What is Baptism?

Baptism is the application of water to an individual who has come to faith in Christ sealing the promise of God to him/her.


Where does the Bible teach us about this?

The word baptism first occurs when John the baptizer began to baptize those who responded to his preaching. The practice of baptizing, however, begins in the Old Testament.


Old Testament Baptisms

Where do we find baptizing in the Old Testament?

The author of Hebrews writes:

The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, 9 which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [or baptisms], regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:8-10)


What are these baptisms in the Old Testament?

The author refers to various baptisms here. In subsequent verses, he mentions some of these.

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)


Where do we read about these baptisms in the Old Testament?

The ritual involving the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer is explained in Numbers 19.


What was the purpose of this ritual?

This was a ritual for returning a person who had become unclean to a state of ceremonial cleanness again. This ritual was specifically for people who had in some way come into contact with a dead person either by direct contact, or by being in the tent when someone had died, or even accidentally touching a corpse or human bone in a field.


What exactly was involved in the performance of this ritual?

First, the water of purification לְמֵי נִדָּה had to be prepared. This special water had ashes mixed in it. To prepare these ashes, the priest took a red heifer which had no blemish and had never been used for plowing, killed it and burned it. As the animal burned, the priest would add to the fire some sticks of cedar, a branch of hyssop, and some scarlet yarn. When all this was burned, the ashes were collected and stored in a container outside the camp.

Whenever someone became unclean in the ways described above, they entered into a state of uncleanness for seven days. In order to become clean again, someone would run and fetch this container of ashes. Some of this ash was then mixed with water, and this mixture was sprinkled on the unclean person. This sprinkling would take place on the third day and on the seventh day. If this was done, the person became ceremonially clean on the seventh day.


What is meant by being unclean or being ceremonially unclean?

A person who was unclean was not allowed to participate in the worship of the Tabernacle (or temple) and was, in a sense, placed in a temporary position of probation. If they failed to deal with their uncleanness, they would be permanently cut off from God’s people. In the above instance, Moses taught the people:

Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him. (Numbers 19:13)

A person who was unclean was not necessarily a person who had sinned; many of the situations that made a person unclean involved no sin such as the above when someone died in your tent (Numbers 19:14).


What exactly was this water of purification?

In Hebrew, the term is לְמֵי נִדָּה which is literally “for a water of impurity” or water for the removal of impurity. As described above, the water itself was made from the ashes of an animal which had been killed as a sin offering. Again, the symbolism here is key.


Why does the author of Hebrews call this a baptism?

Because it involves the key idea of baptism which is purification.

What other baptisms are found in the Old Testament?

The author of Hebrews refers to “various washings” in the Old Testament ceremonial worship as baptisms. Hence, wherever there is a washing, we can conclude that this was understood by the New Testament church as a kind of baptism; cf. Leviticus 6:28; 8:5–6; 14:8–9; 15:5, 11-12. The real meaning of these rituals was understood as well; cf. Ps 51:2, 7; Jer 2:22; 4:14.


How common were these washings?

These ritual washings must have been a near daily occurrence in Israel. The ritual of the red heifer would have occurred at least as often as someone died. It is no exaggeration to say that these purification ceremonies would have been part of the routine of Israelite society.

John’s Baptism

What is the first baptizing we meet with in the New Testament?

John the Baptizer used this ritual as a picture of the repentance that his followers needed if they were to be ready for the Messiah’s appearing.


Where does John explain the meaning of his baptism?

We can see this in the gospel of Matthew:

Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, “THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!'” (Matthew 3:1-3)

In a subsequent verse, he announces:

11 “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)

So John’s baptism was to prepare people for the coming One, but what precisely did John’s baptism mean? What was it a picture of and how were the people to understand it?

This is one of the puzzling things of John’s baptism. Apparently, John assumed that all his hearers already understood its meaning, and there was no need for him to explain it.


Why is this important for our understanding of baptism?

It means that John was not introducing something entirely new or some never seen before practice. Evidently, this was something that both John and his audience already understood. MacLeod writes:

Some have argued that he [John the Baptizer] borrowed the practice [baptizing] either from Old Testament ablutions/washings, Jewish Proselyte (i.e., convert) baptism, or the washings of Qumran, the community of the Essenes near the Dead Sea. However, John’s practice was different from them all. For one thing, he immersed the people himself, while Old Testament ablutions and proselyte baptisms were self-administered. … In short, John’s baptism was original and unique. It was a radically new thing. David J. MacLeod, “Herald of the King: The Mission of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12),” Emmaus Journal 9, no. 1 (2000): 19.

That this is incorrect can be seen from Numbers 19:18 where the baptism was clearly not self-administered.


Where would John and his audience have learned about baptizing?

The Bible does not explicitly answer this question, but certainly the most obvious answer is that John and his audience retained their understanding of baptizing from the Old Testament practice. Axtell writes:

John’s baptism breaks in upon sacred history like a meteor at night. Without a single definition or explanation the word comes suddenly forward in the Gospels, and is recognized and accepted by all as the appropriate name for John’s great work. The sudden appearing of the word in the Gospels does not seem so strange, however, when we remember that the Jews had long been familiar with the word as a name for ceremonial purification, and had always thought of the ceremony as bringing them into a condition of holiness and favor with God. Moreover, they all understood that special occasions in religious service required special purifications. They had learned this from the consecration of Aaron and his sons, and from the frequent purifications of the priests when entering the Temple service. They had learned it also from the consecration of the tabernacle and its vessels, and from the dedication of the Temple. They had seen the same truth in the anointing of the kings and in the holy lives of the prophets, and they had been taught that special purifications were necessary as a preparation for every religious service and for the fulfilment of all religious vows. Baptism, which was the name of these purifications, did not, therefore, in John’s time need any definition or explanation. source


Are there any other reasons for believing that John’s baptism was linked in meaning and practice to the Old Testament practice?

Yes, we know that John was the son of a priest (Luke 1:5) and thus would have had an intimate knowledge of these purification rituals. If these practices would have been routine for the ordinary Jewish person, they would have been doubly so for John.

Assuming this all to be true, then we would be led to believe that the central idea behind John’s baptism was a purification.

That is correct. It was a purification ritual to prepare his hearers to receive the coming King who was mightier than he and whose sandals, he was not worthy to loose. (Matthew 3:11) The gospel of John also makes this clear.


What is taught us about John’s baptizing in the gospel of John?

John writes that the ministry of Jesus was bearing fruit, and the disciples were busy baptizing many people.

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and [people] were coming and were being baptized– 24 for John had not yet been thrown into prison. (John 3:22-24)

In this context, John records:

Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification. (John 3:25)


What was the point of dispute?

The gospel author does not tell us. There are two reasons to believe that some unnamed Jew was comparing Jesus’ baptism with John’s in favor of Jesus’ baptism. John’s disciples were irritated by this and the dispute was on.

Note first the “therefore” at the beginning of v25. It shows that as a consequence of Jesus’ baptizing so many, this dispute arose. It stands to reason that Jesus’ increased popularity here prompted this dispute.

Second in the following verse (v26), the disciples of John express their concerns that Jesus is attracting more disciples than John. This seems to be their real concern and likely what sparked the debate in the first place.

Hence, we conclude that the dispute was centered around the comparative superiority of the baptisms of John and Jesus. Lenski writes:

What the actual question of the dispute was the evangelist does not say since his concern is something more important. All we can gather from the complaint of the Baptist’s disciples in v26 is that the Jew maintained the superiority of Jesus’ Baptism over that of the Baptist, which the disciples of the latter refused to admit as it would also involve that men should leave the Baptist and go to Jesus. Lenski on Jn 3:25 also Vincent


Why is this important?

