Baptism is a controversial subject and often comes up when the Christian faith is discussed. In times of general discussion outside of a denominational setting, it is best to take a broad stance on the subject rather than argue for our own particular denominational position. The subject very easily leads to the gospel when we let the Bible speak rather than our own bent.
When studying this subject a number of questions immediately confront us, namely: What is the relationship between John's baptism and Christian baptism? What is the relationship of Water Baptism to Spirit Baptism? Is water baptism performed by total immersion? Who baptizes? Who is it a sign to? What is it a sign of? What part has it as an invitation into the Christian community? Is it necessary for salvation? Does it extend to children? Is rebaptism unscriptural?
The Denominational differences on Baptism depend largely on how these questions are answered. This study paper attempts to explain the meaning of baptism in the New Testament and therefore give a basis upon which the above questions can be answered.
In Greek (baptisma - noun) (baptidzw - verb) the word has the basic meaning of, to immerse in water. Thus it is used frequently to describe the operation of dyeing clothes. Yet it can also be used in a figurative way expressive of the idea of being immersed in water. For example: to describe the oppressive nature of a terrifying experience that overwhelms you, covers you over, like when you are submerged in water.
Usage in the New Testament
The word is used four ways in the New Testament, three of which are figurative. Most scholars, when commenting on baptism, usually take the word as a direct reference to water baptism, yet the majority of references are figurative, bearing no relationship to water baptism at all.
1. Overwhelmed by the Spirit
The idea originated in the Old Testament where it is prophesied that God's Spirit would be poured out upon his children at the coming of the Kingdom of God, Joel 2:28; Ezk.39:29. With the coming of Jesus, the establishment of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed as a close event, and with it the promise of the outpouring (Baptism) of the Holy Spirit, Mark 1:8. Jesus is the one who will pour the Spirit out. He will be like a fountain to drink from, ie. those who believe in Him will receive the Holy Spirit, John 7:37-39, and the Spirit within them will give them life, John 4:13-14.
With the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Spirit is poured out, and the Kingdom is established in power (ie. in the power of the Holy Spirit). The coming of the Spirit of God upon the children of God is treated in two ways in the New Testament. Both have their origin in the teaching of Jesus.
i] Luke/Acts tends to express this coming in an outward sense and it can best be defined as empowering for proclamation. This is an Old Testament idea, where the prophets were overcome by God's Spirit and thus empowered in their prophetic ministry. The Spirit in this sense may come at any time and leave at any time. With the coming of the Kingdom the promise that all God's people would be so empowered, (Baptized), unlike the Old Testament when only a select few were empowered, becomes an actual fact from Pentecost onward. Peter, in his Pentecost Sermon, points out that the speaking in tongues by his Christian brethren is the evidence of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit (in this special way) upon them and so is the fulfilling of the prophecy of Joel, Acts 2. Throughout the book of Acts the outward washing of the Holy Spirit is an experience which is looked for in all converted Christians. It may come at any time, but certainly will come as we speak for Christ. (cf. Acts 8:14-17).
ii] In the Epistles the emphasis of the coming (Baptizing) of the Holy Spirit is on an inward sense. The Spirit comes upon a person who is spiritually dead, and makes them alive at the moment of their belief in Jesus Christ. Gal.4:6, Rom. 8:9-11, Titus 3:5-7.
2. Overwhelmed by a situation
Here the usage concerns suffering. For instance, Jesus refers to His passion as a baptism of fire. It is a terrible situation which he is about to face. Matt.3:12.
3. Immersed in the teaching of Jesus
Here the idea is of saturating the converted person with the Word of God. Thus is Matthew 28:19 Jesus commands the disciples to immerse the new disciple in the "name", confront them with God, cover them with a knowledge of Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teach them His Words.
4. Immersed in water
This is the outward expression of repentance of newly converted persons, who immerse themselves in water to make real, in an outward sense, their repentance, and so symbolically express their cleansing from sin through the death of Christ.
The probable usage of the word in the passage is indicated in brackets.
i] Matthew 28:19 (3)
ii] Acts 19: 5-6, cf. Acts 18:24-28 (3)
iii] 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 (3)
iv] 1 Peter 3: 21 (2)
v] John 3:1-6. v5, Born of water and the Spirit, ie. Born naturally from your mother and spiritually from God. Only those born from above, of the Holy Spirit, can have eternal life. (1)
vi] 1 Corinthians 12:13 (1)
vii] Ephesians 5:26 (3)
The Jews in the New Testament period practiced proselyte baptism. That is, when a pagan wished to become a Jew they would be ceremonially immersed in water expressing symbolic purification. In the Jewish religious sect of the Essenes, this involved total immersion, yet outside the Essene community it was performed by sprinkling. It would normally be the head of the house who wished to become a Jew, yet his whole household would be involved in this change, which would include wife, children and possibly servants. They would all be baptized. If any further children were born into the family, they would not be baptized as that child was born into the covenant family of the children of Israel. Therefore no person born of Jewish parents was baptized.
