There are some people out there that believe that baptism is nothing but an insignificant part of religion, an ancient ritual that has no relevance in today’s world. I have to disagree with that way of thinking. There is a cloud of confusion that surrounds this topic and it is in need of some careful understanding of it and its importance. Consider what the Bible says:
“When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.” (Mt. 3:16)
“Jesus said, ‘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.'” (Mt. 28:19).
If Jesus Himself is baptized and tells His disciples to go out and baptize, how can it be just an insignificant ancient ritual? His words lift up baptism as a very important matter that needs to be taken seriously and carefully thought about.
Jesus’ audience was a group made up of people who were still living in a period of the Old Testament kind of culture and national law. So, we need to begin with what the people understood baptism to mean. This means they would have heard and understood His command to baptize. From a first century Jewish point of view, scholars of the Bible believe that there were two different practices that prepared the way for baptism and these help to explain the nature and purpose of the ritual. The first was the practice of the mikvah or ceremonial bath and the second was the rite of circumcision.
From back in the time of Abram, circumcision was the physical sign of a chosen people’s covenant with their God. (Gen. 17:11) Even though other nations may have practiced the same thing, the rite took on a very different and special meaning for the Jewish people. It was something that showed that their God had a right to order even the most intimate and personal area of their lives. In a similar way, baptism later became a sign of the New Covenant for the followers of Jesus.
Circumcision and baptism are not exactly equivalent however, circumcision was to be performed only on males and baptism is not gender specific. It was done on male infants on the eighth day after their birth and baptism in the New Testament was a public profession of one’s personal faith in Jesus Christ and circumcision was a mark of a national identity. Baptism on the other hand was a sign of entrance into the international body of Christ.
The mikvah was ceremonial bathing and a purification ceremony where the Jews would go down a set of seven steps into water and then they would exit by a different set of steps. This was to signify that the sins of which they had been cleansed had been left behind in the water. The Jews still practice this purification ceremony of mikvah to this very day.
Along with the mikvah’s use for ceremonial cleansing and conversion, a metaphorical use of the word links the mikvah to the aspirations and the hopes of Judaism. Most importantly the mikvah expressed the hope that God would care for and meet the needs of His people. For the first century Jewish community, all of this could have converged in their understanding of baptism. New Testament followers of Christ would conclude that when it came to baptism, what was past was simply a prologue. From a Christian point of view, one era was coming to an end.
John the Baptist Help Build a Bridge From Old Testament to New Testament
John the Baptist was the prophetic voice crying in the wilderness who had been raised according to strict Nazirite law (Lk. 1:15; Num. 6:1-2). He had an uncompromising message and a radical call for personal and national repentance.
He was the emissary for the long awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was called by God to announce the arrival of the One who would bring grace not just to the Jews but to the entire world. So, his use of baptism as a point of identification for the kingdom needs to bee seen in this light. In fact John describes his baptismal ministry as such:
“I indeed baptize you with water unto 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.” (Mt. 3:11)
John’s type of baptism would have been understandable and a mystery at the same time for his countrymen. The unsettling mystery of his baptism, however, was signaled in his words that the One who followed him would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. Those words would have showed a nation that his mission went far beyond the moment, beyond ritual and beyond the waters of baptism. It pointed them to the coming of the predicted Messiah.
John’s baptism was also an occasion for public confession of personal and national sin. The people who stepped into the waters with him showed that they were willing to prepare themselves spiritually for the coming of Christ the King.
This is one of the reasons why John’s baptism made such a stir, it called for people to transform their lives and marked them out as those who were committed to the change that was coming. This was the launching point of spiritual development for many people in the first century who came from John’s baptism in the waters of the River Jordan.
Since the baptism of John was also linked to confessing sin, this makes the event of Jesus asking to be baptized a huge surprise, especially to John himself. In Matthew we read:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘[Permit it to be so now, for thus ift is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water, and behold the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'” (Mt. 3:13-17)
The voice from heaven separated Jesus from everyone else who had gone to John for baptism.
