The Meaning of Baptism


The Meaning of Baptism

Part One of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
by Bob Burridge ©2011


The Meaning of Baptism

Baptism is one of the two sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ for his church. In Matthew 28:19-20 he gave a three-fold commission to his apostles: “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, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”

Clearly these three commands are to continue in the church until the end of the world. In carrying out the duty of baptizing those evangelized, it is obviously important to know how baptism is to be administered, who is to receive it, what it accomplishes, who is to perform it, and upon what conditions is it right and appropriate to do so.

Before we get into the details of those questions, ones which have sadly divided the evangelical churches, it is important to understand the basic meaning of “baptism” as presented in God’s word.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism
Question 94: What is baptism?
Answer: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

Westminster Confession of Faith 28.1
Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.

There is a great deal of overlap of the issues that divide people. What baptism represents partly determines how it is to be done, and to whom it is to be administered. Therefore, only at the conclusion of our study will all the individual parts come together to produce a consistent understanding of the sacrament.

In a previous study we defined the sacraments as signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They are directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice for his church. They represent Christ and his benefits, confirm our interest in Christ, and put a visible distinction upon members of Christ’s church. Baptism qualifies in all these areas if it is rightly understood, administered, and received.

It’s clear from Matthew 28:19-20 that baptism was directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice of his church.

As a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community baptism represents being a part of the visible church. All those properly baptized are to be considered as citizens of the covenant community. It is evident that not all who are baptized are truly members of the invisible church which is composed of only the elect of God. From the many warnings in the New Testament about false believers and the process of excommunication it is clear that some who are received as members of what we see as the church visibly, are not truly God’s redeemed people.

As a sacrament, baptism is also a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of being given up to God through Christ to walk in newness of life. As we saw in the previous lesson a sacrament does not in itself convey these spiritual blessings. It is a sign and seal of God’s promise concerning them to the proper recipients of the sacrament. We will see these issues clarified as we progress in the topics of this lesson.


The Way We Baptize

One area where sincere believers differ is how Baptism is to be administered. The position of the Westminster Assembly describes what is followed in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

Westminster Confession of Faith 28.2-3

The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.

Water is the outward element used to represent and seal baptism’s inward grace. While there is no significant debate about the use of water itself, the method of applying the water has divided some branches of the evangelical churches. The issue surrounds several areas of difference.

  • The meaning of the words baptism and baptize
  • The examples of baptism in the New Testament
  • The significance of the act of applying the water

The meaning of the words baptism and baptize
Since no actual definition is given in the New Testament when baptism is first mentioned, it is obvious that the words used had a meaning which was already understood. The Greek terms in the books of the New Testament are: baptizo (βαπτιζω), baptismos (βαπτισμος), baptisma (βαπτισμα), baptistaes (βαπτιστης), and bapto (βαπτω). Instead of being translated where the English meaning or synonym is substituted, they are most often transliterated by dropping the Greek ending and using the English alphabet instead of the Greek letters. This often requires adjustments such as the adding a final “e” to conform to the grammatical rules of the English language.

The first is the verb baptizo (βαπτιζω) which is usually simply transliterated as “baptize”. This word is used approximately 80 times in the New Testament.

The second word is the noun baptismos (βαπτισμος) which is used four times and has reference to the ritual washings already practiced in Israel (Matthew 7:4, Mark 7:8, Hebrews 6:2, and 9:10). The subjects of these washings are cups and pots in the Gospel references. In the Book of Hebrews it is used to describe the Jewish ritual washings based upon the prescriptions in the Old Testament law. It is usually either transliterated as “baptism”, or translated by using the word “washing”.

The third word, baptisma (βαπτισμα), is a noun related strongly to the previous one. It is used 22 times usually being transliterated as “baptism”.

The fourth word is also a noun. Baptistaes (βαπτιστης) is used 14 times. It is always in reference to John describing him as “the one who baptizes”, “the baptizer”.

