BAPTISM (IN WATER)
1. What does the word ‘baptism’ mean?
a. The Greek text
b. The Jewish background
2. The Baptisms of the New Testament
a. The Baptism of John
b. The Baptism of believers or Believer’s baptism
ii. What does baptism symbolise?
iii. What does baptism do?
iv. Which name?
v. Is belief in the resurrection necessary to be baptized?
When the first translators of the Scriptures began putting together an ‘authorised’ version for general use, they came upon two words that they chose to interpret into modern day usage rather than translate them directly.
The first is transliterated episkopos (Strongs Greek number 1985) which they represented by the word ‘bishop’, the then leaders of the established church, while the second was the group of words baptisma, baptizo and bapto (see below) which were deliberately transliterated rather than being translated.
Both ‘translations’ obscured the clear meaning of the Biblical narrative, the former misleading people into thinking that the function and office of the then existing bishops was somehow justified by Scripture and the latter allowing there to be a label put upon whatever customs were prevalent in the church regarding water ceremonies without the need for an explanation of the word or a call to return to the Biblical command.
Our English word ‘baptism’ had already come to label the infant sprinkling that was a day to day ceremony within the church, so Scriptural justification raised its profile and, to the ordinary man, prevented any accusation that such a ceremony was groundless.
But ‘baptism’ was never intended to be a religious word as it’s now become. To the ordinary and ancient ‘man in the
street’, the Greek words (and, indeed the words from other languages as well) were ordinary, everyday words that carried with them simple meanings. Certainly, they could and were applied to religious ceremonies but only in so far as they reflected the normal understanding and concept that lay behind them.
For us to correctly understand the intention of the original New Testament writers, then, we must put away our own understanding of the word as it’s come to us from Church use, forget modern day usage and reconsider the root meanings of the original Greek words and the context of the culture of their day.
In today’s Church, the two common extremes regarding ‘baptism’ are that, firstly, it refers to the sprinkling both of believers and of believers’ children (though what actually constitutes ‘belief’ is again open to question as to whether it’s the same type of ‘belief’ that the early Church demonstrated) and, secondly, to the full immersion of believers following conversion, including a ‘settling down’ time when the person converted can be seen to be holding fast to the faith and to have completed a baptismal course in which the rite of water baptism is explained.
But, when the early Church baptized believers, it wasn’t in accordance with either of these two procedures. Rather, baptism was such an integral part of everyday living (especially amongst the Jews) and the Gospel was so plainly taught that it was quite obvious why a new believer should be baptized immediately with no ‘cooling off’ period. The need for a course completion was also not relevant as converts understood plainly what they’d done through their decision to forsake their own way for the way of Jesus Christ and the ceremony was the natural conclusion to the conversion experience.
Neither will you find the mention of fonts or heated baptisteries! The early Church used the rivers, streams and lakes that were situated around cities and towns, getting rid of the need for specialised church equipment that would have squandered valuable resources.
Having said all this, though, it’s better that you understand what you’re doing first, before you’re baptized, than to baptize you immediately you come to acknowledge Christ and to learn afterwards its significance. The failure of the convert not knowing what he’s just done or how significant that is with regard to his entire life is the responsibility of the preacher, primarily, and it’s here that so often it falls down.
Therefore, these notes have been compiled to present you with an overview of what Christian baptism is about, beginning with a brief overview of the Greek words before we go on to look at the baptisms mentioned within the Bible’s pages and, finally, to answer some proposed questions.
These notes are necessarily brief and I have no intention of producing arguments against what passes a lot of the time today as ‘baptism’ in varying denominations even though, in my explanation of some of the concepts behind the words and Scriptures I will, inevitably, speak against some of the ceremony that is in current day usage.
My sole concern is to lay out before you a Scriptural foundation with, hopefully, some degree of simplicity.
1. What does the word ‘baptism’ mean?
a. The Greek text
It’s necessary to look at the original Greek text of the NT in order to understand the meaning of the group of words translated as ‘baptism’/baptize’. There are only three words variously translated but they bear witness to the true meaning of the words. I’ve used transliterations of the words throughout
Strongs Greek number 911
meaning ‘to cover wholly with a fluid’ or ‘to dip’. It’s used in Luke 16:24, John 13:26, Rev 19:13 where it’s translated ‘dip’ or ‘dipped’. It’s from this word that the following words for baptism were derived.
Notice here, though, John 13:26 where it’s said of Jesus that
‘...when He had dipped the morsel, He gave it to Judas...’
and Luke 16:24 where the rich man pleads with God that Lazarus should be sent to
‘...dip the end of his finger in water...’
