According to the Bible, water baptism is not optional
for the Christian. It is Christ's command for all those who place their
faith in Christ as their Savior and Lord. To the church Jesus said, "Go
therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name
of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to
observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always,
even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20). The matter of baptism was
considered so important that even Jesus, himself, was baptized to provide an
example for His followers. He said that He allowed himself to be baptized in
order "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15). The Apostle Peter also
stated that when persons repent of their sins, they are "to be baptized"
The act of being baptized in water, in and by itself,
does not wash away sins (1 Pet. 3:21), as is evidenced by the conversion of
the thief on the cross (crucified along with Jesus), who had no chance to be
baptized (Luke 23:43). Salvation is not based on works, but on a
relationship of faith with Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). Water baptism, however, is
intended to symbolize the spiritual union (baptism) with Christ which "does"
save us (Gal. 3:27), and is the outward expression of an inward
experience... "a commitment to a right relationship with God, in which we
are forgiven of our sins and have a conscience of fellowship with Him."
When performed as an act of obedience based upon faith
in Christ (Acts 2:38), water baptism augments our faith (James 2:17), and
serves as a testimony of our repentance and spiritual union with Christ. As
the scripture states... "this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you
also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good
conscience toward God." (1 Pet. 3:21 NIV). Every person who accepts Jesus as
his or her Savior should obey the Lord's command and be baptized in water at
the earliest opportunity.
While the ceremonial submersion of a person in water
may have seemed strange to the gentiles and foreigners of the first century,
water baptism's symbolism was not new to the early Jewish converts to
Christianity. The rite of water baptism was already a well established
procedure, performed upon those gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism.
These converts, referred to as Proselyte Jews, would also be circumcised and
were required to keep all other Jewish laws and observances. According to
the Jewish Talmud, their baptism was symbolic of a cleansing of the past and
starting over with a new life — in fact they would even be given new names.
Besides this significance, the rite of proselyte
baptism may have also appeared similar to the ceremonial washing of the
dead. Before burial, corpses were submerged in water and washed prior to the
application of burial spices and ointments. In a visit to Israel some years
ago, I viewed ancient, rock hewn troughs which archaeologists claimed were
used for this purpose — which closely resemble today's baptismal tanks used
in many Christian churches. Consequently, to the Jew, the rite of water
baptism likely resembled the washing of a dead person for burial — that is
until the person arose out of the water very much alive.
The combined symbolism of these well-known traditions,
helped the New Testament people understand the meaning behind the Christian
water baptism. It represented death and cleansing from the old life of sin,
and a resurrection of new life in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote,
"...buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him
through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead" (Col.
Keep in mind that Water Baptism was intended to be an
open, public confession of our faith in Christ (1 Pet 3:21, Col. 2:12). From
the earliest days, it was usually performed in some large body of water,
which was generally scarce and always a popular, public place. The Jordan
River, for instance, was the main tributary through Israel from the Sea of
Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, and was the main source
of water for drinking, washing, or religious purposes. Consequently, people
were always found near the river, gathering to socialize, to catch fish or
to replenish their daily water supply. Therefore, water baptism performed in
an open body of water, such as in the river, became a very public event,
openly signifying one's conversion to Christianity before the curious
spectators. This corresponds with Jesus' teaching, that a public confession
of faith in Him is a necessary part of following him — it is not
satisfactory to merely be His "secret Agent." He said, "...whoever confesses
Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.
But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who
is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33).
While the method of water baptism has sometimes been a
matter of different opinion by various churches and denominations, the New
Testament teaches that water baptism was performed only by immersion. The
Greek word "BAPTIZO" means "to whelm, to dip, to plunge under, or to
submerge." The scriptural expressions such as "much water" (John 3:23),
"down both into the water" (Acts 8:38), and "coming up out of the water"
(Mark 1:10) provide proof that Bible baptism was by immersion. The Greek
words which are translated "to pour," or "to sprinkle" are never found in
connection with baptism.
In years past, some church denominations adopted a
tradition of baptizing converts by sprinkling. Church history suggests that
this tradition began when some converts were sick or bedfast and unable to
undergo the physical involvement of water baptism, or when a body of water
was unavailable or frozen. In an effort to obey the Lord's command,
ministers would bring vessels of water and drench or sprinkle water on the
convert. Later in years, for the sake of convenience, this method began to
replace immersion in some Christian circles.
Remember that the printing press did not exist in
those days, and copies of the scriptures were not abundant. The common
people generally only knew what they heard about the Bible or what was
passed down to them by the church hierarchy. Consequently, without the
availability of doctrinal criticism, errors were more easily transferred
into accepted church traditions.
Infant baptism was also a tradition that began without
scriptural foundation, as there were no babies baptized in the New
Testament. Apparently this tradition began later with the sincere attempt to
secure the salvation of children. But the Bible shows that baptism is only
to follow repentance, and a child does not qualify for baptism until he
matures enough to "repent" of his sins and make Jesus his Savior and Lord.
Since Jesus said that children are the very example of the Kingdom of Heaven
(Mark 10:14), it seems apparent that God holds children in a state of
innocence, without sin to their charge, until they mature to an age of
accountability where they recognize right from wrong. In other words, a
child that dies in infancy would go to Heaven. This was the apparent view of
David when his infant child died. He remarked that the child would not
return to him, but he would (someday) go to be with him (2 Sam. 12:22-23).
Another distinction held between some Christian groups
has been the verbal "formula" or the wording of the baptism. Jesus stated
clearly for his followers to baptize believers "in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). But Peter later said
to be baptized "in the name of Jesus" (Acts 2:38). On the basis of this
latter passage, one particular denomination contends that persons cannot be
saved unless they are baptized in Jesus' name "only." This is refuted by
most orthodox Christian churches, who generally baptize according to the
Lord's stated terminology, "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy
Some churches, in an effort to satisfy both scriptures, baptize using the verbal formula which Jesus described in Matthew, and combine this with Peter's emphasis on the name of Jesus in Acts. Thus, when the minister baptizes, he says, "I baptize you in the name of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost."