“…and wash away thy sins…”
This verse in its entirety is often used to show that baptism saves by washing away sins. The problem, of course, is that salvation is by grace through faith, plus nothing (not even baptism). So, the question becomes, “What did Paul mean by this?”
The context, as always, provides several clues. The verse comes in the middle of Paul’s testimony to the Sanhedrin after his arrest for allegedly fomenting rebellion against the Law. His audience, therefore, contains the religious leadership of Israel, who would be viewing this testimony from a well-educated and highly obedient Jewish perspective.
For the Law-observing Jew, scrupulous attendance to the commands to remain ceremonially clean (e.g., Lev. 15:5-8) was paramount. Quite often, part of the cleansing process was to wash one’s self in water. This involved a full-body bath, so that no part of the person was left “unclean.”
Additionally, when priests first began their ministry at the Tabernacle or Temple, they would wash all over before putting on their priestly garments as a sign of their purification for service to the Lord (Exo. 29:4-5). Once in the priesthood, the priest would daily need to wash his hands and feet before starting his service, indicating his ongoing purifying for service (Lev. 30:17-21).
According to the rabbinical rules of Mikveh (ritual washing) based on the preceding laws, Jewish custom among the strictest Israelites required weekly or even daily immersion in water to ensure ritual purity (see Wikipedia article on “Mikveh”). Consequently, ritual immersion for purification was considered a routine practice during the first century. It may also explain Jesus’ reason for being baptized by John; it was done to “fulfill all righteousness,” preparing Him for the ministry upon which He was about to embark (Matt. 3:13-17).
This explains why nearly all Jews came to John the Baptist for immersion. It also helps explain why John told those who came to him for baptism that they were to “bring forth works meet for repentance” (see Matthew 3). The expectation, then, was that those who came to be baptized were confessing their sins and repenting of them, so that the baptism was the means to provide ritual cleansing as outward evidence of an inward spiritual cleaning. Such spiritual cleansing would be expected to produce works “meet” (or appropriate) for the new life they were professing.
This idea carries over to Christianity, as seen in Acts 26:20, in which Paul talks about his converts, both Jewish and Gentile, who repented, turned to God and did “works meet for repentance.” This parallel in the repentance and result suggests that, since baptism always followed conversion in Acts, baptism would have been seen as a parallel to the Jewish ritual cleansing performed by John.
Which brings us back to Paul and Acts 22:16. Paul was a Christian by the time he met Ananias, as seen in Ananias referring to him as “Brother Saul” in verse 13. Ananias tells Saul that he has been chosen by God to be a witness to all men, both Jews and Gentiles (verses 14-15), and then says, “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”
In the light of the preceding, it can be argued that Ananias, a Jew, in dealing with this new Jewish convert from the Sanhedrin, would show him the urgency of his need to perform the ritual cleansing necessary to show his inward spiritual cleansing (salvation), and make him clean for his service to the Lord. Paul would certainly have seen this necessity, and consequently acted upon it, not because the baptism made him spiritually clean (i.e., born again), but outwardly clean and ready to serve.
Other connections to NT writings may add to the force of this conclusion. First, Peter refers to his Jewish Christian readers as “a royal priesthood,” which would imply they had needed a ritual bath in preparation for their service as priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9). Paul, in Romans 6, argues that believers have been buried and resurrected with Christ through baptism, and should now live in the newness of that life, implying a ritual cleansing by baptism which prepares the believer for his new life and service in Christ.
To conclude, it appears baptism as an ordinance of the local church is a continuation of the immersive bathing performed by observant Jews to make themselves ritually clean and ready for service and holy living. John’s baptism, which to the Jews was a ritual bath, was accepted as baptism into the first church by Christ and His disciples, and later by the apostles in Acts, thus providing the connection between the Jewish practice and the Christian ordinance. It is this connection that provides, I believe, the correct interpretation of Acts 22:16. Paul was exhorted to be baptized, not to be saved, but to be ritually purified for the ministry the Lord had for him.
We should, as Gentile Christians, also expand our view of baptism to include this. We know that baptism is our first act of obedience after salvation, our public testimony of our identification with Christ and His death, burial and resurrection. Perhaps it also is meant to symbolize a cleansing or washing to now be His priests, ministers and servants in general.