Baptism is more than just a tradition or ritual. It is part of the Great Commission, the last command that Jesus gave before ascending into heaven.
Matthew 28:18-20: Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
What is Baptism?
Baptism is a sacrament, meaning a physical manifestation of a spiritual truth. The other sacrament commanded in scripture is communion. Understanding communion is helpful for understanding how baptism works. Without faith, communion is nothing more than bread and wine. But with faith, communion becomes a profound reflection upon the sufferings of Jesus Christ. The spiritual truth that Jesus died on the cross for our sins really hits home when it is manifested in the physical realm through the bread and the wine which represent his physical body and blood. The physical nature of communion makes the spiritual truth come alive.
Similarly, baptism without faith is nothing more than a quick bath. But with faith, baptism is a profound experience of being born again. Just as Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again, so baptism symbolizes our own death, burial, and resurrection. The believer is submerged in water, symbolizing the death and burial of the old carnal self and its sinful nature. The believer is then raised out of the water, symbolizing new life in Christ.
Romans 6:4: For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
2 Corinthians 5:17: This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
Baptism is a commitment. It is usually done when a person first becomes a believer and is willing to make a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord. Through baptism, the new believer is essentially saying, “I am making a commitment to follow Christ. I am confessing my faith in Jesus in the presence of witnesses. I am repenting of my sins by putting to death my old sinful nature, and being being raised up to newness of life in Christ.” Baptism should be performed in the presence of witnesses who can hold the new believer accountable to the faith.
Because baptism is a commitment, only an adult can make the decision to be baptized. So-called “infant baptism” does not count as real baptism because an infant is too young to understand the significance of baptism and make a true faith commitment. There are no examples of infant baptism in the Bible. Believers must make their own faith commitments, and no one else can make it for them. This is why baptism requires maturity and the presence of witnesses. Baptism should always involve immersion in water. Scripture says that Jesus “came up out of the water” (Matthew 3:16) when he was baptized, proving that he was fully immersed under water. So-called “sprinkling” is a dumbed-down version of baptism that is not biblical.
Where Did Baptism Come From?
John the Baptist is the first person in scripture to baptize. Under divine inspiration from God, John baptized people “for repentance” to prepare the coming of Christ. Although the significance of baptism as a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection had not yet been revealed, baptism was still a powerful symbol of repentance – a public profession of the decision to put to death one’s sinful ways.
In John 3, John the Baptist is informed that someone else has begun baptizing, and is baptizing even more people than him! This new baptizer, who baptized more people than John, is Jesus of Nazareth.
John 4:2 clarifies that Jesus did not baptize believers personally, but sent his disciples out to baptize on his behalf. Nevertheless, baptism was clearly a major part of Christ’s ministry from its earliest days. When John the Baptist heard that Jesus was baptizing more disciples than he was, he replied, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” (John 3:30).
Just before his ascension into heaven, Jesus sent his disciples out with the Great Commission, commanding them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19).
Baptism continued in the early church, with many baptisms recorded in the Book of Acts. At the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 people were baptized!
Acts 2:38-41: Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!” Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
In Acts 8, an angel sends Philip into the wilderness to witness to an Ethiopian who is trying to understand the scroll of Isaiah.
Acts 8:35-38: So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
The Apostle Paul was also baptized in Acts 9:18. Previously called Saul, he had been struck blind when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. Then Ananias visited Saul, placed his hands on him, and Saul received his sight. Immediately after receiving his sight, Paul believed and was baptized. In fact, this baptism marked the moment when Saul became Paul – the death of the old man, and the resurrection of the new man in Christ. See Acts 9 for the complete record.
Baptism continues in Acts 10 (three chapters of baptisms in a row!) with the first recorded gentile baptisms:
Acts 10:45-48: The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. For they heard them speaking in other tongues and praising God. Then Peter asked, “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Afterward Cornelius asked him to stay with them for several days.
In Acts 16:15, a woman named Lydia was baptized after she responded in faith to Paul’s message. Later in that chapter, Paul and Silas even baptize the jailer who was holding them in prison (Acts 16:33) after sharing the gospel with him in jail!
Even in a jail cell, Paul and Silas did not pass up the opportunity to carry out the Great Commission through teaching and baptizing!
Acts 18:8 records that many of the Corinthians who heard Paul speak were baptized.
Baptism is a biblical tradition that stretches from the first century to the twenty-first century in a single unbroken chain. Throughout all of Christian history, from the earliest days to the present, Christians have always baptized.
Is Baptism Necessary For Salvation?
Is following Jesus necessary for salvation? Consider the words of Jesus in Luke 6:46: “Why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?” Jesus commanded baptism, and as we have seen in the Book of Acts, the early church took his command to baptize seriously, baptizing literally thousands of individuals.
Throughout the New Testament, baptism is connected with salvation. In Mark 16:16, Jesus said, “Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.”
1 Peter 3:21 compares baptism to the flood of Noah, claiming that just as the ark saved Noah, so baptism “now saves you”:
1 Peter 3:21: And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
However, these verses must be balanced by the fact that we are saved by grace, through faith, “not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2:9). We must remember that baptism is an outward act of an inward faith, and a physical manifestation of a spiritual truth. Without faith, baptism is nothing more than a quick bath, and it won’t save anyone. With faith, one can be saved by grace even without baptism.
Consider, for example, the thief on the cross. He was almost certainly never baptized, yet Jesus said to him, “you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The saving grace of God extends to all who believe, even if they are not baptized.
Nevertheless, the plan of salvation laid out in scripture is for a person to believe and be baptized. The Lord Jesus Christ clearly commanded this in the Great Commission. Those saved without baptism are the exception, not the rule.
Did the Coming of the Holy Spirit Make Baptism Obsolete?
Just before his ascension, Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission, in which he commanded them to baptize (Matthew 28:19). Jesus gave this command 50 days before the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost. Why would Jesus command his disciples to baptize if he knew baptism would be obsolete just 50 days later?
Clearly, Jesus intended for baptism to be practiced even after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – and it was!
As we have seen, many individuals were baptized in the Book of Acts. Baptism was often immediately followed by an individual receiving the Holy Spirit as manifested by speaking in tongues. The two go hand in hand. Baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit are both essential parts of our Christian walk. But one does not replace the other.
I’ve Been a Christian for Years But I’ve Never Been Baptized… Why Be Baptized Now?
Although baptism usually takes place when a new believer first makes a faith commitment, it is never too late to be baptized. The important thing is to be baptized with the right mindset. Do not be baptized if your reason for baptism is guilt that you were never baptized or fear that you won’t be saved without it. Baptism is not meant to be a burden, but a gift!
Consider the Sabbath day. If your only reason for observing the Sabbath day is fear that you won’t be saved if you don’t, or guilt that you failed to observe it in the past, then the Sabbath day becomes a burden. But if you view the Sabbath day as a gift from God, it becomes a great blessing, which is what it was intended to be. It was the legalistic Pharisees who twisted the meaning of the Sabbath in order to oppress people. We must never do that with baptism.
Baptism is not meant to be a burden or something we are forced to do even though we don’t want to. On the contrary, baptism is a gift from God. It’s a holy opportunity to share in the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, to make a faith commitment in the presence of witnesses, and to be raised to newness of life in Christ.
Baptism is a profound and memorable experience that gives us strength in our Christian walk. Faced with trials and temptations, we can always look back to the moment of our baptism and draw strength from knowing that we have put to death our old, sinful self, and have been raised up with Christ into a new creation.