Monday, January 9, 2012

Missionary imprisoned

Pardon the sensationalized title, but I couldn’t resist.  We read about Paul’s Philippian imprisonment in Acts 16, and recent events have caused me to consider that incident.

A few months ago, I was surprised when a man (whom I had never seen before) approached me at the wharf in Vila, knowing my name and that I worked with the church in Malekula.  I soon learned that he was Ken from Australia, and that he had actually grown up in Malekula, near Tulwei Village.  His parents had translated the New Testament into the Northwest Malekula “Big Nambas” language back in the 80’s. 
We exchanged the usual small talk, and then he requested permission to “ask me a question.”  To preface, he has recently returned to Vanuatu as a missionary for the Presbyterian Reformed Church (his parents were among those who brought that church to Malekula).  Jean Claude, who was baptized in March 2010 in Tulwei, was formerly an elder in that denomination, and Ken knew of his departure from them.  His question was, “So, what do you teach about baptism?”  My answer was perhaps more simple than he expected - I quoted Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21.  I found his response interesting: “we obviously see things differently”, he said.  We talked about the topic for several more minutes, and agreed that we should get together sometime with open Bibles and visit more.

That opportunity came a couple of months later, and once we got into our discussion, I asked him what he would tell someone they needed to do if they said they wanted to be saved.  He said that the only requirement would be to believe and repent (purposefully making baptism a glaring omission).  I asked him if he knew of an instance in the New Testament where such a formula had resulted in salvation, and he suggested Acts 16 - the Philippian jailer.  He conceded that the jailer and his household were subsequently baptized, but denied that the act played any part in their salvation.  Is such an accurate understanding of the record?

I would like to make two points from the text.  First, consider the “book-end” principle that we often see employed in the New Testament.  That is, when a phrase is used twice in a context, we are safe to conclude that everything between those two occurrences (book-ends) is part of a complete thought, and should somehow relate back to the book-ends themselves.  On the front end, notice the phrase with which Paul and Silas answered the jailer’s question: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will saved, you and your household” (16:31).  On the back end, we read of the jailer “having believed in God with his whole household” (16:34).  Logic would thus tell us that v.31 is the beginning of the story, and that v.34 is the end - thus functioning as book-ends.  The question is: what did the jailer and his family do in the verses between, in order to believe in the Lord Jesus so as to be saved?  In v.32 we read that they heard the word of the Lord.  In v.33 we read that following the teaching, the jailer washed Paul and Silas’ wounds.  Immediately following this penitent act, the jailer and his household were baptized.  Only after hearing the word of the Lord, repenting of sins, and being baptized did he rejoice greatly, “having believed in God with his whole household.”  To stop short of the culminating act of his belief is to do a great disservice to the text, and leaves the story half-told.  Luke herein makes it clear exactly what “believing” entailed in this instance.

Second, let us consider the modern practice of “baptismal Sundays” and such like, in light of this occurrence.  Those who diminish the importance and necessity of baptism often set aside certain days yet future on which they conduct mass baptisms.  After all, they reason, the people have already been saved, and thus it would be appropriate to baptize all the recent converts at the same time (e.g. once per quarter).  If ever there were an appropriate time to delay baptism, surely the Philippian jailer’s instance was it!  After all, this Roman employee had determined that committing suicide would be less painful than dealing with the authorities (16:27), as the punishment to a prison officer who lost prisoners was no doubt catastrophic.  What would have happened to him had these authorities found out that he had not only allowed the prisoners to leave the prison, but had humbled himself to the point of washing their wounds, and then allowed them to immerse him in water?  It was certainly possible that a group of people walking around at that late hour would have made at least some level of disturbance.  Modern denominational logic would say to wait until a more convenient time.  Why was the jailer willing to risk so much in order to act immediately?  Because his spiritual wellness had become paramount to his physical wellness.  He had obviously been taught of the importance of baptism, and was disinclined to allow even the threat of physical punishment to prevent him from being spiritually saved.

The Philippian jailer’s story is a beautiful one, and it serves as yet another strong proof of the emphasis placed on biblical baptism within Jesus’ plan of salvation for the lost.  Dare we cut short that plan?