In both places, the obvious translation is something resembling an immersion and not a sprinkling. Not one of us (I hope) would dare to suggest that, firstly, Jesus ‘sprinkled’ pieces of the morsel into the food dish before giving it to Judas or, secondly, that Lazarus was being asked to sprinkle his hand into water. Or would we? The same is true of Rev 19:13 where Jesus is
‘...clad in a robe dipped in blood’
the obvious meaning being ‘immersion’.
In all three of these occurrences, the substance that could provide the sprinkling has become the object of the verb whereas, if bapto meant sprinkling, it would have to be the subject. What I mean is that it could be said that the blood was sprinkled upon the robe but not that the robe was sprinkled upon the blood (Rev 19:13). Similarly, it would have to be said that water was sprinkled upon the finger (Luke 16:24) or that what was in the bowl was sprinkled upon the morsel (John 13:26) - the construction of the words make it necessary for it to be this way round - but this is not the way that it reads.
As Kittels notes, bapto conveys the meanings ‘to dip in or under’, ‘to dye’, ‘to immerse’, ‘to sink’, ‘to drown’, ‘to bathe’ or ‘wash’ - significantly ignoring any connotations that are normally associated with the word meaning ‘sprinkle’.
So, concluding, the obvious meaning of this root word is ‘immersion’ as shown by it’s usage in the passages quoted.
Strongs Greek number 907
The verb transliterated ‘to baptize’. It means ‘to make fully wet’, ‘to dip something into a fluid and take it out again’ , ‘to plunge’, ‘to overwhelm’ and ‘to dip’. It’s from the above word bapto that this word was developed and so came into Greek usage.
It’s used in many places throughout the NT and, quite obviously, there isn’t enough space to look at each occurrence of the word here (even if I was so inclined to do which I’m not!).
But two unusual occurrences are worth a mention where, on both occasions, the ‘rite’ of christian baptism is not in mind. Mark 7:4 states, concerning the Pharisees, that
‘...when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash (baptizo) themselves...’
(some translations use the word for ‘purify’ here instead of the word ‘wash’) and Luke 11:38 reads that
‘the Pharisee was astonished to see that He did not first wash before dinner’
The usage of the word baptizo here should not be glossed over. As will be seen below, the Jewish tradition for ceremonially cleansing both objects and people was to fully immerse them in certain bodies of water that were deemed suitable for use. Though we may see a possible interpretation of the word as being ‘sprinkling’ when we consider how we may, for instance, wash dishes (and if that’s the way you wash your plates then don’t ask me round for dinner, please!) or the way we allow water to cascade over our hands to wash them, the Jewish context of the usage prohibits us from doing so.
The implication of John 3:22-23 is also that the NT procedure was by immersion as it reads (my italics) that
‘...John also was baptising at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there...’
but the point needn’t be pressed.
The plain interpretation is that baptizo means the full immersion of an object into a liquid. As the majority of usages of this word are in the connection of New Testament and/or believer’s baptism, there’s very little way that we can conclude anything other than that the early Church understood ‘baptism’ to require the full immersion of a person in a body of water.
Strong’ Greek number 908
The noun ‘baptism’. It’s derived from ‘baptizo’ and has the same root meaning. It’s only ever translated ‘baptism’ and occurs 22 times in the NT.
We could look at each occurrence of the word and try to determine context but, unfortunately, most of the time, we would get out of the verse what we had already understood baptism to signify. However, on two occasions (Rom 6:4 and Col 2:12), the Bible speaks about being buried in baptism, a phrase that has very little significance if sprinkling is in mind but which is immediately explained if full immersion is meant to be understood.
Very simply, then, as we conclude our brief look at the Greek words, we should realise that we ‘baptize’ many things in everyday life - the word has religious connotations only because it’s ceased to be used as a regular everyday word and used exclusively for a rite of the Church.
For instance, we ‘baptize’ biscuits into a cup of tea or we ‘baptize’ fish in batter or oil. The word denotes just the putting of something into a liquid (or other medium) and then removing it - to be fully immersed into and then to be withdrawn.
b. The Jewish background
‘Baptism’ was a traditional Jewish practice at the time of Jesus, so the concept behind their practice is particularly relevant. More especially so when we realise that Jesus was a Jew - and living as one - aware of those things that were going on around Him and using whatever was relevant to get His message across.
It seems unfair to suppose that He took the rite of ‘baptism’, changed it into something that was procedurally totally different and then the NT writers, when they came to record His life and ministry, forgot to tell us the change that had taken place.
The type of baptism that took place amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day should be procedurally similar even if its significance and meaning are somewhat different as outlined in the passages in Paul’s letters and as hinted at by John the Baptist’s declaration (see below).
In the body of the Mishnah we have a record of the Jewish procedure for the immersion (baptism) of objects in water to render them ceremonially clean. The Mishnah was a compilation of the oral law that had been passed down from generation to generation which contained an interpretation of the written law given to Moses but it also contains rites and practices that had been taking place in the Temple upto its destruction by the Romans in 70AD.
