is no longer the case. Two things have helped me recognize my error, international travels and an awareness of modern culture. Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve had the privilege of making several trips to various Asian countries. During those travels and through my interaction with the peoples of those countries and with those in our modern culture, I’ve discovered that an understanding of the concept of sin is not universal – at least not using those terms. We speak of sin as a moral failure or a breaking of God’s commandments but neither of those ideas resound or makes sense in those cultures. In Asia, the concept of sin tends to be best understood using the concepts of honor and shame instead of moral failure, we should bring honor upon God and not bring shame upon ourselves.
A quick side note:
In our modern culture, we are quickly losing the concept of sin due to a loss of “absolute truth” and moral accountability. Our culture is quickly shifting away from the idea that any truths are absolute (applicable to everyone) and towards “relative” truth (personal truth relative to the situation or circumstance) and even towards a “no truth” concept (truth doesn’t really exist but is simply a naive mental concept that we use to justify our actions and deal with reality). Truthfully (pun intended), I don’t think anyone really and fully believes or “buys into” this no truth idea. In fact, it is really a self-defeating idea. If truth doesn’t exist, then the concept of “no truth” cannot really exist since it is a statement of “truth” regarding the idea that truth does not exist. I know, that sounds confusing because it is. That’s why the concept of “no truth” cannot be true – if it were true then it would be false and it cannot be both at the same time. That’s why I don’t think anyone can fully believe in the idea of “no truth.”
I mentioned above that many claim to have abandoned the idea of absolute truth and are embracing the idea of relative truth – something can be true for me but not be true for you and vice-versa. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase used in conversations over the past few years – especially in religious conversations. However, I also believe that they do not fully embrace this concept of relative truth and the full abandonment of absolute truths. How do I know? It is really simple, just ask them. Ask them a question related to something they hold very dear. For example (and I’m intentionally choosing a very liberal and controversial topic), if they claim to believe in a “woman’s right to choice” regarding abortion then ask them if that belief is relative or absolute and I’m pretty sure they will say it is an absolute truth – every woman in every culture has a right to choose. See, I told you they still believe in absolute truth just not in the God who defines those absolutes. In other words, the truths you and I hold regarding the authority of scriptures, the deity of Christ and the truth of the Gospel are relative, but the truths they hold are absolute. Now, back to our story…
Paul is encouraged by Ananias to have his sin “washed away” by calling on the name of Jesus. You don’t “wash away” something that you are unwilling to admit exists. So, the first step in having our sins washed away is to acknowledge or confess that they exist. To confess our sin is to agree with God’s assessment of our actions, thoughts and attitudes. This is central to a relationship with God. While the concept of God’s love is what is usually emphasized by most modern Christians and even non-Christians, we must never forget that God expressed His incredible love for us through “giving” His Son as a sacrifice for our sin. The central aspect of the incarnation of Christ is as the perfect lamb of God – the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Remember, you don’t wash what you don’t acknowledge as being dirty and in need of washing. You need it and so do I…
Finally, Ananias says that this washing comes by “calling on the name of Jesus.” To call on his name is to understand the importance and authority of that name – Jesus. Jesus is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament name Joshua and it means “God saves us” or “God is our salvation.” To call on the name of Jesus is to acknowledge that God is the one who is able to and desires to save us and that He is doing that through His Son, Jesus the Christ. So, Paul confessed his sinful disobedience and his misunderstanding of God’s plan for saving His people and he called upon the name and authority of Jesus to forgive and wash away his sins. Then he obeyed and submitted to baptism, acknowledging Jesus Lordship and ownership of his life.
This was the way of salvation for Paul and it is the way of salvation for you and me. I’ve followed Paul’s example, have you? If not, will you right now? Confess your sin, your failure to be obedient to God, and call upon the authority of Jesus through faith in His sinless life, sacrificial death and physical resurrection as the unique Son of God. Submit to His authority and acknowledge His ownership over you through Christian baptism. Then join a church that obeys, believes and teaches the full truth of scripture.
Let me close with a final observation. Paul returns to Jerusalem following his conversion to Christianity but during a time of prayer in that very same Temple, Jesus tells him to leave Jerusalem quickly because his testimony won’t be accepted. Paul initially finds this incredulous but quickly learns that Jesus is correct. He’s not told to be silent, but to take the message to those who will receive it – the Gentiles. In many ways, we face similar challenges. We live in a culture who tends to reject the truth of scripture and the message of Christ’s exclusive redemption. While we must continue to proclaim these truths to our family, friends and neighbors, we must also be sensitive to the words of Christ and take this message to those who are willing and who desire to hear it. Jesus took the gospel to the outcasts of His culture and they readily accepted His message. We must be ready and willing to do the same – they will hear it, understand it, and accept it. Will you go and tell them?