The Greek root-word baptizein [baptivzw] means to plunge, immerse, sink; hence to wash; to be immersed, overwhelmed (in trouble). From Jewish rules of purification concerning ritual uncleanness the word gained a technical religious connotation implying "purification" from all that might exclude from God's presence.
When, at the diaspora, numerous Gentiles sought admission to Israel, the required public repentance and acceptance of Mosaic Law was accompanied by immersion in water, symbolizing and effecting religious, moral, and ritual cleansing from the defilements of paganism. Ancient Jewish discussions (echoed in 1 Cor 10:2 ) support a pre-Christian date for this proselyte baptism. This is why John's baptism needed no explanation, though his authority to perform it was challenged and his demand for purification of "children of Abraham" gave deep offense ( Matt 3:7-9 ; John 1:19-24 ).
John's practice added to proselyte baptism a still stronger emphasis on repentance, a firm background of moral teaching ( Luke 3:3 Luke 3:10-14 Luke 3:33 ), and initiation into a community ("John's disciples") preparing for Messiah's advent ( Luke 3:16-17 ).
The rite gained yet deeper meanings and greater authority from Jesus' example and experience. Why Jesus, being sinless, received a "baptism of repentance" is debatable. Some think Jesus was already aware of his role as Servant-Messiah, "numbered with the transgressors" ( Isa 53:12 ). But Mark 1:10-11 shows that assurance was finally given to him, in words from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, when he came up out of the water. Since Jesus held John's movement and practice to be "from heaven, " to identify himself with it was an act of "righteousness" which it was "fitting" to fulfill ( Matt 3:15 ; 21:25 ).
With assurance of Jesus' sonship came the enduement of the Holy Spirit for his task. Jesus never returned to the secluded life of Nazareth, but was "driven" by the Spirit into the wilderness, where his sonship was tested ( Matthew 4:3 Matthew 4:6 ) and his messianic work was prepared for.
The earlier Gospels do not record that Jesus himself baptized. Peter's invitation at Pentecost, Luke's record (in Acts) of fifteen baptisms, and the teaching of Paul, Peter, and John leave no doubt, however, that the first disciples believed that baptism possessed Christ's authority, as Matthew declares ( 28:19-20 ).
Luke's account of apostolic baptism assumes the rite's original association with repentance and remission ( Acts 2:38 ), with washing away sin ( 22:16 ), and with admission to the religious community. But his emphasis falls on baptism's new features. Though the gospel era dates from the baptism John preached ( 1:22 ; 10:37 ), Christian baptism, as conferring the Holy Spirit, is contrasted with John's (attributed to John in each Gospel, to Jesus at Acts 1:5 ; 11:16 ). This is emphasized at 18:25 and 19:1-7, and leads to rebaptism with water and the (exceptional) laying on of hands, before the Spirit is conferred. On the other hand, that Cornelius and his friends have received the Spirit becomes Peter's justification for their subsequent baptism ( 10:47 ; 11:17 ; cf. 8:14-17 ). No formal pattern of initiation is yet evident: Order varies with circumstances and preparation. But the association of water baptism with Spirit possession gave rise to the curious phrase "baptism in/with Holy Spirit" ( Mark 1:8 ; Acts 1:5 ).
In nine instances Luke represents baptism as the expected response to hearing and receiving the gospel. In four of these, kinsmen, close friends, or a household hear and respond; at 16:14-15 and 18:8 it is not stated that the household believed.
This response was to the gospel of Jesus, Son of God and Savior, who was crucified, rose again, forgives sins, bestows the Spirit, and will come again as Judge, all summarized succinctly but clearly in baptism in or into the name of Jesus as Christ, Lord, Son of God ( 8:37 ). "In the name" implied Jesus' authority for the rite; "into the name" (8:16; 19:5) indicated passing into Jesus' ownership, as one "redeemed." James 2:7 suggests an invocation of Jesus (to be present?); elsewhere, the irrevocable public confession of Christ as Lord ( Rom 10:9-13 ; 14:9 ; Php 2:11 ) marks the decisive commitment of the baptized to all the privileges and obligations of Christian life. Such baptismal confession became the germ of later creeds; the trinitarian formulation in Matthew 28:18-20 may well represent an early stage in credal development.
Reflection on the church's practice enriched further the theological and ethical significance of baptism, without varying its conditions or abandoning its original meaning.
Thus Paul, baptized within three days of his dramatic conversion, was evidently familiar with the need, despite the Pharisees' hostility toward it ( John 1:24-25 ). He gives it surprising prominence among essentials that unite the church ( Eph 4:4 ; the Eucharist is not included ). He administered, or authorized, baptism throughout his missions, yet would not boast of baptizing anyone and resented baptism being made a badge of partisanship ( 1 Co 1:13-17 ). And he assumes that baptism is understood in churches he had not visited (Rome, Colossae).
