What did Paul mean by denying he was sent to baptize?

Today, April 1, we start our reading of 1 Corinthians.  In Chapter 1, verse 17, Paul says,  “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

John Piper’s sermon titled, “Christ Did Not Send Me to Baptize”-

It is surprising to me that Paul would say, “Christ did not send me to baptize,” when, in fact, one of the last things Jesus said to his disciples was, “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In order to understand what Paul meant by denying he was sent to baptize, we need to answer four questions:

  1. Did Paul oppose baptism or try to discourage converts from being baptized?
  2. Why did Paul not make it a practice to baptize all his new converts?
  3. What was the goal of Paul’s mission?
  4. What does all this imply about our view of baptism?

Did Paul Oppose or Discourage Baptism?

1) First, then, did Paul oppose baptism or try to discourage converts from being baptized? From Paul’s other letters, as well as from what we can see in the book of Acts the answer is, No. On the contrary Paul assumed that all the believers he wrote to were baptized, and he based important parts of his teaching upon this common experience of all the believers. For example, in Romans 6:3 Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Here Paul assumes that all believers have experienced baptism and that they have been instructed about its meaning. Another example is Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 2, verse 12, when he says to all the Christians, “You were buried with Christ in baptism in which you were also raised through faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead.” Here again Paul does not treat baptism as an option that some believers choose and others don’t. He assumes that this was the act by which people expressed their faith and entered into salvation. (I should mention in passing that the phrase “through faith” in Colossians 2:12 is one of the main reasons I practice believer’s baptism and not infant baptism.) It appears, therefore, from Paul’s letters that he did not oppose but approved baptism and based some of his teaching on it.

The same thing turns up in the book of Acts which records Paul’s missionary work. First of all, Paul himself was baptized after his conversion. Acts 9:18 says: “Paul regained his sight; then he rose and was baptized and took food and was strengthened.” The several incidents from Paul’s missionary journeys show that Paul did not discourage his converts from being baptized, but on the contrary encouraged them. In Acts 16 Paul preaches in Philippi, and verses 14 and 15 describe what happened to a woman named Lydia: “The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul, and she was baptized and also her household.” The same chapter records how Paul was soon thrown into prison in Philippi and how there was an earthquake that opened the doors and gave Paul and Silas an occasion to lead the jailer to Christ right there in the middle of the night. Listen to the way it happened (verses 30–33): “‘Men, what must I do to be saved?’ (the jailer said). And they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And the jailer took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds and was baptized at once with all his family.” This event shows that Paul believed quite strongly in seeing that his converts were baptized—and quickly too.

But could it be that the church Paul started in Corinth was different, and that’s why Paul wrote them and said, “I baptized hardly any of you”? In Acts 18:11 we learn that Paul worked in Corinth about a year and a half, and verse 8 says, “Many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. So Corinth was not different from all the other places Paul went: his converts were always baptized.

But the interesting thing in Acts is that never do we read that Paul himself did the baptizing. This fits with what he tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:14, namely, that he baptized only a handful of his many converts. He is thankful that he did not make a practice of baptizing his converts.

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