2. The Baptism of John
John's Baptism was an outward expression of repentance, the effect of which, namely the forgiveness of sins, is brought home symbolically in the cleansing of the water, Mk.1:4. It was obviously full immersion, yet that does not mean that full immersion is necessary.
John called for the response of repentance to his message that God was soon to act and bring in the promised Kingdom. If you want to enter the Kingdom you must be on God's side and not your own, therefore you must turn from your selfish life of sin and turn to the living God, and rely on him alone. If you do this God will forgive your sins and therefore you will be able to enter the Kingdom (gain eternal life) and so not face judgment.
3. Christian Baptism
i] Meaning. There is little difference between Christian Baptism and John's Baptism. It is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Acts 2:37-38. Christian Baptism gains two new implications.
a) The Kingdom is now present in a real way, therefore the promised blessings associated with the coming Kingdom can now be experienced by the new member. The key blessing is the gift/baptism of the Holy Spirit , Acts 2: 38. Therefore repentance gains immediate entry into a present Kingdom through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
b) Forgiveness of sins is now related specifically to the sacrificial death of Jesus. Thus the symbolism of the cleansing blood of Christ. In Romans 6:1-4 Paul develops this thought further. It is more than just our sins which were taken upon the cross, there is a sense in which our whole sinful nature was nailed there, such that when we believe in Jesus, we die, our past self-centered life is buried, it dies. This happened at the moment of our repentance, and water baptism symbolically expresses the burial of our past life, ie. going under the water. The moral that Paul brings out of this is that seeing our past life of sin is dead, it is impossible to return to it. "How can we who died to sin still live in it". cf. also Col.2:11-12.
So then in our repentance two aspects of sin are dealt with :
Our sins are forgiven
The power of sin, that part of our nature which drove us to sin, is broken. Water baptism can symbolically express both a cleansing and a burial.
a) When related to Evangelism. In the New Testament, the person who responds to the gospel in repentance is baptized on the spot. Acts 2:37-42 etc.
b) The person performing the baptism. Could be the evangelist, Acts 8:26-39, or the repentant person, Acts 22:16.
c) Household Baptism. Because of the Old Testament teaching that God deals with families, along with the normal Jewish practice of household baptism, the early Christians adopted the method of baptizing by families/households, Acts 16:30-34.
We are told that on the basis of the faith of the Philippian jailer, his household was saved ie. they were cleansed of their sins and therefore could be baptized. Yet Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:12f balances this picture by pointing out that the marriage partner may not be converted through the other partner's faith. Certainly the unbelieving partner has a better chance of conversion through their proximity to God via their partner's faith. The children of the marriage are even better off.
It was presumably on the basis that God blesses the children of those in a relationship with him that the New Testament Christians baptized the whole family at the moment of the family head's repentance. Tradition reveals that subsequent children born to the family were also baptized even though they could be regarded as "Holy". The power of the symbol inevitably forced the adoption of this practice. It was reinforced when baptism was later seen as a sign of entry into the church and of the new covenant with God.
Note Colossians 2:11-12. If this passage refers to water baptism (Paul may be referring to Spirit baptism), it symbolizes the putting off of the old sinful self, ie. the circumcision of Christ, and obviously completely fulfills the actual cutting away of useless flesh in circumcision. There is no conventional theology here.
As for rebaptism, it was only practiced by sectarian groups in the early church, although there seems to be no theological grounds to prevent it. (Ephesians 4:5 "One Baptism" - word "one" is misleading. "Same" or " one and the same" would be better.)
Most Christian denominations have their own particular way of administering baptism and their own understanding of its meaning. The reason for this is simple, the New Testament does not give a detailed theology on the subject. It is a sign and not the substance, and for this reason it doesn't take center stage. We must always remember, Jesus didn't baptize with water.
Therefore denominational difference should be viewed as our own particular way of handling a New Testament practice. We should not make it a test of faithfulness to Christ. When handled this way the issue is not a problem.
Index of studies. Resource file.
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons