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Damascus baptism:
The Acts narrative as paradigm for Paul's theology of baptism

by Tim Gallant


In recent years, drawing the roots of Paul's theology back to his encounter with the resurrected Christ has become familiar territory for biblical scholars.

The apostle's critique of Torah, for example, is understandably linked with his own conversion/call experience. After all, as he himself hints at in Galatians, his persecution of the Church was rooted in zeal for the law. This can be determined by the overall pattern of his argument, wherein he contrasts his persecution of the Church with his present polemic against the law. The point is seen more clearly, however, in Philippians 3.5b-6. Paul characterizes his former life this way: "concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." It is to be noted that the mention of the persecution of the Church is sandwiched between mentions of his relationship to the Mosaic law. Moreover, the "zeal" he mentions in connection with his persecution of the Church fits in well with how Paul elsewhere Israel: her zeal for God is something that is law-oriented (see Rom. 10.2 in context of 9.30-33; cf. also Gal. 1.14).

Because the law was precisely the point at issue in Paul's persecution of the Church, then, his confrontation with Christ was a radical challenge to his view of the law.

Something similar can be said regarding Paul's Christology. It is evident that his encounter with Christ came in the form of a theophany (manifestation of God, after the order of the burning bush etc. in the Old Testament). Thus Paul's identification of Christ as the Son of God, as indeed Yahweh Himself (see Paul's use of Isaiah 45.23 in Phi. 2.10-11, for example) can be attributed not merely to the preaching of the Church which he may have heard, but to his own experience of Christ.

So scholars are increasingly recognizing the significance of Damascus upon Paul's whole thought structure. In recent critical scholarship, however, this has been drawn virtually entirely from the letters. Acts is considered suspect as a historical record, and so at best it is incidentally referenced as non-authoritative by most critical scholars. Luke is thought to be someone who (1) wrote very late; (2) probably did not know Paul personally, and (3) at any rate had an overarching purpose that would distort the evidence, namely, a desire to reconcile two parties that were actually in fundamental opposition: the anti-law "Paul school", and the pro-law Jerusalem church. (I acknowledge that I have painted the picture very baldly and somewhat in its most extreme form.)

I will be up front. I do not share these skeptical presuppositions. I believe that Paul's letters and Acts are capable of being correlated, both on the level of chronology and theology. It is not, however, my purpose to defend that position here. I simply wish to note that I am following the route of hearing how the accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts can inform our understanding of his view of baptism. Such an attempt is in itself a form of apologetic for Luke's accuracy, but only on a minor, subsidiary level: if the Acts narrative and the Pauline letters integrate well, that is at least a very small defense of the integrity of Acts on that level. My main concern here, however, is biblical-theological, not apologetic. Simply, I want us better to understand Paul on baptism.

Saul's baptism: the narrow reading

As is well known, Acts contains three accounts of Saul's conversion. These include the initial third party account in Acts 9, and then two autobiographical retellings by Paul himself in Acts 22 and 26. None of these accounts pretends to be absolutely complete. There are things which Paul relates in retrospect which we were not told in the original telling, such as Ananias's reputation throughout Damascus as one faithful to the law (22.12). Acts 26, however, does not say anything directly concerning Saul's baptism, so we will leave it to the side for the purposes of our discussion.

At first glance, the record of Saul's baptism is very minimal. Acts 9 simply says that Saul rose and was baptized (9.18). The treatment in Acts 22 is slightly more detailed; there we learn that Ananias said to Saul: "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (22.16). The record of the baptism itself, however, is absent in chapter 22.

While this does not appear to be a whole lot to go on, we do note that Ananias's comments in 22.16 reflect a view that baptism was for cleansing of sins. It was not simply a formal ritual, but an activity that promised divine forgiveness in connection with it. (See also 2.38.) (I hope to deal at more length elsewhere with the issues of sin cleansing and ordination that are raised in new covenant baptism.)