Though the Jews asserted that this oral law had been passed down by word of mouth ever since the time of Moses (Aboth 1:1 - some 1400-1500 years previous), this seems only to have been claimed to lend weight to its authority and its supposed equal standing with the written law (Sanhedrin 11:3).
Compiled somewhere between 150-200AD, the Mishnah gives us a good insight into the Jewish practices of Jesus day (c.5BC-30AD) though at certain points one must be cautious as to the reason behind certain text’s inclusion.
In the sixth division of the work (Tohoroth - translated as ‘cleanesses’) in the tractate Mikwaoth (meaning ‘immersion pools’), we find a list in chapter one of the six grades of water as they stood among the Jews of Jesus’ day. The precise ins and outs of why some were considered better than others need not concern us here (though there’s particular relevance for a correct understanding of passages such as John 7:37-39 - see my notes on here under the heading ‘Simchat Beth ha-She’ubah’), except to note that in v.7 we read that
‘More excellent [than the two previously described types of water] is a pool of water containing 40 seahs [that is, about 70 gallons]; for in them men may immerse themselves and immerse other things’
Firstly, notice that the Hebrew is unequivocal in its insistence that cleansing was by immersion. If we’d have been translating this text into a passage to be included within the NT, we should have used that very same word as the NT translators have done which tends to obscure the meaning. But here, when there’s no need to hide behind a word that can mean different things to different people, the obvious and natural translation has to be ‘immersion’.
Secondly, the reason why this third grade of water (actually fourth grade as they’re listed in reverse order) is better than the other two is because it has now become one containing 40 seahs - that is, 70 gallons - and only in this minimum quantity of water may both men and objects be immersed in order that they may become ceremonially clean.
Baptism, therefore, rightly refers to immersion into a large body of water and not ‘sprinkling’ with a few meagre drops. Or, alternatively, I guess we could say that sprinkling is alright if we use 70 gallons of water to complete the task - in that case, once the 70 gallons have been sprinkled upon the individual, they’ve been pretty much immersed in the liquid. But it’s best immerse them into the water and get the work over and done with!
With such evidence from the Greek words and the Hebrew culture, it’s quite surprising that Mathen on Mtw 3:16 states quite conclusively that
‘...it has not pleased the Holy Spirit to give us any specific details as to the mode of baptism practised during the period covered by the New Testament’
While there’s every understanding (but not agreement) with the man or woman who admits that the NT practice of baptism in water was by full immersion but who practices sprinkling because it’s a later addition, there’s very little that can be said for Mathen’s position here.
The witness of the evidence points us to the inescapable conclusion that the NT baptism in water was by full immersion.
2. The Baptisms of the New Testament
There are three main baptisms referred to in the NT - the baptism in the Holy Spirit (which began on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled approximately 120 people who had been praying since the return of the Lord Jesus in to Heaven - Acts 1:14, 2:1ff), the baptism of John the Baptist and the baptism of believers, or, as we shall refer to it here, ‘Believer’s baptism’.
Though the baptism in the Holy Spirit is an integral part of what it means to be ‘born again’, we shan’t deal with it here, confining ourselves to look at just the two water baptisms previously mentioned.
a. The Baptism of John
Performed by John the Baptist (and his disciples).
It wasn’t Believer’s baptism as we can see from Acts 19:1-7. When Paul came across some disciples at Ephesus (the Greek word translated ‘disciple’ simply means ‘learners’ or ‘pupils’ without inferring that they were followers of Christ), he rebaptized them
‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’
as they’d only received the baptism of John upto that point. This then paved the way for them to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in a similar fashion to those on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.
If the baptism of John had been identical to that commanded by Jesus, Paul would have had no need to rebaptize the disciples - but it was significantly different for the rite to have to be reperformed.
Though the baptism of John was significantly different, however, there’s no detailed teaching concerning its function and meaning so, before we hint at a possible interpretation, we can only make some general points.
It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). Under the subject ‘Repentance’ we saw that both John and Jesus’ initial message began with the word ‘Repent’. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the one action John insisted his hearers to carry out was to be something that had connotations of repentance attached to it.
But John expected a changed life first before baptism was to be performed (Mtw 3:7-9). When he saw both the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him for water baptism he warned them that the basis of their own concept of acceptance before God was that they were descended from the patriarch Abraham rather than because they realised the sinfulness of their lives before God, had turned away from them and were trying to live lives that were pleasing to Him.
