A Few Notes on the Subject of Baptism

This coming Sunday afternoon I will have the distinct honor and privilege of baptizing two of GCA’s young fellows. Whenever we hold a baptism service, I always teach a bit so that the congregation understands what we are doing and why we are do it. Baptism is a hallmark activity, a distinguishing characteristic of the Christian Church. I truly enjoy participating in the public proclamation of faith in Christ.

So, since we were on the subject, I decided to compile and few thoughts and post them here on the blog in the hope that it will answer common questions and help us understand this ancient ordinance and instruction.


The Bible uses the term “baptism” in a variety of ways. The Greek word “baptizo” migrated into the English language largely unchanged. Had it been properly translated, rather than transliterated, it would have been rendered “immerse.” Baptizo was a common word in Greek parlance.  For instance, you essentially “baptized” dishes when you washed them because you immersed them in water.

The New Testament Greek Lexicon offers these notes on the word “baptizo” —

    1. to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one's self, bathe, to overwhelm.
    2. Not to be confused with bapto. The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be 'dipped' (bapto) into boiling water and then 'baptised' (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, produces a permanent change.

John the Baptist immersed people in the Jordan River. But the word embraces more than just water baptism. In Acts 1:5, Jesus assures His disciples that, though they’d been immersed in water, they would be immersed in the Holy Spirit, which occurred at Pentecost when the tongues of fire appeared on each of them and they manifested the gifts of the Spirit.

Or, in another example, in Mark 10:38 Jesus asks His apostles, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He was immersed in the wrath of God, which none of them could endure.

As John Gill writes in his Exposition of the Bible, commenting on Mark 10:38 –

can ye drink of the cup that I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?

Which Christ speaks of in the present time, partly because his sorrows and sufferings were already begun: he had already been drinking of the cup of sorrows, being a man of sorrows and acquainted with griefs, all his days; and he was wading in the waters of affliction, though as yet they were not come into his soul, and he as it were immersed in them; he was not yet baptized with the bloody baptism he came into this world for, and he was desirous of, ( Luke 12:50 ) , and partly because of the certainty of these things, the cup was not to pass from him, and the baptism of his sufferings was to be surely accomplished.

So, the word baptizo has a variety of applications, depending on the context. But, in all instances, it has to do with being immersed in something, whether it’s water, fire, the Holy Spirit, or the wrath of God.  We need to recognize the textual distinctions and keep our definitions precise.

“Water baptism” refers to being immersed in water. But, baptismal immersions of other sorts also exist.

John the Baptist

The people of Israel engaged in various ceremonial washings. The concept of ceremonial cleanliness permeates the Law of Moses. But usually the Old Testament washings were physical in nature, for the cleansing of the body. The practice of immersion for remission of sin or as an act of repentance was unknown in the Old Testament.

Now, that’s not to say that it wasn’t typified. Peter certainly makes a direct connection between a type/antitype when he writes —

God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:20-22)

John’s was a baptism of repentance. It had no direct reference to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, inasmuch as those events had yet to occur. John never baptized in the name (or “in the authority”) of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. John’s baptism was a matter of repentance among the Jews who saw no reason to repent of their sins. They assumed that their Abrahamic descent was sufficient to guarantee them a place in the kingdom. So John’s baptism was quite revolutionary. He was calling Abraham’s seed to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins, without reference to animal sacrifice or blood. Rather than merely a ceremonial cleansing, John advocated a spiritual cleansing in preparation for the appearance of the Messiah.

Baptism In His Name

After His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus instructed His apostles that they were to baptize disciples according to the following pattern —

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

We have become so familiar with this baptismal “formula” that it’s easy to overlook how earth-shattering Christ’s declaration truly was. First off, the then-extant Scriptures (what we would call the Old Testament) were replete with references to God’s sovereignty and authority over all the earth. But, Jesus not only equated Himself with God the Father, He stated emphatically that all authority was now His. This had to be shocking to the apostles’ religious sensibility.

And, having asserted His authority, Jesus instructed them to do three things:

  •  Go
  • Baptize
  • Teach

Rather than concentrating exclusively on the descendants of Abraham, the apostles were now to go to “all the nations.” As they went, they were to “make disciples,” which requires teaching people to observe everything that Jesus said and taught. And those who were discipled in such a manner were to be immersed in water under the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Pauline Baptism

Despite the fact that in 1Corinthians 1:17 Paul said that Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel, the baptism that Paul advocated was the same as what Jesus commissioned in Mat. 28:19: a baptism centered on Christ.

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4)
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:9-12)

Unlike John’s baptism, the New Covenant version of baptism that Paul advocated is a public proclamation of faith in Christ, identifying one’s self with His death, burial, and resurrection. It does not save, in and of itself. However, it does identify a believer as part of the body of Christ. It does not wash away sin (an idea associated with John’s baptism, in keeping with Jewish ceremonial washings), the sins of His elect were washed away by the finished atoning work of Christ at Calvary. Christian baptism is an obedient response to that fact.

Contrasting the Baptisms

In Acts 19 we read a very interesting exchange between Paul and some disciples at Ephesus.

He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men. (Acts 19:2-7)

John’s baptism was not sufficient, being a baptism of repentance, designed to pave the way for the appearance of Christ. But, after Christ had come, died, resurrected, and ascended, the Spirit of God in-dwelt believers. Hence, a new baptism was necessary, one that was in accordance with Christ’s authority. And, as often occurred in the New Testament, not only did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, but His presence was manifested by obvious, verifiable gifts.

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

The common phrase “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is drawn from Matthew 3:11.

“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt. 3:11)

Those words by John the Baptist do not create a separate form of baptism, they simply describe Christ’s authority to immerse people with the Spirit — or contrariwise, with fire. To be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” is not a form of ceremonial dipping or immersion. It is completely distinct from water baptism. Peter makes clear that receiving the Holy Spirit, as a gift from God, is the same as being baptized (or immersed) in the Holy Spirit.

 “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 11:15-16)

Peter’s equation is: “the Holy Spirit fell up them” = “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

“Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is simply receiving the Spirit, it is not a ritual nor a charismatic event that is superior to the common experience of all regenerate Christians.

One Baptism

In Ephesians 4:5, Paul insisted that the Christian church would have “only one baptism.”

 There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

One understanding of Paul’s word is that there is no place for being immersed in any other name or by any other authority. There are essentially only two types of water baptism in the NT – John the Baptist’s and baptism into Christ. John’s baptism was not sufficient. There was to be no division or schism between those who had followed John and those who were disciples of Christ. Only baptism into the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was (and is) appropriate and commanded for His disciples.

Alternately, some have argued that Paul may have been referring to the singleness of the baptism, or receiving, of the Holy Spirit. That’s a one-time gift. And it makes perfect sense in the context of “one body (of believers), and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, once baptism, one God and Father …”

Either way you read and understand that passage, the goal is unity within the body of Christ, based on our common profession of faith, receiving of the Spirit, and declaration of identification with Him.

Clearing Up Some Common Misconceptions

Water baptism does not automatically endue people with miraculous power. Some people in the NT received the Holy Spirit prior to baptism (such as the Gentiles in Acts 10:47), others received the Holy Spirit after being baptized (such as those who had previously received John’s baptism). And not everyone who receives the Holy Spirit receives the same gifts.

“All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:30)
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” (1 Cor. 12:4-11)

So, it’s up to God how those gifts are distributed and how they operate. We cannot conclude that baptism “gives us power” in and of itself, nor that everyone who is baptized will have the same experience. After all, the obedient act of baptism is essential and required.  Accompanying gifts of the Spirit are up to God’s discretion.

Also, there is no conflict between Jesus’ instruction to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and later accounts of the apostles baptizing “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The importance of the phrase “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” is that it went beyond John’s baptism of repentance toward God. Prior to the cross, no one was ever baptized in the name (or authority) of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. When Jesus assigned His apostles to baptize according to this new formula, He was making Himself equal with God and instructing that His baptism would include more than just God the Father. So, when we read in the New Testament that the apostles baptized in the name of Christ, they were doing exactly what He told them to do and, honestly, there is not verbatim account of what words they spoke when baptizing new converts.  It is safe to assume, however, given the beneficial and spiritual outcome of those baptisms, that they were performed in accordance with His instruction.

Always remember: Jesus saves, not baptism.

In Closing

Baptism is more than a ritual. It’s one of only two ordinances that Christ left His church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both practices memorialize His death, burial, and resurrection. They are both focused on Him and His finished work. And, when we participate in these ordinances, we are connected with 2,000 years of Christian faith, teaching, and practice. It’s a really remarkable thing.

So, don’t take it lightly. But do take joyfully. And reverently. And gratefully. Remembering always the words of our Lord, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16a)



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