A Bible Study by Rev. Nate Wilson
This study comes upon the occasion of my first baptism, where some of the people present seemed uncomfortable with the way I administrated the baptism. I had previously encountered people who feel that there is only one way to administer baptism, and if isn’t done their way, it must be done over again right. Because of the differences of opinion and confusion surrounding baptism, I want to offer this Bible study on the topic. The way of finding out what is acceptable in baptism is not by first going to dictionaries or theology books, because, as I have discovered, each writer starts from their own set of denominational presuppositions. For instance, Strong’s Greek concordance tends toward the Baptist position, leaving out some of the meanings of the Greek word for “baptize,” whereas Easton’s Bible Dictionary takes an anti-Baptist stance, leaving out things in the Bible that would support the Baptist position. So, we must start with common ground we can all agree with, and that can only be the Bible.
The word “baptize” is not in English translations of the Old Testament. The first New Testament reference is in relation to John: “They were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:6). John further says in v. 11 “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but He who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you in (KJV “with”) the Holy Spirit and fire.” This is the most-repeated statement on baptism in the Bible. See also:
Mark 1:8 “I baptized you in water; But He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
Luke 3:16 “I baptize in water but He will baptize in the Holy Spirit”
John 1:31, 33 “that He should be made manifest I came baptizing in water... He in the Holy Spirit”
Acts 1:5 “John in water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit”
Acts 11:16 “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit”
Although there are many similarities between the baptism of John and Christian baptism, John made a clear distinction between his baptism and that of Jesus. John the Baptizer made it very clear that what he was doing was going to be superceded by something better, and the Gospel writers emphasized this point through six repetitions. This is further clarified by the story in Acts about the people in the synagogue at Ephesus who had been baptized “into John's baptism.” If John's baptism were the same as Jesus', we would expect Paul to simply fill in the gaps in their knowledge about Jesus and not require them to be baptized again. However, Paul made them be baptized all over again because John's baptism was not enough. Paul baptized them into the name of the Lord Jesus, and only then did the Holy Spirit come upon them! I know there are theologians who will disagree with me in making a distinction between Christian baptism and John's baptism, but John’s baptism was for Jews, and it did not include the Holy Spirit. John's baptism should therefore not be the only template for baptism in the Christian church. Although John’s baptism contains many elements of Christian baptism, it was a pre-Christian Jewish tradition and was superceded by better things which Jesus instituted.
In every one of the instances above, the preposition “in” (“in water”) is either the Greek word “en,” or the Greek dative case word for “water.” Both of these constructions can mean “into,” but there is a different preposition more commonly used to mean “into” (see next section on “eis”). The dative case and the Greek preposition “en” used in these seven instances are more often used to mean “by” or “with” - indicating the materials used for the baptism, not necessarily indicating how that water was applied. In other words, it would be just as accurate to translate each of these as “baptize WITH water” as it is to say “baptize IN water.” We can see a distinction between these two prepositions in 1 Cor. 10:2 - the people were baptized “into” (the other preposition) Moses “in” (Greek “en”) the cloud and “in” (Greek “en”) the sea. The people were baptized into Moses by means of the cloud and the sea. The means of the baptism was the Red Sea opening and the cloud of glory protecting them and leading them. The method of baptism is not necessarily described in these passages, so we need to be careful to stay true to the Bible and what it actually says, when we make statements about how baptism should be administered.
Another thing to note is that the same preposition (“en”) is used for the baptism “in the Holy Spirit.” Can we learn from how the Holy Spirit was applied? The circumstances in which the Holy Spirit first came were when Jesus breathed on His disciples, when tongues of fire alighted upon the heads of the disciples at Pentecost, and when the apostles baptized and laid hands on people. The action of dipping does not fit the baptism of the Holy Spirit because we are not put into the Holy Spirit and pulled back out when we are baptized in the Holy Spirit, rather, it comes down from above upon the head.
Although it is pretty clear that Christian baptism should be done with water, water is usually not the object of baptism in the Bible. As we’ve just seen, the baptism of Jesus is “in the Holy Spirit.” Mark's first use of “baptize” (1:4) has an unexpected object: John “baptized in the wilderness” (1:4). The same Greek preposition “en” is used here. This time, it is not speaking of the instrument of baptism but the location of the baptism - a wilderness area through which the Jordan river flowed. The mode of baptism - exactly how the water was applied - is not stated. The meaning of the baptism, however is stated: it was “repentance into forgiveness of sins.” The baptism was not into the wilderness but into a state of being forgiven of sin. As Matthew's Gospel also states, this was accompanied by confession of sin (Mat. 1:5, cf. Luke 3:3).
Already it should begin to be apparent that baptism in the Bible refers to multiple types of baptisms, some of which do not involve the application of water, others of which use water but the context does not clearly tell us how the water was applied.
The only times that the more exclusive Greek preposition for “into” are used (“eis”) in regards to Baptism are:
Matthew 28:19 “baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
Mark 1:5 baptism of “repentance into forgiveness of sins.”
Mark 1:9 “Jesus... was baptized by John into the Jordan”
Luke 3:3 John baptizing “into forgiveness of sin”
Acts 2:38 “repent and be baptized ... into the remission of your sins”
Acts 8:16 Samaritans “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus”
Acts 19:3 Ephesian synagogue had been baptized “into John's baptism,” but were baptized again “into the name of the Lord Jesus”
Rom. 6:3 “all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death”
1 Cor. 10:2 “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”
1 Cor. 12:13 we were “all baptized into one body”
Gal 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ”
There is only one instance in the entire Bible where someone was baptized “into” a body of water, and that is Mark's account of the baptism of Christ, where it says He was baptized into the Jordan river. As I have stated above, this may not be the same as Christian baptism, but it may set a precedent for baptism by immersion in water. Now we have to deal with the other 90+% of instances where people were baptized into something that was not water! Over half the cases state that people were baptized “into” someone's “name” - either the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or Moses, or Jesus, or, in yet another case I did not mention, Paul (I did not mention it because it was not an instance of an actual baptism but rather of Paul denying in I Cor. that he had baptized people into his name.) In the three other cases, the baptism is into a state of being forgiven (“into the remission of sins”), and in one case it is even a baptism into a baptism (of John)! There is also the statement in Romans that baptism into Christ is a baptism into His death. The Bible authors do not appear to be as concerned with how the water is put on as much as they are concerned that we “put on Christ” in baptism.