Instead of telling them to ‘sin no more’ after they’d received the baptism, he challenged them to ‘demonstrate’ an acceptable lifestyle before they participated in it. It was, therefore, a symbol of what had happened, an extension and proclamation of what was already a reality in a person’s life. It’s possible that it was very similar to Believer’s baptism in scope and meaning except that power over sin, crucifixion of the old life - in short, the reality of the work of the cross - had not yet been secured by Jesus and therefore could not have been understood as having anything to do with it.
Finally, it was an open declaration that they’d sinned and needed cleansing (Mtw 3:6). It was the conclusion to the act of repentance that John’s hearers had experienced. Having realised their sinful way of living, they confessed it openly as they were being baptized.
We may rightly infer that, in baptism, they saw their old way of life being buried and washed away by the immersion into the water, but we may be reading too much into this. Though the idea is plainly in Believer’s baptism, it’s difficult to definitively show that the same concept was contained within John’s.
John’s baptism, then, prepared the children of Israel to look to the Messiah who was to come shortly, to forgive them their sins. It was the way that John was preparing the way of the Lord (Mtw 3:3). It’s significance as being a method of preparation is perceived by Edersheim. He writes
‘May it not rather have been that as, when the first Covenant was made, Moses was directed to prepare Israel by symbolic baptism of their persons and their garments, so the initiation of the new Covenant, by which the people were to enter into the Kingdom of God, was preceded by another general symbolic baptism of those who would be the true Israel, and receive, or take on themselves, the Law from God?’
What Moses did by commanding the Israelites to wash their garments to prepare for the coming of YHWH (Exodus 19:10-11,14), John the Baptist did to get the people ready for the coming of the Messiah. In this way, the significance of John’s preparation of the Israelites (Mtw 3:3) was foretelling the institution of a New Covenant in which the Old would be surpassed.
Therefore, there’s all the more reason for John to condemn the Pharisees and Sadducees for relying upon human descent, for the New Covenant wasn’t to be made with nations but with individuals who would then form a nation of believers which were to exist within the current nations of the world (Ps 110:2). But, if this baptism had reference to individual repentance and the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus allow Himself to be baptized (Mtw 3:13-17)?
There are two possibilities here that are worth noting (I’ve also discussed the question on another web page)
Firstly, Jesus appears to have been baptized because it was the Father’s will (Mtw 3:15). Though this is not in doubt, it doesn’t explain to us why the Father would have commanded it in the first place.
Secondly, it can be seen to be a two-fold prophetic proclamation. Initially that Jesus was to become sin for us (II Cor 5:21). That is to say, He would so associate Himself with mankind and our sin (Heb 2:17) that He was showing that He was willing to take upon Himself the sin that belonged to us but which only He could deal with.
The other side of the proclamation is that it foresaw that Jesus would die, be buried and be raised from the dead (Rom 6:3-4), pointing forwards to His work on the cross. If the former point showed the prophetic intention of God in becoming sin for us, then this latter point showed the way in which God had planned that sin would be dealt with.
In this way, Jesus is experiencing ‘Believer’s baptism’ (though without any implication that He’s a sinner), that the significance of His future work might be seen to be proclaimed before it takes place (even though it wouldn’t have been understood until after the resurrection).
Before we move on to consider Believer’s baptism, we need to clear up one point of controversy that’s been raised in successive generations.
That is, how can Mtw 3:14-15 be reconciled with John 1:33? Matthew states that John the Baptist wanted to prevent Jesus from being baptized - even further than this, that John felt the need for Jesus to baptize him. Commentators have gone on to assume that the passage teaches that John knew Jesus to be the sinless Messiah who was to come in to the world.
But John’s passage states clearly that John didn’t know who the Messiah was initially but that he was to witness God’s chosen after baptism had taken place. Therefore a discrepancy is often cited.
But the solution lies in a correct understanding of the passage in Matthew. John the Baptist doesn’t say that he recognises Jesus as the Messiah. What he’s saying is that he recognises Him as a righteous man and, as such, not one who’s in need of a baptism of repentance to prepare Him for the coming Messiah (for that was the purpose of John’s baptism). Rather, he feels the need to be baptized by someone better then himself and he sees this person as being Jesus.
How significant this is to lend weight to the assumption that Jesus was regarded by the men of His day as being ‘righteous’ and ‘without blame’ is difficult to determine. But Jesus was certainly able to say with full conviction (John 8:46)
‘Which of you convicts Me of sin?...’
when He was approached by the Jews and accused of being a sinner (John 8:41).
b. The Baptism of believers or Believer’s baptism
John 4:2 states definitively that ‘Jesus did not baptize’. Therefore, even before the cross and resurrection, a believers’ baptism was performed by believers on believers and never by Jesus. Part of the reason will be John the Baptist’s prophecy (Mtw 3:11) which stated that the One who was to come (Jesus)
‘...will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’
In order that water baptism might not be misconstrued as the baptism in the Holy Spirit, Jesus refrained from performing it on His followers, leaving it rather as an action for his followers to perform on other followers.
