Updated: Oct 1, 2018
The Great Commission
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-21
The word translated in Matthew 28 as “baptizing” is βαπτίζοντες, a Greek verb meaning to dip or submerge so as to soak, to cleanse by washing; to overwhelm.
After two thousand years of Christian tradition, opinions vary greatly on the topic of baptism. Some claim it is an unnecessary symbol, some that it washes away original sin and others say it is an essential part of the believer’s salvation. When it comes to how baptism should be performed the differences continue; immersion, submersion or sprinkling in water – once or three times, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit or only in the name of Jesus Christ.
Much of Christianity has failed to understand this important topic, due in large part to misunderstanding other Biblical truths and compounding those errors by inventing new doctrines intended to explain them away. Yet, the truth of the matter can be found in Scripture and so this article will spend considerable time there endeavoring to explain baptism.
Baptism in Judaism
We must remember that initially the early Christians viewed themselves as being faithful to Judaism and did not see their beliefs as a new religion, but rather as the culmination of that ancient faith - following the Jewish Messiah. So it is against this setting that we must first consider baptism.
In Judaism, tevilah (טְבִילָה) is a full body immersion in “living” water. This ritual washing was performed for several reasons including purification and eventually conversion. After which the washed would be considered ritually pure. We see this in Old Testament passages such as 2 Kings 5 where Elisha tells Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times so that his flesh will be restored and he will be clean.
However, we also see this term used in passages like Genesis 37:31 where Joseph’s brothers dipped his robe in the blood of the goat to convince their father he was dead, in Exodus 12:22 where the Hebrews dipped hyssop into the blood of the Passover Lamb and placed it on the top and sides of their door frames so the angel of death would pass over them and in Leviticus 4:6 where the Priest was instructed to dip his finger in the blood of a bull as part of a sin offering.
This term describing the act of dipping in, or sprinkling of, water and/or blood is often associated with restoring life and purification from corruption, sin and death. These Old Testament examples serve as foreshadowing, hinting at and prophesying about the coming of the Lord.
Baptism in the New Testament
When we arrive in the New Testament, specifically the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, the prophet known as John the Baptist, or John the Forerunner enters the scene. He begins preaching repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of God is at hand – all of which was prophesied in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. This Prophet baptized hundreds, if not thousands, in living water as an act of repentance from sin.
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:7-12
John though known for baptizing, should more properly be known for his calls of repentance.
It was none other than John who would go on to baptize Jesus in the Jordan. John was reluctant, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” but Jesus assured him it was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. Immediately as Jesus came up out of the water the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove which came to rest on him, and a loud voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In this one act we see the Old Testament view of baptism meeting that of the New; water symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
Now, we started this article off by quoting Matthew 28:19 and its important we return there for a moment. Specifically as we consider a small Greek preposition εἰς which can mean “in” or “into”. In one sense Jesus is giving authority to His disciples to operate in His name, carrying out baptism on His behalf. We see this assignment of authority similarly displayed in John 20:23.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
In another sense we also see Jesus instructing them to baptize people into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit via teaching and instruction. Through this they are to teach God revealed in Christ so that those who listen are immersed in the knowledge of the Lord.
Following Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to His disciples and told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the gift the Father promised.
“For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:5
Christ clearly drew a distinction between the baptism of John and the Apostles. After this, He ascended into heaven and we find the disciples gathered together on the day of Pentecost. Suddenly a sound like a strong wind came from heaven and filled the whole house. What appeared to be tongues of fire came to rest on each of them. Suddenly they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in different languages. Those who were passing by were from various parts of the world, but each heard the disciples speaking in their own native tongue and they marveled as to what it all meant. Though some mocked them and accused them of being drunk. The Apostles came forward to address the crowd and Peter quoted the Prophet Joel.
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Acts 2:17-21
Peter went on to preach Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. When the men that had gathered around heard all this they were cut to the heart and asked what they could do. Peter then told them to “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Everyone who received his words were then baptized so that in that day alone they added about three thousand believers.
Again it must be pointed out that the Apostles received tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit, to enable their teaching and baptising of others into the name of the Lord.
Translations of Acts 2:38 have caused some to misunderstand what was being said. The main verb is metanoēsate (repent/change mind), the aorist direct imperative (a command) of metanoeo which means to repent. This refers to the act of repentance whereby a sinner returns to the Lord. The verb translated "be baptized" (βαπτισθήτω) is in the indirect passive imperative (a command to receive; passive voice) of baptizo, which does not give it the same direct command implied in "repent." The preposition "for" in the phrase "for the remission of sins" in Greek is "eis," which we've already stated can mean either in or into, and it is in the accusative case (direct object). It can mean "for the purpose of identifying you with the remission of sins." Repentance, therefore, is for an individual's remission of sins while baptism following repentance provides an external identification visible by others. This understanding is in concert with such passages like Isaiah 55:7 and Matthew 18:21-22.
Continuing in Acts 2:42 we see they devoted themselves to the Apostle’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Interestingly enough, the Greek wording here may indicate a reference to the Didache.
Now, the Didache prescribes the following regarding baptism:
The baptism should be done in “living” or running water.
If there is no running water, then baptize in preferably cold water, but if not available then warm will do. If neither are available, then pour water three times on their head.
