A reader has inquired whether John’s disciples, who had already submitted to John’s baptism (cf. Lk. 3.1ff), were required to be immersed a second time, in order to become disciples of Christ.
A reasonable case can be made that, depending upon the circumstances, some of John’s disciples needed to be immersed a second time, while others did not.
Before exploring the case, a word or two of clarification is necessary.
First, during the Christian era, immersion in water (i.e., baptism), coupled with a penitent faith in Christ, is essential for salvation (cf. Mk. 16.16; Acts 2.38; 22.16; 1 Pt. 3.21). This was the case under John’s ministry as well (cf. Mk. 1.4; Lk. 1.76-77), for anyone rejecting John’s baptism was rejecting God’s will (Lk. 7.30).
Second, it has become fashionable to insist that there is no such thing as a re-baptism — that one is baptized only once. Hence, John’s disciples could not have been baptized again. However, this opinion oversimplifies the matter.
The impression that baptism is a distinctly technical term, to be understood as a sort of sacrament involving only religious overtones, has given rise to this myopic point of view. Conversely, the term simply signifies: “immersion, to submerge” (Thayer, 94). Liddell & Scott give us: “to dip, plunge” (see entry for ‘baptizo’). There are several examples of the use of this word in the secular literature of antiquity.
For example, Josephus wrote of a certain murderous Jew named Simon, who, on account of his crimes,
“baptized (plunged) his entire sword into his own bowels” (Wars, 2.18.4).
The term was frequently employed to describe the sinking of ships (Polybius, Histories, 1.51.6-7), surgical operations (Soranus, 2.63), drowning in the sea (Epictetus, Gnomologium, 47), and submerging cups into kegs of alcohol (Plutarch, Alexander, 67.2). It was even used metaphorically with reference to a young lad getting into a situation that was way over his head — i.e., he was immersed in trouble (Plato, Euthydemus, 277d).
It was a common word, therefore, with non-religious significance at its core (much like immerse in English).
In that light, then, anytime a man is submerged underneath water, he is, strictly speaking, being baptized. Yet, by so doing, he is not necessarily submitting to Christian baptism (or John’s baptism) — he may simply be taking a bath or swimming, etc.
The baptism of salvation, however, does not merely involve the “putting away of the filth of the flesh” (i.e., it is not a common bath); rather, it is a religious rite that involves both the “burial” of the body (Rm. 6.4) into “water” (Acts 8.38) and a conscience moved by faith in Christ (1 Pet. 3.21; Mk. 16.16).
Concerning this baptism, there is only one initiation moment, at which one transforms from being lost (outside of Christ) to being saved (in Christ; Gal. 3.27) — when all past sins are “blotted out” (Acts 3.19; 2.38). Though salvation is an ongoing process (1 Cor. 1.18, NKJV), the remission of sins through a believer’s baptism occurs only once. When one is saved through genuine Christian baptism, he does not need to be baptized (for salvation) again.
With this information at hand, it is conceivable that some could be baptized (immersed in water) on multiple occasions without actually being saved, and then later develop true faith in Christ, prompting them to be baptized again in order to be saved. Hence, there can be multiple baptisms involved, with only one initial salvation event.
Take, for instance, an individual who was baptized as an infant. Since the infant’s conscience was not acting by faith in Christ when the baptism occurred, the infant did not submit to the baptism of salvation. The infant was baptized; but the infant merely got wet (for the infant had not yet developed faith in Christ — an essential prerequisite for valid Christian baptism; Mk. 16.16).
Besides, infants are “innocent” already, with no sins yet committed from which to be saved (2 Kngs. 21.16; 24.4; Ps. 106.37-38; Mt. 18.3). Accordingly, such an individual will need to be baptized again, when he is old enough to believe, if he is to become a child of God in Christ and have his sins (which he will eventually commit) washed away.
The point is this: baptism, by itself, does not save. Getting wet is not enough. The conscience, guided by sacred truth, must also be involved. A person must believe an adequate amount of accurate information about the Christ and his kingdom to be baptized effectively for the remission of sins (cf. Acts 8.12). And since that is so, re-baptisms are very much possible (and sometimes necessary). In fact, as we shall presently observe, some of John’s disciples needed to be baptized again.
Some Were Re-Baptized
In Acts 19, Paul visited the city of Ephesus. There, he found “some disciples”—twelve in all (v. 7)—who had been initiated “into John’s baptism” (vv. 1-3).
John’s mission was to prepare his disciples to believe “on Christ Jesus” (v. 4) who came “after” John — to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1.17; i.e., for Jesus). In other words, when people were baptized by John, they were professing their faith — not in John — but in the then coming “lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1.29). Hence, John’s mission was to establish a relationship between the people and Christ, even if the people did not yet know his exact identity.
However, these particular disciples of John (in Ephesus) knew nothing about Jesus or the Holy Spirit (vv. 2, 4). This is significant. One of the features of John’s teaching was that the Christ, who would succeed John, would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 3.11). But they knew nothing of this. Clearly, then, their discipleship to John was incomplete.
Since they did not yet believe in the Christ who would come after John, and since they were not prepared for him until they “heard” Paul preach about him, they were “baptized into [eis] the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5, ASV).
The phrase, in (en) the name of the Lord, customarily denotes action taken by the Lord’s authority. Here, however, the preposition, into, in this expression, conveys a different significance. It translates the Greek term, eis, denoting a forward motion. In this context, it suggests that, previously, they had not established a relationship with the Lord (through John’s immersion); but now, by being immersed while believing “on Christ Jesus,” they had moved into such a relationship.
