Death by water submersion is a strange way to live.
The Christian practice of water baptism confuses many, and understandably so. It is not a normal practice. It is one of those rituals cloaked in mystery and spiritual activity, and thus is often misunderstood, distorted, or blindly practiced in order to be on the safe side.
At a Pentecostal church, I heard an elder teach his audience that there are at least five different baptisms cited in Scripture. At another country Bible church, I heard they take Paul’s comment that God had called him to preach and “not to baptize”, as a change to New Covenant practice (rather than a reference to the primary focus of his specific ministry), so they refuse to get baptized, as if it had become an outdated and inappropriate practice.
Some believers get dunked. Others get sprinkled. Others have these done do them while still infants. Some wait until their final breath to get “absolved” by their priest, so as to avoid the chance of committing a fatal sin after having been baptized. To many, the practice is limited to that wet-work moment of immersion, as their way of identifying with the death and burial of Christ. Baptism then becomes a past event, an act of faithful expression of belief and willing participation in Christ; a limited anchor point of personal history, without any ongoing aspect. Because of the fear regarding human works, many Protestants believe that baptism is important but not salvific.
There are a lot of weird ideas and practices floating around about baptism.
There are several biblically revealed keys to understanding baptism, if one desires to hear the word of God.
- Baptism is an act by which believers openly demonstrate their acceptance of God
- Baptism is a commanded requirement for Christian faith
- There is only ONE baptism
- Baptism combines a human response, with a divine cause
- The physical act of baptism is mystical, but not magical
- Baptism requires faith
- Baptism is the connection between initial knowledge of Christ and internalized maturity of knowing and being known by Christ
- Baptism is practiced by body immersion in water
- Baptism is conducted under Church authority
- Baptism is a life-long process that begins with the act of immersion
(1) Baptism is an act by which believers openly demonstrate their acceptance of God. Baptism is how Christians say “Yes” to God. Whether through the hands of John the Baptist, or by the oversight of Jesus and through his apostles, or currently through the laying on of hands by Church leadership, baptism is the connecting link between the gracious call of God and our personal acceptance.
The understanding provided about baptism, as well as through the act, has increased, but its purpose remains the same—to draw people to God. It is the method through which God intended to prepare people to receive the greatest revelation about God. It prepared people to receive Jesus as Lord God.
Baptism was designed to give individuals the opportunity to respond to the call of God. It was through this surrender to being baptized that God would grant that person the insight, ultimately to not just say they want to get right with God, but to accept that Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, and the only provided way to get right with God.
“I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” (Jn 1:31)
The ministry of John the Baptist was designed to use baptism as the act by which people would be prepared to accept Jesus. That has not changed to this day. Baptism prepares the way. It is the act by which professing believers demonstrate that they accept Jesus as Savior and that they submit themselves to him as Lord. Those who participate in baptism with this purpose are the only ones granted the promise of eternal life in Christ.
“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.” (Act 8:12)
When a person believes, they must make that private acceptance public. They must “believe with their heart” and then “confess with their mouth”. They are required by God to expose themselves as a committed follower of Jesus. Baptism is a public act within the Body of Christ, that requires the participation of other believers and ministers in order to occur. It is a family affair, not a private experience.
Those who believe, get baptized into the family of God, and become officially recognized children of God. Baptism is how genuine belief exposes itself.
(2) This act of baptism is not optional for those who hear the call to faith in Christ. When God initiates his gracious act of bringing a person to faith, he requires that they obey, or lose out on what is offered. Those who refused to get baptized by John the Baptist, were incapable of responding rightly to Jesus, and the Bible states that it was their own personal choice to avoid participating in baptism that caused them to be excluded from receiving what God intended and purposed for their benefit.
“But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.” (Lu 7:30)
Refusing baptism is the same as refusing God’s gracious call. Without participating in baptism, a person defies the will of God. This is serious business. We might think that getting all wet is a silly practice, but God is not so indifferent. He requires it.
Jesus knew this requirement. That is why he told John, who expressed concern about baptizing Jesus who was greater than him, that we must do this to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus was already divine Spirit and human flesh, through the impregnation of Mary by the Holy Spirit, so this was not so much about needing something but rather about fulfilling something.
Although this necessity was certainly person to his mission, it is also a statement about the necessity of the act itself, as shown in the above quote. Getting baptized fulfills the righteous requirement of God. The religious leaders refused to answer the Lord, when he asked if this baptism being done through John was of heaven or of men. They couldn’t win with any answer, but the truth is it was from God and not some optional human ritual.