Jesus did participate in John’s baptism, and it was for Him a baptism of repentance. Jesus was acknowledging the sins of Israel and the need for it to turn around, and He was committing Himself to do what He could to bring this about.
The voice from heaven confirmed, Jesus didn’t ask John to baptize Him as an admission of personal sin but rather to stand with John in anticipation of a great spiritual change that was coming.
This was a time of spiritual transition from law to grace, from the Old to the New from the sacrifices of priests to the sacrifice of Christ and it was John’s ministry that bridged the eras of God’s work leading from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
It is important to understand that during the days after John’s ministry, Jesus and His apostles included baptism in all their public ministries. After His own baptism, Jesus, through His disciples baptized those who came to Him:
“After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. (Jn. 3:22 and 4:2)
Even though there are no details given about His baptismal message or methods, it was still known to be a significant part of His early ministry, in fact so much so that some of the followers of John were disturbed and felt threatened by Jesus’ practice of baptism that they called it to the prophet’s attention:
“They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified – behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”
Not only did Jesus practice baptism, he also used the word picture of baptism and the principle behind it when he dealt with problems among His followers. Not only did Jesus practice baptism early in His ministry some of His final commands of His ministry included the challenge to His followers to baptize and be baptized:
“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.” (Mt. 28:19)
Jesus also believed that baptism was part of the discipling process. He told His disciples to baptize converts in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Continually showing how important baptism was.
In the early church the disciples were committed to honoring what Christ had asked them to do and new believers were always baptized. This actual practice began on the Day of Pentecost.
“Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” (Acts 2:38,41)
On the day that the church was born, baptism became the external mark of identification for those who had committed their lives to Christ. There is no doubt that Peter himself linked repentance and conversion, and then linked baptism to both. In the early church converts were baptized without hesitation. So being baptized and receiving the Holy Spirit were almost simultaneous. You can see the practice of baptism in the early church all through Acts and each case of baptism seemed to have been the outward public response of those who looked to Christ for rescue and a way to find forgiveness and obtain new life.
Even though Paul himself did not perform many baptisms because it could have been that he didn’t want the people confusing grace and salvation of God with the actual physical act of baptism. However, he did realize the importance of it. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:13) He tried to emphasize that in the eyes of God all those who were “baptized into Christ” actually died with Christ when He became our substitute in His death on the cross.
The Bible alone is a source that tells us all that baptism is far more than just an ancient ritual and instead is a declaration of faith by someone who has trust in Christ. Through the years churches all over have continued their own style of baptism so the act of baptism has a very rich history and should continue to be taken seriously and not thought of as something that is antiquated and no longer needed. If one believes what the Bible has to say about all other things, there is no reason to not believe the Bible when it expresses the importance of baptism. Over and over again, Acts reminds us of how above all else baptism is the public act by which individuals declare their personal confidence in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Knowing that Christ instructed His own disciples to baptize those who embrace Him by faith then that alone should be enough for us to believe in the importance of our baptism. When we submit to baptism as believers, we are following a custom, not an outdated ritual, that has been around for over 2,000 years and has set all Christians apart from the rest of the world. It is simple yet profound at the same time where we declare to Christ and to the world that we have given ourselves to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.
In our baptism, we are identifying with and proclaiming our confidence in the truth of the Resurrection. It is a very powerful demonstration of what Christ has done for each of us in conquering death, hell, and the grave for all who come to Him by their faith.
Today, the principle and the truth that lies behind baptism still matters for a lot of reasons. But most specifically, it matters because, as in the first century, if we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior and Lord, we are called upon to declare our personal faith. It’s more than just a duty or an act of obedience, it is an opportunity for us to declare our gratitude for the love and grace that is Jesus Christ. Baptism is something that gives us all an opportunity to tell others that our lives have been changed. It enables us to say of Christ, “I am His and He is mine.”