How Should People Be Baptized?
How people should be baptized is a matter of the weight of evidence rather than something so clearly and conclusively set forth in Scripture that we can say that those who disagree with us are rejecting Christ’s own Word and are therefore outside the pale of Christianity. Determining the method and mode of baptism involves drawing conclusions from the study of a number of texts, some of which are clear-cut and compelling and others more inferential and corroborative. Yet the uniform force of these texts is not so absolutely compelling that we can dogmatically say that an honest student of the Bible is in knowing rebellion against God if he administers baptism somewhat differently than we do. Devout Christians can honestly study the biblical data and come to different conclusions.
Why is that? One reason is that part of the biblical data is historical narrative and describes what was going on, while other parts are prescriptive, containing clear-cut commands, as, for example, in Matthew’s gospel, where our Lord Jesus Christ explicitly commands: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
However, as one gleans information from the historical narrative, one could infer that sometimes people were not baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but rather in the name of Christ, Christ Jesus, or the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:38; 8:16; Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). For example, on the day of Pentecost, Saint Peter exhorted: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Saint Luke records the event accurately, being preserved from error by the Holy Spirit.
Did Peter forget our Lord’s explicit command when he gave his concluding exhortation that first Pentecost Sunday? Or did he mean something similar to Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:2, “They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” There was no baptismal formula said over the fleeing Israelites; the reference is to their following Moses, committing their lives to his leadership. Also, Peter’s wording is a bit unusual; instead of being baptized in or into (EIS in Greek) the name of Jesus Christ, he commands them to be baptized upon (EPI) the name of Jesus Christ.* This expression points to what the person being baptized should say, not to some kind of liturgical formula. Another translation of Acts 2:38 might be: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized, calling on the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
One must remember that Peter spoke only ten days after the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, and he did not hold a written copy of the gospel of Matthew in his hands, with our Lord’s explicit command in it. And biblical revelation is progressive, both in terms of God’s impartation through the giving of the Scriptures and for the individual, as the Holy Spirit illuminates the implications of the biblical text. Over the course of the first century, under the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the apostles themselves grew in their understanding of the things that the Lord Jesus taught when he was on earth. “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25, 26).
With the coming of the gospel of Matthew, as the first century progressed, the practice of the Church became increasingly uniform and baptism became seen more and more as inclusive of the whole Godhead, rather than focused on an appeal to Jews to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah. In keeping with the Lord Jesus’ explicit command, especially with the acceptance of Matthew’s gospel, baptism becomes distinctively Trinitarian. But the evidence points to the likelihood that the formula said in baptism was fluid in the early decades of the Church, not unlike the words said in the Lord’s Supper. As we lift the cup, should we say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25; Luke 22:20), as Paul and Luke have it? Or, should we follow Matthew and Mark and say, “This cup is my blood of the new covenant” (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24)?
Examining the Biblical Mode of Baptism
There is no clear-cut command in the Bible as to how the Church is to perform baptism, and anyone who asserts that there is such a command is simply deceiving himself. However, there is much inferential evidence as to how it was done, and sincere Christians have concluded different things from that evidence.
The first question has to do with the meaning of the Greek verb, BAPTIZO. While it comes from a root that means to dip, dye or soak an object, BAPTIZO comes to function in the New Testament as a technical term for the initiatory rite of admission to the Christian Church, and its varied meanings have to be determined by their contexts. Apart from the inferences of immersion, mentioned below, in Hebrew 9:10, the noun form of BAPTIZO, BAPTISMOS, is used to describe the “various ceremonial washings” of the Old Testament, almost all of which were performed by a priest using hyssop to sprinkle water on the objects being cleansed. Secondly, when Jesus and John the Baptist use the word BAPTIZO, they are clearly referring to an act performed by pouring in at least one case. In Matthew 3:11, John states that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. . .” Our Lord himself reminds his disciples of this, in preparation for their baptism ten days later on Pentecost: “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). When one inquires as to the mode of this baptism, the Scripture is clear and unambiguous. In keeping with the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32, in the one and only example where our Lord Jesus Christ personally performed baptism, he did it by pouring: “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33).
Dogmatically to press BAPTIZO’s original, literal meaning is as fallacious as pressing the original, literal meaning of KENOO, “to empty,” in Philippians 2:7, because KENOO is used to describe our Lord adding a human nature to his divine nature, rather than of his ceasing to be God by divesting himself of his divine nature, as heretics foolishly concluded based on pressing an earlier, literal meaning of a Greek word. One must remember that ancient writers did not carry dictionaries around with them, always using words in wooden, literal ways, so context is always essential in understanding how words are used.
Baptism by immersion does “paint a beautiful picture of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord,” an event with which we are identified through the waters of baptism, as Saint Paul teaches in two passages: Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4. However, while immersion does paint such a picture, these passages are not about how to perform baptism; they teach us about what happens when a person is baptized by the sovereign act of God, and not merely by water. So, while Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4 may imply immersion, they do not explicitly teach it. Furthermore, in Classical Greek, burial can be performed by sprinkling dirt on a corpse. In Sophocles’ Antigone, a guard tells King Creon that someone has violated his command by burying Polynices, the son of Oedipus and brother of Antigone:
“Well, this is it. The corpse—some one hath just given it burial, and gone away, after sprinkling thirsty dust on the flesh, with such other rites as piety enjoins” <http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/antigone.html>.