It shows that in the in the mind of the gospel author, purification (John 3:25) and baptizing (John 3:22, 23) are near synonyms. It again shows that John’s baptizing was essentially a Jewish purification ritual.


What can we learn about Jesus practice of baptizing?

We learn from John 4 that Jesus Himself did not baptize anyone. His disciples did this.

When therefore the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were)… (John 4:1, 2)


Why did Jesus not baptize Himself?

The Bible does not answer this question. Chrysostom writes:

Yet the Evangelist farther on says, that “Jesus baptized not, but His disciples”; whence it is clear that this is his meaning here also. And why did Jesus not baptize? The Baptist had said before, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Now he had not yet given the Spirit, and it was therefore with good cause that he did not baptize. But His disciples did so, because they desired to bring many to the saving doctrine. source


Does Jesus give any instruction about baptism?

The command to baptize comes from Jesus.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

This teaches us that all those who becomes disciples of Jesus are to be baptized in His Name. Those who are not disciples of Jesus are not to be baptized.

What does it mean to be baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

To be baptized in anyone’s name means to become a disciple of that person. Thus, to be baptized in God’s Name means to be marked as a follower or disciple of God.



Does Paul teach us anything about this ritual?

He does. The first we read is that Paul himself was baptized when he become a believer in Jesus. (Acts 9:18) Ananias came to see him and announced God’s intentions towards Paul. Upon hearing this, Paul received the Holy Spirit and was then baptized. In Acts 22, Paul is speaking to the mob in Jerusalem and explaining himself. In the course of this speech, he mentions his conversion on the way to Damascus:

“A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, [and] well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him. 14 “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. 15 ‘For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 ‘Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’ (Acts 22:12-16)

Here Paul clearly sees baptism as a washing or a purification ritual.


What else does Paul teach us about baptism?

The next instance is Paul baptizing the Lydia and the Jailer. We read that she was a worshiper of God and that the Lord had opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. (Acts 16:14) Then she and her family were baptized. The jailer was converted very suddenly when God sent an earthquake on the prison which was holding Paul and over which the Jailer had the responsibility. That same night, the jailer and his entire family came to Christ and were also baptized. (Acts 16:33)


Did Paul perform any other baptisms?

Yes, we read in Acts 18 that Crispus with his entire family believed the gospel and were baptized. Crispus was the leader of the synagogue in Corinth.

And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized. (Acts 18:8)

Then in the next chapter, we read of Paul meeting up with some men who had been baptized into John’s baptism. These were then baptized into the Name of Jesus. (Acts 19:5)


What can we learn from these examples?

We surely learn that Paul only baptized those who professed to be disciples of Christ. We also learn that Paul saw families as a unit and would baptize the entire family when the head of the family became a Christian. This was the apostolic practice.


What does it mean to be baptized into someone’s name as Paul did in Acts 19:5?

To be baptized into someone’s name is to Make a visible profession of being a disciple of that person. Thus to be baptized into the name of Paul would be to make clear that you were now a disciple of Paul. (1Cor 1:13) To be baptized into the name of Moses, means to be a disciple of Moses. (1Cor 10:2) cf Clarke


Romans 6

Does Paul mention baptism in his letters?

He does. The first is in Romans 6 where Paul writes:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with [Him] in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be [in the likeness] of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with [Him,] in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)

Paul here shows that when we are united to Christ, we die to sin. This means that we will have nothing to do with sin any longer. A picture of this union with Christ is given us in baptism where we are visibly baptized or joined to or identified with the holy Name of Jesus.


What does this teach us about baptism?

First, we should remember that Paul did not plant the church in Rome, yet he clearly assumes that his readers will know what baptism is. From this, we can conclude that baptism must have begun very soon after the death of Jesus.


Does Paul’s language of being “buried with Him through baptism” imply that Paul understood baptism to be an immersion into water?

