One of the most important (and perhaps most unappreciated) aspects of baptism is found in realizing its covenant connotations.
In at least two New Testament passages, we are told about the connections between baptism and marriage.
The first passage I would like to call your attention to is found in the Epistle to the Ephesians. Paul writes about the relationship between husbands and wives and parallels it with the relationship between Christ and His church.
Ephesians 5:26-that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word,
One second century Christian named Marius Victorinus said of this passage:
“Here we take “the church” to mean every believer and everyone who has received baptism. The believer is brought to faith by the washing in water and the invocation of the Word.” (Epistle to the Ephesians 2.5.25-26. [BT 1972:197 [1287C-D].])
Recently, brother Everett Ferguson wrote an eye-opening volume on the subject of baptism in the early church. Speaking on this passage, he writes:
“There is very likely a reference to baptism in 5: 26. Christ gave himself up for the church “in order that he might sanctify her, purifying her by the washing [τ λoυτρ, bath] of water with the word [ἐν ῥήματι].” The context compares the relations of husbands and wives with the relations of Christ and the church. In view of this marriage context elements of a wedding ceremony that could be related to Christian practice are likely being drawn on. The bride took a bath before the wedding, hence the reference to a washing expressly said to be in water, which would parallel the baptism of Christ’s “bride,” the church, taking place in the conversion of each of its members. There was also a wedding contract, an exchange of vows, hence the reference to a “word.”” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 3503-3509 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
Ferguson goes on to elaborate that the “word” spoken in the passage is most likely a reference to the “good confession,” quoting Augustine who applies Romans 10:8-10 to the confession made at the time of baptism.
Later in the Book of First Peter, we are told this about baptism:
1 Peter 3:21-There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
The word “answer” is translated in several passages with the word “pledge.” Commenting on the word used here, Ferguson informs us:
“The other difficult word in 1 Peter 3: 20-21 is what I have translated “pledge.” The noun’s basic meaning is “question,” from which comes the meaning “request” and so the usual translation of “appeal to God for a good conscience.” However, the word could be used for the “answer” to an inquiry. Accordingly, many prefer the translation “a pledge to God.” 602 The papyri contain instances where the word is the equivalent of the Latin stipulatio, the demand (in question form) made by a prospective creditor of a debtor and then the contract resulting from a positive response….A decisive consideration is the prepositional phrase “toward God,” placed with the word for “pledge” (or “appeal”) and not with “good conscience.” Whatever is indicated by the word under consideration, it is directed toward God, not received from him. Hence, I would opt for the secondary meaning of a stipulatio, the contract or pledge made in response to what is required. If this legal background is behind the usage in 1 Peter 3: 21, then the translation “pledge” (or something comparable, such as “agreement” or “undertaking to be loyal”) is established….On the interpretation adopted here, baptism is a pledge of loyalty to God; it proceeds from a motive of inner purity and is not an act of external cleansing.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 4093-4115 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
Several other scholars have pointed out the pledge-like meaning of this word, and its significance. For example, Barclay has written:
“(2) Peter calls baptism the pledge of a good conscience to God (verse 21). The word Peter uses for pledge is eperōtēma. In every business contract, there was a definite question and answer which made the contract binding. The question was: ‘Do you accept the terms of this contract, and bind yourself to observe them?’ And the answer, before witnesses, was: ‘Yes.’ Without that question and answer, the contract was not valid. The technical word for that question-and-answer clause is eperōtēma in Greek, stipulatio in Latin. Peter is, in effect, saying that in baptism God said to those coming direct from the old religion: ‘Do you accept the terms of my service? Do you accept its privileges and promises, and do you undertake its responsibilities and its demands?’ And, in the act of being baptized, each individual answered: ‘Yes.’” (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letters Of James And Peter, 282-283 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)
The New American Commentary has this interesting note:
“The interpretation reflected in the NIV can be supported by the usage of the word in the papyri. In these instances the term can be used of stipulations found in contracts. One pledges or promises to abide by the terms of the contract and the stipulations found therein. Similarly, one can understand the text to refer to the promise or pledge made at baptism.” (Thomas R. Schreiner, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical And Theological Exposition Of Holy Scripture-1, 2 Peter, Jude-Volume 27, 196 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; B&H Publishing Group)
In studying the usage of this word in the papyri, we learn:
“Question, inquiry, pledge, declaration of commitment. In the papyri there is evidence that his word was a t.t. In making a contract, denoting the pledge or undertaking given by one of the parties in answer to formal questions. The Word then implies the registering of agreement to conditions or demands. Baptism is a response or commitment to God….Here the pledge is an assent to certain conditions or demands; it may imply a confession of faith as well as the willingness to accept the new duties.” (Cleon Rogers Jr. & Cleon Rogers III, The New Linguistic And Exegetical Key To The Greek New Testament, 576; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