In Mark 10:38, Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In Greek, there is no preposition “with” in this verse, but this is rather a relative clause used as an adjective to describe which kind of baptism. In this case, Jesus is not asking James and John if they can swim in a baptismal pool, but is asking them if they can stand up to the suffering and crucifixion which He would experience. Luke 12:50 contains a similar use for the word “baptism,” referring again to Jesus' suffering and crucifixion: “But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how pressed I am until it is accomplished!”
It is clear that the word “baptize” has a wide range of use in the Bible. Taking into account all 42 instances in the Bible where the phrases “baptize in,” “baptize with,” or “baptize into” occur, less than a quarter mention that people were baptized with or in water, about the same amount (25%) are baptisms into someone’s name, and the others are variously distributed between baptisms in the Holy Spirit (17%), in a certain location (15%), into forgiveness of sin (7%), death or crucifixion (10%), and into the body of Christ/the church (2%). This should make it clear that baptism has multiple aspects of meaning in the Bible - it includes the concept of death, it includes the concept of a change in status, it includes the concept of identifying oneself with a person through their name, it is also used of receiving the Holy Spirit, of cleansing from sin, and more. Baptism is a sacrament filled with much meaning to the believer because it symbolizes all of these things which are promised to us by God when we become followers of Jesus!
It is generally the recently-started church denominations that apply water in baptism by immersion. World-wide, most Christians baptize by pouring or sprinkling. But nowhere do New Testament baptismal accounts mention sprinkling, so where do Christians get this idea of sprinkling? Let’s look at how sprinkling and pouring were used in the Bible. Following is a list of every instance where something was sprinkled or poured upon a person - with the exception of the many references to God “pouring” out His wrath upon people for sin:
Sprinkling was the way in which the blood of a sacrifice was applied in the Old Testament sacrificial system. Blood from each of the animal sacrifices was sprinkled on the altar (Instructions for offering sacrifices are in the first several chapters of Leviticus.), and the blood of an animal was sprinkled upon the people to ratify God’s covenant with Israel. (Exodus 24:8 “And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which Jehovah has made with you concerning all these words.’”) Hebrews chapter nine clearly relates this to the work of Christ, referring to the fact that both the Old Testament sacrifices and the death of Jesus involved the shedding of blood and the “sprinkling” of that blood upon people to atone for sin, the former Mosaic sacrifices being a “pattern” and a “figure” for the latter sacrifice of Jesus. It should not come as a surprise therefore, that the Bible speaks of Jesus “sprinkling” people with His blood, first in Isaiah 52:14-15 “behold my Servant… His visage was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men, so shall He sprinklei many nations…,” and then in the New Testament, Hebrews 12:24 “and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling...” and 1 Peter 1:2 “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.” So, the act of sprinkling in the Bible was used in the context of symbolizing and sealing the blood of the Messiah to atone for the people of God, just as today, baptism is a sign and seal of Jesus’ atonement for believers.
Pouring is also used in the context of animal sacrifices and the death of Jesus. In Leviticus, the priests were repeatedly instructed after sprinkling blood on the altar to pour out the rest of the animal’s blood at the base of the altar. Pouring is also used in the context of drink-offerings of wine poured out on top of a sacrifice to be burned up. Jesus clearly saw Himself as the fulfillment of these things as He said in Luke 22:20 “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you,” and in Matthew 26:28 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins” (cf. Mark 14:24). Here, pouring symbolizes the death of Jesus, just as sprinkling represents it in other places and immersion could be used to represent it in yet other passages.
Water, however, was used in purification ceremonies, ultimately symbolizing forgiveness of sin. This water was applied consistently by sprinkling or pouring. In Leviticus 14:7 the priest had to “sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean.” (The leper also had to “wash” with water later. The only exception is the case of Naaman, who dipped himself seven times in the Jordan - instead of being sprinkled seven times - to be cleansed of leprosy. This may be an exception to the rule, seeing as Naaman was a pagan army captain and would not have been well-acquainted with the way the Jews did their washings.) In Numbers 19, water is “sprinkled” on any person who had become unclean to purify them (cf. Lev. 15 where “washing” is required of anyone with an unclean emission or who is touched by uncleanness or touches an unclean animal). Ezekiel 36:25 makes it clear that this sprinkling was not merely understood to represent cleansing from physical impurity but also from spiritual impurity: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.” The writer of Hebrews also supports this: “let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).
Cleansing from the impurity of sin is one of the pictures of baptism, so it would stand to reason that in the absence of an explicit command from God as to how to apply the water in baptism, sprinkling could be used to illustrate this aspect of baptism - cleansing from sinii. If Jesus and the apostles had meant anything different from cleansing from sin in baptism, they would have had to make a big deal of it because it would be natural for the Jews to assume this meaning because of the similarity to their ceremonial washings, but in fact, the New Testament clearly provides continuity with the Jewish ceremonial washings in their symbolism of cleansing from siniii. In fact, if Jesus had meant for believer to baptize in a certain way, He would have had to give special instructions to keep the first Jewish believers from assuming that baptism could be done the same way that Old Testament washings and sprinklings were done (more on this later).
A special case of cleansing was the consecration of the priests, who were “sprinkled” with blood and with oil to “be made holy” (Ex. 29:21, Lev. 8:30), and then “sprinkled” with water as part of an initiation or ordination ceremony (Num. 8:7). Afterwards, when one of these priests was getting ready for regular service, he had to wash himself (Lev. 16), and then after offering the sacrifice he had to bathe again (Num. 19, Ex. 29:4). This washing was done at the brass laver, and only the hands and feet of the priests were washed (Ex. 30:18ff). According to I Kings 7, the laver was only a couple feet in diameter and not big enough to get a whole body in. This “washing” of the skin was usually accompanied by “washing” of the clothes as well, although the Hebrew word used for “washing” of clothes is a different word than the one that is used for washing the body. (The word used for washing clothes has to do with “scrubbing.”)
The Scripture teaches us that believers nowadays have the status that the priests in the Old Testament did. When we become Christians, we are consecrated in baptism to a new role, that of priests who offer up - not animal sacrifices but - spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise to God. “You also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ… You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:5,9) Peter said this new role of New Testament “priest” was for all believers, not just for a special class, so, in a sense, sprinkling could also represent a new Christian’s transferal from common, sinful life to the role of a believer, that of a priest who offers spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise to God!