We note that Paul also uses this language in Col 2:12. This point is disputed. There appear to be three different ways of understanding Romans 6:4.


What is the first?

The first is to see this verse as referring to water-baptism and that Paul is using the mode of baptism as an illustration of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. The verse in Greek is:

Rom 6:4 συνετάφημεν οὖν αὐτῷ διὰ τοῦ βαπτίσματος εἰς τὸν θάνατον, ἵνα ὥσπερ ἠγέρθη Χριστὸς ἐκ νεκρῶν διὰ τῆς δόξης τοῦ πατρός, οὕτως καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐν καινότητι ζωῆς περιπατήσωμεν.

A more literal translation would be:

Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, in this manner even we in newness of life might walk.

Headlam paraphrases the text:

Surely you do not need reminding that all of us who were immersed or baptized, as our Christian phrase runs, “into Christ,” i.e. into the closest allegiance and adhesion to Him, were so immersed or baptized into a special relation to His Death. I mean that the Christian, at his baptism, not only professes obedience to Christ but enters into a relation to Him so intimate that it may be described as actual union. Now this union, taken in connexion with the peculiar symbolism of Baptism, implies a great deal more. That symbolism recalls to us with great vividness the redeeming acts of Christ — His Death, Burial, and Resurrection. And our union with Christ involves that we shall repeat those acts, in such sense as we may, i.e. in a moral and spiritual sense, in our own persons. When we descended into the baptismal water, that meant that we died with Christ — to sin. When the water closed over our heads, that meant that we lay buried with Him, in proof that our death to sin, like His death, was real. But this carries with it the third step in the process. As Christ was raised from among the dead by a majestic exercise of Divine power, so we also must from henceforth conduct ourselves as men in whom has been implanted a new principle of life. “For it is not to be supposed that we can join with Christ in one thing and not join with Him in another. If, in undergoing a death like His, we are become one with Christ as the graft becomes one with the tree into which it grows, we must also be one with Him by undergoing a resurrection like His, i.e. at once a moral, spiritual, and physical resurrection.

In this case, the immersion into water is very much part of Paul’s point. His thought requires an immersion. This is also Fitzmyer’s understanding:

Through baptism into his death we were indeed buried with him. The baptismal rite symbolically represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; the person descends into the baptismal bath, is covered with its waters, and emerges to a new life. In that act one goes through the experience of dying to sin, being buried, and rising to new life, as did Christ. Fitzmyer on Romans 6:4.


What is the other way to read this verse?

Others also see this as a reference to water baptism but not making any reference to the mode of baptism. A paraphrase might go like this:

The truth is that we are one with Jesus. We died with Jesus, we were buried with Jesus, and we were raised with Jesus. In fact, this is the meaning of your baptism. When you were baptized, you were visibly and publicly united to Christ by being baptized into His Name. Now if you are truly one with Jesus, then you are also one with Him in His death to sin. That is why it is so foolish to talk of sinning in order to magnify the grace of God. Furthermore, being one with Jesus in His death not only means that you died and were buried with Him but also that you rose up out of that grave. When God the Father raised His Son Jesus from the dead, then He also raised you. This means that all your sins are left behind in that stinking grave, and you have risen to an entirely new kind of life. A life marked by holiness and honoring God.

In this case, baptism is understood theologically as a public union with Christ. In this understanding, how the baptism took place is not important.


What is the third way of understanding this verse?

