What is the baptism that Jesus commanded? What do the Scriptures tell us about this baptism?
Welcome to part 7 of my series on biblical baptism. This series of posts builds on one another. If you need to catch up, here are links to the previous posts:
- Is Scripture Descriptive or Prescriptive?
- Defining ‘baptism’
- The Baptism of John
- Why Was Jesus Baptized?
- The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
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As Jesus was preparing to ascend to heaven following His resurrection, He gave the apostles some final instructions, which included the following words which are commonly referred to as “the great commission”:
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matt. 28:18-20 NIV)
Mark’s gospel records it this way:
15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
(Mark 16:15-16 NIV)
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
(Luke 24:45-49 NIV)
That Jesus instructed His would-be disciples to be baptized is indisputable.
But what did Jesus mean, exactly?
Recall from the third post in this series that the definition of the Greek word which is transliterated “baptize” is “to immerse, submerge, plunge.”
But how, exactly, are we to immerse, submerge or plunge?
Some, including Jeremy Myers in his post entitled “No Water Baptism in Matthew 28:19-20,” assert that Jesus’ instructions refer not to water baptism, but:
“to teach [the new disciple] fully about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
I couldn’t disagree more.
In the paragraphs below, I aim to provide what I believe any honest seeker would admit as overwhelming evidence that Jesus’ instructions are indeed speaking of being immersed in water.
Point #1: Jesus’ command wasn’t the baptism of the Holy Spirit
We’ve already established in the previous post entitled “Baptism Series Part 6 – Holy Spirit Baptism” that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is only seen occurring in two situations in the New Testament—the descending of the Spirit upon the apostles on Pentecost (Acts 1-2) and upon Cornelius and his family to show GOD’s approval of Gentiles (Acts 10-11).
In both situations, Holy Spirit immersion was initiated by or from GOD as opposed to by the new believer.
As the masses became believers, we do not read in the Scriptures about Holy Spirit baptism being involved.
Per Joel’s prophecy, as we noted in the last post, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign that the great and dreadful day of the Lord was near.
The Holy Spirit is very much involved in biblical water baptism, however. (Note that Holy Spirit baptism is shown in Scripture to be different than receiving the gift of the Spirit, which is His indwelling that is given to all Christians—see Acts 2:38; 5:32; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19.)
Point #2: Water baptism was specified in the conversions recorded in Acts
Scripture explicitly states that water baptism accompanied the conversion of certain Christians, including the eunuch of Ethiopia (see Acts 8:36-39) and Cornelius’ family (see Acts 10:44-48).
Interestingly, in both cases, the text reads as though water baptism was an assumed action—a foregone conclusion of its necessity.
The eunuch said to Philip:
“See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”
(Acts 8:36 NKJV)
It’s like the eunuch was saying:
“The choice is obvious here. I need to do this. I need to be baptized in water.”
In the case of Cornelius and family, upon seeing the same pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Holy Spirit baptism) occur on these Gentiles, Peter simply said:
“Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
(Acts 10:47 NKJV)
Again, it’s worded as though water baptism is a foregone conclusion—the obvious next step.
I submit to you that the eunuch and Peter responded in this way because the early church consistently baptized every new believer in water.
The early church understood Jesus’ instruction to be water baptism. The unanimous practice and testimony of early Christians leaves no room for doubt. To conclude otherwise is, frankly, lazy, indicating a lack of research.
Point #3: Baptisms in Acts indicate action taken by the new believer
The baptism we read about with the conversions in Acts was an action performed by (that is, initiated by) the individual believer.
It was a choice to make and an action to take.
It wasn’t something done to them, as Holy Spirit baptism was for the apostles and Cornelius; it was something done by them.
Consider what the Scriptures say:
- Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. … With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
(Acts 2:38, 40-41 NIV)
- But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
(Acts 8:12-13 NIV)
- Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
(Acts 9:17-19 NIV)
- One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
(Acts 16:14-15 NIV)
- The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.
(Acts 16:29-33 NIV)
- Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.
(Acts 18:7-8 NIV)
- While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
(Acts 19:1-5 NIV)
- “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
(Acts 22:12-16 NIV)
Also, note how the text speaks of these individuals’ baptism (their immersion) as being completed in a fixed amount of time.
If the baptism Jesus commanded were some form of teaching process, it wouldn’t be spoken of in the past tense as though it were accomplished in a short period of time. That would require a longer period of time and simply doesn’t fit with what the Scriptures reveal.
Point #4: There is ‘one baptism’
The apostle Paul plainly states that there is “one baptism” in his list of core principles essential to Christian unity:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Eph. 4:1-6 NIV)
This passage eliminates any doubt as to whether there were varying baptismal practices within the apostolic church.
It also points to the importance of that one baptism in maintaining unity within the church (v. 3).