Another type of consecration was that of anointing kings and high priests. This ceremony was performed by “pouring” oil over their head to set them apart to a special role of leadership (See Exodus 29:7, Leviticus 8:12, 1 Samuel 10:1, and 2 Kings 9:2-3). Although these two leadership roles have been assumed by Jesus, our King and High Priest, they are also applied to believers by the Apostle John in the book of Revelation: “To Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to God and His Father; to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.” (Rev. 1:5-6; see also Rev. 5:9-10 and 20:6 where he again refers to Christians as priests and kings.) The appellation “kings and priests” is given to all believers in the introduction of the book of Revelation, and the position of “kings and priests” is closely related to Jesus having “washed us from our sins in His own blood.” So a case could be made for applying the water of baptism by pouring water over the head to symbolize the setting apart of a new believer for service as priest and king before God, just as the priests and kings of old were anointed.
Although the anointing of priests and kings admittedly doesn’t makes a particularly strong case for baptism by pouring water over the head, the use of “pouring” as a symbol for the coming of the Holy Spirit lends a lot of weight for pouring as a symbolic action for baptism:
Proverbs 1:23 “Turn at my reproof: Look, I will pour out my Spirit upon you; I will make known my words unto you.”
Isaiah 32:15 “until the Spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness become a fruitful field…”
Isaiah 44:3 “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and streams upon the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your seed, and my blessing upon your offspring.”
Ezekiel 39:29 “neither will I hide my face any more from them; for I have poured out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord Jehovah.”
Joel 2:28-29 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my Spirit.” (cf. Acts 2:17, where Peter speaks of this being fulfilled at Pentecost.)
Zecheriah 12:10 “And I will pour upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and of supplication, and they shall look unto me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for his only son…”
Acts 2:33 “Being therefore by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this, which you see and hear.”
Acts 10:45 “And they of the circumcision that believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Titus 3:4-7 “But when the kindness of God our Saviour, and His love toward man, appeared, not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that, being justified by His grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
The Isaiah 32 image of God pouring His blessings over the head of whoever is thirsty and the water flowing off that person’s body to form rivulets in the dry ground as a symbol of the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the person and that person’s children is a perfect image to use for baptism. So is the Titus passage - speaking of the washing of regeneration and the Spirit being “poured” upon us richly through Jesus Christ.
Can you see now why some Christians consider sprinkling and pouring as Biblical ways to baptize? The Bible clearly teaches that sprinkling and pouring symbolize cleansing from sin, initiation into a covenant relationship with God, initiation into the Christian role of priest and king, and being anointed with the Holy Spirit.
It may be well enough that sprinkling and pouring and immersion all represent elements of the meaning of baptism, but is the word “baptize” actually associated with all three of these modes? Since there is no explicit definition or command given in the Bible regarding the mode of baptism, another way to decide this question is to again look at Scripture and see what synonyms are used with the word “baptize.” One way to find synonyms is to look for instances of the Greek words for “baptize” (“baptizo” or “bapto”) in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). In doing so, we can find Hebrew synonyms for the Greek word. After that we will go to the New Testament look at more synonyms used in the immediate context of the word “baptize.”
There are about twenty times when the Septuagint uses the words for “baptize” to translate a Hebrew word in the Old Testament. The word most-frequently translated “baptize” in Greek is the Hebrew word “tabal,” which means “dip.” Below are all the instances in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word “tabal” was translated “baptize” in the Septuagint:
Exodus 12:22 “take a bunch of hyssop, and DIP in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side-posts with the blood that is in the basin”
Leviticus 4:6, 17 “And the priest shall DIP his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before the LORD”
Leviticus 9:9 “And the sons of Aaron brought the blood to him: and he DIPPED his finger in the blood, and put it upon the horns of the altar, and poured out the blood at the bottom of the altar”
Leviticus 14:6-7 “As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar-wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall DIP them, and the living bird, in the blood of the bird killed over the running water. And he shall sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose into the open field” (Same basic thing was done in cleansing a house, only the bird and all was dipped in water instead of blood - Lev. 14:51)
Leviticus 14:16 “And the priest shall DIP his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle of the oil with his finger seven times before the LORD”
Numbers 19:18 “And a clean person shall take hyssop, and DIP in the water, and sprinkle upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave”
Deuteronomy 33:24 “And of Asher he said, Let Asher be blessed with children; let him be acceptable to his brethren, and let him DIP his foot in oil”
Joshua 3:15 “And as they that bore the ark had come to Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bore the ark were DIPPED in the brim of the water, (for Jordan overflows all its banks all the time of harvest) the waters upstream stood and rose up in a heap”
Ruth 2:14 “And Boaz said to her, At meal-time come here, and eat of the bread, and DIP your pieces in the vinegar…”
I Samuel 14:27 “But Jonathan did not hear when his father charged the people with the oath: so he put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand, and DIPPED it in a honey-comb, and put his hand to his mouth”
2 Kings 5 - Naaman “dipped” in the Jordan (more later on this)
2 Kings 8:15 Ben-Hadad, King of Syria had a servant named Hazael who assassinated him thus: “he took a thick cloth, and DIPPED it in water, and spread it on his face, so that he died”
Job 9:28-31 “I know that you will not hold me innocent… If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands ever so clean; Yet will you PLUNGE me in the ditch, and my own clothes shall abhor me.”
Taking all these instances into account, it should be noted that although over half refer to dipping as a prelude to some kind of sprinkling action, dipping is the dominant meaning for “baptize” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is also interesting that this “dipping” was more often than not done to only to a part of a body. Out of fifteen uses of this word in the Old Testament, only three describe total immersion (Hazael’s rag in water, Naaman’s body in the Jordan, and Job’s body in the ditch), three more describe total immersion of a part (the tip of Jonathan’s staff in honey, Asher’s feet in oil, and the priest’s feet in the Jordan), and all the rest describe partial immersion, (only the tip of the hyssop would have gotten wet in the bowl it was dipped in, only the tip of the finger would have gotten wet from dipping it in the palm of the hand, only part of the bird would have gotten covered with the bloodiv, and only part of the bread would be dipped in the vinegar). But whether or not the entire body was immersed, two-thirds of the Old Testament Greek references to baptism are translated from the Hebrew word “tabal” and clearly mean “to dip.” This meaning would surely have been in the minds of the writers of the New Testament when they wrote the word “baptize,” because they were familiar with the Septuagint Greek Old Testament. Thus immersion is a Biblical way to baptize.
First, Elisha tells Naaman by way of his servant to “wash” in the Jordan seven times (v.10). This is to be expected according to the Biblical law mentioned earlier where the leper had to be sprinkled seven times to be cleansed. As Naaman deliberated with his servants, they used the same word “wash,” to describe what he should do (v. 12, 13). Finally Naaman did it - he went down to the Jordan, and “dipped” himself in the water. This word for “dip” is the same Hebrew word “tabal” mentioned above and is translated “baptizo” in the Septuagint Greek. But this passage gives us another synonym, and that is the word “wash,” which Naaman obviously equated with “baptize.”
