Question:

Good morning,

First, I would like to say thank you for your work and effort in spreading the gospel. I really enjoy reading things from your site.

I'm writing about baptism. I once wrote a pastor about baptism. I was having difficulty believing it was necessary for salvation. I don't know why. I guess it was the way I grew up. I now firmly believe in baptism for remission of sins along with faith believing in Christ, confessing, and true repentance.

However there is one verse that really stumps me. The pastor pointed out this verse in saying baptism is not "necessary" for salvation: I Corinthians 1:17 when Paul said God did not send me to baptize but to preach the good news (paraphrased). Why would Paul had said this? Was he just so frustrated with the new believers? I don't know. The pastor said if baptism was necessary then "Paul would be saying God did not send me to save." This mail was sent a fews years ago, and I still can not clear my mind of it. I do understand the context. I believe Paul was simply saying, don't follow me, follow Christ. Any thoughts?


Answer:

I Corinthians 1:17 cannot be understood without reading I Corinthians 1:14-16 where you will quickly see that Paul did baptize people. Because of these schisms Paul finds it a blessing that he had not personally baptized very many in Corinth. He could think of only Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanas’ household. Paul feared that if there were more it might have lend credence to the idea that he had personal disciples among the Corinthians.

There are groups who attempt to use these verses to claim that baptism is unessential because Paul was thankful that he had not baptized people in Corinth. Clearly such a contention is contrary to the context of the passage. Paul had baptized several and his other writings, such as Romans 6:3-7 and Galatians 3:26-27 make it clear that Paul saw baptism as essential for salvation. What Paul was concerned about was the possibility of some twisting the events into baptisms into Paul instead of baptisms into Christ.

I Corinthians 1:17 is frequently misread as people ignore the ellipses present in this statement. "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect" (I Corinthians 1:17). 

An ellipse takes place when an essential word or phrase is left out of a statement. You can determine from the statement that the word was meant to be there, but the very fact that it was left out causes the listener to focus on the missing part. It engages the mind of the listener to participate in the discussion by supplying the missing word.

 A common style of ellipses in Greek is of a “not ... but” construction, where both the “not” and the “but” modify a shared verb. Often the shared verb does not appear after the “but,” but is implied as an ellipse. This type of sentence construction is idiomatic in Greek. When you see it, you should read it as “not only ... but also.” The idiom stresses that what comes after the “but” is considered to be far more important than what comes after the “not.”

An example of this construction is found in I Peter 3:3-4. The common verb is “let be.” Some translations supply the missing words. Peter is not saying that styling your hair, wearing jewelry, or dressing up is forbidden. He is saying that they aren’t very important when compared to dressing up the spirit with gentleness and quietness. The latter make a far greater impact on beauty, especially in God’s eyes, than outward adornments.

In the case of I Corinthians 1:17 the common verb is “did send.” Paul did not claim that he wasn’t supposed to baptize. To claim that is to contradict what he just stated in the verses prior. What Paul is saying is that his duty to Christ was far broader than just baptizing people. He had the more important job of preaching the gospel, so he focused on this and let others do most of the baptizing.

Paul is not disparaging baptism but talking about the focus of his mission for Christ. Paul is stating that his primary purpose was not to just baptize people. His chief mission was to teach the gospel. Such teaching obviously leads baptism (Acts 2:40-41; 18:4, 8). But Paul’s mission was to preach the gospel in a simple, straightforward manner so that the focus of the message remained on Christ’s death.

It appears that Paul, like Peter in Acts 10:48, had others do the actual baptisms while he continued to preach.