There are those who do not see here any reference to water baptism at all. Paul is only thinking of baptism by the Holy Spirit. Godwin, for instance, argues that Paul cannot possibly be referring to the actual ritual of baptism here. “Little religious instruction and experience preceded the rite during the ministry of Christ and the apostles; and no special spiritual efficacy is ever by them attributed to it.” Surely Paul would extolled baptism very highly if he thought it had some kind of spiritual efficacy. Instead, we find the opposite. “Circumcision is nothing,” he writes. “I thank God I baptized none of you but Crispus and Gaius” and Paul’s strongest statement of all, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel.” (1Cor 1:14, 17) source Robertson also has a chapter where he argues that Paul was no sacramentarian. Here the paraphrase would look like this:

The truth is that we are one with Jesus. This happened when the Holy Spirit baptized us into Christ (1Cor 12:13) when we first believed the gospel. When this baptism took place, you could say that we were so closely identified with Jesus that not only did we die with Him, but we were even buried with Him. Why does God do this to us? So that God can also bring us back to a new life and bring us out of that grave a new person. This is what God the Father did in great glory and power to His Son Jesus; and if you are one with Him, then He did it to you too. Now when you were brought out of that grave with Jesus, what was left behind that grave? All your sins and all your old ways of living were left behind in that stinking grave, and you came out of it a new person! A new person means a new life, a life marked by holiness and honoring God. Therefore, let’s not talk anymore about sinning in order to magnify the grace of God. It makes no sense whatsoever for the baptized Christian.

Here, the verse is no longer about the ritual of baptism but is referring to something entirely different.


Which of these is correct?

It is very difficult to decide this especially because the weight of the baptism controversy puts a heavy bias on any exegete to decide a certain way.


First Corinthians

What other references are there to baptism in the letters of Paul?

In Paul’s letter to Corinth, he writes the following:

Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (14) I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, (15) so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. (16) Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. (17) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. (1 Cor 1:13-17)


What does this teach us about baptism?

It shows us Paul’s indifference and even lack of interest in the ritual of water baptism. cf Robertson


What else do we learn from Paul’s comments here?

That Paul baptized whole families as is clear from v16.

Earlier, you referenced 1Cor 12:13. What is Paul saying here about baptism?

In this verse, Paul is not speaking about the ritual of water baptism. He is speaking about baptism by the Spirit of God into the body of Christ.


Why do the translations differ on whether to translate as “in one Spirit” or “by one Spirit”?

The ASV translates: “For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body…”. The NASB changed this to, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”. Both translations are possible; the issue is

whether we understand Christians to be baptized into the Spirit, or

whether we understand the Holy Spirit to be the agent or the one who is doing the baptizing.

The latter is most likely correct in light of the previous verse which clearly shows the Holy Spirit as working: “…one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” (1Cor 12:11)


In 1Cor 15, Paul speaks about baptizing for the dead. What does this mean?

This too is a very difficult verse to understand. Paul writes:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? (30) Why are we also in danger every hour (1Cor 15:29-30)

Many different interpretations have been given to this verse. One possibility is Edwards’ understanding (see page 1062 here). He would understand the text this way:

ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν

Translation: Otherwise, what will they do who are being baptized for the dead if dead ones are not really raised? Why even are they baptized on their behalf?

Paraphrase: Now if there is no resurrection from the dead and believers enter death as a permanent state, then what are we to think of those who are being baptized in the Name of Jesus? We claim that their baptism represents their union with Christ in His death and His resurrection (Rom 6:4); but if Christ is not raised, then believers are not raised either. (1Cor 15:12-19) So what is the point of our baptizing them into the Name of Jesus? It’s all a fraud!

In favor of this interpretation is its obvious consistency with what Paul had already said in this chapter about the close connection between the resurrection of Jesus and that of believers. There are two problems with this interpretation, however.

First, it strains the meaning of the plural “for the dead νεκρῶν”. Edwards’ meaning is possible but highly unlikely that dead here is referring to a single person; i.e. Jesus as Edwards understands the text.

Second, it also strains our understanding of the preposition “for” which usually means “on behalf of” or “for the advantage of”. Again, Edwards’ meaning is possible, but not what we would typically expect.


What other way is there to understand this text?

Robert Louis Dabney proposed a way of understanding this text which he claims to have learned from Rev. J. B. Ramsey of Lynchburg, Virginia.