In Hebrew, the word for “wash” is “rakhatz.” It is first used regarding cleaning the feet as an act of hospitality. Instances of washing the feet of guests are Abraham (Gen. 18:4), Lot (Gen. 19:2), Rebecca (Gen. 24:32), Abigail (I Sam. 25), and presumably Bathsheba (2 Sam 11). This practice continued into the New Testament, where Jesus washed the feet of His disciples and told them to wash other’s feet (John 13), the sinful woman washed Jesus feet (Luke 7 - actually a different word which means "sprinkle"), and it is found among the criteria for widows to be eligible to receive financial aid from the church - whether they “washed the feet of the saints” (I Tim. 5:10).
In addition to showing hospitality in washing off physical dirt, this word is also used to symbolize innocence from sin. When someone was killed and no one knew what had happened, the elders would sacrifice a heifer and then wash their hands to show their innocence (Deut. 21:6). David speaks of washing his hands to show he is innocent of sin before coming close to the altar in worship (Psalm 26:6), but Job makes it clear that no amount of washing hands can really make one innocent of sin (Job 9:30). The outer washing symbolized inner cleansing from sin, “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil” (Isa. 1:16). Pontius Pilate also followed this practice when he washed his hands after condemning Jesus. How was this hand-washing done? The only clue I can find is in 2 Kings 3:11, where it says, “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Elijah.” Here we see an explicit description of how at least some ceremonial washings were performed - water was poured over the hands.
Other parts of the body were also washed, including the face (Gen. 43:30 - Joseph), and sometimes the whole body was washed. In Leviticus 15:11 and 17:15 God’s people were commanded to wash their body if they had been touched by an unclean person. Ruth washed herself as part of making herself presentable to Boaz (Ruth 3:3), the word also describes what Bathsheba was doing when David saw her, and Ezekiel mentions this word in the case of a woman gussying herself up (Ez. 23:40). John 2:6 implies that large amounts of clean water were stored in 20-gallon jars for these washings. The jar was probably narrow enough for a servant to carry from the well (not wide enough to bathe directly in), so a person would dip a smaller container into the big jar and pour the water upon the parts of the body that they wanted to wash. So, the Hebrew synonym for “baptize” here has a wide range of meaning, including washing dirt from the hands, feet, face, or entire body, and this could have been done by immersion but was more probably done with a pouring action since they didn’t have the convenience of indoor plumbing. They used the same water for bathing or drinking, and all that water had to be carried in by hand and disposed of after bathing, so most city-dwellers wouldn’t have wasted their water by immersing the whole body in a bath.
The Septuagint translates Naaman’s synonym for “baptize” as the Greek word for “wash” - “louo” (pronounced with a long “o” at the end). It also has to do with physical washing from dirt, such as washing Tabitha’s dead body for burial (Acts 9:37), washing Paul and Silas’ wounds after their flogging (Acts 16:33), and cleaning dirt off a pig (2 Pet. 2:22). These could be done by pouring, sprinkling, or immersing - we are not told exactly. The passage in John 13:10 might indicate a washing of the entire body - “He who has been washed has no need except … his feet” in other words, if your entire body has been washed beforehand, and you walk to someone else’s house for dinner, you only need to wash the dust off your feet, not to wash your entire body again when you arrive. However, the word “louo” also has connotations of spiritual cleansing:
Eph. 5:25-27 “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself up for it; that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the WASHING of water with the word, that He might present the church to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
Tit. 3:4-7 “But when the kindness of God our Saviour, and His love toward man, appeared - not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to His mercy - He saved us, through the WASHING of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that, being justified by His grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Heb. 10:22-23 “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies WASHED with pure water.”
Rev. 1:5 “… To Him who loved us, and WASHED us from our sins in His own blood…”
This use of “louo” is closely linked to the ceremonial sprinklings, pourings, and washings outlined earlier to signify purification from sin. Here we see the fulfillment of all those washings in the work of Jesus who applied His own blood to us, sprinkled our hearts to cleanse us, washed us with His word, gave us a new birth, and poured out His Spirit on us. Again, this Greek synonym for “baptize” seems to cover all the different modes of baptism.
“My heart panted, fearfulness overwhelmed me: the night of my pleasure He has turned into fear to me.”
The word for “overwhelmed” is the Hebrew (ba'at), which Brown, Driver and Briggs define as “terrify, startle, fall upon, dismay, be overtaken by sudden terror.” The Septuagint translates this word “baptizo.” So here we have another synonym for the Greek word for “baptize,” a word which speaks of being overwhelmed mentally. There is a sense in which baptism represents our being mentally overwhelmed - gripped with conviction over our sins, terror of God’s judgement, and surrender to His Spirit.
This word for the turbans is a noun form of the Hebrew word “tabal” which we’ve seen before as a word meaning “to dip,” although Brown, Driver, and Briggs suggest it could mean here to “wrap.” Jamieson, Fausset and Brown comment that it means “‘in ample dyed turbans’ literally, ‘redundant with dyed turbans.’ The Assyrians delighted in ample, flowing, and richly colored tunics, scarfs, girdles, and head-dresses or turbans.” The Septuagint translates this into Greek as “parabapta” - so this synonym supports the meaning of dipping something in a dye to color it as a meaning of the Greek word for “baptize.” The focus then is not so much on how the garment was colored, but that it had a color. This seems to resonate with the New Testament teachings on baptism that focus not on how the person was baptized but rather upon the fact that a new convert was a new person in Christ.
If an unclean animal dies and falls upon “any vessel of wood, or clothing, or skin, or sack … it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening; so it shall be cleansed”
The Septuagint uses the word “bapto” to translate the Hebrew word “ba” which simply means “to go.” Literally the Hebrew text reads “in water it shall go.” This is not very descriptive of exactly how the water is applied, but we could easily assume that the whole object was dropped into a container of water. This would support the “dipping” action of baptism. It is clear, however, that in this case, baptism is attached to the concept of cleansing - probably with both physical and spiritual applications.
