On the Need for Exegetical Typology: Circumcision as a Test Case

bookLast month the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBJT) published an article I wrote. In “From Beelines to Plotlines: Typology That Follows the Covenantal Topography of Scripture,” I argued that (most, if not all) typological structures begin in creation, move through the undulating contours of Israel’s covenant history (hence, covenant topography), until they find their terminus in Christ. Then, after being fulfilled by the person and work of Jesus Christ, they are continued in the new covenant people of God. My test case, or textual proof, was the typology of the priesthood. If you are interested, you can read the article online. I’d be interested in your feedback.

Today, however, I’m interested in looking at another test case, namely the typology of circumcision found in the Bible. I believe that the only way we can understand circumcision (and its relationship to baptism) is by looking at its development in the canon. And thankfully, instead of making that case, John Meade has already done so (far better than I could) in his chapter, “Circumcision of the Flesh to Circumcision of the Heart,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologiesedited by Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker.

Building on his earlier work on circumcision and its cultic origins and priestly intentions in Egypt, Meade shows how circumcision from the start was a sign, with in-built tension designed to lead to a greater reality—namely, circumcision of the heart. Indeed, as one follows the narrative of the Old Testament we can see how, long before the New Testament applies this sign to Christ (Colossians 2:11–12) and the people of faith (Philippians 3:3), the sign of circumcision is already shifting. From a careful reading of Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and the Prophets, Meade makes this point, and I share a few of his conclusions below. Continue reading

Baptism and the Resurrection: Looking Again at 1 Corinthians 15:29 and ‘Baptism for the Dead’

baptismOtherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead?
If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
— 1 Corinthians 15:29 —

Few passages in Scripture are more confusing than 15:29, with its language of “baptism for the dead” (βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν). What is Paul trying to say? Is he addressing, or condemning, or condoning some strange practice in Corinth? Is he speaking of the traditional ordinance of water baptism, but using strange language? Should we read 1 Corinthians 15:29 with everything else Paul said about baptism? Or should we delimit this verse to the cultural context of Corinth?

For starters, we can clearly assert that Scripture in no way supports “proxy” or “vicarious baptism.” In the context itself, Paul is not giving instruction for baptism; he is using it as a rhetorical illustration: if many line up for baptism, which depends on the resurrection, why do you accept baptism but not resurrection. Again the focus of 1 Corinthians 15 is resurrection; “baptism on behalf of the dead” is in reference to that larger issue. Paul is not giving us any instructions for the ordinance itself

Rightly, the orthodox church has always understood Paul this way. Throughout church history, this passage was only used by heretical groups to implement such a practice; it has never found a place among true believers.[1] Among Mormons, there is a false doctrine built on this verse, that a Mormon priest must baptize someone for them to be born again—hence some are baptized today on behalf of earlier, unbaptized souls.[2] But among evangelicals there is no such practice.

What is present among biblical Christians is a wide variety of interpretations. In what follows I will attempt to list these interpretations and conclude with something of an approximation of what I believe Paul is saying. I say approximation, because this is one of those passages that we must hold with open hands. In other words, while we can confidently stress what this passage does not teach, we are in a more difficult position to lock down a precise definition of what Paul does mean. The context, the grammar, and the meaning are all difficult to us. Still, we should labor to understand his words, especially in the context of the book. But first, a list of possible interpretations. Continue reading

Another Step Toward a Biblical Ecclesiology: Acts 9 on Baptism, Membership, and the Church

baptism_of_st_paul_-_capela_palatina_-_palermo_-_italy_2015-2The book of Acts is pivotal for understanding the nature and function of the church. It is also challenging, because it presents a church that is “born” on Pentecost, at first contained to Jerusalem, but later expanded to Judea and Samaria and finally unleashed the ends of the earth. At the same time, it’s founding members were believers before receiving the Spirit and yet the gift of the Spirit is one of the distinguishing marks of the church as it spreads from Israel to Italy. In four instances (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19), the Spirit is given, but in no two instances are the exact events the same. For instance, speaking in tongues accompanies the Spirit in Acts 2, 10, 19, but not Acts 8. Likewise, water baptism precedes the Holy Spirit in Acts 8, but follows in Acts 10.

From just a sampling of evidences, the book of Acts is both foundational and frustrating for understanding the nature of the church. It is foundational because of the patterns we see in how churches are formed—the Word of God is preached, Jews then Samaritans than Gentiles repent and believe, they are baptized, and then gathered into churches. Yet, it is frustrating because not everything in Acts is reproducible today. The personal visitations by Jesus, the miracles of healing, the speaking in tongues, and the survival of snake bites are all incidents that we might say have discontinued—unless one believes otherwise. For now my point is not to defend or deny cessationism, but to merely highlight how that debate among others finds difficulty in Acts.

Any point of ecclesiology, therefore, needs to be aware of Acts transitional nature. It should take into account how the Holy Spirit has given us this book to teach us about the founding of the church, but it is not a manual for every point of doctrine. That being said, where else do we turn in Scripture to find how to plant, revitalize, and shepherd churches? Therefore, we do need to watch for patterns and principles in Acts, but always with awareness of some discontinuity between Acts period of transition and our own day.

Clearing Up Two Points of Ecclesiology

With this approach to Acts in mind, I want to clear up two points of ecclesiology from Acts 9. From this chapter, I have heard two statements about the church:

  1. Paul’s baptism by Ananias suggests a local church is not (absolutely) needed for a legitimate baptism.
  2. The Church is fundamentally a universal concept, as Acts 9:31 describes the church regionally, not locally (i.e., in one spatio-temporal location).

While there is truth in these statements, ultimately I think we are on more solid ground to say

  1. Paul’s baptism was unique, but not so unique as to break from the normative pattern of the New Testament. We should exercise caution when making application from his experience, but at the same time, we can see how his unusual experience fits the larger pattern of baptism and “church membership” in Acts.
  2. The universal Church “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria . . .” is a located in spatio-temporal “locales” (something I’ve tried to describe elsewhere).

In what follows, I will argue that Paul’s baptism is both a unique point in redemptive history and one that follows the pattern of baptism and church membership (i.e., association with other disciples in a local church). Exploring the relationship of Paul’s baptism to the churches in Damascus and Jerusalem will also prove the corollary: life in the universal church is experienced through local assemblies. In the end, I will list seven points of application from this chapter related to ecclesiology. Continue reading

The Testimony of Two: Why Baptism Requires a Harmony of Witnesses

baptism1In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true.
— John 8:17 —

In recent months I’ve been in discussion about the meaning of baptism, and who is saying what when a believer is immersed for identification with Jesus. Is baptism an individual’s testimony (alone)? Or is it the church’s testimony? Or, is it both?

With this question in mind, I recently read John 8 where Jesus makes the axiomatic statement in verse 17: “In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true.” In context, he is preparing to say he and his Father both testify to his messianic identity, even if the Pharisees in all of their well-studied folly could not receive this testimony. The point Jesus makes is that his identity is secured by multiple witnesses. In fact, John’s whole Gospel hangs on this premise, that there are a dozen or more witnesses testifying to Christ.

From this consideration, my question is, What role does the legal requirement of two or three witnesses play in baptism? If baptism is a legal act, whereby the disciple of Jesus is marked out and publicly identified, should this not include more than one witness? And have some churches misunderstood (or misapplied) baptism when they teach and practice that all that matters is the individual’s faith? Certainly, the one undergoing baptism is testifying to their allegiance to Christ, but what role, biblically speaking, does the legal requirement of two or three witnesses play in the ordinance of baptism? Continue reading

Waters That Unite: Five Truths About Water Baptism

 baptism1Too often baptism is seen as waters that divide. In the New Testament, however, baptism publicly identifies Christians with their Lord and one another. Especially in Paul, baptism is appealed to as a means of unity in the church. Those who have died and risen again with Christ are known by their common baptism (Romans 6:3–6). As Paul says in Galatians 3:25–29, all those who are “one in Christ Jesus” have been “baptized into Christ.” Baptism, therefore, is a means of identifying those who are one in Christ.

