"But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12, NIV).
After one repents in faith, one's next step is water baptism, a primary principle of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 6:1-2). Those who wish to travel the road to eternal life must understand and take part in two basic ceremonies—water baptism and the laying on of hands—to receive the Holy Spirit.
The words baptize and baptism are derived from the Greek verb baptizo, meaning "to dip or immerse." Dip means "to immerse and then quickly take out." Immerse means "to plunge under, so as to cover completely." From these definitions, it is clear that immersion is the biblical method of baptism. Baptism by immersion symbolizes our death and burial, while rising out of the baptismal water symbolizes a resurrection to a new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-5).
Notice how Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. The two men had stopped by a river, "and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him." They then "came up out of the water" (Acts 8:38-39). Why did they both go into the water? So Philip could baptize the eunuch by immersing him completely under the water. Then, rising from the water, the eunuch could begin a new life in Christ.
Jesus instructed His followers, "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" (Matthew 28:19). The Greek word here for "in" can also be translated "into." When a minister of God submerges a new believer under the water, performing the symbolic burial of the "old man," he performs the act in the name of, or by the authority of, Jesus Christ. He also puts the person in, or into, a new relationship with God.
A symbolic death and burial
Baptism symbolizes in part our being united with Christ in death and burial in a figurative sense: "Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death" (Romans 6:3-4).
In God's eyes we are "united together in the likeness of His death...Knowing this, that our old man [the sinful person we were before] was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin" (Romans 6:5-6).
Before the miracle of repentance, we are slaves of sin. Paul explained to the Romans that, once we are baptized into Christ, we are no longer trapped in sin (Romans 6:3-4). "Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died [through the symbolic death of baptism and eradicating our old ways] has been freed from sin" (Romans 6:6-7).
But we are redeemed—bought back—from enslavement to sin by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:9). Having been purchased by God, we now belong to Him: "For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Being converted from slaves of sin to slaves of righteousness, we no longer serve sin (Romans 6:18). Our new way of thinking is one that bears the fruits of repentance (see Galatians 5:22-23). As Galatians 5:24-25 puts it: "And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit."
Resurrection to a new life
This life in the Spirit is also symbolized in the baptismal ceremony. For baptism pictures not only our death to sin, but also our being resurrected to a new life in Christ: "Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). Once we are baptized and have hands laid on us by one of God's ministers, He gives us His Holy Spirit as a "deposit" of our ultimate change to spirit and eternal life, "guaranteeing what is to come" (2 Corinthians 1:22, NIV). Baptism, then, is the symbolic burial of our old self and the beginning of a new life as an obedient servant of God.
Paul compares our newness of life to a change of clothing: "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27, NIV). We put on, or clothe, ourselves with Christ by replacing wrong attitudes, actions and habits with right ones. Colossians 3:12 says, "As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (NIV).
God’s Holy Spirit is given to us by the prayer of and laying on of hands by God’s ordained ministers, serving as His representatives.
Our new life starts us down the road that ultimately leads to eternal life and entrance into the Kingdom of God at the resurrection of the just, when Jesus returns to earth. "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Romans 6:5, New Revised Standard Version).
Notice that our actual resurrection is yet future, at which time we will be changed into spirit (1 Corinthians 15:42-55). Even though we may not comprehend what it means to be changed into spirit, we can rely on John's words in 1 John 3:2: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."
God's Spirit given through laying on of hands
The next step on our road to eternal life is to receive God's Holy Spirit, which comes through "laying on of hands," as described in Hebrews 6:2. From the Scriptures, we find that water baptism is followed by the ceremony of laying on of hands, at which time we receive God's Spirit. Acts 19:6 says, "And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them."
Acts 8:12 shows that "both men and women" in Samaria understood, repented and were baptized. However, the Holy Spirit was not given until Peter and John prayed and laid their hands on them. Acts 8:15-17 say: "When they arrived, they [Peter and John] prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit" (NIV).
We see that God's Holy Spirit is given to us by the prayer of and laying on of hands by God's ordained ministers, serving as His representatives.