“But God will smite through the head of His enemies, The hairy scalp of whoever goes on still in his guiltiness… so that you may smite your foot in the blood of your enemies to the tongue of your dogs…”
Here is a rather interesting verse that is translated in several different ways. The original Hebrew word describing the action God does to the head of the enemies is the same word describing the action of the foot in the blood of the enemies - “machats” which means to “smite,” “shatter,” or “wound.” The NASV is the only standard translation that uses the same word to translate them both (“shatter”); others use different words: The KJV uses “wound … be dipped,” the NIV “crush … plunge,” the RSV “shatter … bathe,” but I actually like the Contemporary English Version best, which uses “crush … stomp.” The Greek translation here is “sunthlao” (“crush together” or “dash to pieces”) … “bapto” - which brings us to another synonym for “baptize.” In this instance, the image is of the boot of a soldier splashing into a puddle of blood and that blood wetting the tongues of his dogs. Here the Greek word for “baptize” seems to be related to a splattering action.
“The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and ate grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles', and his nails like birds'.”
Here is yet another synonym where the Old Testament word describing the way the body of Nebuchadnezzar was made wet with dew is translated “bapto” by the Septuagint. Since Daniel lived in Babylon, he wrote his book in Aramaic, a language closely-related to Hebrew, and the word here in Aramaic is from “tseba`” - “to wet.” In the case of Nebuchadnezzar, this is describing sprinkling of dew from heaven. This word is also used in Judges 5:30, to indicate color-dying, in Jer. 12:9 to indicate multiple shades of color on a wild animal, and is also used in a noun form to mean “finger” in several other places. This word does not describe a total covering, but more a splotchy wetting. Oddly enough, the same word “tseba`” is found earlier in Daniel 4 in the first of three iterations of Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment, but the Septuagint translates it the first time as “aulizomai” (v. 22) “to spend the night, camp, or live” - the idea being that he would be sleeping outdoors like an animal, but the second and third times the Aramaic word is used in this same chapter it is translated with the word “bapto.” So this synonym from Daniel for “baptize” has to do with getting sprinkled from above and getting unevenly wet.
Moving into the New Testament, there are several passages that use the word “baptize” interchangeably with other words. The first is Mark 7:3-4 which says, “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, if they don’t wash (Greek "nipto") their hands diligently, they won’t eat, holding the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market-place, if they don’t bathe (baptizo) themselves, they won’t eat” (cf. Mat. 15:2, which uses “nipto” for “wash”). Later on, Jesus is confronted with the same thing by another Pharisee who “marveled that He had not first bathed (baptizo) Himself before dinner” (Luke 11:38). From these three passages, it appears that the Greek word “nipto” is a synonym for the Greek word “baptizo” because they are used interchangeably for the traditional washing of the hands before eating. According to 2 Kings 3:11, this may have been done by a servant pouring water over the hands (which is also the way we do it in modern times, pouring water from a sink spigot), but the Bible is not explicit on this. This Greek synonym, “nipto,” is defined as “to cleanse - especially the hands or the feet or the face; ceremonially, to perform ablution:--washv” Jesus speaks of washing the face to look normally presentable (Mat. 6:17) - which would probably be done by splashing water upwards on the face; He also told a blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) - a pool for drinking watervi, so he would not have been allowed to dip himself in and contaminate everyone else’s drinking water, but would rather have drawn water out and poured it on himself.
Another place where the Greek word “nipto” for “washing” occurs several times is in John 13:5, 8-10 “Then [Jesus] poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded… Peter said to Him, ‘You should never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.’ Simon Peter said unto Him, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.’ Jesus said to him, ‘He that is bathed needs not save to wash his feet, but is wholly clean…’” One lesson taught here is that washing of one part of the body can symbolize the cleansing of the entire body. If what Jesus said is true, then wetting the head of a convert can just as much symbolize the cleansing the person as immersing the convert’s entire body, just as washing Peter’s feet made him “wholly clean” (I like Wycliffe’s translation “wholly clean” best here). The only one who was not clean was Judas because his heart was not right before God, so no amount of cleansing his body could make him clean before God. Synecdoche like this - a part representing the whole - is common in symbolic practices. Not only did washing one part of the physical body symbolize washing the entirety of the physical body, but the physical washing of a part of the body also symbolized cleansing from sin of the spiritual part of the body. This is also what happens in Christian baptism, a physical washing with water that symbolizes cleansing of the entire person from sin.
Another place where a Greek synonym is used interchangeably with the word “baptize” is Mark 7:4 “And many other things there are, which [the Pharisees] have received to keep: the washing (baptizo) of cups…” Compare with Luke 11:39 and Matthew 23:25 “And the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees make clean (catharizo) the outside of the cup…” Here, the Greek word for “baptize” is used interchangeably with the Greek word “catharizo” which means to “purify” or “cleanse.” How is this word used in Scripture, and how is the cleansing applied? It is often used in connection with lepers, and these lepers were cleansed in multiple ways: with sprinkling of water (Lev. 14:7), with dipping (Naaman, Lk. 4:27), and with a mere spoken word sometimes accompanied by a touch (Mat. 8:3). This “cleansing” is also spoken of in relation to forgiveness of sin, which was addressed through animal sacrifice (Lev. 16:30) and ultimately through the blood of Christ (Heb. 9:14) - both of which, as we’ve seen earlier, are spoken of as being applied by sprinkling. This purification is appropriated by faith (Peter speaks of this in relation to baptizing Cornelius’ household in Acts 15:8). This word for “cleansing” is also used with other words associated with washing and water such as in Ephesians 5:26 “That He might sanctify and cleanse [the church] with the washing (louo - see word study above) of water by the word” and Psalm 51: 7 “Purge me with hyssop (referring to dipping a hyssop branch in water and sprinkling it on a person), and I shall be clean: wash me (Kabas - referring to scrubbing something clean), and I shall be whiter than snow.” So again we have the Greek word for “baptize” related to all forms of application of water in the process of cleansing from dirt and symbolizing cleansing from sin.
When the New Testament doesn’t give detail, it is wise to go to the Old Testament to see if there are principles already in place which are assumed by New Testament writers. In the Old Testament, the words “immerse,” “submerge,” and “dunk” are never used; sprinkling and pouring were generally the way things got wet. When the word “dip” (generally rendered “bapto” and related to “baptizo” by Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament) is used in the Old Testament, most of the time it is to cover an instrument with a liquid in order to then apply the liquid to another surface, whether dipping a finger in oil or blood in order to apply it by sprinkling or smearing or to dip a hyssop branch into water or blood to then sprinkle it over a person or an object, or to dip bread into a sop to then eat it. We see also that the Bible uses many synonyms for the Greek word for “baptize:” dip (the one most often used), bathe (which can be by dipping, pouring, or sprinkling), wash (by pouring, and maybe by immersion), cleanse (usually by sprinkling), overwhelm, color-dye, splatter, and sprinkle unevenly. Since there was no exclusive use of the word “baptize,” we must conclude that the apostles could have not had only one mode of baptism in mind when they spoke of baptism.