Water baptism is a symbol of what has already taken place in a believer’s life - we note that it always occurred after initial conversion had taken place throughout the New Testament and never is it made mention that it was a rite that was to be performed that converted people into christianity in itself.
Many church organisations teach and promote a ‘sprinkling’ at birth but, when we consider the necessary requirements for a person to be able to take part in water baptism, we have to conclude that a baby cannot be in a state of repentance and faith - and, besides, as has already been seen, the word speaks of an ‘immersion’, not a ‘sprinkling’.
Baptism must take place after conversion (Mtw 28:19, Mk 16:16, Acts 2:38, 2:41, 8:12, 10:47-48, 16:14-15, 16:32-34, 18:8, 19:4-5).
Believer’s baptism therefore takes place in a new convert’s life. We aren’t baptized to be saved but are saved and then baptized. If we were to perform the ceremony the wrong way round, then we would be misleading the people who are coming to be immersed by inferring that they have entered into the Church. Even though the early Church baptized individuals immediately after conversion (and therefore stood the risk of immersing people who had not been truly converted), they were necessarily certain that the new believers understood what they were doing so that they didn’t see in the rite anything mystical that saved them because of the procedure rather than of the conversion experience.
Baptism symbolises, by an outward observance, an inner reality. Without the inner reality, it only becomes a dead tradition or ceremony that, far from being harmless, becomes misleading at best and deceptive at worst.
It seems that the best way to understand the ins and outs of water baptism is to ask ourselves some questions and answer them according to what we find within the Scriptures.
ii. What does baptism symbolise?
Water baptism is based upon the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At conversion we must believe in these to be saved - that is to say, we aren’t to just ‘believe’ with our mind that the events took place but ‘experience’ the reality of them in our heart and life (see the previous subject entitled '(Living) faith').
So baptism is an outer declaration of what has happened within.
Rom 6:1-11 is the key passage for understanding what baptism symbolises - the following two charts give a diagrammatic explanation of what the state of a person is both before and after conversion while the short text will hopefully provide some further thoughts where the diagrams are lacking.
Death - Crucifixion
James 1:14-15 tells us that
‘...each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death’
We have an inner enemy called variously in the New Testament by the phrases the sinful nature, the old man, the flesh and the body of sin. It’s that part of us that tempts us from within to do what’s against the will of God. When we submit to its desire, we call that action ‘sin’ - temptation is not sin in itself even though it’s very easy for us to think that because we find ourselves suddenly having a desire for doing something wrong then we must have sinned. But temptation isn’t sin unless we develop the desire offered to us in our minds and take them further than the limits of that tempting thought or course of action.
Many times, people think that satan (or one of his cohorts) is tempting them into committing sin. Certainly, external forces may be stimuli that prompt our flesh into providing the beginning of a thought process that may result in sin but, more often than not, the reason why neutral situations provide us with an opportunity to do what’s wrong is not that something external is happening but because something internal is responsible.
Jesus was very careful to instruct His disciples in this, in case they thought that the problem with themselves lay outside their control. He said (Mark 7:15)
‘...there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile a man; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him’
and (Mark 7:20-23)
‘...what comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man’
Sin, therefore, is an individual’s responsibility and can’t be offloaded onto external forces or situations that we might like to claim ‘made us’ do it.
That’s the story before we came into a relationship with God (and, to a certain degree, even after conversion).
But Jesus crucified the old man, the flesh, on the cross at Calvary so that sin might no longer reign over us. God could not heal our flesh - it had to be destroyed.
Once it’s killed off, however, then sin can no longer work through us. Using the example that Paul gave to his readers, we see that when we are naturally dead, we cannot sin anymore - we are freed from sin (Rom 6:7). No corpse, however ‘bad’ they might have been while still alive, has the ability to sin! They’re totally free from both giving in to temptation and committing sin. So too, if we have died with Christ, then we’re free from the power that held us captive.
This ‘death’ that we’re considering is not a physical death. We’re not proposing that, somehow, a person must be reincarnated for them to become ‘sinless’ (the Bible is very plain that it’s appointed that each man and woman should live just once and after that stand judgment on the contents of their life - Heb 9:27) but that, when Jesus died, that part of every one of us was put on the cross with Jesus so that, as He breathed His last, so too might the flesh. This is now received by faith - where repentance is an integral part of this experience (see the previous two subjects entitled 'Repentance' and '(Living) faith').
If you consider the chart, you can see that, if the ‘sinful nature’ is taken out of the equation, the power of sin no longer has an ally within an individual. Sins aren’t possible because there’s no part that wants to commit them and, therefore, there can be no spiritual death (separation from God) because there can be no committed sin.