Point #5: Peter specified water baptism
The apostle Peter stated an understood connection between water and baptism, saying:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
(1 Pet. 3:18-22 NIV)
A discussion of what Peter means here is addressed in a subsequent post in this series. For now, we’re simply focused on Peter’s reference to baptism in water.
Point #6: Use of ‘wash‘ in Scripture
Both the Old and New Testament contain the word “wash” used in reference to a spiritual cleansing.
Consider the following Scriptures:
16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
(Isa. 1:16-18 NIV)
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin. …
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
(Psalm 51:1-2, 7 NIV)
14 Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved.
How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?
(Jer. 4:14 NIV)
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Cor. 6:9-11 NIV)
And lest anyone should say these Scriptures refer only to washing in the metaphorical sense, pointing exclusively to the blood of Jesus, consider this passage:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
(Heb. 10:19-22 NIV)
The early Christians referenced Isa. 1:15-16 as discussing water baptism.
Consider the words of Justin Martyr, a philosopher-turned-Christian during the second century A.D.:
“So that it becomes you to eradicate this hope from your souls, and hasten to know in what way forgiveness of sins, and a hope of inheriting the promised good things, shall be yours. But there is no other [way] than this, —to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest, to live sinless lives.”
—Schaff, Philip (2009-06-08). Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers) (Kindle Locations 12334-12338). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.
In another place, Justin referenced Isa. 1:15-16, explaining that it is Jesus that gives this washing its value:
“For Isaiah did not send you to a bath, there to wash away murder and other sins, which not even all the water of the sea were sufficient to purge; but, as might have been expected, this was that saving bath of the olden time which followed those who repented, and who no longer were purified by the blood of goats and of sheep, or by the ashes of an heifer, or by the offerings of fine flour, but by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death, who died for this very reason, as Isaiah himself said, when he spake thus: ‘The Lord shall make bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the nations and the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.”
—Schaff, Philip (2009-06-08). Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers) (Kindle Locations 11424-11429). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.
Justin’s point in this conversation with a Jew named Trypho is very similar to Peter’s in 1 Pet. 3:21: The water alone is powerless. The power of baptism comes from the combination of the believer’s faith with the blood of Jesus. Otherwise, you’re just getting wet.
Point #7: “water and the Spirit” involved in being born again
Water is explicitly mentioned as being involved in the Christian’s rebirth.
When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus, Jesus spoke with him about being born again:
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
(John 3:1-5 NIV)
Paul mentions this same “water and Spirit” combination (and “washing“) in relation to the “new birth” in his letter to Titus, saying:
3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
(Titus 3:1-7 NIV)
The role of water and Spirit in the new birth was clearly understood, practiced and taught by Christians for centuries. Among many possible examples I could cite, consider these words of Tertullian:
“When the soul embraces the faith, being renewed in its second birth by water and the power from above, then the veil of its former corruption is taken away. And it sees the light in all its brightness. It is also taken up by the Holy Spirit. This is in contrast to its first birth, when it is embraced by the unholy spirit. The flesh follows the soul, which is now wedded to the Spirit, as a part of the bridal portion. The flesh is no longer the servant of the soul, but of the Spirit.”
—Tertullian (c. 210 A.D.), A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 471
Point #8: GOD promised a fountain
When the prophet Zechariah prophesied about Jesus’ death (see John 19:37), he wrote:
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. 11 On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, 13 the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, 14 and all the rest of the clans and their wives.
13 “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.
(Zech. 12:10-13:1 NIV)
Without question, Zech. 13:1 is referring to the fountain of Jesus’ blood which cleanses our sin.
Yet, in light of all the evidence previously mentioned, it is safe to say that there is a dual meaning that also refers to water baptism.
Point #9: Israel was baptized into Moses through water
Lastly, in 1 Cor. 10, we find the word “baptized” in reference to Israel and Moses:
1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.
(1 Cor. 10:1-6 NIV)
What was Paul saying here?
He was drawing a comparison between the Corinthian Christians and the ancient Israelites in an attempt to warn them of the dangers of disobeying GOD.
Recalling that the word “baptized” means “immersed,” Paul was saying:
- Israel was immersed in water just as you Corinthian Christians were.
- As a result of faithfully passing through the water, Israel was saved by GOD (physically) just as you were (spiritually).
- Israel ate and drank from Christ just as you have.
- But Israel sinned and displeased GOD, so He scattered their bodies in the wilderness! So don’t be like Israel, Corinthians!
So, while the immersion that Israel received in the Red Sea and into Moses certainly looked different than water baptism into Christ, the similarity between the two is quite clear and both include water.
The evidence from Scripture is overwhelming that water baptism is indeed what Jesus was commanding in the great commission.
Add to Scripture’s teachings the extensive writings of the early Christians that followed the apostles as leaders in the church and the spiritually honest person has a tsunami of evidence pointing to water baptism.
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Read Part 8 here:
Continue to part 8, “The Biblical Purpose of Water Baptism.”