“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”. (1 Pet 3:21)
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mk 16:16)
Baptism is the act through which God “saves you also”. If you want to be saved by Jesus:
“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.” (Act 2:38)
It is not an option. Baptism is a command. Those who want to turn baptism into a human-effort activity, suggesting that it is either not necessary to do, or not salvific even if done, distort Scripture. Baptism is a required response to God in Christ and is necessary for salvation.
(3) This is critical to grasp…There is only ONE baptism of God. Other religions may practice something that looks the same physically, but God initiated baptism as an act through which he would reveal himself further to those who submissively and willingly choose to participate. John started this process. Jesus continued it and expanded it. According to his promise, after he ascended back to heaven he would pour the Spirit out on those believers who had participated in this act previously.
Just as Jesus is the only door to access God, so there is only one baptism by which we participate in demonstrating our acceptance of that way. Those who try to chop up baptism into separate acts, do not understand the teaching about oneness in Christ.
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all”. (Eph 4:4-6)
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…and we were all given one Spirit to drink.” (1 Cor 12:13)
Even though John’s baptism was identified in more limited terms—by water, when Jesus’s baptism would be by Spirit—the two are the same act. The baptisms conducted by both were the same baptism and same physical act, but just with added significance of understanding. John was simply acknowledging that his was still limited and a leading toward what the Lord would do, but not that they were different baptisms. Only the results could be identified with more detail.
“Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John.” (Jn 4:1)
Jesus had already started baptizing, just like John, and the Holy Spirit was not yet coming on people. This was not “John’s baptism”, it was God’s baptism, that both Jesus and John were conducting. It was not time yet for the promised Spirit to be given through this baptism, but it was coming—not as a result of a separate baptism, but rather as an extension of this same baptism. The incredible pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was done only upon those who had already been baptized.
This observation helps to distinguish the baptism of the Spirit as a continuation of baptism rather than a new and separate form of baptism. Those early disciples had been baptized in repentance to God, they then professed faith in Jesus when he later revealed himself as the Christ, and per Jesus’ promise, they waited in Jerusalem after his ascension for the Spirit to come upon them. All of this is still part of the same baptism, and for believers today, is expected to occur all at the same moment.
New believers, who had not been previously baptized, would have to participate in that act in order to be prepared to receive the Spirit through baptism. That is exactly what happened on Pentecost. Those in the upper room received the Spirit without water baptism at that same moment. Those outside, who responded to Peter’s call to faith in Christ, submitted to water baptism and in that way were added to the Church as those being saved.
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Act 2:41)
This need for baptism in water is why Peter demanded that those Gentiles with Cornelius upon whom the Spirit suddenly displayed itself through speaking in tongues, must be immediately baptized.
“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Act 10:47)
The activity of what God was doing through this baptism, and the significance which it was representing had certainly increased, but it was still the same water baptism. All scriptural references to differences, like when it references to it as “John’s baptism of repentance”, are speaking about that early and limited occurrence, not about some separate type of baptism.
“because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Act 8:16)
After Pentecost, the practice of baptism was continuing just as it had before the outpouring of the Spirit. The act remained the same, but the name into which a person was being baptized had now been added. It was in Jesus’ name that believers were being baptized. The display of the presence of the Spirit had not replaced water baptism, as if one could be baptized just by the Spirit and not through water.
When Paul confronted some “disciples” near Ephesus about whether they had received the Spirit of God, they said they had received John’s baptism and had not even heard about a Holy Spirit. The text says, “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus”, which probably meant that they accepted Jesus’ name upon their baptism, rather than actually finding water and getting re-immersed. The next sentence is revealing in this aspect, by declaring that Paul laid his hands upon them and the Spirit dramatically displayed himself in entering into them. The focus in upon accepting Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit through Church authority, not on the physical ritual of immersion, which they had already experienced.
The purpose of John’s baptism was to prepare people to be able to accept Jesus by emphasizing repentance before God. It was not some Old Covenant practice that was done away with. The purpose of Jesus’ baptism, or the baptism of the Spirit, is to use the exact same process or occurrence of water immersion and repentance to demonstrate that acceptance of Jesus’ name. However, those who began with the first, but didn’t transition according to its design in coming to accept Jesus, would be like the fetus that comes to the entrance of the womb, but doesn’t come out. This is why the Bible announces that those who say they have the Father, but don’t have the Son, actually are deceived and don’t have either.
There are not multiple baptisms. So what do we make of the references that appear to suggest different baptisms? Scripture speaks of baptisms of water, Spirit, fire, suffering, cup, and wrath. Sounds like different baptisms, but they are all different aspects to the same act; to what the Bible states is one baptism. More will be shared on this detail in the final key to understanding baptism.