This observation, however, is not my chief concern here, and in fact can scarcely be considered significantly Pauline. There is something more fundamental regarding Saul's Damascus encounter and his baptism that can only be understood by a more careful consideration of the context in Acts 9.

When Saul was buried with Christ

When Saul encountered the risen Jesus on the road near Damascus, he was busy persecuting Jesus' Church (9.1-5). It is interesting that Saul addresses Jesus as "Lord" in his initial response (9.5). Given the theophanic nature of the revelation, it is unreasonable to suggest, as some scholars do, that Lord [kurios] here simply means sir. Blinding lights do not come from the sky every day, and it would not take a biblical scholar of Saul's calibre to recognize a theophany. Consequently, Saul's question "who are you?" is not to be attributed to complete ignorance that he was being confronted by God Himself. It reflects rather the confusion and consternation of a zealous Jew hearing that he was persecuting God.

In Saul's earliest preaching, he identifies Jesus as the Christ, Messiah (22.22). In other words, Israel's rightful King and ruler. We will return to that point.

The manifestation of Jesus was overwhelming and left Saul blind (9.8). He remained so for three days, neither seeing nor eating or drinking (9.9) until Ananias came to him. When Ananias came, something like scales fell from his eyes, he saw again, and arising, he was baptized (9.18).

There are two dramatic hints in this text that we need to pay attention to. (1) Why three days? (2) The language of arising in 9.18: anastas, terminology regularly used for resurrection.

I wish to suggest that Saul has undergone a sort of identity collision with Christ. Notice this:

(1) Christ stood before Pilate on the criminal grounds that He was seditious - i.e. a rebel against the rightful political authority, Caesar, whom Pilate represented. Alongside of this, and interwoven with it, were the "religious" grounds: blasphemy.

(2) Jesus was judged innocent, yet condemned to death.

(3) He was entombed in darkness for three days.

(4) On the third day, the stone was rolled away, and He emerged into the light of new resurrection life.

Notice how Saul identifies with Christ.

(1) Saul stands before Christ as one who is seditious: he is rebelling against the Messiah - that is, against Israel's rightful King. Interwoven with this is Saul's blasphemy (which is how his labour is characterized in both 26.11 and 1 Tim. 1.13).

(2) Saul is found guilty of persecuting his king. Is he condemned to death? He is:

(3) Saul is entombed in darkness for three days. The death symbolism is reinforced by the fact that he neither eats nor drinks. The biblical symbolism clearly intends to depict judgment. It not only draws from the creation of light as the first creative word recorded (Gen. 1.3; implying that darkness is the undoing of creation in judgment at a fundamental level). It echoes particularly the three days of darkness that lay upon Egypt (Exodus 10.21-23). Thus Saul's three days in the darkness of blindness identify him with the condemnation of Christ Himself.

(4) On the third day, Ananias appears. I suggest that the falling away of "something like scales" is parallel to the removal of the stone from the tomb. For baptism, he arises (anastas): he emerges into the light of new resurrection life.

Paul's baptismal theology as interpretation of his experience

If this analysis is correct, it would seem that Saul's encounter with Christ provided him with a very vivid matrix for his doctrine of baptism. Most obvious is Romans 6, particularly verses 3-6:

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (NKJV)

While Luke is often discredited historiologically because he is writing with a polemical purpose (as if any reportage were ever merely "objective"), it is somewhat ironic that it is apparently Paul himself, and not Luke, who has most extensively employed the story narrated in Acts 9 for theological purposes. So far as I know, it is not a general claim that Luke has a strongly-articulated view of baptism as participation in the crucified and resurrected Christ. If we were to make the claim, it would be largely on the basis of the text before us. Luke's usual categories, I suggest, are the twin themes of remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit. (To be sure, it does not take much reflection to see that those themes correlate well with the death-and-resurrection theme [on this, see below], but the participationist basis is unstressed in the former.)

What is particularly revealing regarding the link between Acts 9 and Romans 6 is this: the link undermines the frequent assumption that Romans 6 is not referring to water baptism. The man who experienced the death and resurrection encounter experienced it in connection with water baptism. While obviously no baptism is stretched over three days, the "resurrection end" of Saul's experience was precisely identified with the baptismal event. The baptism is identifiably the climax of the whole.