So, too, Paul assumes the original method of immersion ( Rom 6 ) and the accompanying confession of Christ's lordship ( Rom 10:9-13 ), which in 1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 6:19-20, and Galatians 3:29, 5:24 clearly implies belonging to Christ. But he adds the idea of being "sealed" with the purchaser's mark, as property awaiting collection ( Rom 8:23 ; 2 Cor 1:22 ; Eph 4:30 ). This "good confession" ( 1 Tim 6:12 ) made at baptism responds to Paul's gospel of a suffering and risen Lord, presented through the gracious initiative of God and offered to faith, trust, and obedience. Paul insists that none are saved by their own good works, not even by the good work of baptism, but only by faith in Christ ( Rom 3:20 ; 4:4-5 ; Galatians 3:2 Galatians 3:11 ; Eph 2:8 ).
Paul retained, too, the original interpretation of baptism as entrance to the religious community: "We were all baptized into one body" ( 1 Cor 12:13 ). Some think that Paul means this by the phrase "baptized into Christ" ( Ga 3:27 ). They understand his description of the Christian as "in Christ" as an ecclesiological formula the believer is baptized into "the whole Christ, " of which the risen Lord is head and the church is the body. Others interpret "in Christ" as a more individual, mystical relationship. Doubtless Paul would affirm that a true baptism introduced the convert to both privileges.
Again, Paul continues to emphasize the connection of baptism with enduement by the Spirit. It is "by the Spirit" that the baptized is initiated into the church, made to drink of one Spirit, and sealed for ultimate redemption. Paul regularly refers to the believer's reception of the Spirit in a tense signifying a certain point in time ("baptismal aorists"), speaks of baptism as being "washed in the Spirit" ( 1 Cor 6:11 ), and so can assume that everyone baptized "has" the Spirit ( Rom 8:9 ). Yet he nowhere argues this, as by recalling Jesus' baptismal enduement; he takes reception of the Spirit in baptism for granted and life under the rule of the Spirit as the norm of Christian experience ( Rom 8:2-5 ). Even so, the Spirit given at baptism is but an earnest, a down payment, guaranteeing immeasurable future blessings ( 2 Cor 1:22 ; 5:5 ).
Paul retains also the earliest interpretation of baptism as a washing away of sin, a "washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" as tit 3:5 describes it, a cleansing of the bride-church "by the washing of water with the Word" ( 1 Cor 6:11 ; Eph 5:26 ). The precise relation of water, Word, and Spirit in this cleansing experience is not defined; they are concomitant elements in a rite mediating to penitent hearts the divine remission.
The implied total change of attitude and relationship could be expressed metaphorically in two ways. The disrobing and rerobing metaphor of Colossians 3:8-14 (and six parallels) echoes the catechetical instruction already familiar to the first readers, and alludes directly to physical arrangements for baptismal "bathing." The second metaphor relates to circumcision, another "cleansing" required of Jewish proselytes, sometimes explained as "a putting off of the flesh." Paul assures the Gentile converts at Colossae that they do not need Jewish circumcision, as certain Judaists were insisting: "In [Christ] you were also circumcised in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism" ( Col 2:11-12 ). That is Paul's only reference to baptism's accomplishing what circumcision portrayed. He turns from it at once to describe the change that baptism signifies in the language he prefers: "buried with him in baptism raised with him through faith in the power of God."
This conception of the baptismal pool as a grave in which the pre-Christian self and its ways are buried once and for all and from which a new self rises to a new quality of living appears to be Paul's own. It looks back to one of Jesus' metaphors for repentance, self-crucifixion ( Mark 8:34 ; Gal 2:20 ; 6:14 ), and recognizes in baptism the moment when the convert does indeed, publicly, take up his or her cross, dying with Christ to self, to sin, and to the world, and rising with him to a life constantly renewed by his resurrection power ( Rom 6:1-11 ).
Such a death and resurrection with Christ is implied in accepting the gospel. In Romans, Paul repudiates the suggestion that if man is justified by faith alone, he may go on sinning so long as he goes on exercising faith. Paul replies that one cannot consistently accept Christ's death for one's sins and act as though sin did not matter. The repentant faith that grasps salvation commits the believer, inescapably, to a faith-union with Christ in which he or she dies with Christ to sin and rises with Christ to sin-renouncing life. This baptism expresses, illustrates, and finalizes.
Paul certainly means that, given repentance and faith, the act of baptism (which can never be undone) accomplishes all it represents commitment to the Lord's possession, admission to the church, enduement with the Spirit, remission and repudiation of sin. But Paul is equally clear that what is declared in baptism must be sustained thereafter. The baptized must obey their newfound Lord, be loyal to the church they join ( Php 2:1-4 ), walk in the Spirit and bear the Spirit's fruit ( Ga 5:16-25 ), count themselves dead to sin, not letting sin reign ( Rom 6:11-12 ; 8:5-8 ; Col 3:5-6 ). The baptized will rejoice greatly in what has happened, and maintain their baptismal attitude for the remainder of their lives, repenting deeply for every failure to do so.
