The immersion or dipping of a believer in water symbolizing the complete renewal and change in the believer's life and testifying to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the way of salvation.
Jewish Background As with most Christian practices and beliefs, the background of baptism lies in practices of the Jewish community. The Greek word baptizo, “immerse, dip, submerge” is used metaphorically in
Isaiah 21:4 to mean, “go down, perish” and in
2 Kings 5:14 for Naaman's dipping in the Jordan River seven times for cleansing from his skin disease. The radical Qumran sect which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls attempted to cleanse Judaism. The sect laid great emphasis on purity and purifying rites. These rites normally involved immersion, though the term baptizo does not seem to appear in their writings. It is quite possible that such a rite was used to initiate members into the community. Along with the rite, the Essenes at Qumran emphasized repentance and submission to God's will.
At some point close to the time of Jesus, Judaism began a heavy emphasis on ritual washings to cleanse from impurity. This goes back to priestly baths prior to offering sacrifices (Leviticus 16:4,Leviticus 16:24). Probably shortly prior to the time of Jesus or contemporary with Him, Jews began baptizing Gentile converts, though circumcision still remained the primary entrance rite into Judaism.
John's Baptism John the Baptist immersed repentant sinners: those who had a change of mind and heart (John 1:6,John 1:11). John's baptism—for Jews and Gentiles—involved the same elements later interpreted in Christian baptism: repentance, confession, evidence of changed lives, coming judgment, and the coming of the kingdom of God through the Messiah, who would baptize with the Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11). John thus formed a purified community waiting for God's great salvation.
Jesus' Baptism John also baptized Jesus, who never sinned (Matthew 3:13-17;
John 1:13-16). Jesus said that His own baptism was to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). Thus Jesus acknowledged that the standard of life John demanded was correct for Himself and for His followers. In this way He was able to identify with sinful mankind and to be a model for others to follow. In this way Jesus affirmed John and his message. The coming of the Spirit and the voice from heaven showed that Jesus represented another point in God's revelation of Himself and formed the connection between baptism and Christ's act of redemption.
Christian Baptism John's baptism prepared repentant sinners to receive Jesus' baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire. (Note that Jesus did not do the water baptizing; His disciples did—John 4:1-2.) Jesus' baptism and the baptizing by His disciples thus connected baptism closely with the Holy Spirit. When Jesus comes into a life, the Holy Spirit comes with His saturating presence and purifies. He empowers and cleanses the believer in a spiritual baptism. The main differences between John's baptism and Jesus' baptism lie in the personal commitment to Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jesus' baptism (John 1:33).
A thorough study of the Holy Spirit is helpful to understand what “baptism with the Holy Spirit” means (John 1:33). The sequence of baptism and the coming of the Spirit into individual lives will show some differences (Acts 8:12-17). The usual sequence of events is: the Spirit comes into a person's life at conversion, and then the believer is baptized. The Holy Spirit is the gift who comes with salvation (Acts 2:38) and is its seal (Ephesians 4:30). The Holy Spirit saturates the new Christian's life. Or we might say that Jesus baptizes the new Christian by plunging the person into the Holy Spirit's presence and power (John 14:16-17;
To be baptized is to clothe oneself with Christ (Galatians 3:27 NRSV, NIV). Baptism refers to the suffering and death of Christ (Mark 10:38-39;
Luke 12:50). Christian baptism is in a sense a sharing of this death and resurrection and all that brought Christ to those events (Romans 6:1-7;
Colossians 2:12). Baptism shows that a person has died to the old way of life and has been raised to a new kind of life—eternal life in Christ (Matthew 28:19-20;
2 Timothy 2:11). The resurrection from the water points to the Christian's resurrection also (Romans 6:1-6).
Believers' Baptism In the New Testament baptism is for believers (Acts 2:38;
Acts 8:12-13,Acts 8:36-38;
Ephesians 4:5). Water apart from personal commitment to Christ makes no difference in the life of anyone. In the New Testament baptism occurs when a person trusts Christ as Lord and Savior and obeys the command to be submerged in water and raised from it as a picture of the salvation experience that has occurred. Baptism comes after conviction of sin, repentance of sin, confession of Christ as Lord and Savior. To be baptized is to preach a personal testimony through the symbol of baptism. Baptism testifies that “ye are washed… ye are sanctified… ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Church Practice The church has attempted to build its practice upon that of the New Testament but has not found agreement always as to what the practice was. Several church groups practice the baptism of infants. This necessarily moves away from immersion to sprinkling as the mode. They have tried to justify infant baptism on the basis of the baptism of households (Acts 11:14;
Acts 18:8), by connecting Christian baptism with Jewish baptism of Gentile converts which may have included baptism of children, and by interpreting Christ's saying in
Mark 10:4 as indicating an invitation to bring young children or infants into the church. Others have tried to see continuity between the covenant theology of the Old and New Testaments joined by the rites of circumcision and baptism, so that if introduction into the Jewish covenant community was through circumcision of the infant, so introduction into the Christian community would be through baptism of the infant. Most New Testament scholars find these arguments as fitting the practice of the church rather than resting on strong exegetical grounds, for the New Testament emphasized the connection of faith and baptism.
The setting of baptism is often restricted to a church setting with an ordained person. In the New Testament baptism takes place in varied settings wherever there is another person to do the baptizing (Acts 8:36-39;
Acts 10:47-48). Both Jesus and Paul let others do the baptizing, so that the restriction of baptism to a leading professional minister does not seem to be the New Testament practice.
Rebaptism Scriptural baptism (baptism because of belief in Christ) occurs once. Sometimes people are baptized again because they feel they were not saved when they were first baptized. If that was the case, the first baptism simply wasn't scriptural baptism. Others are baptized because something changes in their beliefs—other than their salvation experience—and they either want to be or are urged by someone else to be rebaptized. The purpose of baptism was never to affirm each change in beliefs. For example, Apollos got his understanding corrected, but no mention is made of his rebaptism (Acts 18:24-28). The disciples grew spiritually and changed in understandings, but no mention is made of their rebaptism. Christians are to become learners along with their baptism, but no mention is made of any need to rebaptize them if they were scripturally baptized the first time. Rebaptism in the New Testament seemingly occurred only when a group of people never had received the Holy Spirit, who is the seal of salvation (Ephesians 4:30; see also
Acts 2:38,Acts 2:41;
Acts 8:12-13,Acts 8:36-39). Although the dozen people focused on in
Acts 19:1-7 had John's baptism, they were then properly scripturally baptized as they trusted in Jesus and received the promised Holy Spirit.
Baptism and Salvation Baptism is not a requirement of salvation, but it is a requirement of obedience. Baptism is a first step of discipleship. Although all meanings of baptism are significant, the one that most often comes to mind is water baptism as a picture of having come to know Christ as Lord and Savior. Baptism is never the event but, rather, the picture of the event. So the pattern of obedience is to come to Christ in trust and then to picture that through the symbol of baptism.