That example from classical Greek does not refute immersion; it simply demonstrates that sprinkling dirt could constitute a legal burial. Furthermore, one must keep in mind that our Lord was not buried the way that people often are today, under the earth; he was placed in an above ground tomb.
Immersion is strongly implied in several passages, but there is no clear-cut, unambiguous example of baptism by immersion in the New Testament. The Ethiopian eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And Saint Luke records that “he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:38, 39).
The difficulty with Acts 8:38, 39 is that while immersion is implied, it is not explicitly asserted here, because both the person being baptized and the one doing the baptism both go “down into the water.” If baptism were being done by immersion, it is absolutely essential that the person doing the baptizing would go “down into the water” along with the person being baptized, even though only the person being baptized would go down under the water. However, inasmuch as this is a desert road, and no one would pour water out unnecessarily, it is not out of the question that Philip went “down into water” to scoop some up, either to pour or sprinkle on the head of the Ethiopian eunuch.
In the same way, when our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized, immersion is implied but not explicitly taught: ‘As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”’ (Matthew 3:16, 17).
Immersion is implied above, as it is in 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.” But immersion is only implied and not explicitly taught in these passages. However unlikely it may seem to a person who is already committed to the baptism by immersion only position, both Jesus’ baptism and the fact that John did his baptisms at Aenon, where “there was much water,” could be descriptive of baptisms being done by sprinkling or pouring. In fact, if one considers the New Testament narratives in light of the whole of Scripture, it is likely that John the Baptist actually did stand out in the Jordan River, inviting people to come out to him so that he could sprinkle water on them with hyssop, in keeping with the fact that he is the last prophet of the Old Testament (Matthew 11:9-15).
In Ezekiel 36, one of the visible signs of the inauguration of the New Covenant was to be a ritual cleansing with water by means of sprinkling. It was foretold that Israel would return from the Babylonian Captivity: “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land” (Ezekiel 36:24). Then, at some point after that, the New Covenant would begin to be put into force, and there would be an eschatological sign verifying this: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
The pivotal position of John the Baptist and his actions was recognized even by those who had not yet come to embrace the Lord Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. For centuries Jewish biblical scholars had been studying current events to see when the Messiah and his New Covenant would come. When they heard reports of an Elijah in the wilderness calling Israel to repentance by means of water, they wondered if John himself might be the Messiah: ‘Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”’ (John 1:24, 25)
The scholars who sent these men obviously saw John’s baptismal activity as an end of the age event. Why? What other passage but Ezekiel 36:25 gives a water ritual as an end time sign? It is patently obvious, whatever else one may infer from gleaning the descriptive evidence in the New Testament narratives, that Ezekiel 36:25 points to a water ritual that was to be performed by sprinkling as inextricably connected with the New Covenant: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.”
While baptism by immersion may paint a beautiful picture of our union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:4), baptism by sprinkling clearly and unambiguously paints a graphic picture of the only way that sins are washed away: being sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).
“You have come to . . . Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Real Christians are those who “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (1 Peter 1:2).
And while baptism by immersion may paint a beautiful picture of our union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, baptism by pouring clearly reenacts the only way that such a union is effected: the work of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out on the Church on Pentecost Sunday.
Why has an omnipotent, omniscient God left the biblical record without a clear-cut imperative as to how exactly the Church should do baptism?
The reason for this lies in the significant ceremonial differences between the Old and the New Testaments. Things simply are not as spelled out in the New as they are in the Old. Under the Law, everything that is to be done in worship is given in the minutest detail, and no variation was tolerated. Blood was to be sprinkled seven times, not six or eight, on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant on the Day of Atonement. The first time it must be blood from a bull, then blood from a goat. Even the kind of underwear that is to be worn in worship is explicitly commanded (Leviticus 16:4). The whole structure of Tabernacle and later Temple worship is to impress people with the enormous barrier between them and God.
When the Lord Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, thereby removing the barrier between sinful humanity and a holy God (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 6:19, 20). The ancient and fearful rites, which if performed incorrectly brought death (Leviticus 10:1 ff.; 2 Samuel 6:6 ff.), now pass into a new form, one marked by life and freedom. So it is, when we come to descriptions of New Testament worship, we find the covenant community experiencing freedom and spontaneity under the leadership of the Holy Spirit within the structure of biblical revelation. The Bible gives the structure and is normative, but the details are not so delineated. Very different from the Old Testament’s rigid structure of worship is the picture one gets about New Testament worship from reading passages such as Acts 20:7 ff. or 1 Corinthians 14:26 ff. This is why the Regulative Principle of Worship works out very differently in the two Testaments.
In the Holy Spirit guided evolution of doctrinal emphases, the prophets stressed the importance of the heart, not external ceremonies: “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:12). That emphasis is given full voice in the preaching of the Lord Jesus: “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23). It is echoed by his apostles: “We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3).
Therefore, while I firmly believe that it is normative to baptize people by means of sprinkling, and while I believe that anyone who objectively weighs the biblical evidence will come to embrace baptism by sprinkling as biblically legitimate, I also believe that a rigid dogmatism that writes off those who disagree about the mode or subjects of baptism is evidence of ignorance.
* “17. marker in idiom of authorization . . . ‘in connection with, or by the use of, i.e. naming, or calling out, or calling upon the name’ . . . Ac 2:38.” (Frederick William Danker (ed.), (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Third edition (BDAG) (based on Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur, sixth edit. Chicago/London: Chicago University Press, p. 366)