We need now to move further toward an integration of the texts by comparing the accounts of Acts 9 and 22 with regard to the words of Ananias to Saul.

Here is what Ananias says to Saul in 9.17: "Brother Saul, the Lord has sent me, Jesus, who appeared to you in the way in which you were coming, so that you might see again, and be filled with the Holy Spirit."

How are Ananias's promises paralleled in the event itself in the next verse? "And immediately there fell from his eyes like scales, and he saw again" (corresponding to so that you might see again), "and rising up he was baptized" (corresponding to and be filled with the Holy Spirit).

Now let us notice again Ananias's words in 22.16: "And now why are you waiting? Arise [anastas] and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord." Arise and calling are participles; be baptized and wash away are correlated imperatives. Clearly, arising and calling upon the name of the Lord describe the "how" of the carrying out of the main action. Baptism and remission of sins are tightly tied together.

By drawing together Ananias's words in 9.17 and 22.16, then, we find two promises mentioned in connection with baptism: the washing away of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It thus becomes clear that Ananias's proclamation of promise in connection with baptism was identical in content to Peter's in Acts 2.38 ("Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit").

Interestingly, however, Paul never articulates baptism in the precise terms of that twofold promise. He indeed retains the substance; there is no question of a contradiction. Perhaps it is better to say: the twofold promise does not disappear, but is refracted through the lens of Paul's experience of Christ in baptism. This provides his exposition with added depth and context.

In the epistles, Paul's exposition of baptism is almost invariably participatory. The one who is baptized has "put on Christ" (Gal. 3.27). He is buried with Christ in baptism and raised with Him through faith in the resurrecting God (Col. 2.12; cf. again Rom. 6).

A close look at these texts shows that Paul does not differ from Peter or Ananias in connecting the gifts of remission of sins and the Holy Spirit to baptism. He does, however, articulate the promise from a different angle. It is indeed tempting to say that remission of sins has become burial with Christ in baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit has become union with Christ in His resurrection. While that parallel appears obvious, it suffers from a fatal flaw: Paul's version ties remission of sins to the total event. Crucifixion with Christ is God's judgment upon our sin (Rom. 6.6a), since God condemned sin in the flesh in Christ on the cross (Rom. 8.3). (Cf. Paul's experience of judgment in his encounter with Christ.) But while that provides the foundation for remission, it is not yet remission itself. This is clear in Romans 4.25: Jesus "was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised up because of our justification." Thus the resurrection of Christ is the proclamation of remission.

This explains the confusion that often arises in connection with Romans 6. Some interpreters say the chapter is about justification; some say it is about sanctification; some say it is about something else. The difficulty arises out of our assumptions regarding categories: justification is forensic, ergo, it is only a verdict. Or again: sanctification is progressive, whereas the key verses at the beginning of Romans 6 are initiatory and foundational.

But when we take Romans 4.25 seriously, these categories appear inadequate. (Thus, it would seem that the apparent problems are of our own making.) The declaration of justification is made precisely by way of the conferral of resurrection life. (Notice the contrast to traditional Roman Catholicism, which said that justification was on the basis of renewal. That is not what I am saying here. I am saying that "resurrection with Christ" - renewal, if you will - is the declaration of remission, the pronouncement of righteous upon the baptized one. Moreover, there can be no progressive justification - you are either resurrected, or you are not.) This, incidentally, is why Paul begins his main justification argument in Galatians by referring to their experience of the Spirit (Gal. 3.1-5). Even more strikingly: Jesus' redemptive work on the cross was "so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Gal. 3.13-14; cf. Acts 15.8: God bears witness to His acceptance of believers through the gift of the Holy Spirit). Resurrection with Christ is God's new covenant way of declaring His people righteous, and (normally) that takes place officially in baptism, which is fundamentally union with Christ.

tim gallant creative © 2006