Baptism is a Christian ceremony by which people proclaim their acceptance of Jesus' death for their salvation. By their immersion, the form practiced in biblical times, these new Christians are proclaiming death and burial to their old, sinful way of life, and their resurrection to a new life in Christ. It's a public ceremony, so it announces to any witnesses the recipients' inner conviction.
Mark's Gospel records that John, Jesus' cousin, often baptised in the river Jordan (see Mark 1:4, 5). Although a form of ceremonial washing was practised in Judaism before the birth of Christ, the baptism that later became a Christian practice is attributed to him, as his name-John the Baptist-attests. So when John baptised Jesus and other Jews and foreigners, the ceremony was quite possibly something novel.
To prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus, Who was soon to appear, John summoned all Israel to repentance. Disregarding rabbinic law, he ordered those who had two coats to give their spare one to any who had none. He told tax collectors to collect no more than their due. He instructed soldiers to be content with their wages and desist from robbing people (see Luke 3:7-14). And he called his hearers to repent of their sins and be baptised. Alfred Edersheim, in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, states, "Never before had it been proposed that Israel should undergo a 'baptism of repentance.' "
Repentance? The word means to "think differently" or to "turn around." For some time, Israel had been travelling in the wrong direction, and reformation was essential to their future as a nation. They would survive if they accepted John's second admonition- to believe in the coming Jesus Christ as Messiah. The Book of Acts records the apostle Paul as saying, " 'John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus' " (Acts 19:4, ESV1, emphasis added).
John the Baptist also said the Messiah would "baptise" in other ways in addition to water. " 'After me will come one who is more powerful than I... . He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire' " (Matthew 3:11).
As the forerunner to Christ, John forged a link between the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah and their New Testament fulfilment in Jesus. He revealed new meanings at a time when the common people had little faith in their religious leaders, or Herod or Caesar. He also transformed a simple earthly washing into a heavenly symbol, indicative of acceptance into the promised kingdom of God.
Tradition says that in AD 29, Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Perea (districts in Palestine), imprisoned John the Baptist at Machaerus, a fortress east of the Dead Sea, and executed him some time later. Then John's disciples buried him at an undisclosed site (see Matthew 14:12).
In our times, as many traditions and historic practices fade, their meanings lost, many doubt the importance of a water baptism in God's plan to save us. But He is quite specific about its practice.
For example, in Acts 2:38, the apostle Peter repeats John's call and some 3000 are baptised. After receiving instruction from God, Ananias baptises Paul (see Acts 9:18). The Roman centurion Cornelius and members of his household receive water baptism despite the fact that they had already received the baptism of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10:47). And arriving at Ephesus, Paul rebaptises some of John's disciples (see Acts 19:1-6). It's clear from this last example that God considers baptism not only necessary for new converts but also of value to believers who experience major changes in their understanding of spiritual truth. This is one reason many Christians are baptised again when joining a new church.
Baptism is much more than a mere ceremony: as we noted previously, it is the Christian disciples' figurative re-enactment of their Saviour's death, burial and resurrection. The apostle Paul writes, "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:4). So Jesus' death on the cross becomes ours at baptism.
Renowned theologian Charles Hodge lectured for 56 years on Paul's letters to the early Christians. He said our act of faith in baptism becomes Christ's death in us. Jesus became "sin" for us (see 2 Corinthians 5:21) and when He died, the sin that condemned us died with Him. It need never reappear.
Baptism also suggests that as we go beneath the water, our old life drowns-we're dead to sin. When Jesus was resurrected, He walked in a new world. And when we rise, we share in His walk, anticipating that world He is preparing for us where He dwells.
At conversion, our conscience, previously desensitised to sin, dull of understanding and rebellious toward God (see Acts 7:51), is enlightened by His Spirit and becomes discerning. A new power within us generates our obedience to God. The Word of God- His grace-then actively works in us, enabling us to walk in Jesus' steps (see Philippians 2:13).
Martin Luther once said, "As the dead and buried Christ appeared in the eyes of the Jews, so also the spiritual person (that is, one who is buried with Christ by baptism into death) must appear in his own eyes and the eyes of others." Christ's followers live differently from the world because they think differently. As they represent Christ to the world, love replaces anger, generosity replaces selfishness, peace replaces turmoil and hope replaces despair.
It is said that baptism is an outward expression of an inward (and sometimes new) conviction. This conviction is crucial to our experience in Jesus Christ, for without it we will never fully understand His Passion nor the astonishing grace of God. It drives our desire to draw closer to Him through the study of His Word and leaves us yearning for more of Him. And as we move to a greater knowledge of Him, we will better appreciate the cost of our salvation and why it had to be completed in Jesus.
Paul explains this notion in his letter to the church in Colossae. In Colossians 2:10, he uses a word that originally meant to "be covered over," but in most Bible versions is translated as "complete" (NKJV)2 or "fullness" (NIV). In other words, the Colossian Christians needed to look no further than Jesus for their full, complete salvation.
In Jesus, we're set free from our sins (see Acts 13:39) and our right to heaven is secure. In Him, the Spirit makes us holy (see 1 Peter 1:2), so our suitability for heaven is complete. This means when we confess our sins, accept Jesus as our personal Saviour and follow Him in baptism, our salvation is complete. We can never be "more" saved than we are at that moment.
And something else quite amazing happens. Says Paul, "Now that you have been set free from sin... the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life" (Romans 6:22). Or as Hodge points out in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, we're now, "subject to His controlling influences by the power of His Spirit."
Although Peter says that baptism saves us, in practice we're saved only because of our faith in Jesus and our willingness to follow Him in His death (see 1 Peter 3:21). It's really only the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from personal sin, not the literal water in a baptistery (see 1 John 1:7).
John the Baptist preached repentance and belief in Jesus. And today, 2000 years on, his message is worth repeating. Baptism isn't an anachronistic tradition. It's a valid practice for believers who want to follow Jesus completely, demonstrating to the world that they belong to Him.
1. Scripture quotations marked E SV are from The H oly Bible, E nglish Standard Version