When approaching this passage from Acts, there are two questions that we need to ask by way of understanding the grammatical structure: 1, what is the central idea of the verse, and 2, what is implied about this central idea?
For context, we will note that Saul has just been struck blind by God, heard Jesus’ voice, and been sent a Christian man named Ananias to explain why this has happened to him. Previous to being struck blind Saul was a hater and persecutor of Christians, now he is completely incapacitated.
In the first place we may note that the structure of the verse is chiastic. It is arranged as follows:
The verbs are put in bold to underscore the chiastic form: participle, imperative, imperative, participle.
The purpose of a chiasm in ancient thought is to place the main idea or point to be made at the center of the construction. In Western thought we often emphasize a point by placing it at the beginning of an argument (deductive method) or at the end of the argument as the natural conclusion of the stated arguments (inductive method). The ancient world employed these methods as well, however they had a third method of ordering thought and this was the chiasm. In this method central ideas are place almost geometrically in the center of the argument, making them the “center of gravity” if you will. The chiasm then naturally draws attention to this central point.
This Acts 22:16 Ananias’ instruction to Saul is stated chiastically, so our attention should be drawn to the center of the structure. The center of this chiasm is the compound imperative:
Our attention is now drawn to the conjunction και. This construction is fairly common in scripture; two imperatives are linked by και form a single idea. This is in contrast to English grammar where the conjunction “and” could be substituted with a comma. The και is taking two ideas and making them into one. This is seen elsewhere in scripture. In John 1:46 Nathanael asks Philip “can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip replies “Come and see.” In Greek these are two imperatives linked by a kai to form a single idea of coming “for the purpose of seeing.”
There are a wealth of examples in the NT of an imperative being linked to a future indicative by και. Grammarian Daniel Wallace makes the case that these constructions all carry the implication of a conditional statement (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 1996, p.490). One example would be Matthew 7:7 where Jesus says aiteite kai doyhsetai umin (“ask and it will be given to you”). The implication is that “if you ask then you will receive.” Wallace points out that this holds true with imperative + και + future indicative, but not necessarily imperative + και + imperative constructions. This means that we should not necessarily translate the imperatives in Acts 22:16 as “if you are baptized then you will wash away your sins.” Although the possibility remains open for the Greek to be used in this way, it cannot be argued with certainty.
The purpose of the above paragraph is to point to the fact that in Greek και is not used simply as a comma that builds one idea upon another in a linear fashion. If we make the mistake of associating the use of και with our use of “and” then we may think that the commands of Acts 22:16 is a composition of two ideas, each with their proper imperative accompanied by a participle, translated something like the following:
“Having arisen, be baptized, and (or *pause*) calling on God’s name, wash away your sins.”
But this rendition of the text fails to appreciate two things that we have demonstrated above:
- The chiastic structure indicates that the participles are both ancillary to, and explanatory of, the central compound command by virtue of their placement at the beginning and end of the structure.
- The two imperatives are indeed a compound idea, as reinforced by the και conjunction between them following NT Greek precedent, and also by the synonymous definition of the two verbs (baptizw means “to wash”).
Therefore a ‘conceptual’ translation of this text is as follows:
“What now remains for you? Having gotten up, and while calling on His name, Be baptized/wash away your sins.”
(It may also be noted that the form απολουσαι could be an aorist infinitive, in which case the translation of the command would be: “Having gotten up, be baptized even to wash away your sins, calling on his name.” But we will not press the point.)
This understanding of baptism being linked to the washing of sins is theologically consistent with the context and flow of the narrative. It is demonstrated that Saul is incapable of pleasing God as he is bound and determined to persecute God’s Son Jesus. He must be knocked off his horse, struck blind, led to wherever he must god, be told by Ananias what happened and why, be told what lies before him for the rest of his life, he must be healed, be washed and be made into what God wants him to be. It is therefore consistent that the washing of his sins does not follow is own calling upon God’s name, but of the washing which God himself does through the hand of Ananias as he invokes the Trinitarian formula in baptism. The ‘getting up’ and the ‘calling on God’s name’ (stated in the participles) are the two actions which Saul himself does, and so they are appropriately place on the chiastic periphery of the central command which is actually a command to submit to God’s own washing in baptism. Lest Saul get the impression that his righteousness comes from his own efforts and ability to call upon God, God has humbled him to the utmost and unilaterally delivered to him the gift of salvation in baptism