As an aside, it is possible that the Ephesian disciples were baptized “into John’s baptism” after the Lord’s crucifixion (when, ostensibly, John’s baptism ceased to be valid). In fact, a short time before Paul’s arrival to the city, an eloquent preacher named, Apollos (see below), had come preaching John’s baptism in the synagogue of the city. Perhaps these twelve disciples were immersed then. If so, some believe that perhaps it was the timing of their receiving John’s baptism that rendered it invalid, necessitating a second baptism. However, there is simply no evidence to confirm this, inferential or otherwise.
For all we know, the Ephesian disciples could have been baptized before Christ’s death (when John’s baptism was still operational), without fully understanding or receiving John’s teaching about the then coming Lord (thus, they were baptized ineffectually). Besides, Paul’s decision to baptize them again stemmed not from discovering when they had received John’s baptism (before or after Christ’s death), but from discovering their lack of understanding about John’s mission.
Hence, their problem, up to this point, was one of insufficient discipleship. They had not learned John’s message about the Lord; they had not entered into a spiritual relationship with Christ and had therefore not received the remission of sins. They got wet the first time. But that is all. Thus, they needed to be immersed again, this time with faith in the Lord and his ministry, thereby coming into the Lord’s possession (cf. Gal. 3.26-27).
Notwithstanding, not all of John’s disciples were of this class.
Some, Likely, Were Not Re-Baptized
Some, who were baptized by John, heard him identify Jesus as “the lamb of God” and began following Jesus instead, just as John instructed (cf. Jn. 1.35ff). For these disciples, a re-baptism would have been superfluous. Here’s why.
First, these particular disciples were prepared (done, made fully ready, with no other preparations needed) for the Lord (Lk. 1.17). Never do the Scriptures insist that these disciples of John—the apostle Andrew among them—needed to be re-baptized.
If they did need an additional baptism, then how could they truly have been “prepared for the Lord” (compare with 1 Kings 6.7)? And what was the difference between them (the prepared) and the people on the day of Pentecost, who had not followed John — the unpreprared (cf. Acts 2.1ff)?
Second, John’s baptism was “for the remission of sins” (Mk. 1.4). But if their sins were still retained, such that they needed another baptism for the remission of sins later on (Acts 2.38), then John’s baptism was useless at best, fraudulent at worst.
Either their sins were truly forgiven (because of Christ’s forthcoming crucifixion, and their belief in John’s message about the coming one, who would “take away the sins of the world”—Jn. 1.29), or John’s baptism was ineffectual, requiring a subsequent baptism. But his ministry was far from ineffectual, for those who yielded to it experienced the Lord’s merciful salvation, leading them “into the way of peace” (Lk. 1.76-80).
Third, Jesus said, in a discussion about the “baptism of John” (Mt. 21.25), that “tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before” the chief priests and elders (Mt. 21.31). Why? Because they believed John and obeyed his message (v. 32). John assisted them in their admittance into God’s kingdom.
The church, which is a part of that kingdom (cf. Mt. 16.18-19), was officially established on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Lord’s crucifixion (Acts 2.1-47). On that day, these particular kingdom-disciples were, by default, the first to be counted among the number of church members, along with the apostles of Christ, and the three-thousand people who were baptized into Christ on that day were added to that pre-existing number of baptized-believers (cf. Acts 2.41). Since they had already been baptized for the remission of sins, were prepared for the Lord, and were a part of the kingdom of God, re-baptizing them was unnecessary.
The Case of Apollos
Apollos presents a slight challenge to Bible expositors. Was this man one of John’s disciples who needed re-baptism, or not?
In the verses prior to Paul’s encounter with the Ephesian disciples (Acts 19.1-7), Luke records an interaction which took place between a Christian couple, Priscilla and Aquila, and a prolific Jewish preacher named Apollos. Apollos
“had been instructed in the way of the Lord [i.e., Christ], and…taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18.24-25).
The text suggests that he believed in the Christ who would come after John and that he taught accurately about his overall mission and message, but, unfortunately, the news of the Lord’s actual arrival had not yet reached him.
However, when that Christian couple gave him the news, he proceeded to show “from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18.28). Hence, he believed in the Christ before (as John, or one of his disciples, had instructed him), but now, he taught more accurately the fact that Jesus is the Christ. This was the only change in Apollos’ faith and teaching.
It is noteworthy that while Acts 19 specifically mentions the re-immersion of the Ephesian disciples (who had not known about the way of the Lord), Apollos, who did know the Lord’s way, was simply taught “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18.26). Apollos’ re-immersion is conspicuously absent.
Certainly, Apollos could have been re-immersed. The fact that Scripture does not mention his re-immersion does not necessarily mean it didn’t happen (nor, of course, that it did). Indeed, Bible characters did “many other things” that were “not written” in Scripture (cf. Jn. 20.30; 21.25).
Still, the information that is provided concerning him lends support to the idea that Apollos did not need to be baptized again, since he was one who not only knew the way of the Lord already, but who explained it to others “accurately.” There is every indication, then, that Apollos was
1) prepared for the Lord;
2) baptized for the remission of sins; and
3) had already entered the kingdom of God.
The same could not be said concerning the Ephesian disciples.
Certainly, it is impossible to be inflexible about this question; but surely these points shed sufficient light on the matter.
In short, the misguided disciple of John needed re-baptizing (as per Acts 19), for they weren’t sufficiently prepared for the Lord (and thus could not have been forgiven). However, the devout disciple of John (like Andrew and Apollos), more than likely, did not need re-baptizing, since he was forgiven of his sins already, was prepared to follow Christ, and had entered the kingdom of God, even before the day of Pentecost arrived.
Liddell, Henry and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940. Thayer, J. H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. T. & T. Clark, 1958.