The first part of baptism, the immersion of an individual into water, therefore symbolises this death of the flesh. As we are fully immersed in water, we’re burying our old life with Jesus (Col 2:12a). We are saying that our old life is dead and buried with Him - that’s why there needs to be total immersion. Baptism is a funeral and the water is our grave.
But, of course, once under water, let’s be thankful that Jesus rose from the grave or we’d have to leave people there who are being baptized! The resurrection is then spoke of as we raise the person from under the water (see the next chart with the accompanying explanation).
Life - Resurrection
So, having had the old sinful nature killed off in the death of Christ, we can look forward to the promise of the resurrection from the grave - though, fortunately, we’re not expected to be held under the water for the duration of the three parts of days that Jesus was buried!
As God raised Jesus from the dead, so God raises us up into the new life, leaving the flesh behind us in the grave along with the old way of living. We can only receive it by faith at conversion, but baptism symbolises this (Col 2:12b) - baptism is not the process whereby we achieve it, only the method that’s used to seal it, to confirm and demonstrate the reality of what has been done in our life.
As Jesus was raised from the dead, so too the believer is raised from beneath the waters into the new life, leaving the old way behind ‘under the waters’.
The set up in our own lives is, therefore, totally different. Instead of the power of sin working through its ally within us (see the previous chart), we can now experience the power of the Holy Spirit working through the new nature to bring about obedience and, therefore, spiritual life.
Col 3:9-10 reads
‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator’
At the moment when an individual turns from his own way to Jesus’ way (see the subjects Repentance and (Living) faith linked above), God performs a miracle by implanting within him the image of Christ, the new nature. From that moment on, there needs to be a conscious choice of following the new way rather than the old - of being concerned to live in the power of the Holy Spirit as He works through our new natures to produce obedience to God from the heart.
Jesus, having been raised from the dead, will never die again so, though our outer body will waste away and die, the new nature will always be alive to God and alive with God (II Cor 4:16). Therefore, Paul can write (Gal 2:20) that
‘It is no longer I that lives, but Christ that lives in me’
and that (Gal 3:27)
‘...as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ’
Indeed, there’s ample mention of both the dying to the old way of life and of the living to the new throughout the pages of the New Testament. From the moment a person becomes a christian, then a spiritual battle begins between the ways of the old life and the way of the new - a battle which Paul outlined in his letter to the Romans chapters 7 and 8.
The battle is a daily one (I Cor 15:31) but one that has to be fought (Rom 8:13).
Concluding then, Christian baptism symbolises that our old life is crucified with Christ and that we have a share of the new life in the resurrection of Christ. We are united with Christ in His death as we are plunged under the water and united in His resurrection as we are raised back into breathable air.
We are demonstrating that we’ve become dead to sin but alive to God.
iii. What does baptism do?
Apart, that is, from making the participant wet!
There have been a number of articles on the subject that have listed all types of things that occur when a believer is baptized. Some may be personal experience - and isolated to just a few individuals - while others may be more confined to certain denominational circumstances.
But, confining our understanding to solely what the Bible has to say on the matter, we notice one specific action that only baptism can perform. It’s an appeal to God for a clear conscience. I Peter 3:21 says that baptism isn’t a removal of dirt from the body (which, when all’s said and done, it could be misconstrued as) but a direct call upon God to wipe the conscience clean from the regrets of the past life.
Because the old way of living (the life of the flesh) has been killed off with Christ on the cross (see the first diagram), there no longer needs to be any regret, remorse or guilt for the past.
Rightly does Paul say (Rom 8:1) that
‘there is...no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’
And, of course, the devil has no hold on a person who has no sin.
In one sense, the rite of baptism is a declaration of what has taken place - but it goes far further than this for, instead of being merely a shadow of a past event, it’s a declaration that the reality of that event is now active in the believer’s life and that the new life that’s now being lived cannot be condemned for what went on before conversion.
Having sealed the work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), there’s always something that a believer can point to that demonstrates his acceptability to God and his continued freedom from condemnation for anything once committed.
iv. Which name?
I have dealt with this subject extensively in my notes here and the reader should access these for a fuller and more comprehensive treatment of the subject.
We come on now to quite a controversial question. Opinions vary throughout the Church (universal) as to which verbal ‘formula’ is the correct one to use, the choice being a straight one between a passage in Matthew where the ‘Trinitarian’ formula is used (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the evidence of the other New Testament writings which witness to the ‘name of Jesus’ being the correct one.
The debate has, at times, become rather heated - we may not always understand just why there seems to be importance attached to a simple phrase that can stir up such fire and zeal, but it’s a very real discussion that shows no signs of abating or of being concluded.
