In the last article, Pastor Mike Hovland explained how baptism is a ceremony and a picture. In this article, he considers the perhaps lesser-known history of baptism as well as why it is significant.
Baptism has an interesting history that goes back to the days before the Lord Jesus came into the world. In the days after the return of the Jews from exile, a type of baptism was practiced in Israel when a Gentile wanted to convert to worship Yahweh. In fact, many nations and religions in those days practiced a form of baptism. The Jews introduced baptism to bring in Gentile converts to Judaism.
There were three parts to the process. First, the males would be circumcised. That identified them with Israel and was part of their confession that they were sinners by nature. Second, they were immersed in water in a religious ceremony. This was a picture of the death of that Gentile proselyte (i.e., Gentile convert) to their old life. They proclaimed themselves in baptism as dead to the world and alive to God. Third, a sacrifice was offered and the blood of it was sprinkled on the proselyte to symbolize the need for the daily forgiveness of sins. Three steps – circumcision of the males, immersion, and sacrifice. This is how and Old Testament Gentile could join himself or herself to the one true God.
The Jews already saw themselves as belonging to God and so they didn’t do this for Jews – only Gentiles. But then, along came John the Baptizer. He called Israel to repent and he was saying to them, “You are estranged from God, you are no better than a Gentile. You need to die to your life of sin and be made alive to God.” John’s immersion became an outward symbol of the inner reality of the person’s repentance! They would repent and baptism symbolized this repentance. Baptism symbolized this person’s death to a life of sin and separation from God and their new life of commitment to holiness and righteousness.
So, we had Gentile proselyte baptism, then John’s baptism of repentance, and then third, in a category all on its own, we have Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was baptized by John at the beginning of His public ministry. We read,
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matt. 3:13-15)
John says, “I need to be baptized by you” because he had said in verse 11, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Jesus would immerse people or plunge people into the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the agent who unites the believer to Christ. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in every true believer. Baptism with fire is an immersion or a plunging someone into judgement (Matt. 3:12). John needed to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus came to John. Jesus said, “It is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus did not need to repent. He had no sin. He didn’t need to die to His old life. His life was perfect. What Jesus was doing was fulfilling righteousness, not for Himself – there was no requirement in the law for baptism – but for us. He was acting as our representative.
His baptism pointed forward to two things. First, it pointed forward to His own death, burial, and resurrection. “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). Jesus is speaking here of His coming death and He calls it a baptism. He is going to be immersed in death and suffering but come out victorious. So, Jesus’s baptism prefigures His own death and resurrection. But second, Jesus’s baptism points forward to our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. He identifies with us as our representative. He fulfills all righteousness, not for Himself, but for us. Jesus is identifying with us. His baptism points forward to our baptism and our baptism points backward to His baptism.
Before we leave Jesus’ baptism, look at Matthew 3 once more:
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17).
God is well pleased with our representative who fulfilled all righteousness on our behalf. If we are in Him, God is pleased with us – because we are clothed with Jesus’s righteousness.
We’ve already touched on this, but let’s make it clear: Christian baptism is meant to be a picture of the spiritual reality it points to. The physical act of baptism is designed to be a public proclamation of a spiritual truth. And that truth, as we’ve said, is that the person being baptized is united to Jesus Christ. They are a new creation in Christ.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor. 5:17)
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:27)
These verses are not talking about physical baptism as much as they are talking about the spiritual reality. In fact, Paul basically assumes in his writings that every Christian is both spiritually and physically baptized.
Every believer is united to Christ and the sign of that union was that they responded to the Gospel by being baptized.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11-12)
Look what this text is saying. In Christ, the believer has been circumcised – not physically, but spiritually. It’s a circumcision made without hands which puts off the body of flesh, and the explanation in verse 12 is that we were buried with Him in baptism. Again, this is not a water baptism; Paul is talking about a spiritual baptism that joins us to Christ, puts off our old man, and raises us to newness of life.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses. (Col. 2:13)
Spiritual baptism is a spiritual circumcision of the heart which makes a person alive together with Christ – that’s the significance. The water baptism testifies to the spiritual reality. Without the spiritual reality, baptism is just an empty religious ceremony. With the spiritual reality, baptism becomes a powerful testimony of what God has done in a person’s life.
Every true baptism, then, is a public declaration of the salvation that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have accomplished in one’s life. And that public declaration is a declaration that the person has died to their old life and has been raised with Christ and will follow him. And that public declaration serves to identify the person with Jesus and His church. And so, throughout Acts, you see that a person believes, they are baptized, and then they are added to the church. In Acts 2, 3,000 repent, 3,000 are baptized, 3,000 are added to the church, and 3,000 continue in the Apostles’ doctrine. This is why we have membership and baptism together. Membership is for every believer who is part of the Body of Christ, and so is baptism. Baptism is an initial act of obedience for the believer and in it he or she is saying they are joined to Christ and the church. So, it makes sense to put baptism and membership together.
I think by now we have seen that the Scriptures are clear on baptism. What is baptism? Baptism is a public, religious ceremony in which a believer is immersed in water as a sign of their spiritual death to their old life of sin and their resurrection to newness of life in union with Christ.