We are answering questions that come up frequently about baptism. We introduced the word “baptism” in Part 1 and found out that it’s most natural meaning is “to dip, immerse, or plunge” under something, usually water.
Based on that information we should be able to answer these two questions:
- Is there a proper method for Christian baptism?
- What is the significance of water baptism?
According to some of the best authorities available today on the old Greek language, baptisma means “to dip in or under water”, “to immerse”, and “to bathe”.
- Four hundred years before the New Testament was written, Plato used the word to described something being “soaked in wine”.
- It is used in the Greek Old Testament to described what Namaan did when he “went down and dipped in the Jordan seven times” (2 Kings 5:14).
- There is a completely different word, rantizo, that means “to sprinkle”, that is never used in the context of baptism.
- The verb form, baptizo, is used figuratively in Greek literature in phrases like “immersed in cares” and “plunged in grief”. Jesus also used it to describe his upcoming torture (Mark 10:38-39; Luke 12:50)
- In the New Testament, 13 of its 19 occurrences are John’s baptism in the Jordan River.
These are just a few samples of the wealth of evidence showing that baptizo and baptisma mean full immersion into water. Trying to make it mean any other form of “baptism”, such as sprinkling or pouring, requires a stretch of the natural meaning of the word.
However, in the second century a document was published by the leaders of the church that many people use to allow baptism by a method other than full immersion. Although this is not a book of the Bible, it shows how Jesus’ early followers lived out his teachings. Here is the passage from The Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (translated by Cyril C. Richardson):
(Chapter 7) 1. Now about baptism: this is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then “baptize” in running water, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 2. If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. 3. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” 4. Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.
From earliest times, baptism was done by immersing the person under cold, flowing water (like John did in the Jordan River). Because baptism was so important, in extreme cases they would be allowed to pour water over the person, but that was not the normal method.
So if baptism is just dunking a person completely under water, what’s the point? Kids do that in lakes and streams and swimming pools all summer long. What is the significance of a formal, church-celebrated, water baptism?
Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life. Romans 6:4
According to Paul, water baptism is symbolic of the new life we have through our faith in Jesus Christ. The person’s submergence into and emergence out of the water symbolize the person’s death and burial to sin and the resurrection to his or her new life in Christ.
Notice that Paul does not say that the water baptism “gives new life,” but rather “so we may live a new life.” Every instance of baptism in Jesus’ name occurred after the person believed in Jesus Christ. Not before. Not in place of.
Consider another passage where Paul uses water baptism to link us symbolically to Christ.
Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead. Colossians 2:12
So what does water baptism do? Well, first, it gets you wet. You can’t go under water and come back up dry. There is a physical aspect that shows you have been affected in some way by this. It’s uncomfortable, it’s cold.
But so was Jesus’ death. And when we choose to stand up in front of God’s people and willingly be plunged into a cold, wet, “grave”, we are identifying ourselves with Jesus Christ who did the same for us.
Secondly, it offers a fresh start. Water washes things, but only physical things. Water baptism can’t get to our sin; only Jesus can do that.
By taking the plunge with him into the cold “grave” we symbolically bury our sinful past. By coming back up out of the water we celebrate the new life that God has given us through Jesus’ resurrection and identify with Jesus’ body, the church.
By the way, of all of the different methods of baptism that people use, only complete immersion fits the symbolic identification with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
So, water baptism is for the purpose of publicly identifying with Jesus and his church, and it is to be done by full immersion into water, unless there are extenuating circumstances.
So if that’s what it is, what it baptism not? Well, look at that in Part 3.