A Study of Acts 10:47-48

“Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.”
(Acts 10:47-48)

Our text stands in inseparable connection with that memorable event of the Gentiles being called by the grace of God to a saving knowledge of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. The Holy Ghost had moved prophets to predict this hundreds of years before the event took place; particularly the prophet Isaiah, whose language we will read, as we shall see in the connection of our text, its exact fulfilment. “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” (Is. 43. 19.) The wilderness here sets forth the Gentiles, and the desert the heathen, in their fallen state. “The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls; because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen. This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise.” (Is. 43. 20, 21).

When the Lord’s time came for the middle wall of partition to be broken down between the Jew and the Gentile, He put His fear into the heart of Cornelius, who was by nation and by nature a Gentile. This man is particularly spoken of in connection with our text. “There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house.” The grace and the Spirit of God had evidently taken possession of his heart and soul, and he “prayed to God alway,” that he might be led and directed by Him. “He saw in a vision, about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. And when he looked on him he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.” (Acts 10. 14.)

Real heartfelt prayer never fails to be regarded by heaven. “He will regard the prayer of the destitute.” The Lord heard the cry of Cornelius and answered his prayer and directed him to send men to Joppa, and inquire at such a man’s house for Simon Peter, and to bring him into his house to blow the silver trumpet of the everlasting gospel to Gentile sinners. The men then set off and meanwhile God, who works “all things after the counsel of his own will,” was preparing Peter to receive these messengers. He had been about his master’s business; he returned to his lodgings, and ascended to the top of the house, where he often resorted for prayer and meditation. “And he became very hungry, and would have eaten; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance.” Then he saw descending from heaven a vessel “as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners,” and in it were all manner of four-footed beasts of the field, fowls of the air, and creeping things; and a voice was heard saying, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” This sheet was let down from heaven three times, and taken up again.

What is to be understood by this? This sheet is a type of the covenant of divine grace that is “ordered in all things and sure.” All the election of grace, Jew and Gentile, we have here represented as being in the covenant safe and secure. Be it observed, they all came down from heaven in the sheet; not a single creature got out. O no! God’s elect can never get out of His heart; never get out of the finished salvation of Jesus Christ; never perish. And there is another memorable thing, and that is, that none were put in. Universal charity can never put a soul into the covenant of grace, can never bind up one in the bundle of life who has not been bound there by the threefold cord of a triune Jehovah.

I once made these very remarks in Halifax, about 20 years ago. There was a lady present, and she said, “I believed it to be true; but I thought I had no mark and no evidence of being one of these creatures in the covenant;” and she went home greatly bowed down in her soul. She then had three restless nights and days. Her husband wanted to know what was the matter, and she could not tell him. The servants also wondered what was the matter with their mistress, going about as she was with tears trickling down her cheeks, and sighing and groaning in her soul. She went to bed the third night with this important subject on her mind, and she said, “I reasoned in the following manner: ‘What am I? A poor, sinful, guilty, vile creature? What have I done ever to merit God’s mercy and favour? Nothing at all; and if He were to mark my iniquity, and send me to hell, He would be just right.’ I then felt a breaking in my spirit, a humiliating feeling of my own unworthiness; tears trickled down my cheeks, and I cried, ‘Dear Lord, I am the clay, and Thou art the potter; I deserve nothing but damnation; and if Thou shouldst save my soul, if I am in this sheet, it is all of Thy rich, sovereign grace.’ ” She afterwards sent for me, and said, “The love of God was shed abroad in my soul; I had the testimony from the Lord that I was indeed in this sheet, and I rejoiced and triumphed in the God of my salvation, till nature overcame me, and I fell asleep. When I awoke in the morning, it was with the consciousness that I was in the sheet, in the covenant.” Glory was in her soul, and glory upon her countenance. Her husband and her family wondered at what had taken place, for she went about her family affairs singing the song of free, everlasting grace.