The Baptism of John
Although we have no explicit Biblical evidence that John immersed his followers, the circumstantial evidence weighs in that he may well have immersed them in his baptism. The Jordan river was where John was baptizing (John 10:40). We have seen earlier that he baptized Jesus “into the Jordan;” John 3:23 states that “John was also baptizing in Enon near Salim because there was much water.” Enon is near the Jordan river. Having “much water” would point to the likelihood of immersion.
John 3:22-4:2 Jesus and His Disciples
This is the only Gospel account of Jesus' disciples baptizing people. They did not do it in the Jordan, but rather in Judea somewhere - exactly where and how, we are not told.
Hebrews 9:9-11 Jewish Ceremonial Washings
“…gifts and sacrifices that cannot, as touching the conscience, make the worshipper perfect, being only (with meats and drinks and various baptisms) carnal ordinances, imposed until the time of … Christ…”
Here the Greek word “baptism” is used to describe Old Testament ceremonial washings, which brings us again back to the sprinklings and pourings used for cleansing. The word “baptism” here preceded by the word “various” cannot refer to only one sort of washing but to all of them together. This would indicate that baptism is used here as a generic word without specific connotation of mode.
Acts 8:36 The Ethiopian Eunuch
He “sees water” and asks to be baptized by Phillip. They go down into the water, then Phillip baptizes the eunuch, then they come up out of the water. The same wording is used in Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism: They went down, then one got baptized, then they came out - in other words, the coming into the water and the going out of the water were not part of the baptism. The baptism was done after going down and finished before coming up. In the case of the eunuch’s baptism, the Greek word for water is a generic term for water (hudatos) and not the word for a body of water like a sea or a river. Although the scriptures do not state how much water there was, or how the baptism was accomplished, it seems unlikely that there would have been enough water in the desert to fully immerse someone.
Acts 9:18-19 Paul's Baptism
“And straightway there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight; and he arose and was baptized; and he took food.” There is nothing conclusive here either, but there are some questions. These events: the healing, the rising up, the baptism, and the eating are in quick succession. He apparently did not leave the house between being healed and eating, so how would an indoor baptism be done? You would also expect the verb “he went down” instead of “he went up” to precede baptism if it were done in a body of water; the way this verse is worded, it appears he was standing when he was baptized. (cf. Act 22:16, where Ananias says, “And now why wait? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”) These circumstances would point to Paul standing and having water applied to his head rather than being immersed for his baptism.
Acts 10:47 Baptism of Cornelius and his Household
“Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized?” The passage does not say how they were baptized, but Peter's question is interesting. Could a bathtub or a river be “forbidden”? But water that was carried in a container could be forbidden before being poured or sprinkled over the head of the new believers. Whatever the case, it says that they were baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Acts 16:15-33 Philippian Baptisms
Paul was “alongside the river” when he met and baptized Lydia and all her household. Did they go into the river? It doesn’t say. The Philippian jailer was also baptized along with “all those of him.” Apparently the baptism was done in the jail, immediately after the jailer had washed Paul and Silas. Was there a bathtub in the jail that Paul and Silas immersed the jailer and his slaves and children in, or was there a washbasin from which Paul and Silas sprinkled water over everybody? It doesn’t say.
There is no command in scripture as to how to administer baptism, and with the possible exception of John the Baptizer, there is also no example in scripture of how exactly baptism was done. Also, no one form of baptism fits the circumstances of all the Biblical accounts. It should be concluded then that the mode of baptism (whether immersing, sprinkling, pouring, or whatever in water) is not made an issue in the Scriptures and thus should not be made an issue in the church today.
The ancient Greek document known as the “Didache” or the “Teaching of the Twelve” supposedly containing instructions from the 12 apostles themselves, lists both immersion and pouring water over the head as acceptable forms of baptism. This corroborates with a statement from Dr. Geoffrey Bromiley that “Any kind of water, whether in the sea, a river, a pool, a font or a bowl, was regarded as adequate for the purpose, as in the teaching of the Fathers.” Cyprian, in the third century A.D. writes, “Whence it appears that the sprinkling also of water prevails equally with the salutary washing, and that when this is done in the church where the faith both of the receiver and the giver is sound, all things hold…vii” However, it should be mentioned that the early church fathers preferred immersion in "living" water to pouring or sprinkling. Early inscriptions show people (and even John the Baptizer) standing in water and pouring water over the head of the ones being baptizedviii. (See illustration below.) The earliest-known church building is a Roman residence near the Syria-Iraq border which was converted into a church meeting place around 240AD with a baptistery font into which candidates for baptism would step, water being poured or sprinkled over themix. Baptisteries of the Nicene age (4th century) in the Southern climates, states Schaff, were built for immersionx.
The Jewish Mishna teachings show that in Jesus’ time, the Jews baptized converts to Judaism in addition to circumcising them, and if they had children, the children were baptized with themxi. The early church fathers also speak of the place of children. Justin Martyr in the mid-100’s mentions that women became disciples of Christ from childhoodxii, and Irenaeus in the late 100’s A.D. that Jesus “came to save through means of Himself all who through Him are born again unto God, infants, and little children, and boys, and youths, and old men.xiii” The first mention of infant baptism is in Tertullian’s writings from the late second century, where he makes it clear that infant baptism was a normal practice in the church. Origen also speaks of it as a tradition of the apostles, “For this also it was, that the Church had from the apostles a tradition to give baptism even to infants.xiv” The council of Carthage in AD253 also takes infant baptism for granted, the only controversy being whether an infant could be baptized before the eighth day. The Reformers of the 16th and 17th century preferred baptism to be done in their church meeting place, and since infants were normally the recipients, they did not practice baptism in large bodies of water. Fonts were still used in some cases, but others favored baptism in a simple bowl or dishxv. Although there were men like Augustine in the early church who did not practice infant baptism because they (erroneously) believed that baptism automatically cancelled all sins previously committed and thus should be deferred as late in life as possible in order to have more sins forgiven, the first historical group with actual objections to infant baptism were the Anabaptists over a thousand years later who re-baptized adults who had been baptized as infants.
