Saul of Tarsus had been a persecutor of Christians, but when he discovered the truth of the risen Christ, he was humbled and penitent. He prayed, blind and lost, for three days, no doubt pleading with God to forgive him of his many crimes. Ananias, sent by Jesus to preach to penitent Saul of Tarsus, told him, “What are you waiting for? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16).”
Saul was not without hope, God could and would wash away his sins, making him whole. What a beautiful thought and a beautiful message! Also quite relatable… we all understand the concept of washing and God repeatedly uses this concept to help us understand His salvation.
Concerning the church and the love of Christ, we read, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27; ESV).” Likewise, of Christians in general, Paul likewise wrote, ““You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 11:26; ESV),” and, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5; ESV).”
This image of sins being washed away was likewise used in the pages of the Old Testament. David, in the Psalms, prayed, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin,” and then again, “wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Psalm 51:2, 7; ESV).” Isaiah, in his ministry, picked up the same theme, sharing the words of God with Israel, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean (Isaiah 1:15-16; ESV).”
Yet, though the thought of washing was used in the Old Testament, in the New Testament we find image being joined to practice. Specifically, Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize in His name for the remission of sins (cf. Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38). Thus did Ananias, in commanding Saul, link the act of baptism, which is an immersion in water, with the washing away of sins. If Paul had not been baptized, he would not have washed away his sins.
When Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the cleansing of the church, he specifically said that Christ cleansed the church, “by the washing of water with the word.” Similarly, the writer of Hebrews wrote, “since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:21-22; ESV).”
The apostles assumed of all Christians that they had been washed with water in Baptism. Not a bath from dirt, as the apostle Peter clarifies, saying that Baptism is not the “removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21; ESV),” but nevertheless an immersion into a body of water in obedience to the command of Christ.
Peter’s remarks also illustrate that it is not the water itself which does the spiritual cleansing, though water is commanded and therefore essential. Peter says it is the resurrection of Christ, a resurrection we participate in during Baptism (cf. Romans 6:3-5) and Paul, writing to the
Ephesians says that it is the blood of Christ through which we have redemption from our sins (cf. Ephesians 1:7). Elsewhere, in John’s vision in Revelation, John sees a multitude dressed in white, the saved saints of God, and is told concerning them, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14; ESV).” The blood of Christ is partaken of in connection with the death of Christ, and again, it is in Baptism that we are joined, not just to the resurrection of Christ, but His death as well.
There are many who are aware of their sins and aware of their need to be cleansed from those sins. To those today, the message of God remains the same, “Why do you wait? Arise and be baptized!
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.