This unifying purpose of baptism explains why Paul is emphatic about baptism in 1 Corinthians 1. Instead of unifying the church in Corinth, it was dividing it. In response to the news that the church was fractured by personality cults (“I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ,” v. 12), Paul reminds the Corinthians of their unity in the gospel (see 1:17–2:16). He reproves them for they way baptism was playing a part in dividing them, and in the process gives us five truths about baptism. Continue reading

A Better Understanding of Baptism

baptismBobby Jamieson is a clear thinker and compelling writer. He is also a good friend. But it’s not his friendship that impels me to commend his two books. Rather, it is the fact that I think his two books on baptism (Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Membership and Understanding Baptism) succeed in answering the question: If baptism doesn’t save, why does it matter?

In a day when church membership is often taken lightly and popular ecclesiology focuses on activities and attractions more than exegetical essentials, Jamieson’s two books explain why Scripture requires baptism and why churches need to reclaim the value of this ordinance.

In what follows, I want to highlight three arguments from Understanding Baptism addressing three different kinds of people. First, he makes a case for why Christians reticent to be baptized should be baptized. Second, he explains why baptism is necessary for membership. And third, he shows how membership in the local church is the natural result of baptism.

In truth, this blog can’t do justice to all the Scripture Jamieson considers in his two books. Rather, if you find yourself in one of these camps—(1) an unbaptized believer, (2) baptized but not (intending to become) a church member, or (3) a member indifferent towards baptism—my aim is to spur you on towards picking up his book and going to the Bible to see what it says about baptism and the church. Continue reading

For Your Edification: Baptism, Membership, and Life Together in the Church

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the church, membership, baptism, and life together in the church. As I preach through 1 Corinthians and our church works to update its prospective member class, I’ve found great profit from reading the works of Jonathan Leeman (Church Membership and Church Discipline) and Bobby Jamieson (Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Membership) on these subjects, but I’ve also found help in some shorter pieces.

Whether you are a pastor, a member, or a free-range evangelical, these resources will encourage, challenge, and bring light on the subject of membership in the local church. Perhaps in the weeks ahead I can add a few posts myself.

Is Church Membership Biblical? by Matt Chandler

If you view church as some sort of ecclesiological buffet, then you severely limit the likelihood of your growing into maturity. Growth into godliness can hurt. For instance, as I interact with others in my own local body, my own slothfulness in zeal is exposed, as is my lack of patience, my prayerlessness, and my hesitancy to associate with the lowly (Rom. 12:11-16). Yet this interaction also gives me the opportunity to be lovingly confronted by brothers and sisters who are in the trenches with me, as well as a safe place to confess and repent. But when church is just a place you attend without ever joining, like an ecclesiological buffet, you just might consider whether you’re always leaving whenever your heart begins to be exposed by the Spirit, and the real work is beginning to happen.

You can also find John Piper’s strong affirmation of “How Important is Church Membership?Continue reading

On Baptism and Children

baptism1A recurring question that all pastors will face is this: Pastor, will you baptize my child? With the (all-too-common, but misguided) pressure to please parents and their young child, it is vital for pastors and churches to know what they believe about baptism and children. For parents too, when little Johnny shows interest in baptism, what should you do?

These are vital questions and ones that have received no little attention among Christians committed to believer’s baptism. To find good answers, we don’t need to recreate the wheel. We simply need to know where to turn. Therefore, in what follows, I have listed a number of helpful articles to help you and I think through this important issue.