Now, while Peter was thinking of this vision, and wondering what it could mean, the Lord said, “Get thee down; there are certain persons waiting for thee at the door.” He then went down, and inquired whence the persons came, and what was their errand. They rehearsed the circumstances to him, and he went with them, doubting not that God’s hand was in it. When he arrived at the house, Cornelius came out, received him with a glad heart, and fell down, and would have adored him; but, says Peter, “No, no; I am a sinful man, having like passions with yourself; worship not me, but my Master.” He then went into the house, and inquired wherefore he was sent.

There is one remark here that we may notice by the way. When he went into the house, the family and friends were all ready waiting to receive him and to bear what God would say to them. How well it looks on the Lord’s Day morning to see people gathered together, like Cornelius and his household, to hear the word of the Lord. When Cornelius had stated all the circumstances of the case, Peter said, “I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” Peter had up to this period believed that God respected the Jew in preference to the Gentile. Now he saw that this was done away with. He did not mean to say that fearing God and working righteousness were the grounds of our acceptance. O no! We are accepted in the beloved; our fearing God and working righteousness are fruits and effects of that enjoyed in the soul.

Peter now proceeds to blow the jubilee trumpet of a free-grace salvation among the Gentiles, preaches the glory of Christ, His solemn death for the sins of His people, and His resurrection from the dead. He exalts the sin-atoning Lamb; and the word that went forth from his lips was carried by the power of the Holy Ghost into the heart of Cornelius, and of his household, and his friends; the word had free course and was glorified. Peter and the brethren saw that the word was received with joy and gladness, probably from the tears that ran down their cheeks, and the glow of animation that was perceivable on their countenances. Peter saw that there was the dew of heaven, the savour of life, and the power of divine truth felt in the souls of the people; and seeing this he exclaims, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.”

These are the circumstances connected with the important words of our text. We have here two main things:

I. The characters who have a right to the ordinance of baptism.

II. The command that is given.

I. Who are they that have a right to the ordinance, that are commanded to be baptized? If we refer to John’s baptism, none were admitted to that ordinance (save the Lord of life and glory) but such as were penitent. When the seed of Abraham came and desired to be baptized by John, and gave no evidence of repentance, he said, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruits meet for repentance.” None have a right to the ordinance of baptism but those who know what it is to have a godly sorrow for sin. These Gentile sinners had repentance granted unto them, for it is said concerning them that the apostles “Glorfied God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Are we penitent, friends? Do we know what godly sorrow for sin is? that repentance that needs not to be repented of? If we do, the grace of God is in our heart; the privileges of God’s house are our own. But if we are strangers to this, the command of God does not come upon us.

With regard to those who have a right to the ordinance of baptism, look at the commission given by our Lord to His disciples, before His ascension to glory, and we shall there find who they are to whom the Lord directed His disciples to administer baptism. The evangelist Matthew renders the commission as follows: “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” This is a solemn and great truth. O what a help have I found this truth to be to my soul, that my Lord and Master has all power in heaven and in earth! “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” So then, they that have a right to the ordinance of baptism, and are commanded to be baptized, are such as are taught of God. God’s ministers are appointed to teach sinners as God guides and directs; and as the Lord honours their teaching, and makes them wise unto salvation by faith in the Redeemer, they are to be baptized in the name of the Saviour. Advocates for infant sprinkling reverse the Master’s order; they say, “Baptize them in their infancy, and teach them afterwards.” This is not the true state of the case. None have a scriptural right to the ordinance but such as are taught of God. “It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man, therefore, that hath heard and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.” It is the soul that has fled for refuge to the Redeemer, that has been cleansed by the blood that flowed from Emmanuel’s wounded side, that has the privileges of the ordinances of God’s house. The evangelist Mark renders the commission in the following memorable language: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Why is the gospel to be preached in all the world and to every creature? Because God’s elect are scattered abroad amongst the various nations of the earth; and the Lord has ordained the the ingathering of His elect by the ministration of His word. Paul preached to Jews and Gentiles, “and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed”; for “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned. No unbeliever has a right to the ordinance; the command does not go to them; it commands them that believe to be baptized, and to show their love and attachment to Christ by bowing to His sceptre.

The apostles of Christ thoroughly understood their Master’s commission, and acted upon it. Thus on the day of Pentecost, when Peter stood up and preached to the people, the word dropped from Peter’s mouth, and was carried by the Holy Ghost into the heart and conscience of guilty sinners. Hence it is said that they were pricked to the heart; conviction was wrought by the Spirit oi God, and they cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” As Peter preached, in that memorable sermon, Jesus Christ and Him crucified and the resurrection from the dead, the power of God attended the word not only to convince, but to conquer and to edify; for it is said, they that gladly received His word were baptized.” Mark it; they received the word of free, finished salvation with joy and gladness. Christ was present to their souls; the love of Christ was shed abroad in their hearts, and they were baptized, and the same day were added to the church. We see then who are commanded to be baptized.

Philip preached the gospel to the Samaritans: “And when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” We read of the Ethiopian eunuch; “What doth hinder me to be baptized?” “If thou believest,” says Peter, “with all thine heart, thou mayest.” And the eunuch said, ‘I do believe.’ I believe in the name of Jesus Christ; I feel that I love him, and I like to honour Him and show forth His praise, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?’ On a confession of His faith He was baptized in the name of the Lord. It is a great mercy to come under that character!

We read that there were households baptized; and of the gaoler [jailer] it is said, “He believed in God with all his house;” but there is no account of there being infants in any of the households that were baptized in the apostolic age. Our friends, however, who vindicate infant sprinkling, say they suppose there were infants in those households. I never had yet, and I hope I never shall have an article in my creed, a doctrine in my theory, that is based on supposition. We must have a “Thus saith the Lord” for our faith, and the example of Christ and His apostles for our practice, or our faith is not sound, and our practice is not according to godliness.

Two men were disputing on the ordinance of baptism; one of them contended that the children of believing parents had a right to the ordinance in preference to others, and the other contended that all children should be baptized alike. A third person who listened attentively to the arguments on both sides, said at length, “It appears to me that you miss one very important principle in the debate.” “What is that?” they said. “Why, the sign of the cross upon the forehead,” alluding to the practice of the Church of England. Both disputants said, and with some warmth, “Where do you find the sign of the cross mentioned in Scripture?” “Well,” said he, “You show me the chapter and verse where you find infant sprinkling, and in the very next to that you will find the sign of the cross.” The two men looked at one another with surprise, for they could find neither chapter nor verse for sprinkling infants, and the man came off victorious. “To the law and to the testimony; and if they speak not according to this, it is because there is no light in them.” It may be said, “Have there not been good and gracious men advocates for infant baptism?” I believe there have and there are some to this day. But we are to follow great and good men only so far as they follow Christ and His apostles. When we see a great man, be he churchman or dissenter, going contrary to the Scriptures, let us never follow him a yard; let us follow the Master, and act according to His practice and the practice of primitive Christians. “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?”

Again, None have a right to the ordinance of baptism unless they are made partakers of the Holy Ghost. Every elect vessel of mercy in regeneration is made a partaker of the Holy Ghost: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you?” What are the marks and evidences of those that have the Holy Ghost? If we have the Holy Ghost dwelling and working in us, and teaching us, we see and feel our lost, ruined, helpless state and condition. Now as this is an evidence; my conscience bears me witness that I have this evidence of being a partaker of the Holy Ghost, and have had it for the last forty years. Have you got this evidence? There is another evidence. If we are saved, it must be owing to the covenant engagements of Christ, through the incarnation of Christ who came into the world to save the chief of sinners, through the justifying righteousness of Christ, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, through the resurrection of Christ who was “delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification,” through the ascension of Christ, and by virtue of our union to Christ, pleading our cause above. Now, we bring one portion of God’s word to crown these remarks: “Jesus is able to save to the uttermost.” Do you believe it? Is it precious to your souls? “Able to save to the very uttermost all that come unto God by him.” Lost, to be saved; naked, to be clothed; filthy, to be washed in His blood; weak, to be strengthened; ignorant, to be instructed; – “able to save to the very uttermost all that come unto God by him, seeing that he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” Now every man (I do not care to what sect, or party, or denomination he belongs) who is a partaker of the Holy Ghost, is made to cleave to the Person of Christ, and to the efficacy of His blood and righteousness, with a full purpose of heart, with Paul’s determination to know nothing but “Christ, and him crucified.” Where these feelings are, the Holy Ghost has produced them. “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?”