Baptism should be done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Before baptism, both the baptizer and baptized should fast one or two days.
In Acts 7 we see the martyrdom of Stephen and in Chapter 8 we learn that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. This scattered all the believers throughout Judea and Samaria except the Apostles. Though scattered they continued to preach the Gospel wherever they went.
There in Sumaria, Philip began preaching and proclaiming the Messiah and many believed and were baptized in the name of Jesus. Hearing this, the Apostles sent Peter and John. When they arrived they prayed for the new believers that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Then they placed their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Continuing further into Chapter 8, we see Phillip encounter a eunuch, give him the Gospel and when he believed, baptize him in water.
In Chapter 9 we see that when Ananias placed his hands on Saul that the scales fell from his eyes and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and then got up and was baptized. In Chapter 10 we find Peter preaching to Gentiles who believed and the Holy Spirit came upon them. The believing Jews were astonished that these Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, but Peter said “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water.” And after they received the Holy Spirit ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Understanding the Words of Jesus
From the New Testament passages as well as the Didache we can see that water baptism was taught before and after Christ’s resurrection. However, as we move into Acts 11 we encounter an interesting, often overlooked yet somewhat controversial passage.
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” Acts 11:15-17
Clearly some time had passed between the day of Pentecost and Acts Chapter 11. Here we see Peter speaking with certain Jews who were angry that he preached and fellowshipped with Gentiles. He tells them that it was after he began speaking and the Holy Spirit fell on them that he remembered what Jesus told him: that John baptized in water but they would baptize in the Holy Spirit.
This contrast between two types of baptism should not be understated. While it took some time for the Apostles to understand what Jesus had said, they nevertheless came to realize what He meant.
We see here the progression of baptism; the Hebrews used a type of baptism in water or blood to sanctify and purify, while John, the Apostles and early church baptized with water for repentance, it was the baptism of the Holy Spirit which all of this foreshadowed and was revealed in Christ.
Quarrels Over Baptism Now, the Apostle Paul has some rather strong comments on the act of water baptism and how it had come to be divisive.
“For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 1 Corinthians 1:11-17
Paul declared he was grateful he baptized so few as the act had become divisive. Paul then points to those who followed Moses under the cloud and through the sea and says that they were all baptized, eating the same spiritual food and drinking the same spiritual drink, but nevertheless God was not pleased with most of them. He brings this up and says they were examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did and he warns against idolatry. Here we see that believing and following God, being baptized, does not guarantee eternal life, for Paul goes on to say “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:13
We see again the emphasis is not on water, but on the Spirit. So what role does water play in baptism? In 1 Peter 3 we see that Noah was a type of baptism, and that water symbolizes an appeal to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29
Through Scripture we've come to see that water baptism was a ritual by which men purified themselves, but that this was a symbol of the coming baptism and work of the Holy Spirit, made possible by Christ our Redeemer (John 16:7) and sent by the Father (John 14:26).
So what did the early church believe, those Christians that followed after the Apostles?
Some believed that water baptism saved a person's soul. With the introduction of Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin he argued that water baptism washed away the stain of Original Sin. He then began championing infant baptism and teaching that any child that died before being baptized went to hell. Here we see how one perverse doctrine begat another.
Some, like Constantine, believed that by undergoing water baptism you were cleansed of all past sins and operated in a state of grace. They were so concerned that they might stumble and sin as to negate that grace that they held off baptism until they were on their deathbeds.
From these errors whole new errors were born and much blood was spilled. Men who professed to be followers of Christ would persecute and murder others who professed to follow Christ over differences on water baptism.
Today Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and even some Protestants promote infant baptism though most Protestants teach the believer's baptism or a confessional baptism. Overwhelmingly though, christians still identify baptism with being submerged in water.
Some have even found a way to disagree over whose name one should be baptized in. Arguing that it only be done "In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit" while others claim it should be done "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ"... both seemingly forgetting that God is one, being made manifest in Christ, and that such English phrases are not found in Scripture.
Some cults such as the *Church of Christ (established in the 1800's) believe that unless one is baptized in water they are not saved. This group also claims that only their members are truly saved christians and that they are the Church mentioned in Scripture. *Perhaps we'll address this sect more depth in a later post but the point is that there are many differing views on baptism.
"And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit WHEN YOU BELIEVED?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “INTO WHAT THEN WERE YOU BAPTIZED?” They said, “Into John's (WATER) baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance (IN WATER), telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying." Acts 19:1-6 emphasis & clarification added
Water does not save. That work was accomplished in Christ and to receive it, one need return to the Lord and remain in Him.
There are three main reasons to practice water baptism today:
1. The ritual of washing oneself, or having someone submerged in water is still an outward sign of the believer's repentance and desire for purity. Consequently, it is still an important Christian rite wherein the believer humbles themselves before God.
2. Water baptism when performed in front of onlookers also serves as a profession of faith, confessing Christ before men in accordance with Matthew 10:32.
3. If Christian parents, in an act of dedication, seek to baptize their baby as a solemn promise to raise the child in the Church and Truth of Christ - such an act should not be frowned upon, neither should it be viewed as salvific.
The baptism everyone should desire, repenting and returning to God, is the baptism of the Holy Spirit - that overflowing, indwelling and outpouring of the Spirit of God on the believer (1 Corinthians 3:16, Romans 8:11).