A Biblical, Pastoral, Denominational, and Parental Perspective by Jason Allen

In a recent blog, Jason Allen (President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) urges pastors and parents (and the SBC, as well) to “joyfully and wholeheartedly press the accelerator on the gospel while tapping the brakes on the baptistery.” He rightly affirms the fact that it is wise and pastorally-sensitive to affirm children in their desires to follow Christ but to be slow in moving them towards baptism. Since “we must remember it requires more than agreeing to facts about Jesus to be saved,” it is unwise to baptize a young child, simply because they might be able to affirm the plan of salvation. Let me encourage you to read the whole thing.

“Reforming Baptism and Church Membership” by John Hammett (in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches)

In his excellent book on Baptist ecclesiology, John Hammett, professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary gives sage counsel on baptism as it relates to children. He writes,

Caution is especially appropriate in the case of very young children. Anyone who works with children knows that five-year-olds will readily ask Jesus into their hearts, but until very recently Baptist would never have considered baptizing them. Believers baptism was seen as virtually synonymous with adult baptism. To request baptism was regarded as a decision requiring a fair degree of maturity. For a church to grant it was to welcome the person into the responsibilities of church membership, which would include participation in the governance of the church, which seems inappropriate in the case of preschoolers. Overseas most Baptists delay baptism until the teenage years, but it is difficult to avoid arbitrariness in setting any specific minimum age for baptism. (Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 122)

While it is true that delaying baptism does add a measure of subjectivity, if not arbitrariness, he lists at least four reasons for delaying.

Continue reading

From Noah’s Baptism to Jesus’ Crucifixion: A Study in Typological Escalation

fishJesus is the goal of redemptive history. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul observes that God has “[made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him.” In Galatians 4:4, Paul has the same eschatological view in mind: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son . . .” And Hebrews too observes the climactic arrival of the Son of God: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (1:1). In short, the apostles, as model interpreters, understand all redemptive history to be leading to Jesus.

Consequently, it is not surprising to find that the typological structures of the Old Testament escalate until they find their telos in Jesus. In other words, Scripture begins with glimpses of the pre-incarnate Christ and gradually adds contour and color to the biblical portrait of the coming Messiah.

Over time, such glimpses of grace are developed and made more concrete as the types (i.e., events, offices, and institutions of the Old Testament) repeat and escalate. One prominent event that is repeated in the Old Testament is that of “baptism.” As Peter observes in his first epistle, baptism corresponds (lit., is the antitype, or fulfillment) to Noah and his life-saving (make that humanity-saving) ark (1 Pet 3:20). It is this typological thread that I want to consider here. It is my aim to show that not only do Old Testament “types” prefigure Christ and his work of salvation, but they also grow in intensity and efficacy as the Incarnation of Christ nears. Continue reading

Dramatizing the Gospel: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

baptimsBetter than any comedic skit or high-tech video, baptism and the Lord’s Supper dramatize the gospel. And when churches properly execute these two rites, they present in a very local, personal, and powerful way the gospel of Jesus Christ. Continuing to think about the way that the church is God’s authorized evangelistic ‘program,’ I want to show how these two ordinances display the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel

Before considering how the church displays the gospel though, it is vital to remember the gospel is a message to be believed, proclaimed, explained, and defended. It is not something we do, make, or build. It is “good news” that our Holy Creator sent his sinless Son to die on Calvary for the sins of his bride. It is a message proclaimed to all the nations, so that any and all who believe in Jesus may be saved from hell and have eternal life. This is the gospel of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. It is the life-creating truth that saves Christians and assembles local churches.

That said, if the gospel is believed by a congregation, it will be evident in visible, practical, and tangible ways. A Spirit-filled church cannot stop talking about Christ because the gospel dwells richly in their hearts. Such gospel-centeredness does more than affect speech, however; it also shapes conduct, practice, and liturgy (i.e., the pattern of worship).

Therefore, borrowing the logic of James 2:14–17, the sincerity of a church’s faith (in the gospel) will be seen in the way they live, move, and have their being. And no place is this more apparent than in the way they carry out the ordinances of Christ—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Continue reading