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Particulars of Christianity:
309 Baptisms

Baptisms: Introduction and Historical Background

Preface for Baptisms Article Series
Baptisms: Introduction and Historical Background
Original Proclamations about Baptism
Two Baptisms Occurring Separately
Baptizo: Two Baptisms, One Greek Word
Synonymous Phrases: Baptism in the Holy Spirit
Water Baptism in Jesus' Name
No Record of Paul's Water Baptism
Is Baptism Essential to Salvation?
Acts 1: Parallel Account of the Great Commission
Necessity of Water Baptism: 3 Common Arguments
Survey 1: Baptisms in Acts
The Baptism of Crispus (and Assuming Evidence)
Survey 2: Baptism from Romans to Revelation
Baptism and Hebrews 10:22
Conclusions: When and How Are We Reborn?
Survey 3: Baptism and the Ante-Nicene Authors
Closing: Water Baptism for the Right Reasons

As is the case with many other areas of doctrine in the modern Church, there are several competing views regarding the issue of baptism. Should people be baptized as infants? Will sprinkling with water suffice or must the individual be fully submerged? What is baptism of the Holy Spirit? What is the relationship between water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit? And perhaps most essentially of all, is water baptism necessary for salvation? These are but a few of the questions that spring to mind when considering the issue of baptism.

In this study, we hope to answer some of these questions. The question concerning sprinkling or submersion is really a secondary issue as is the question regarding infant baptism. While we do believe these questions can and should be answered, the goal of this study will be to focus on the questions of more preeminent importance to the Christian walk, such as those which concern the relationship between water baptism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

Before we begin to discuss the practice of baptisms in the early church, it is necessary to do a little review of the history behind baptism before the coming of John the Baptist. As with most issues, placing a phenomenon in its historical context and setting is a good first step toward gaining a proper perspective on that topic.

Below are the definitions for the Greek word translated as "baptize" and the closely related Greek word from which it is derived.

907 baptizo {bap-tid'-zo}
from a derivative of 911; TDNT - 1:529,92; verb
AV - baptize (76), wash 2, baptist 1, baptized + 2258 1; 80
1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)
2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one's self, bathe
3) to overwhelm

911 bapto {bap'-to}
a primary word; TDNT - 1:529,92; v
AV - dip 3; 3
1) to dip, dip in, immerse
2) to dip into dye, to dye, colour

Baptizo is the Greek word translated as "baptize" in the New Testament. As we can see from the definition, it simply means to immerse or submerge. It is even used of washing or bathing. Now that we have reviewed some basic Greek vocabulary with regard to baptism, we can move on to examining some of the history behind the religious practice of immersing people in water. And in that regard, Smith's Bible Dictionary has the following to say on the history of baptism.

"It is well known that ablution or bathing was common in most ancient nations as a preparation for prayers and sacrifice or as expiatory of sin...and hence the frequency of ablution in the religious rites throughout the East." - Smith's Bible Dictionary

It seems Christians often have this notion of baptism as a uniquely Christian practice and particularly as a uniquely New Testament one. Itís almost as if by default most Christians think that water baptism was invented by John the Baptist and that the Jews had no familiarity or introduction to this concept prior to the coming of the John the Baptist. What this brief excerpt from Smith's Bible Dictionary tells us is that water baptism was not a new concept to the Jews alive at the time of Christ Jesus. The practice of immersing in water for religious purposes was common in ancient culture and something the Jews of Jesus' day would have been familiar with even before the coming of John the Baptist.

Beyond Smith's Bible Dictionary, the Bible itself also demonstrates the history of immersing in water as a part of Jewish religious practice prior to the time of Christ. Considering the following passages.

John 2:6 Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece.

This first passage, John 2:6, tells us that there were six water pots used for purification by the Jews. This tells us plainly that the use of water for religious purification was already a commonly understood aspect of Jewish culture apart from the preaching of John. John the Baptist did not introduce the idea of using water to prepare for communion with God.

