What Is the Meaning & Significance of Baptism?

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Dane’s Place copyright 2014 ©

(see also Are Babies to be Baptized?, and Are We Justified by Faith?)

In one sense I have to approach the instant question as though it were rhetorical. Throughout the ages theological savants have grappled with the subject, producing many lengthy treatises – often with little agreement with one another.  This subject matter has split churches, divided families, and has been the source of many heated arguments.  There are multiple viewpoints on the subject, and entire denominations have been formed because of how someone has interpreted this single matter.  Therefore, it is very unlikely that this untrained and unlearned author can bring any lasting justice to the matter. And, it is for that reason the question seems nothing short of rhetorical for me. Nonetheless, I am quite willing – and not just a little excited – to share the results of my studies, and my sense on this subject.

As with almost any New Testament concept it is often wise to search the Old Testament for any possible preview. Many stories, people, and  items, found within the Old Testament have their fulfillment in New Testament concepts. For example, the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament was fulfilled by Jesus’ priesthood of the New. As well, the Jewish Temple of the old has been fulfilled in the new as the body of Christ – or the people of God.  Therefore, it is only natural to look to the Old Testament to find a shadow of baptism cast from the New.

As we research the topic of baptism, however, the question becomes: how do we know which Old Testament concept is the forerunner of baptism?  Save the interpretations of a few passages here and there, the Old Testament seems to be completely silent on the matter.  And, those passages that seem to give us something really do not draw any strong, recognizable lines to the New Testament concept of baptism. This does not stop many, however, from adamantly insisting that baptism has its roots in Old Testament tradition.  I have read many commentators (and scores of websites) that claim baptism is founded in Old Testament rituals.  But what I have found is that none ever provide proof of their claims. At best they say that baptism has its roots in the Old Testament, and then cite numerous passages from the Law of Moses that describe, for example, ceremonial cleansing. However, without a New Testament author verifying the correlation of these passages I don’t know how anyone can say for certain that these ceremonies are types of baptism.

But some may ask: isn’t it reasonable that baptism is foreshadowed in the ceremonial washings that were part of the Old Covenant?  Does not Ex. 29:5 command for the ceremonial cleansing of Aaron and his sons as they began their priestly ministries, and should not Christians begin their spiritual priesthood ministries in the same way?

These Old Testament commands – and others like them – might remind us of baptism because both involve the use of water, and baptism strongly resembles a cleansing act. However, to insist that the Old Testament cleansing ceremonies had baptism in view would be to say something that the Bible never says.  It might be true – we just can’t know for sure since no New Testament writer ever made that claim.

So, does baptism have a precursor?  I believe that it does.  And though it is from the Old Covenant, I believe that we have been searching for it in the wrong place.  Baptism’s forerunner may not be found in the Old Testament. Rather, I believe baptisms’ Old Covenant shadow is located in the pages of the New Testament, and is attested to by New Testament writers and speakers. As a matter of fact, I believe that this type and anti-type may be more robustly documented than many other well-known New Testament concepts.

Just prior to Jesus beginning His public ministry we are introduced to a great prophet, John the Baptist. Although John’s life is recorded in the New Testament, his ministry took place while the Old Covenant was still in effect. He lived, ministered, and died, prior to the inception of the New Covenant. In essence, he was the last of the great prophets of the old system.

Now, whether John introduced baptism to the Jews, or reinterpreted something they were already familiar with is not agreed upon by historians – and not important for this discussion.  What is clear is that he brought it to the people who were under covenant with God a tradition they were commanded to observe. It is also clear that baptism quickly became a central theme.  John’s ministry was marked by it, and he adamantly called his audience to participate in it. But as important as John’s baptism was, he himself recognized that it was to be overshadowed by another. In Matt 3:11 John drew a parallel between his Old Covenant baptism, which took place in water, and the baptism that Jesus would be in the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with the many Old Covenant traditions that were shadows of spiritual realities found in the New Covenant.  Obviously, John saw his water baptism as being fulfilled by a greater, spiritual one of the New Covenant.

Peter seemed to quickly grasp this concept. In Acts 2 – the Day of Pentecost – Peter preached his first sermon of the New Covenant. When the people responded to his message, Peter told them that they should, “Repent, and … be baptized in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38). It is interesting to note that Peter did not command the repentant to be ‘baptized in water,’ – but to be baptized in Jesus. I am not suggesting that water was not used – it probably was. But I believe we see the Old Covenant water baptism being fulfilled with a new, spiritual baptism. Paul seemed to agree. When he encountered a group of believers in Ephesus who had only been baptized into John’s baptism, we are told that he immediately laid hands on them to be baptized into the name of Jesus (Acts 19:1-7). This account teaches us that the baptism we were first introduced to (John’s) differed from the baptism that the early Church administered. As noted before, the Acts 19 account does not record that the believers were “baptized in water,” but that they were baptized “in the name” of Jesus. Again, I am not suggesting that water was not used – I assume it was. However, it appears that Luke, who wrote, and Paul, who spoke, were emphasizing the same thing that John the Baptist prophesied, and Peter recognized: namely, that the physical baptism into water was being overshadowed by the spiritual baptism into Jesus.  But what is spiritual baptism?

Nearly all would agree that the root of the word “baptize” is connected to the idea of immersion. To be baptized means to be immersed – literally. However, it does not necessarily follow that immersion in water is always in view. For example, in Mark 10:38 Jesus asked James & John if they were able to be “baptized with the baptism” that He was baptized with. Almost certainly Jesus was not talking about water baptism, but the suffering that He was about to endure. He was asking if they were prepared to be immersed in the suffering that He was being immersed in. One might get the impression that I am trying to lead the reader away from water baptism. This is not true. It is interesting to note, however, that although we find numerous baptisms described in the book of Acts, water is specifically mentioned in only two cases: Acts 8:38 & 10:47. On all other occasions we read that the candidate for baptism was baptized into the “name of Jesus” – or something very similar.  I believe the reason why water is not regularly mentioned is because the Holy Spirit was no longer emphasizing the physical act as much as He was underscoring the spiritual reality. The New Covenant was in force, and things of the Old were just beginning to pass away. Unfortunately in today’s Church we find many who are still very focused on the methods, modes, and physical elements used in baptism. I fear that for some it is vitally more important to be immersed in water than it is to be immersed in Jesus.

Perhaps some of the greatest insight into the meaning of Christian baptism can be found in the writings of Paul. In Romans 6 he recorded that those of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into His death – or buried with Him in death (vs 3 & 4).  Again, it seems that Paul’s emphasis is not the physical act of going into water, but the spiritual act of ‘going into Jesus.’  We can see this because being buried with Christ cannot be a literal event – no one can be literally buried with Him since that happened 2000 years ago. Paul’s language must be understood figuratively – or spiritually. Paul actually makes this very point in the next verse when he clarifies that we have been baptized into the “likeness” of His death.  It is not Christ’s literal death and burial that we are baptized into – but one ‘like’ it.

In his own writings, Peter seems to hold to the same concept. In 1 Peter 3:21 he gives us a brief definition of baptism. First, he tells us what it is not: “the removal of filth of the flesh.” This could be a reference to a misguided belief that baptism is about cleansing the body. However, it may also point to Peter’s understanding that baptism is not about the physical act at all.  Then, Peter gives us a positive definition for baptism:  “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Quite clearly this suggests Peter sees baptism’s primary role as a spiritual function and not a physical one.

In the early Church new believers were water baptized immediately following their repentance. Most likely this involved full immersion. However, for the reasons already stated I do not believe that the element of water and the method of immersion were the focus. Rather, their ‘circumcised hearts’ (Rom 2:29) had become the significant reality, and water baptism would become the emblem.

One might wonder why water baptism is important at all if spiritual baptism is the fulfillment.  I believe that it is important. First of all, it appears the Apostles continued the tradition of water baptism for new converts. I believe the Church today should follow this pattern. Secondly, water baptism can be for us a powerful and meaningful symbol of what has happened to us in the spirit. By going into the water we are reminded of our being buried with Jesus, and coming out of the water we can tangibly picture rising with Him. Of course, water baptism should not be performed on those who have not been converted, e.g., infants or small children. (See my discussion on this topic.)

As the early Church continued to grow I believe the act of water baptism was probably seen as synonymous with salvation and spiritual baptism. To be saved was to be baptized, and to be baptized meant that you were saved. I believe this is evident as we compare Peter’s first two recorded sermons. In Acts 2:38, he commands his hearers to “repent … and be baptized.”  And in his next sermon he commands “repent… and be converted” (Acts 3:19).  Although he does not mention baptism in his second sermon, and it is not described as a response of any of the hearers, it would appear that Peter sees conversion and baptism as synonymous.  Conversion, repentance, baptism, and salvation, therefore, become so closely tied together that they are interchangeable.

One way to illustrate this is to consider the wedding band. A person who wears a wedding band is recognized as being married, and a person who gets married generally wears one. They are synonymous. We might even say to someone, “I see that you’re married,” when what we really mean is that we see they are wearing a wedding band. Because, of course, we cannot actually see a marriage – it is an invisible concept.  The wedding band is not marriage – but represents it. Furthermore, the band does not make us married. Rather, what makes us married is the pledge that we are keeping to our spouse.

In the same way we are water baptized when we are converted, and we are saved because we are keeping our pledge to Jesus. We cannot actually see someone’s salvation, but it is possible to witness their water baptism.

Some believe that water baptism is connected to cleansing us of our sins, or removing the guilt of “original sin.”  This belief is most likely connected to Acts 22:16, which cites Ananias telling Paul, “…Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

I have heard it said by those who know Greek (I do not) that the phrase “wash away your sins” is subjected to the clause “be baptized.”  It is suggested then that water baptism brings about the cleansing from sin. Indeed the Greek may suggest that reading. However, this comes as no surprise since, as already pointed out, the early Church appeared to be using these terms interchangeably.

Concerning the removal of “original sin” – this is a term not found in the Bible, or known to be used by the Apostles. Therefore, how it is defined is a bit up for grabs. Some Christians use “original sin” to describe the guilt that we have inherited from Adam, others use it to describe only a “bent” toward sin, while others use it to describe a combination of these.  However the term is described, to insist that water baptism removes ‘original sin’ is to say something that is not explicitly taught in Scripture. We do know, however, that immersion into Jesus – calling upon his name – is quite sufficient for removing our sins (1 John 1:9)

The concept of baptism can sometimes be a difficult one to grasp. This is because when we use the term we generally have in mind the physical act of going into water, or of water being poured upon.  Because of this focus on the physical act we tend to forget the spiritual reality that is taking place, and which our water baptism represents.





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