Many scholars are persuaded that the basis of 1 Peter was a sermon to the newly baptized. Certainly the message is appropriately addressed for this purpose ( 1 Peter 1:14 1 Peter 1:23 ; 1 Peter 2:2-3 1 Peter 2:10 1 Peter 2:25 ), with suitable admonition to existing and incoming church members ( 5:1-5 ). It has much to say about the gospel, faith, new birth, purification, putting aside the flesh, the Spirit, admission to the community, reverencing Christ as Lord echoing much of the baptismal thinking already noticed.
Peter's new contribution ( 3:21-22 ) raises innumerable questions. The strong declaration "baptism that now saves you" recalls Mark 16:16 as well as Peter's "command" to baptize ( Acts 10:48 ). But the precise meaning needs care. It is as an appeal for a "clear conscience, " and through the triumphant resurrection and ascension of Christ above all "authorities, " that baptism achieves this"salvation."
The readers' situation is outlined in 3:13-17, 4:1-5, where again "a clear conscience" is urged and explained. The threat of persecution recurs in 4:12-19, and again is to be met by good social behavior. Against this background, baptism is no merely physical washing (as in Judaist, Essene, or pagan circles), but "the pledge of a good conscience towards God" and threatening civic authorities, ensuring innocent social conduct. This will not guarantee safety, as Christ's suffering shows ( 3:18 ); Christians must still arm themselves to suffer unjustly. But as he triumphed so can they, in his power and protection.
This unexpected exhortation is not unsupported. At Pentecost Peter had urged his hearers to save themselves by baptism from "this crooked generation." The Baptist had called his hearers to a baptism of repentance as the way of escape from a world under judgment. Now Peter cites Noah and his pitiful minority amid another evil generation; only eight souls saved by the flood from God's judgment upon that sinful age. In such far-ranging thoughts Peter extends the meaning of baptism to include a promise of social responsibility, and assured support and protection, now, in face of evils that threaten new converts, and ultimate victory. The baptized have enlisted in the eternal warfare of good and evil, but their Lord has already overcome.
So much has been made of John's "sacramentalism" that it is imperative to emphasize that for him, too, salvation comes through "believing" (over fifty times in John, 1 John) in the historic Christ (stressed fifteen times), "sent" by the loving initiative of God (over fifty references) to those chosen. The operation of the Spirit in baptism, and the implied entrance to the Christian community, are as clear in John as in the earlier sources ( John 3:5-6 ; 17 ).
But John does insist rather more strongly on the necessity of baptism ( John 3:5 ; 13:8-9 ), on Christ's authorizing baptism ( John 3:22 John 3:26 ; 4:1-2 ), and on the superiority of Christian baptism to that of the Baptist ( John 1:26-33 ; 3:25-30 ). By omitting any description of Jesus' baptism, John plays down any "memorial" or imitative baptism, in order to stress that in baptism it is the believer's experience that matters.
Without a new birth of water and Spirit, none can see or enter the kingdom or attain a spiritual nature. The healing of blindness by washing at Christ's command ( John 9:11 ) led the church later to call baptism "the enlightenment." John 19:34, so solemnly underlined, suggests that one purpose of Christ's death was precisely to provide the sacramental water and blood by which Christian experience would be transmitted and nourished. First John 5:6-12 is the converse: The continuing witness of the Spirit and the sacraments in the ongoing experience of the church testify (against Gnostic denials) that Christ did come in the flesh, and die, that we might live.
By the time John wrote, Christian baptism was long established and its spiritual significance and power fully understood. But there is no tension between John's sacramentalism and faith as the means of initiating Christian life. The sacrament is a faith-sacrament, rooted in history, and conveying what it represents not by magic but by divine action in believing and receptive hearts.
Christian baptism thus preserves the covenantal basis of biblical thought: God first offers in grace, human beings then respond in gratitude, deserving nothing. In the gospel, God offers through Christ forgiveness, life, the Spirit: the baptismal response, hallowed by Christ, expresses faith in the dying and rising Savior-Lord, and registers the resolve to die to former sinfulness and rise to new life. God does not ignore such aspiration: He fulfills for the believing heart all the promises of the gospel it is ready to receive.
R. E. O. White
See also Baptism of Fire; Baptism of the Holy Spirit; Holy Spirit, Gifts of.
Bibliography. K. Barth, Teaching of the Church regarding Baptism; O. Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament; G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament; M. B. Green, Baptism; P. Ch. Marcel, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism; R. E. O. White, The Biblical Doctrine of Initiation.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Baptize, Baptism'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".