Therefore, as you come to this section, either skip it totally or read it in its entirety - some of the statements that are made at the beginning may seem problematical or open to misunderstanding but, later on, there are qualifying statements that will, hopefully, explain the position taken.
Firstly, then, there appears to be little doubt that the early Church baptized believers
‘in/into the name of Jesus’
Peter told his hearers (Acts 2:38) that they had to be
‘...baptized...in the name of Jesus Christ...’
using the same formula in Acts 10:48 when he stood before Cornelius and his household. Luke records for us that, on two occasions (Acts 8:16 and 19:5), believers
‘had been...baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus’
Paul speaks of being ‘baptized into Christ Jesus’ on two separate occasions (Rom 6:3 and Gal 3:27), though the way he writes, it could be understood that he’s telling his hearers what immersion achieves rather than instructing them as to which baptismal formula to use.
The Scriptures look pretty conclusive and need very little explanation - the testimony of the early Church through the Scriptures bears witness to the formula that only mentions Christ.
However, the problem arises in that much of the Church today uses the verbal formula
‘into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’
because it appears in Mtw 28:19 and is recorded as having come from the lips of Jesus. While I wholeheartedly affirm the reliability and authority of Scripture, it’s necessary to point out that the structure of the original Greek document (as far as I understand it) doesn’t mean that we should understand the phrase as a baptismal formula.
I’ve said at the beginning of these notes that, by transliterating (rather than translating) the words for baptism, we’ve been given the opportunity to colour the passage in which the word occurs by recourse to what we individually believe it means.
The same is true here - though the choice between ‘sprinkling’ and ‘immersion’ has already been settled - where ‘baptism’ needs not be understood to mean that the water rite is being referred to even though the Didache (a church document written c.90AD) interpreted it so. It runs (v.7)
‘The procedure for baptising is as follows. After repeating all that has been said, immerse in running water “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”. If no running water is available, immerse in ordinary water. This should be cold if possible; other wise warm. If neither is practical, then pour water three times on the head “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”. Both baptizer and baptized ought to fast before the baptism, as well as any others who can do so; but the candidate himself should be told to keep a fast for a day or two beforehand’
As can be seen by the later procedure especially, the rite wasn’t performed upon conversion as it was in the early Church, this statement making it look as if it may bear little comparison to the New Testament procedure - even more so when fasting is insisted upon as preparation for the act.
But, getting back to Mtw 28:19, if we’re to understand Jesus as commanding the disciples that they were to ‘immerse’ disciples into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, what was He trying to say?
Jesus first commands His disciples (Mtw 28:19a) to
‘Go...and make disciples of all nations...’
and then goes on to expand upon what He means by ‘making disciples’ with the two phrases which begin ‘immersing’ and ‘teaching’. These latter two phrases represent a definition of how believers make ‘disciples’. The three phrases are not independent actions but the latter two are the sum total of the first.
To make disciples, then, men and women must be ‘taught’ to observe all that Jesus commanded and be ‘immersed’ into the Godhead - that is to say, they must be brought into a relationship with God through Christ, one that develops and deepens with age.
Just as ‘teaching’ is not a once for all time event, neither is the ‘immersion’ that Jesus is here talking about, but an ongoing process that begins upon conversion.
The preaching of the Gospel, then, is the first step in bringing men and women into a relationship with God and teaching them His ways. The making of disciples then continues after conversion and onwards throughout eternity.
Another interpretation of the Mtw 28:19 passage is that ‘in the name of’ could be understood as being similar in vein to that phrase in passages where the concept ‘in the will of’ is meant (Col 3:17, John 16:24-26). Therefore Jesus is saying that disciples must be brought into an understanding and the reality of what the will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is.
Again, ‘in the name of’ could carry with it the idea of ‘authority’ (James 5:10), Jesus saying that disciples must be brought into a realisation of the authority that they now possess through Christ - though this, I feel, would be going too far as other Scriptures don’t anticipate this being on the lips of Jesus in connection with new converts.
One final point worthy of note here is that Mtw 28:19 makes mention of being baptized into the ‘name’ of Father, Son and Holy Spirit rather than into the ‘names’ which would indicate a plurality. It’s going too far to assume that by the use of ‘name’ we can see a reference to the baptismal formula ‘in the name of Jesus’ for then we would have to conclude that Jesus is, at the same time, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit when it’s quite clear from Scripture that, when we speak of the three revelations of God, He represents the ‘Son’.
But, because God is ‘One’, because He is one Being, there’s only one relationship that needs to be developed - and that with God.
Concluding, then, the baptismal formula of the early Church was ‘in(to) the name of Jesus’ as can be plainly seen from the passages in Luke and in Paul’s letters. The passage in Mtw 28:19 is not a baptismal formula but an instruction concerning what it means to ‘make disciples’.