The representation aspect here is important to bear in mind. In the laying on of hands, it is God's divine power and authority that confers His Spirit. His human representatives have no supernatural power of themselves. It is God working in and through them. Nevertheless, God wants us to acknowledge the fact that He does work through human representatives.
This is part of a bigger picture of God's Church working together in an orderly way. All are charged with the responsibility of helping and caring for, and submitting to, one another. Yet some have the special responsibility of serving others through leadership and teaching. God requiring the laying on of hands helps us to see that.
Why we need God's Spirit
What is the role of God's Spirit in our lives? On our own, we may strive, struggle and pray earnestly for victory over a sinful habit, but still come up short. After baptism and the laying on of hands, the same Spirit that leads us to repentance continues to work in us even more powerfully to help us see and overcome our sins and shortcomings.
Because it is impossible to be overcomers by keeping God's law in its full spiritual intent on our own, Jesus said He would send the Holy Spirit to guide and help us (John 14:16-18). When we do all we humanly can to be obedient, God gives us, through His Holy Spirit, the additional help we need to obey His truth and have a sound mind reflecting godly love (Acts 5:32; John 16:13; 2 Timothy 1:7).
His Spirit helps us overcome the weaknesses and selfish desires of human nature (Romans 7:13-20). It enables us to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). It provides us comfort during trials and allows the mind of Christ to work in us (Philippians 2:5). Through His Spirit, God inspires, guides and leads us, and makes us His very own children (Romans 8:13-14; 1 Corinthians 2:10-11).
Overcoming our habitual sins and selfish nature does not happen instantly. It is a lifelong process, often involving great effort. The apostle Paul, more than 20 years after his miraculous conversion, described his continuing struggle to overcome the evil desires within himself. Those selfish pulls were so strong that he called them another "law" working within himself:
"I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing ...
"So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members" (Romans 7:18-23, NIV).
But Paul also noted that, with the help of God's Spirit, our sinful nature can be subdued: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:13).
Some mistakenly believe that once a person is baptized, God takes over and does everything. This is a misleading and dangerous concept. God expects us to resist sin and strive to make His Spirit an active part of our daily lives.
In 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul urged Timothy to "stir up the gift of God [the Holy Spirit] which is in you through the laying on of my hands," showing that we have a personal responsibility in our salvation. Timothy needed to "stir up" God's Spirit—not just sit back and let God take over. Paul restated, in Philippians 2:12, that we must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
The miracle of transformation
God's Spirit working within us helps us change and begin producing right fruit in our lives. Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruit of God's Spirit—love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness and self-control, among others—that become increasingly evident in us as we grow spiritually.
Producing the fruit of righteousness is important. It is also important for us to understand that the credit for that fruit goes to God. Paul expressed to the Philippians his desire to be acceptable to God by "not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law [attempting to keep the law on his own], but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith"—that is, obedience produced through having Christ's faith within him by the Holy Spirit (Philippians 3:9, KJV).
Notice that Paul trusted God to produce righteousness in him, knowing "it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). Yet he understood that this was a partnership in which he had to cooperate. As he wrote in Colossians 1:29, "I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily."
When God calls us to be His children, He initiates a change in us from our formerly proud, selfish, disobedient ways. He transforms us by the renewing, or changing, of our mind—a process to which we must yield. Paul told the Romans, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Romans 12:2).
Paul explained that this transformation is not instantaneous. It requires ongoing changes in our thinking and outlook that permanently affect the way we live. We become "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (Romans 12:1).
Paul also admonished, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). He preceded this by describing both the attitude and behavior that would be evident in the converted mind:
"Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:2-4).
Having the mind of Jesus Christ is what makes this great miracle of transformation possible.
The symbolic meaning of baptism, then, is profound. It represents both forgiveness of sins and newness of life in Christ. It should change our lives forever—particularly when we recall that these blessings have come at a great price. Jesus Christ sacrificed His own life so we may gain ours through the forgiveness of our sins—a matter we consider further in the next chapter.