Another author has pointed out his belief that the word here should be translated as “appeal.” He writes:
“In the final analysis the meaning both warranted by the lexicons and consistent with the contextual requirements is that of baptism as an appeal or prayer to God for a good conscience. (In this understanding the phrase “to God” or “toward God” [Greek, eis theon] goes with “appeal,” not “conscience.” It is not “a good conscience toward God” but “an appeal to God,” as the Greek word order itself suggests.) An appeal is a kind of question, in the sense of a request. Greeven says this meaning may be seen in the verb in Matthew 16: 1, and that the noun form in I Peter 3: 21 may be translated “prayer.” 6 Thus baptism is a prayer to God for a good conscience. Even though this prayer is something done by the human participant in baptism, it is consistent with salvation by grace because by its very nature it points beyond itself to God and simply underscores the divine working that is the heart and essence of baptism. The person who submits to baptism is by that very act calling upon God to do what he has promised to do in that moment. Baptism saves because it is the prayer of the human heart crying out to God for spiritual cleansing by His grace. From the standpoint of the human participant this is the most that it can be, but that is enough. God himself does the rest. This leads to the third and final reason why appeal is the preferred meaning of eperotema in I Peter 3: 21, namely, because this idea is equivalent to the “calling on His name” of Acts 22: 16. As we saw in the study of this passage above, in connection with his baptism the sinner Saul was exhorted to call upon the name of the Lord for salvation. That is exactly the point of I Peter 3: 21. Baptism saves us not because it is something we ourselves are doing but just because it is a prayer that calls upon the name of the only one who has the power to save, our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jack Cottrell, Baptism: A Biblical Study, 2263-2274 (Kindle Edition); Joplin, Missouri; College Press Publishing Company)
While Cottrell rejects the notion of baptism being a “pledge,” it should be pointed out that the papyri used epeeotema in both of these senses. This being the case, I personally believe that this word carries both meanings.
Baptism is therefore a request to God for a good conscience, as well as a pledge of the believer to enter into covenant relationship with Christ.
Thus in both passages we have studied (Ephesians 5:26 and 1 Peter 3:21), we learn that baptism is in essence where we enter into marriage relationship with Christ.
Notice several lessons with me from this.
First, the fact that baptism is a willing entrance into marriage covenant with Christ speaks to us about the age of the person being baptized. If an individual is not able to understand the ramifications and responsibilities of marriage, then he is not ready for baptism. This was, indeed, one of the main reasons why several Second and third century Christians rejected the notion of infant and young child baptism. Furthermore, the fact that baptism is similarly an “appeal” for a clear conscience is further proof of this. For on the one hand, infants and small children have no sin (Ezekiel 18:20; 28:15; Romans 7:9); and on the other, infants and small children cannot make a logical appeal to God.
Second, this imagery reminds us again of the necessity of baptism. As Peter clearly demonstrates, baptism is part of God’s plan of salvation. Indeed, every passage which mentions baptism and salvation places baptism before salvation (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Ephesians 5:26; Colossians 2:12; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:20-21). As our study of 1 Peter 3:21 demonstrates, baptism is the prayer to God for forgiveness. While Paul was praying for three days and nights as a believer who had repented of sin (Acts 9:1-11), he still had not “called on the name of the Lord” and had his sins “washed away” until he “arose” and was “baptized” (Acts 22:16).
Third, this speaks to every Christian about the fact that the Christian life is a relationship with the God of Heaven. There are some who advocate that the notion of a personal relationship with God is not scriptural. Yet how much more of a personal relationship can you get then marriage? All through the Word of God, the Lord uses several metaphors to illustrate what He desires with us: personal relationship. Fathers and sons, mothers and sons, servants cared for by the head of the home, intimate friendships, marriage, etc. are all used as examples of this. In Ephesians alone, we see several examples of the personal relationship that God has with His people! We are the sons and daughters of God for which relationship God created the universe (Ephesians 1:1-11. In Christ we are the ones that God has reached out to when we were far away (Ephesians 2:14-16), so that we could become part of the household (family) of God (Ephesians 2:19-22). We are the Lord’s precious people (Ephesians 4:1-6), His bride (Ephesians 5:22-33), His army (Ephesians 6:10-18), and His body (Ephesians 1:22-23). All of these examples speak of the personal relationship with God that Christians enjoy, and need to excel in.
Finally, this reminds us of the covenant faithfulness of Christ. When we fall short in our relationship with Christ (as we all will do-1 John 1:8), what is Christ’s response when we return to Him? He lovingly forgives, pardons, and sanctifies His bride.
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection on the third day had made salvation possible for all who will come to Him (Matthew 11:28-30). Let Him cleanse you today and add you to His church (Acts 2:47). Today, repent of your sins and confess your faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (Acts 3:19-21; 8:37). Be baptized into the Lord to have your sins forgiven (Acts 2:37-38; 22:16). Be faithful to Him as you continue to grow (Revelation 2:10; 2 Peter 3:18). When you sin and fall short, repent of that and confess it to the Lord in prayer, accepting His forgiveness (1 John 1:9-2:2).
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.