The fifth word is another verb bapto (βαπτω) which is used four times in the New Testament. It is usually translated by the word “dip” and has reference to dipping a finger in water, of Jesus dipping the sop at the last supper, and of clothing dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13).

Lexicons and dictionaries range from sound scholarly studies of how words are actually used, to attempts to define words to defend a particular theology. Those who promote a restricted single meaning for baptizo (βαπτιζω) tend to ignore many obvious places where it is clearly used in other ways. The meanings of words are determined by how they are used by those naturally speaking the language. Words sometimes take on new meanings and drop old ones since languages grow with the cultures using them. An honest approach will seek to assemble the possible meanings a word may have, then let the context determine which definitions are allowable, and which are ruled out in each particular place where the word is used.

The words for baptism are very ancient in the Greek language. They were used by Homer, Lucian, and other classical writers from various eras. They show a wide variety of uses of the words, all having to do with the basic idea of cleansing in some way. The range of uses include: sprinkling, washing, dying of fabrics, and of immersing things in a basin or pool of some kind. But ancient meanings and those used by writers in pagan cultures are hardly a good standard for judging the way the words were understood by the first recipients of the New Testament message.

The meanings of the words for baptism when introduced in the New Testament are deeply rooted in how the terms were understood by the Greek speaking Jews to whom the gospel was first given. The historically wide range of meanings for these words seems to continue as they were used by the Christians who authored the New Testament books. The basic and most literal idea is “to wash”, or “to cleanse’. This was done in the same way people have always washed things. They may dip them into some solvent (usually water) at times immersing them. Often washing is done by pouring the solvent over something or rubbing it over the object to be cleansed. Sometimes washings were symbolic of a moral or spiritual purification, in which case simply sprinkling the solvent on the object was sufficient to represent the cleansing.

These various types of cleansings were part of the Old Testament writings. When the Hebrew and Aramaic texts were translated into Greek in the Septuagint versions (often represented by the letters LXX), words based upon the “bapt-” (βαπτ-) root were often used.

A summary of these uses is offered in this table:

passage Hebrew Greek LXX use
Lev 11:32 בוא (bo’) βαπτω (bapto) to place into water (immerse)
Lev 14:6,51 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip one bird in the blood of another bird
Lev 14:16 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip a finger in oil to sprinkle it
Josh 3:15 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to step one’s feet into water
Ruth 2:14 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip a morsel of food in vinegar
Psa 68:23 חץ (makhats) βαπτω (bapto) to smite an enemy (figurative)
1Sm 14:27 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip the end of a rod in honey
2Ki 5:14 טבל (taval) βαπτιζω (baptizo) Naaman washed himself in the Jordan River
Isa 21:4 בעת (ba’at) βαπτιζω (baptizo) to terrify (figurative)
Dan 5:21 צבע (tsava’) ¹ βαπτω (bapto) to wet with morning dew

¹(Aramaic)

The Levitical and traditional practices described in the book of Hebrews are summarized in 9:10 using the plural of the word baptismos (βαπτισμος). They are all called “baptisms”. The actions described here are mainly sprinklings of the priests where the Old Testament passages primarily use the Hebrew words:
nazah (נזה): which means to sprinkle, spurt, spatter, or splash.
zaraq (זרק): which means to scatter, or sprinkle.

A complete analysis of each of these passages would simply repeat the careful work done by some of the best exegetes God had given the church. A very good summary is given by Dr. John Murray in his book Christian Baptism.

A simple reading of the contexts of these texts shows that no single meaning can be forced into all of them. Those who insist that the words always have only just one meaning struggle with some of these passages. For example it is hard to make the words always mean ‘to immerse” when a living bird is “immersed” in the blood of another sacrificed bird (Leviticus 14:6), or how the body of Nebuchadnezzar was “immersed” in the morning dew.

The most important question that demands an answer is how the words chosen by the Holy Spirit were used and understood in the Jewish contexts in which they first appear in the New Testament writings.

