April 24, 2024

Baptism in the New Testament

The English word “baptism” is based on the Greek word “baptisma” (noun) or “baptizo” (verb) which literally means “to dip, immerse, or submerge” (Vines, p. 96; Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 149; Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, p. 197). It is a practice honored by the Christian church since its earliest days with roots in Jewish practice dating before Christ.

Apart from the New Testament, the emphasis of baptism wasn’t upon the mode (immersion, dipping, sprinkling) as much as the water as an agent of cleansing. Ceremonial washing as a symbol of cleansing or purification was common among the Jews (Leviticus 16:4,24) and not uncommon even beyond the Jewish faith. It should be noted, however, that the rite is most often NOT referred to by the term “baptism”. It was merely a symbolic act of spiritual or religious washing.

It’s clear that John the Baptist, Jesus, the early church, and The New Testament infused the practice with a new meaning and higher significance than previously or otherwise observed. A fuller New Testament understanding of the practice seems to be based on both the AGENT (water) and the MODE (immersion or dipping).

The AGENT of Baptism

John the Baptist proclaimed his baptism was “with water for repentance”    (Matthew 3:11) and that it was “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). This “repentance” involved a new lifestyle characterized by righteous living and an intense Messianic expectation. A repentant heart led to forgiveness which found immediate expression in water baptism as a picture, most likely, of God’s cleansing. This would explain John’s reaction to Jesus when he came to be baptized. If water baptism were a symbol of cleansing, then the Messiah would have no need of baptism. (It’s possible, though there’s no direct evidence and no Scriptural indication, that John the Baptist also saw in his baptism an element of rebirth or new beginning. This would be consistent with his emphasis on repentance as a change of heart and mind. It’s also interesting to note that Jesus associated water with birth in his conversation with Nicodemus.)

As the AGENT of baptism, water would carry other significance as well. Among numerous metaphorical uses of water in the Old Testament, Ezekiel describes a river of life-giving water flowing from the temple. Water is often considered essential to life. It symbolizes the Spirit. The list goes on. Certainly those submitting to baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus’ disciples, or the early church would have perceived, at the very least, spiritual cleansing, life, and the presence of the Spirit symbolized in water as the AGENT of baptism. But the MODE of baptism was significant as well.

The MODE of Baptism

When John challenged Jesus’ need for baptism, Jesus explained that it was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). This was not because Jesus needed repentance or cleansing, but because his baptism would symbolize his vicarious and redemptive mission. At the core of the Old Testament sacrificial system was identification. The animal was IDENTIFIED with human sin and sacrificed IN PLACE OF the individual. Through his baptism, Jesus was proclaiming his identification with the sin of humanity. Through Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist literally and figuratively announced that Jesus was the “lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

This identification, however, would be meaningless without the eventual reality of the sacrifice performed at the cross. Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t symbolic, it was real. He shed his blood and gave his life for the sin of those with whom he identified at his baptism. Jesus’ baptism was, therefore, a picture of his redemptive mission which found its fulfillment in his sacrificial death.

But the story doesn’t end there. The Christian story is incomplete if it ends at the cross. Jesus may have been the perfect lamb sacrificed for our sin, but he didn’t stay dead. God honored his obedience with a triumphant resurrection. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the early church quickly began to associate baptism with more than cleansing.

The MODE of baptism soon came to symbolize our identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. In Romans 6:3-5, Paul asked his readers, “Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect or beautiful picture of our identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection than baptism by immersion. Submersion symbolizes death and burial. Emerging from the water symbolizes our resurrection. And so it is that New Testament baptism has become such an important part of any believer’s experience and obedience to Jesus.

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