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Understanding God's Word... What the Bible Says About Baptism

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What does the Bible teach about baptism? Baptism is one of the most important beliefs of Christianity, but why? What is this ceremony all about? Is baptism merely an archaic symbol, or does it hold a deep meaning for the modern Christian? Does it matter which method of baptism is used: sprinkling, pouring, immersion or some other technique? When should one be baptized? Let's examine what the Bible says about this important subject.

Before we search the Scriptures for the answers to these questions, let's examine some pertinent historical factors and language considerations. Baptism is rooted in the Old Testament. For example, in the book of Exodus, God required the priests to ritually bathe themselves before offering sacrifices (Exodus 30:17-20 Exodus 30:17-20 17 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 18 You shall also make a laver of brass, and his foot also of brass, to wash with: and you shall put it between the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar, and you shall put water therein. 19 For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: 20 When they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire to the LORD:
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). The Jews properly viewed ritual bathing as an act that represented cleansing from sin. In time, they applied this principle to gentiles desiring to convert to Judaism.

The Holman Bible Dictionary comments: “At some point close to the time of Jesus, Judaism began a heavy emphasis on ritual washings to cleanse from impurity. This goes back to priestly baths prior to offering sacrifices (Leviticus 16:4 Leviticus 16:4He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches on his flesh, and shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen turban shall he be attired: these are holy garments; therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on.
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, 24). Probably shortly prior to the time of Jesus or contemporary with Him, Jews began baptizing Gentile converts, though circumcision still remained the primary entrance rite into Judaism” (article “Baptism”).

Because of this precedent, no one considered it strange for John the Baptist or Jesus to emphasize baptism in their ministries. Later, the apostles compared baptism to Old Testament events, Peter likening Noah's protection in the ark (1 Peter 3:20 1 Peter 3:20Which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
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, 21) and Paul likewise relating Israel's crossing the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2 1 Corinthians 10:2And were all baptized to Moses in the cloud and in the sea;
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) as types, or forerunners, of baptism.

As Bible dictionaries show, the word translated into English as baptism is from the Greek word baptizo , meaning “to dip into” or “immerse.” The Greek language clearly uses different words to express sprinkling or pouring, none of which ever refers to baptism. The New Testament reveals that baptism was usually performed in a river, with those who were baptized coming out of the water after being immersed.

Discussion: God sent a special messenger preceding Jesus Christ who taught the need for baptism. What was his message? (John 1:19-27 John 1:19-27 19 And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you? 20 And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. 21 And they asked him, What then? Are you Elias? And he said, I am not. Are you that prophet? And he answered, No. 22 Then said they to him, Who are you? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What say you of yourself? 23 He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. 24 And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. 25 And they asked him, and said to him, Why baptize you then, if you be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? 26 John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there stands one among you, whom you know not; 27 He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s lace I am not worthy to unloose.
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).

  • Did John the Baptist emphasize repentance as necessary for baptism? What did John expect to see demonstrated as a result of repentance? (Matthew 3:1-11 Matthew 3:1-11 1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 2 And saying, Repent you: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare you the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, 6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: 9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And now also the ax is laid to the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you with water to repentance. but he that comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
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    ).

Note: John's message regarding baptism differed from contemporary religious teaching in that he taught that baptism was much more than simply a symbol of ceremonial cleansing. He taught a baptism of repentance, confession of sin and the need for moral cleansing (verses 5-8). For more information on repentance, review the study “What Is Repentance?” in The Good News of January 1996.

  • Did Jesus come to John the Baptist to be baptized by John? How did the Father demonstrate His approval of Christ's baptism? (Matthew 3:13-17 Matthew 3:13-17 13 Then comes Jesus from Galilee to Jordan to John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbade him, saying, I have need to be baptized of you, and come you to me? 15 And Jesus answering said to him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him. 16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, see, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting on him: 17 And see a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
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    ).

Note: The sinless Son of God did not need to be baptized, but He sought baptism to fulfill all righteousness and to set an example for His followers. Note verse 16, which states that Jesus “came up immediately from the water.”

  • After Jesus Himself was baptized, did He encourage His disciples to be baptized and, on His behalf, to baptize others? Why do you think Christ taught this? (John 3:22 John 3:22After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
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    ; 4:1, 2).
  • With what instructions did Jesus commission His Church before He ascended to heaven? (Mark 16:16 Mark 16:16He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned.
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    ).

Note: Jesus felt that the need for baptism was so important He commissioned His Church to go all over the world and baptize disciples who believe the gospel message. Let's now review in greater detail why baptism is so vitally important as a process of salvation.

  • Why do you think Peter clearly emphasized the need for repentance and baptism to receive the gift of God's Holy Spirit? (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
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    ).