Some years ago our church was in a great difficulty about receiving a young girl sixteen years of age, who had been brought up amongst us. Her father was a member, and she had been in a Sunday school. She intimated to her friends what was on her mind; but the visitors who waited upon her did not give her any encouragement, knowing the slippery path of youth, especially in some of the northern districts, where some who had come into church from the Sunday school brought disgrace and reproach upon the cause of religion. We tried to put her off and asked her to wait a year or two and see how things went on. She told us what she felt of her own sinfullness and wickedness and of her need of Jesus Christ. When I talked to her about being put off, she said, “Well, parson,” (for that is what they generally call me,) “if you think I have not received the Holy Ghost, to make me acquainted with my sin and my need of Jesus Christ, you may put me back; but if you think I have been made a partaker of the Holy Ghost, and am taught by Him, as I trust I am, then does it not say, ‘Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” The church was completely locked fast; the father wept; and we all said, with one voice, “Jane must be baptized.” Ah! where the Holy Ghost dwells in the heart, who can forbid water, that they should not be baptized?

II. Now, let me say a word as to the command itself. “And he commanded that they should be baptized in the name of the Lord.” The command was given by Peter; but it is the command of the Master; Peter and his brethren received it from Christ Jesus, the great Head of the church, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. So the Lord speaks from the pulpit tonight by His ministering servant, commanding every soul who has received the Holy Ghost, to come forward, if he has not already done so, and be baptized in the name of the Lord. O that the Lord would carry the command home into some of your hearts! There are some individuals among you who, I believe, love the Lord Jesus Christ, and see and feel your need of him and His salvation. Have all my friends who love my Lord and Master obeyed his command? Have you all obeyed it? It is just the same at home. Last September I baptized an old friend of mine whom I had known forty years, in his seventy first year; and the dear man of God was under the necessity of coming forward because he could stay no longer. O that the Lord would lay this with a solemn weight upon the consciences of such as love Him! The Saviour says to them, “If ye love me, keep my commandments; thus shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye do whatsoever I command you…… If I am your Lord and Master, where is your fear, and reverence, and honour of me, if you live in disobedience to my command?” O Lord, may Thy Spirit come with power into the minds of these Thy children, and may they be led to put on Christ by an open profession of His name by baptism!

What is meant by being baptized? “And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.” Baptism, when applied to Christ, the great Head of the church, means His solemn and awful sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane, and on Calvary’s cross. Hear His language: “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” He alludes to His overwhelming sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross of Calvary, when His garment, or vesture, was dipped in His own blood. Dr. Watts sings,

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, thine,
And bathed in its own blood,
While all exposed to wrath divine,
The glorious Sufferer stood.

And shall we be ashamed to be baptized in water, when we take a view of our Master being baptized for our sins in His own blood?

Again, baptism, in reference to Christ, sets forth His death and burial. We are said to be buried with Christ by baptism, and to be baptized into His death. When Jesus had died for our sins, His body was taken down from the cross, and laid in the sepulchre; and the angel said, “Come, see the place where the Lord lay,” pointing to the grave and the tomb. Now I can say to this congregation typically, “Come, see the place where the Lord lay,” (pointing to the baptistry.) The burial of Christ, then, is set forth by this ordinance, and also the resurrection of Christ from the dead: “If ye, then, be risen with Christ;” “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept.”

The ordinance of baptism, in reference to the church of God, sets forth something of an experimental character very strikingly. In the first place, as baptism is a burial, it is not according to things to bury anyone until he is dead. No living person is put into the grave and buried. In like manner, no sinner has a right to the ordinance of baptism until he is dead. I speak not of the death of the body. Of what death, then, do I speak? That death of which the apostle speaks: “I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” It is the soul that is dead to the law, dead to all hope of salvation and justification by works of righteousness. Are you dead, my friends? If you are not dead in this sense, you have no right to the ordinances of God’s house; the command does not belong to you.

About eighteen years ago, when I was labouring amongst you here. I met an aged pilgrim in a narrow passage, quite unexpectedly; and having shaken hands with rne, he said, “I hear you are going to baptize before you leave the town.” “Yes,” said I, “I am; on Thursday night.” Then, in a rather sharp and hurried manner, he said, “Well, Sir, are you going to baptize the dead or the living?” The question came to me in a rather novel form, and I was for the moment at a loss for an answer. After a short pause, however, I saw the old man’s design; and I said, “I hope I am going to baptize both the living and the dead. They are dead to all hope of saving themselves by works of righteousness; they are alive to God by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” “Go on, Kershaw,” said the old man, baptize dead and living, and God will bless you.”

If we are dead and living in this sense, the ordinances of baptism and all the privileges of God’s house belong to us. In the believer being baptized, he shows to the world and the church that he is dead to the world’s follies and vanities, dead to all hope of saving himself; that his spiritual life is hid with Christ in God; and that he wishes to live the rest of his days to the honour of the great Jehovah, and to follow the Lamb whithersoever the Lamb goes. Christ, we read, went into the river Jordan, and was there baptized of John; and the believing soul wants to follow Him there; he wants to take up his cross, and follow the dear Redeemer through good report and through evil report.

Dare to defend his noble cause,
And yield obedience to his laws.

I was brought up an infant sprinkler, and I was very much prejudiced in favour of my own principles. I well remember the first time I saw the ordinance of baptism administered according to the word of God. The sermon had no effect upon my mind. I quibbled at all the man said; but when I saw him come out of the vestry, the persons to be baptized following him, and heard him speak a few words to them, and then saw him baptize them, the impression was made upon my mind, “This is the baptism of the Bible;” and I have thought so from that very moment up to this day. It is the way of the Master; it is the way of the apostles; it is the way of the church of God that walks in the ordinances of the Lord’s house as they have been delivered by our Lord and Master and by His servants.

Now, it may be that there is some living soul here who says, “I believe the ordinance is right, and that what the Scriptures say, and what you have been saying about it, is all right.” Then I say, if you have not been baptized, why do you not come forward and bow to the sceptre of King Jesus? You say, perhaps, “I have my reasons.” Well, what are they? “In the first place, I have seen and heard of several who have come forward and been baptized, and they have not worn well; they have fallen into sin, have disgraced their profession, and been a trouble to the church of God.” Now do not be offended at me for using Scripture language, and saying, “What is that to thee? follow thou me.” “Well,” you say, “I should not like to bring reproach upon the cause of God.” So far as there is a tender principle in your breast for God’s honour and glory, and for the purity of the doctrines and practices of God’s church and people, I revere it; but then, in the midst of your scruples there is another principle that we cannot for a moment countenance, – a distrust in the power and ability of the Lord to keep you. Venture into His hands, weak and helpless; rely on His promise that He will “keep the feet of his saints;” call upon His name, “Lord, help me to stand my ground, to persevere and endure unto the end…… Yea,” He says; “I will; I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” Venture into the Lord’s hands; give yourselves up in the first place to Jesus, and to the church of God in Jesus’ name. For Paul said, in reference to the church at Corinth, “They first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God.” This being done, my friends, let the believer bow to the Master’s sceptre by being baptized in His name, and thus obey the great command. Amen.

Preached at Zoar Chapel, Great Alie Street, London, 1853 – By John Kershaw

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