Household Baptism in Acts 16

Hear now the covenant promises taken from Acts 2:39; Gen. 17:7; Acts 16:31

For to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house.

Today, not only are we going to have some baptisms with adults and children, we are also going to talk about Acts 16, the only chapter in the Bible that has two household baptisms. They are in 16:14–16, and vv. 31–34 if you want to look at them in your Bibles.

So I want to talk about baptism today in terms of these household baptisms.

Here goes.

When we talk about a Roman household (like the households in Acts), we are not talking about a nuclear American family—mom, dad, kids, dog. We are talking about a big group of people that included servants and slaves (and their children), whatever relatives or friends were seeking patronage from the master of the house, and maybe some scribes if he or she was really rich. You could think of something a bit like Downton Abbey.

The jailer in Acts 16 probably was not in the “very rich” category, but Lydia the purple dealer may have been, and the centurion back in Acts 10–11 may have been also.

Households functioned together like a single unit as much possible, almost like a small business.

They also tended to worship the same god or gods. It wasn’t always the case, but usually if the master of the house decided that they were going to stop worshipping Zeus so much, and instead worship a new god, the whole house would switch their allegiance with him. This is well-documented.[1]

We tend to focus on whether or not there were babies or little children there, which there probably were given the size of households—but maybe not.

What’s far more important, though, is the fact that when a head of house was initiated into a new religion, it was totally normal for all his children, servants, and clients living in the house to be initiated as well—and that seems to be what the early Christians did as well.

This kind of conversion was certainly based in part on the fact that someone they trusted, loved, and depended on had converted, BUT what we sometimes forget is that this is not that much different what most conversions are like still, today.

Most of us became Christians because of the influence of our parents, or our friends, or someone we really look up to, or even just because we liked a girl or boy who went to a particular church so we decided to go and wound up staying. This is the norm. It’s how God leads most people to Christ—through normal, ordinary means.

It is the other kind of conversion—when you don’t know anyone who is a believer—that is the great exception.

The Bible doesn’t try to hide this fact at all, so at the end of Acts 16:34 it says, the Jailer and his whole household rejoiced together, “that he had believed in God.”

In other words, they all rejoiced that he believed, because as a result of his faith, they all became Christians too.

This is why it’s so strange to argue about how many babies were there, because in these passages it’s not just babies who become part of the faithful because the someone else decided to follow Christ: the entire household joins the covenant through baptism.

 

NOW this is exactly how it worked in the Old Testament too. In Genesis 17, when God gives Abraham the covenant sign of circumcision, a lot of people know that God tells Abraham to circumcise his sons on the eighth day—but it goes way beyond that. In v. 12 God says,

“Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.”

Whoa! That means that if you were an Egyptian slave and a Jewish guy bought you, you became a Jew and got circumcised. It means that circumcision, which Paul calls in Romans 4:11 the sign of faith and the seal of righteousness, was given to you just because you became part of a Jewish household.

All of a sudden, you were—in no uncertain terms—a Jew, a member of God’s covenant, heir to all the blessings and promises therein.

And it was a great blessing, because it meant that these people now followed and worshiped the true God.

And it was also a great responsibility for the master of the house, because he was under obligation from God to make sure that everyone in his household believed, trusted, and understood who God was, and what it means to follow him.

 

Here’s a great little piece of history: Even in slavery in the Americas—which was incredibly sad, and where Christian men and women treated other people shamefully—you can demonstrate that in places where the church required masters to baptize their slaves, on the whole it meant that the slaves were treated better than the slaves in places where they weren’t required to get baptized.

Baptized slaves had more rights, they were more often educated, more often given Sunday off just like everyone else, more often bought their way out of slavery, more often married in a church, which means that they were treated more like children of God, and human beings.[2]

Now I thank God that evil institution is over in America.

The reason for this historical fact is that just like it was for Abraham and circumcision, so it is that when Christians baptize someone who is baby, or a legal minor, or just a member of our house, we bring them into God’s covenant people, and we now have responsibility to treat, educate, and love that person as a brother or sister in Christ.

Of course once you become a member of the covenant, however that happens, it has to become your own faith.

Baptism is a seal of our good standing before God—it is God’s own seal that he stamps on you through word and water—

AND unless your baptism is joined with Faith and genuine Love for Christ and his people, then it is as useless as a seal on a blank letter. A blank letter will do you no good before God, and will only make it more tragic that you, who had all the benefits of Christ available to you, did not trust and love him. And there will be terrible consequences of eternal separation from God.

However, if the seal of your baptism encloses a letter of faith, where the first line says, “I trust in Jesus as my Lord and Savior,” and it has all sorts of accounts of the ways God watched you share your love and faith with others, then when he opens up that letter he will look at you and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Now come, enter into my rest.” And that will be an eternity of peace, joy, and love.

I pray it for everyone here, and especially for those who are being baptized today.

Amen.

 

[1] E.A. Judge, et al.

[2] Stark, Bearing False Witness.