Note: Converting to Christianity is more than simply accepting Christ as one's personal Savior. Even demons believe and know that Christ is the Son of God (James 2:19 James 2:19You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
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, 20), yet they are not offered salvation. Peter stresses the necessity for repentance and baptism for the removal of sins. Repentance involves a complete change in our thinking and a recognition of our need for the shed blood of Christ to cleanse us from sin. As a result of this understanding, the next step of salvation is baptism.

Baptism is a serious, life-altering commitment. For this reason, baptism is reserved for mature adults who understand the importance of this meaningful commitment. In the whole of the New Testament, there is not a single example of an infant or child being baptized.

Discussion: How do you think Paul came to this important understanding, comparing baptism to a death, burial and resurrection? (Romans 6:3 Romans 6:3Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
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, 4).

Note: The symbolism of the watery grave of baptism communicates profound meanings. First, as an ordinance, baptism represents our faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as our Lord and Master. We accept the shed blood of Christ for our sins and picture the death of our former life in the baptismal grave. As Christ was resurrected a spirit, our coming out of the grave (rising out of the baptismal waters) symbolizes our new, converted, Spirit-led life. Our understanding the true meaning of repentance and conversion lifts baptism to more than symbol status; it becomes a profound, life-changing event!

Notice how Paul refers to baptism as a call to walk in “newness of life.” In Romans 6:11 Romans 6:11Likewise reckon you also yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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, he states that we, rather than facing death, are now “alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Baptism is an outward sign of an inward change of heart and mind. This powerful picture of a new life committed to obedience and faith is so important it is also discussed in 1 Peter 1:3 1 Peter 1:3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again to a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
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; 1 Peter 1:22-2 1 Peter 1:22-2
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:3; Ephesians 4:22 Ephesians 4:22That you put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
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; and Colossians 3:10 Colossians 3:10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:
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. As Paul mentions in Romans 6:1 Romans 6:1What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
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, 2, our new life in Christ Jesus should propel those of us “who have died to sin” to desire to live in it no longer, that it should not reign over us. Finally, another symbol of baptism is that it pictures our faith in Jesus to resurrect us from death when He returns (Romans 6:4 Romans 6:4Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
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; 8:9-11).

  • What name should a Christian be baptized into? Why? (Matthew 28:19 Matthew 28:19Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
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    ).

Note: We are baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not into any particular sect or denomination. This does not mean, however, that Christians should be independently preaching their own messages. Christ established His Church and actively leads it to powerfully fulfill the commission of Jesus Christ to baptize disciples and preach the gospel to the world (Mark 16:15 Mark 16:15And he said to them, Go you into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
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, 16).

  • What significant event should follow the act of baptism? (Acts 8:14-18 Acts 8:14-18 14 Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John: 15 Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: 16 (For as yet he was fallen on none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) 17 Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. 18 And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,
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    ).

Note: Baptism cleanses us from our past sins, but Jesus Christ does not leave us alone to face the future. He offers us the precious gift of His Holy Spirit to empower us for a life of overcoming and serving others and Him in obedience and faith. God's Spirit is imparted to us by the “laying on of hands.”

  • In what way was the laying on of hands used in the Old Testament? (Numbers 8:10-12 Numbers 8:10-12 10 And you shall bring the Levites before the LORD: and the children of Israel shall put their hands on the Levites: 11 And Aaron shall offer the Levites before the LORD for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the LORD. 12 And the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bullocks: and you shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, to the LORD, to make an atonement for the Levites.
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    ).

Note: Much like baptism, the practice of laying on of hands has its history in the Old Testament. In ancient times, this practice, often accompanied by anointing with oil, set men apart for the specific offices of king and priest. It was also invoked to set sacrifices apart for holy use.

Discussion: Since the time of Jesus, the laying on of hands after baptism signifies the actual receiving of the Holy Spirit and the setting apart of a convert as a child of God. It is only through the gift of God's Spirit that we can develop the godly attitude of obedience and faith. Scriptures that refer to the laying on of hands include Acts 9:18 Acts 9:18And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight immediately, and arose, and was baptized.
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; Acts 19:6 Acts 19:6And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spoke with tongues, and prophesied.
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and 2 Timothy 1:6 2 Timothy 1:6Why I put you in remembrance that you stir up the gift of God, which is in you by the putting on of my hands.
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.

Further study: Baptism is an essential part of the process of conversion and salvation. All who repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ as Savior should be baptized. Our Savior was sinless, yet He was baptized as our example, and taught His disciples the important meaning of baptism. Baptism, performed in water deep enough to immerse or completely dip the believer, holds profound meaning:

  • It represents our faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as our Lord and Master.
  • It pictures a new, converted life on our coming out of the watery grave.
  • It pictures our faith in Jesus Christ to resurrect us from death when He returns.
  • It pictures our being set apart as children of God, and is followed by the laying on of hands, portraying the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

The result of baptism is the opportunity for you to have a changed life with spiritual guidance and direction through the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit, leading you into the Kingdom of God! 

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