Early on, many other customs were brought into the baptismal service to highlight various aspects of our salvation and new life in Christ. Tertullian describes quite an elaborate set of ceremonies, including: triple immersion or sprinkling (one for each person of the Trinity), exorcism (change of identity from under Satan to under Jesus), anointing with oil (setting apart for holy service like the O.T. priests), the wearing of a white baptismal robe (symbolizing righteousness in Christ), making the sign of the cross (enlistment to discipleship and spiritual warfare), washing of the eyes (gaining new spiritual understanding), drinking of milk and honey (receiving the nourishment of the word of God), and receiving 10 coins (observing the 10 commandments), and salt. While all these were not necessarily bad, none are commanded in the Bible. The Swiss reformer, Zwingli, as well as the German reformer, Luther, and the English reformer, Cranmer, were at first tempted to retain some of these added baptismal practices, but it was soon seen that these ceremonies tended to lead to superstition and to obscure the real sign of baptism itself, rather than give it solemnity as at first intended, so most of these additional practices were abolished in the Reformation churches in favor of the simple water baptism commanded in Scripture. The Anglicans rejected triple baptism as early as 1552, when they took it permanently out of their Prayer Book, but The Church of England and the Lutheran church retained the sign of the crossxvi.
Today, the Roman Catholics baptize adults and infants alike by pouring water over the head. I am told that the Eastern Orthodox churches immerse the body and pour water over the head. Reformed churches (such as the different Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Lutheran denominations) generally sprinkle or pour water over the heads of adults or infants. And Baptists as well as many Congregational, Charismatic, and Pentecostal denominations generally immerse only adults. From this cursory study of church history, it is clear that Christians throughout history have baptized in different ways. This further supports the position that just as the early Christians (as well as Christians throughout history) interpreted Scripture to support immersion, sprinkling, and pouring - and infant baptism as well as adult baptism, so we should recognize all of these today as valid forms of Christian baptism.
ROMANS 6:3 “all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death. We were buried therefore with Him through baptism into death: that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.”
The picture of burial in baptism is a Biblical image of baptism, but it is only one of many, seeing as only 10% of the references to baptism in the New Testament refer to death, and even fewer connect baptism with resurrection and new life. Immersion would also be a good way to illustrate this meaning of baptism. This, however was probably not what the apostles had in mind when they wrote this scripture because they buried their dead by carrying them into a cave rather than by lowering them into the ground, so we need to be careful not to read Western cultural forms of burial into the meaning of Scripture. One other point to make is that baptism is always passive, no one (except Naaman) baptized themselves in the Bible, they always “were baptized” by someone else.
I CORINTHIANS 1 - “Were you baptized into the name of Paul? No! I'm glad I did not baptize any of you except Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanus!”
Here, two principles can be brought forth: One is that the person administering the baptism is not important. Baptism is in the name of Jesus, not in the name of the person doing the baptism. It is not even Biblically commanded that a church officer perform the baptism. Although neither were apparently church elders, Ananias baptized Paul, and Steven baptized the Samaritans. (There is, however, good reason for having church officers preside in a baptism, since it is a formal function of the church.) Even if the person who baptized you was obviously not living a Christian life at the time of your baptism, or appeared to be a fine Christian but later fell away into heresy or gross sin, your baptism is still valid. It is not the person who got you wet that matters, but the obedience of being baptized and the remembrance of what the sacrament means that matters.
The other principle we can gather from this verse is that baptisms of entire households were not uncommon. We have four baptisms recorded in Scripture where everybody in the house - presumably wives, children, and slaves - was baptized: Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian Jailer, and here Stephanus.
ACTS 16:31, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your house.” In the case of the household baptisms, there appears to be a principle of God’s blessing on a whole household when the head of that household believes in Jesus. This concept is further illustrated in Paul’s teaching regarding marriage and divorce in 1 Cor. 7:14 “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” Apparently the children of unbelievers are “unclean” and the children of believers are “holy.” Jesus also said, “See that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 18:10). Do we have to make an adult profession of faith in order to have a special relationship with God? Apparently not, for Jesus taught that the children of believers in the New Testament have angels with a special status before God. (Although there is no explicit command in scripture, an adult profession of faith is a logical requirement to make before baptizing an adult or before baptizing the children of that adult.) The Old Testament sacrament of circumcision (cleansing from sin and membership among the people of God) was given to children at 8 days of age, and it is only logical to include children in the New Testament sacrament as well, for, as Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, because of the Jewish assumption that infants received the initiatory rite of God’s people in the Old Testament (circumcision), it would have taken an explicit command from Jesus to discontinue giving the sign of initiation to God’s people in the New Testament (baptism), but no such prohibition is given. Certainly the baptism of infants is something which is not directly commanded in Scripture, but rather inferred. However, we have created other Christian practices by inference, such as the observance of worship on Sunday in the absence of an explicit command to change the day from Saturday, the requirement of a confession of faith before baptism in the absence of any Biblical command to do so, and the distribution of the Lord’s Supper to women when there is no command to serve it to the fairer sex. Likewise it should be accepted if Christians make the very logical inference to baptize infants.
1 CORINTHIANS 12:13 “For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit”
Here is the only explicit reference to baptism being a sacrament of membership in the body of Christ - the church. The baptism is done by the instrumentality of the Spirit and the image used here is one of drinking - taking it in internally, not just being immersed or sprinkled externally. The Old Testament sacrament of membership in the people of God was circumcision. What ramifications does this have for the New Testament sign of membership in the body of Christ?
EPHESIANS 4:5 “One Lord, one faith, one baptism”
If there is only one Christian baptism, it is wrong for any church denomination to make distinctions among Christian baptisms, saying that a baptism done by a Presbyterian is different than the baptism done by a Baptist. The Bible says there is one baptism, and no denomination should require a re-baptism just because they don’t like the way another denomination does it. Geoffrey Bromiley, writes “Baptism is the initiatory sign, and for that reason alone it should not be repeated. It is the sign of regeneration, and although there may be many restorations, birth can take place only once. Supremely, however, it is the sign of the work of Jesus Christ which emphasized - the once-for-all character of this work.xvii” To re-baptize someone who has already had water applied to them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, destroys the meaning of baptism as an initiatory sign.
COLOSSIANS 2:11-14 “Ye were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, He made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and He has taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross…”
Here baptism is related to two things: 1) The death and resurrection of Jesus. It is also a spiritual identification with Jesus in dying to our fleshly nature and living a new life of faith as He died to fulfill the punishment for sin and was raised to new life. Again, immersion is a good picture of this meaning. 2) The Old Testament sacrament of circumcision. Baptism is a spiritual circumcision, a spiritual cutting off of sinfulness. This further shows the connection of baptism to circumcision and many things are implied by this, such as the age at which it is applied, the covenant relationship with God as far back as Abraham, and the concept of membership among the people of God.
GALATIANS 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ”
Here we have the identification of a body of people with one person in baptism. In I Cor. 10, it was the nation of Israel being identified with Moses, here it is the church being identified with Christ. This baptism is “into Christ” - not into and back out of, as dipping would symbolize. The important thing is not how the water gets on, but whether we get on Christ!