The first reference to baptism in the New Testament is in relation to the baptisms being performed by John prior to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

John’s baptism was performed as a sign of repentance. It was to call God’s people from the corruption that surrounded them, to a renewed commitment to trust and honor their Lord. It represented being cleansed from the guilt of their sins. That was the underlying meaning behind the established Levitical ceremonial washings.

John’s activities soon got the attention of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The leaders sent a delegation to find out who this baptizer claimed to be (John 1:19-27). It is helpful to note that they were not sent to ask what he was doing. Baptisms were well known to the Jews as proper things for a priest of God to do. They were performed in various contexts including the sprinklings of the Temple services and various other cleansing rituals (Hebrews 9:10).

It is also wise to note that they were not concerned with identifying the name of this baptizer. They would certainly have known the son of the High Priest Zacharias. Their questions were about who he claimed to be with relationship to biblical prophesy, not about his human identity. It is as if they were asking him, “Just who do you think you are, baptizing people to repentance as you have been doing?”

If John had been introducing some new concept, such as immersing people rather than following the Levitical and traditional mode of sprinkling or pouring water in symbolic purification, it is strange that nothing is ever mentioned of this in the record of the New Testament. You would think that those looking to find something wrong with what John was doing would have latched onto that as a good argument that he was straying from the ways prescribed by God in his word.

The next baptism described in the New Testament is the baptism of Jesus. This is of a different nature than the baptisms John had been administering to show the repentance of the people of Israel who came to him. Jesus had nothing from which to be cleansed. There was nothing of which to repent. So John expressed his reluctance and lack of understanding. He should be seeking baptism from Jesus for the purification of his own soul.

Jesus answered in a manner that satisfied John that this baptism was to be for a different purpose. It was “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). John gave no further argument. He understood what Jesus was asking.

Righteousness is defined in Scripture as innocence before God’s law. In Deuteronomy 6:25 it defines it this way, “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.”

What law would be fulfilled and honored by a baptism of Jesus by John? Jesus was about to begin his public ministry. In his ministry he would exercise the office of priest in several respects. He must therefore qualify in keeping with the law given to Israel if he was to be above reproach and was to be understood for what he was doing.

There were three basic requirements of the law that had to be followed for someone to assume the authority of a priest in Israel.

First, he had to be called by God in a manner consistent with the Scriptures. Jesus was not of the line of Aaron as was John. But he was not going to circumvent the law and intrude upon the authority of the priesthood. There were others called specially by God in the Old Testament who were not identified as priests by their blood line. Melchizedek is an example of those called by special revelation. In Hebrews 7:17 it is directly said that Jesus was a priest of the order of Melchizedek. The calling of Jesus was made clear by the revelations of God through the angels at the time of his conception and birth. Many times the words of the prophets were quoted identifying him as the one who fulfilled the promises of the Messiah, the Anointed One. It was by this authority, not by his human heritage, that he was called to the office of a Priest of Israel.

Second, a priest must be at least 30 years old (Numbers 4:3). It is interesting that the gospels are very clear to state that at the time of his baptism Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23). His age is not given again during any time after that in his ministry. This shows that here it must have had some particular importance. We need to remember that it is not that Jesus had to be 30 to qualify, as much as it was God’s preshadowing of the priestly ministry of our Promised Savior that set 30 as the age for all priests in the Levitical system. Many of the details of the Mosaic law made little sense until the coming of our Redeemer where the shadows became a reality.

Third, a priest needed to be properly set aside by the forms of ordination. This was only valid if done by an already properly recognized and authorized priest. John was qualified since he was of Aaron’s tribe, son of Zacharais (Luke 1:5) of the division of Abijah, those charged with temple service (1 Chronicles 24:10). The mode of ordination was also specified in Scripture. Among the things required was the sprinkling with water mentioned in Numbers 8:7. “Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purification on them, …”

It is reasonable to assume that the baptism Jesus was seeking from John fulfilled this requirement of God’s law, and therefore fulfilled all righteousness in preparation for his ministry which was about to begin.