A personal note
Having now read the above, I wouldn’t be surprised if you read into the statements more than is there and concluded that I was saying that being baptized with the Trinitarian formula is null and void! So, I’d best explain myself here by telling you my experience of baptism.
When I became a christian, I knew nothing of baptism. I certainly must have read about it in the Bible as I had a real hunger for the Scriptures, but it just didn’t get home to me that I needed to be immersed (you will already have noted that I should have been immersed the same day of - or shortly after - my conversion, once it had been shown that I knew what I’d done).
It was a few months later that a ‘baptismal’ meeting was arranged and I heard about it through my mother - she asked me whether or not I would be baptized. Well, being the kind of person I am, I went away, bought a short booklet on the subject of baptism and, by reading that and the Scriptures, decided that I should be immersed as soon as possible.
I don’t think that the Trinitarian versus Jesus-only debate figured very largely in my thoughts - I just knew that I had the reality of what baptism signified in my life so that I should do what was commanded of me.
Within the first year, then, I was baptized ‘in the name of the Father , Son and Holy Spirit’.
Many years later (about nine actually - it just seems longer), I began seeing a difference between what Acts and Paul says and what the Mtw 28:19 passage says and, for a long time, wasn’t happy that any explanation that was being promoted was necessarily right - I remember having a long and sometimes heated letter debate with a friend in Hong Kong where I asked him questions about Mtw 28:19 and Acts and the like and got basically nothing definitive back from him! When I asked a straight question I got an ambiguous answer...though that did make me want to delve ever more deeply into why there was a difference between the two ‘formulae’.
Then, when I finally reached Matthew chapter 28 in my study of the Gospel of Matthew (see here - a study which took me a few years prior to this major revision and publication on the Internet), it hit me that v.19 wasn’t a baptismal formula at all.
This presented me with some problems. Being convinced that ‘in the name of Jesus’ was the correct formula meant that, when I stood up to teach on the subject, I couldn’t get any peace in my own heart because of how I’d been baptized. After all, if I was instructing believers to be baptized one way and yet had been baptized another, I considered myself to be a hypocrite.
So I decided to be rebaptized - and was. In the coldest water I have ever been in, I seem to recall!
Am I saying, then, that to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is null and void?
No, I’m not.
Am I saying that to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is only acceptable until a person is baptized in the name of Jesus?
No, I’m not.
What I’m saying is that, as previously noted, baptism is an outward declaration of what’s an inner reality. So long as you have that inner reality, it doesn’t matter which formula you use (so long as it isn’t ‘in the name of Beelzebub, prince of darkness’!) - the work of baptism is done the same whether you’re convinced one way or the other.
I would not implore people to be rebaptized but I would implore them to be baptized in one or other of the formulae if they have the reality of the work of the cross in their lives.
Hopefully this may clear up any misunderstanding. But, having witnessed just how strong some people’s views on the matter are, I think perhaps that it won’t!
v. Is belief in the resurrection necessary to be baptized?
I Cor 15:12-17,29.
And to become a believer!
To some, this final section may seem pointless. But, in the UK, when there’s been an increasing pull away from the ‘supernatural’ in christian circles in recent years (but not, I note, a decline in the belief in the ‘supernatural’ in occult things!), this point needs addressing for those who would like to have some sort of belief without necessarily committing themselves to a very dubious event (dubious, that is, in their own mind).
But, if Christ has not been raised from the dead then baptism is a hoax. In fact, there’s no new life to be lived unless, indeed, Jesus was raised from the dead. As we saw in the two diagrams, it’s only because of the resurrection that we can have new life and a new way of living - if the resurrection didn’t take place then we just have to bury people in the water, committing them to be killed by drowning!!
Again, if a person doesn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, then that person cannot be saved/converted. There can be no new life if the old life hasn’t been dealt with.
Baptism symbolises being dead to sin because of the cross but alive to God because of the resurrection (Rom 6:11).
Baptism symbolises that the old is dead because of the cross but that the new is come because of the resurrection (II Cor 5:17).
Baptism is, therefore, a confession that the participant believes in the resurrection, where ‘belief’ means more than ‘mind knowledge’ but ‘experience’.
Finally, it’s important that we realise that we must have the reality of repentance and faith in our lives (see the previous two subjects linked above), the reality of a new creation, and then be baptized in obedience to the word of God.
Baptism isn’t a ‘magic ceremony’ that puts us into a right relationship with God - only the work of Jesus does that - but it’s an outward declaration of an inner reality and an appeal to God for a clear conscience.
Concluding these notes, therefore, we should remind ourselves that baptism in water took place immediately a person became a christian and wasn’t delayed except where circumstances gave no other option.
But, thinking that baptism makes a person a christian, is definitely wrong. A person must already have the reality of what baptism symbolises in their life before they’re baptized.