John 3:23 And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. 24 For John was not yet cast into prison. 25 Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying. 26 And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.

In this second passage, we see that John is immersing people in water in Aenon because there is plenty of water there. But what happens next? Verse 25 says that a dispute arises between the disciples of John the Baptist and the other Jews who were there. And what was the dispute over? It was over purification. As we have already seen from John 2:6, using water to purify was already a part of the Jewish culture of that day. So, when John came and was immersing people in water as a form of preparation before God, the Jews had a dispute with John regarding the topic of purification by water.

Now, it is possible that the Jews were disputing John's methods of purifying with water through immersion, rather than using water pots (as we saw in John 2:6) or whatever other methods were common at the time. But judging solely from the context of John 3, it is also possible that the Jews were simply causing a dispute by bringing up the fact that the disciples of Jesus Christ had ALSO begun to immerse people in water as a means of preparation for the kingdom of God. (We say "the disciples of Jesus Christ" here because a comparison of John 3:22 and John 4:1-3 clearly indicates that Jesus himself was baptizing no one. Rather, it was his disciples who were doing so.)

In other words, the dispute could have been over the proper way to perform ritual purification by water. On the other hand, it could have been over who should be able to perform it. Or, it could have even been just to cause a controversy with John over the fact that someone else besides John was doing it.

The bottom line is that this dispute between the Jews and John's disciples further demonstrates that the Jews considered John's immersion with water to be a form of ritual purification. And that means, the Jews of that day did not consider immersion in water to be something wholly new at all. Rather, they considered it to be part of something old and familiar, namely Jewish water purification rituals.

But, where did the Jews of John's day get the notion of using water for ritual purification?

Actually, this practice is not hidden in some obscure Old Testament passage. Instead, it is featured in some rather prominent passages of the Old Testament.

In Exodus 40:12, 31-32 and Leviticus 8:1-6, washing with water before the congregation was a prominent part of the anointing of Aaron and his sons as priests. In 2 Kings 5:10-14 we find the famous story of Elisha miraculously curing Naaman, the captain of the Syrian armies, from leprosy by having him dunk 7 times in the Jordan river, the very same river that Jesus was baptized in by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13, Mark 1:9.) In Isaiah 1:16-18, Isaiah gives the following instructions to the people of Israel.

Isaiah 1:16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

In his work Against Heresies, the second-century Christian writer Irenaeus (who was discipled by Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John) appeals to this very passage from Isaiah in his discourse regarding baptism. As we can see, this passage from Isaiah further substantiates that the Jewish people were already well-familiar with the notion of using water for purification and preparation purposes long before John the Baptist arrived on the scene.

In that light, let's now consider Hebrews 9.

Hebrews 9:9 Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; 10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.

Here in Hebrews 9, Paul speaks of Old Testament practices that pertained to the purification of the conscience. And in this list, Paul includes "divers washings." "Divers" means "varying" and so Paul is including in this list the various forms of washing practiced by Jews in accordance with the Old Testament. To correctly understand proper doctrine with regard to water baptism, we must view that topic as the original audience would have. Therefore, we must take into account that immersion in water was considered by the Jews to be a form of Old Testament ritual purification long before Paul wrote these words in Hebrews 9. (We'll get back to this passage in Hebrews 9 later on in our study.)

From this brief examination we have seen that the idea of immersing in water for religious purposes was not a novel practice introduced by John the Baptist. Instead, the idea of immersing in water was a practice that had prior precedent in Jewish scripture, that was commonly practiced by many ancient cultures, and that was regularly practiced already by the Jews of that day. And as we saw from our examination of John 2 and 3, the Jews considered John's practice of immersing in water to fall into the category of ritual purification. They considered it to be something familiar, not something new.

In particular, the Jews of that day considered John's immersing in water to be part of the category of ritual washing, a practice they believed was necessitated by the Old Testament. The understanding that immersing in water was for the first century Jews a part of existing Old Testament practice will be quite significant as we move on into our next section.