In confirmation of this line of reasoning, we see that when the authority of Jesus was questioned when he cast the money changers out of the temple, he cited his baptism by John. Matthew 21:23 records, “Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?’ ”

The answer of our Lord in verse 25 is instructive, Jesus answered, “The baptism of John — where was it from? From heaven or from men?” The accusers were left with no grounds for complaint that Jesus had abused priestly authority. He was guarding the place of worship from corruption – one of the duties of a Priest.

The writer of Hebrews makes this same connection with the priesthood of Jesus when he quotes the words spoken by God at his baptism. In Hebrews 5:5-6 he says, “So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’ As He also says in another place: ‘You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek';” The words “You are my Son” were spoken at the baptism of Jesus.

If Jesus had been baptized into the priesthood by an innovative ceremony, one that was at variance with the details of the law he was honoring, there would have been ample reason for the Pharisees at the temple to reject his argument. But they did not. The mode of the baptism of Jesus was most likely done by sprinkling water on him as he and John walked down into the waters of the Jordan river. Then after the baptism into the priesthood they came together up out of the water.

Jesus obeyed every part of the law in securing our righteousness. He did not dare to disturb even the shadows of the Levitical system lest any confusion should occur concerning the reality it prefigured. He partook of circumcision, temple presentation, Passover, and the other biblical feasts. The baptism of Jesus is another example of his devotion to God’s law to encourage us that He is our righteousness. He kept the law in every point to be above reproach.

Other references to baptism in the rest of the New Testament build upon this same foundation. The words used come from the respected heritage of biblical law. There were also baptisms added by the Rabbis which Jesus and his disciples did not respect or follow. They did not come from God’s law but from human-invented superstitions and prejudices.

In several places it is directly recorded that Jesus and his followers did not follow the traditions of the Rabbis in washing their hands before eating (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:2-5 and Luke 11:38). John Murray points out that this tradition of the Rabbis is described in the Talmudic tractate Yadayim in chapter 2, mishnah 3. It says, “Hands become unclean and are made clean as far as the wrist. How so? If he poured the first water over the hands as far as the wrist and poured the second water over the hands beyond the wrists and the latter flowed back to the hands, the hands nevertheless become clean.”

Significantly, Mark 11:38 refers to this by using the Greek word baptizo. There is no evidence that the critics of Jesus expected that Jesus and the disciples should have immersed themselves in water every time they ate, as if all good Jews did this. It is most reasonable to believe that this tradition of the Talmud was what their accusers had in mind.

A similar reference is found in Mark 7:4 when the ritual cleansing expected of those returning from the market place is referred to by the word baptizo (βαπτιζω). Some Alexandrian Greek texts substitute the word hrantizo (ραντιζω) which means to sprinkle. This variation was probably introduced to clarify the type of Rabbinic practice to which the critics of Jesus referred. Even if we keep the more received reading of baptizo (βαπτιζω), the ritual it describes is unlikely to mean that everyone returning from the market totally immersed himself in water.

There are these types of water baptisms in the New Testament:

  • The Levitical purifications and sacrificial sprinklings of God’s Law
  • The traditions of the Rabbis who added ceremonial washings of their own
  • John’s baptism, an established symbol of purification showing repentance
  • The baptism of Jesus as a priestly ordination following Numbers 8:7
  • a new kind of baptism which marked out the followers of Jesus Christ as the New Testament church which was established in fulfillment of the old Jewish order of the covenant.

In summary, the uses of the words transliterated as “baptism” in the New Testament have a wide variety of meanings. There is no support for the theory that they must always mean “to immerse”. The practice of the church in the sacrament of Christian Baptism must be defined not by assuming narrow meanings for the words, but by the significance and purpose of the sacrament where that matter is discussed directly in God’s word. The mode will become more clear as we look to the passages which describe why believers are to be baptized.

This important topic will continue in two more installments. The next lesson will cover the significance of baptism, and the final lesson will be about who should be baptized, and how baptism becomes effective.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

summary:
The practice of the church in the sacrament of Christian Baptism must be defined not by assuming a narrow meaning for the word, but by the significance and purpose of the sacrament where that matter is discussed directly in God’s word.

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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