When most people speak of baptism, they are referring to baptism in or by water. The form of this baptism varies between the Christian religions – some practising full immersion, others pouring or sprinking. Some baptize only those who have professed faith in Christ, others baptizing newborn children.
With this variety of practise in mind, what is correct? What does the bible say about the history and practise of baptism?
Baptism is rooted in Jewish ceremonial cleansing traditions, as prescribed in the book of Leviticus for a variety of conditions or transgressions that result in a person being or becoming unclean. The Jews of the Old Testament era were commanded to be fully immersed for cleansing after coming in contact with a dead body, after childbirth or menstruation, for certain skin conditions such as psoriasis, and even after eating certain types of meat. A thorough study of Leviticus reveals several more uses of full immersion for purification.
The most famous “immerser” of the New Testament was John the Baptist. John instituted the Baptism of Repentance as given to him by God. Many people came to John, repented of their sins and were baptized by immersion in the waters of the Jordan river (see Matthew 3). Jesus was baptized by John as well, which was the beginning of his public ministry. John’s ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus, to point people to Him. John recognized that his baptism was incomplete and that the baptism of the coming Christ would be a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire (Matthew 3:11).
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he reminded his disciples that John bapized with water, but that they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1). He commanded them in Matthew 28:19 to make disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
As seen throughout the New Testament, baptism is reserved for those who have repented of their sins. The second chapter of Acts records that about 3000 people “received his word and were baptized.” The prerequisites for baptism in the New Testament, which most Christian religions agree upon, are faith and genuine repentance. Only then is water baptism appropriate, as baptism itself does not save a person.
The question remains, what is baptism? What’s the purpose? Jesus not only was baptized, but commanded others to be baptized as well – why? Baptism is a picture of what happens in a person when they are saved. Salvation itself is a baptism as described here and in Romans 6:3-4 – “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
These verses do not speak of water baptism, but baptism into Christ. When a person accepts Christ, they are taking on His death – death of the old, natural self, only to be reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit into a new creation. Read Romans 6:4 again – “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Public water baptism is ordained by Christ as a confession of what has already taken place inside a person. When a person first enters the water they are standing, then they are immersed, then they are raised up out of the water. The old person enters, they are placed under the water to symbolize death and cleansing, and raised up again as a symbol of being new and clean, and alive in Christ.
Have you ever experienced what Christ died to give you? Have you experienced this new life that He offers? You can have it right now! The bible says in Romans 10:9 that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Pray right now – ask for forgiveness and a new life, turn away from the old things, turn toward Christ and follow him. Then follow in the footsteps of Jesus and be baptized in water to show the world what he has done for you!