1 CORINTHIANS 10:2 “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”
When the Israelites hid behind that cloud and crossed over the Red Sea, they received a new identity. The sea closed back up, sealing any chance of returning to Egypt. This event separated Israel from the nation of Egypt, and from then on, they were followers of Moses in a new nation of God. This is an Old Testament symbol of baptism - an event which signifies a change in identity. New Testament baptism shows the world that we are no longer associated with the old life of this world but are now associated with Jesus Christ in a new life and a new identity as Christians. This concept of a change in identity is key in Biblical baptism. In certain mission settings, the event of baptism marks the point at which non-Christian family and friends write the new convert off as hopeless and try to kill him. Although immersion could picture the nation of Israel going down into the seabed and back up, it could be argued that the Israelites were neither immersed into the sea nor into the cloud although the passage states that they were baptized in the cloud and in the sea, and that it was rather the Egyptians who were immersed. It actually fits better with the concept of an initiatory rite which indicates this change in status - just as Moses had all the men circumcised after crossing the sea.
1 PETER 3:18-21 “Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit… God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being built, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the appeal of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
Peter makes clear that it is not the water that saves us - he’s not even talking about water (“not the removal of dirt from the body”), but rather the story of Noah is an example or type of God’s salvation. Noah floated “through” the water in a boat while the wicked were immersed and died. We all deserve God’s punishment, but God has provided a way of escape, this time not through a boat to escape from a flood but rather through Jesus Christ to escape eternal death. In this way, the story of Noah is a likeness of the story of salvation through Jesus. We are saved, not by baptism, but by asking God to cleanse us from sin on account of Jesusxviii. We cannot have a clean conscience until after we have been saved. We have to ask God for that clean conscience, and He gives it to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This concept of cleansing from sin is a key picture in Christian baptism.
MATTHEW 28:19 “baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
We must back around to this verse in closing, because it is the most essential teaching on baptism - the most explicit command. “When baptism is administered, the recipient is not merely making a confession of his own repentance and faith, and witnessing to something which takes place in himself. He is baptized into the name of the Trinity, and therefore into the saving action of the Trinity on his behalf. His baptism speaks to him, therefore, of the election of the Father (I Pet. 1:2, Eph 1:4), which is the ground and basis of His salvation, the substitionary work of the Son through His obedient self-offering on the cross, and the work of the Holy Spirit… who does the work of incorporation into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.xix” The word “name” does not merely mean a title, but “all the qualities by which God makes Himself known, and which constitute the sum total of all that He is for His worshippers.xx”
Baptism is a sacrament filled with meaning. As we have seen, the Bible associates baptism with all of the things that happen to a person when they become a follower of Christ:
* Being made holy by the application of the blood of Jesus
* Cleansing from the impurity of sin
* Being saved from God's punishment for sin
* Dying to the old life and forsaking it
* Changing identity to be associated with the name of Jesus
* Changing social involvement to become a member of the church
* Changing roles to become a priest and king in Jesus’ kingdom
* Receiving the Holy Spirit
These are all part of the meaning of baptism, and there is no one mode of baptism - whether immersing, pouring, or sprinkling - which best represents all of these meanings. We must chose a mode, however, and make it meaningful by explaining how it symbolizes these realities of life as believer.
The word “baptize” as we have seen from the way the Bible uses it, has multiple meanings and synonyms, including dipping, color-dying, suffering/crucifixion, bathing, washing by pouring, cleansing by sprinkling, overwhelming mentally, splattering, and sprinkling unevenly. There is also no specific command in the Bible as to how to apply the water in baptism, so the Bible prevents us from being dogmatic about baptizing in any one way. God knows our human tendency to legalism - our inclination to observe outward forms in exact detail and forget about the spiritual realities - and has purposefully left the mode of baptism ambiguous so that we have to grapple with it a bit and make its significance real in our lives.
The examples of other believers also leave us no room for exclusivity in baptism. The accounts of baptisms in the New Testament are not explicit enough to determine for sure how the water was applied; in fact, different accounts seem to support different ways of baptism - some by immersion, some by applying the water over the head, some of children, some of adults. Church history likewise supports every kind of baptism from the earliest Christian documents all the way through today. For these reasons, it is important that all Christians show their solidarity by accepting all forms of Christian baptism - whether sprinkling, pouring, or immersing, and whether infant baptism or adult baptism.
It doesn’t matter which way we were baptized because Christians have only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Whatever was done in your baptism, you can be confident that if you did it in obedience to God’s word, you have really received Christian baptism. Now go and live it out the meaning of your baptism!
i The Septuagint seems to be off-base here when it substitutes “many nations shall be amazed” for “He shall sprinkle many nations,” for this is not to be found in any Hebrew texts.
ii Heidelberg Catechism #69 “How is it signified and sealed to you in holy baptism that you have a part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross? Thus that Christ has appointed the outward washing with water and added the promise that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.”
iii Luis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1939, page 628.
iv According to the medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, the bowl would have contained a quarter of a log of fresh water (a log being approximately a cup), then the first bird’s blood would be added to that - again not much liquid, so there probably wouldn’t have been enough liquid to immerse the entirety of the second bird, nor would they want the second bird to be so caked with blood that it couldn’t fly away when released.
v Strong’s Concordance
vi according to Unger’s Bible Dictionary
vii Ad Magnum XII.
viii Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (Scribner 1910, Eerdmans 1995), Vol II, p.248 mentions De Rossi’s find of second-century catacomb drawings in the cemetery of Calixtus.
ix Michael Walsh, Triumph of the Meek, HarperCollins.
x History of the Christian Church (Scribner 1910, Eerdmans 1995), Vol II, p. 248.
xi This comes from Luis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology where he cites two sources, a commentary on the Mishna by Schuerer, and Wall’s The History of Infant Baptism, Oxford, 1836.
xii Apologia, 155 A.D.
xiii Adv. Haereses II, 22,4.
xiv De Baptismo, c. XVIII.
xv Dr. Geoffrey Bromiley, Sacramental Teaching and Practice in the Reformation Churches, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene OR, 1999, p.35.
xvi ibid, p. 36-37.
xvii ibid, p. 27.
xviii The word “appeal” is a better translation than the word “answer” or “pledge” which some translations use. The Greek word (eperotao) means “request” in every other instance in the Bible.
xix Bromiley, Sacramental Teaching and Practice in the Reformation Churches, p. 21-22.
xx Luis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1939, page 625.