(4) Baptism is an act that combines a human response, with a divine cause. It needs to be recognized that baptism doesn’t force anything, nor does it earn anything. It involves mutual participation to accomplish its holy purpose.
For God’s part, he causes revelation and transformation in a willing participant. He has already initiated in a person his salvific call to faith in Christ, and when they respond through baptism, he causes several things within them.
He causes his Spirit to enter into them, so that Christ himself can begin to dwell in that person and live through them. He causes the maturing process of shifting an initial knowledge about Jesus to become a relational knowing of him—to become “in him”. Although repentance, and the attached forgiveness of sin, may have occurred some time ahead of the act of baptism, the time delay is allowed as a patient expression of God’s grace, for maturity in Christ will not be allowed to progress without baptism. It is through baptism that God associates an individual with the Cross, as one who willingly has died to self for the rest of their life on this earth. Their life is now hidden in Christ and will not show itself until Christ returns.
For our individual part, participation in baptism can never cause anything other than cold shivers or saggy wet clothes. We don’t earn anything through our willing act of getting baptized. God does everything that has any eternal significance toward salvation. Our part is a response.
When a person recognizes the call of God to repent and accept what Jesus accomplished in removing the penalty for our personal contribution to sin, they are given a choice. Allow the church leaders to lay hands on them through baptism as the method through which God will grant the gift of the Holy Spirit, or resist such submission to getting wet, to doing what God commands, or to allowing other imperfect leaders to exercise authority over them by holding them under water.
Accepting God-given authority of the Church is part of what we display in baptism. Submitting to the commands of Jesus is part of what we bow to in participating in baptism. And getting wet in this way, demonstrates publicly our commitment to live for Christ openly and not claim some private type of relationship with God. All this is a humble response to God for what he has designed and expects in those who profess faith.
Those believers who avoid baptism, for whatever their reason, will stunt their spiritual growth, because without baptism God will not grant his Spirit presence. Those who delay getting baptized, in some twisted belief that they are able to keep living in some decadent manner without falling under judgement as a confirmed Christian, are playing with fire. God only holds out his grace to a person for so long, before closing the gates of heaven in their face. Like the foolish virgins, Jesus will refuse them entrance into his kingdom, even though they finally show up and want in. Today is the day of salvation—make it count!
(5) The physical act of baptism is mystical, but not magical. There is nothing divine about the water used, nothing automatically generating any special power through baptism. The process of getting dunked is no different than what kids often do to each other when playing in water.
What makes baptism significant and transformational is God. The infamous convert Simon ran into this difference, when he got baptized as a response to the amazing teaching and activity of God through Philip, then immediately sinned. God doesn’t give his Spirit to anyone who undergoes baptism, because the act itself doesn’t do anything.
God considers the motive for why a person decides to get baptized. All new believers are called while still in sin, so it seems extraordinary that God would withhold his Spirit and limit causing anything dramatic. At the start of the early Church, God caused speaking in tongues and other dramatic miracles to be performed openly, in order to confirm that this colossal shift to the New Covenant through what he was doing in this new-formed Church, was of his doing.
In other words, dramatic displays of the working of the Spirit are not automatic. They have a purpose, and that purpose can shift. What doesn’t shift, is the purpose for baptism—to bring people to God through Jesus. Those who have ulterior motives when getting baptized, likely experience the same patience from God for those who come to faith but don’t immediately obey by getting baptized. God is patient, not wanting any to miss out on salvation.
That divine grace is limitless, but not timeless. God draws a line in the sand for everyone. Those who get baptized must mature in Christ—”produce fruit in keeping with repentance”—or find that their act of baptism was just a public bath that does nothing for their wretched condition.
What is mystical about baptism is what God does, not when we see it, but when he chooses to do it. We get baptized as an act of faithful obedience in response to what he has revealed about himself and about ourselves. That obedient response doesn’t end with baptism; it begins there. The rest of our lives are meant to be an obedient display of Christ in us as we follow and apply his every word.
We don’t claim the gift of the Spirit because we see miracles, but because he promised to give himself that way to those who do what he commands. In this way, we trust that God had implanted his Spirit in a baptized believer, because he said he would do so, not because of what we can humanly see or measure. That “I will believe, if I can see the holes in his hands” kind of faith is immature and not what Jesus commends as “especially blessed”.
In baptism, we respond, and we allow him to cause as he decides, when he decides, and for his good purpose in us. You can be assured, he knows exactly what he is doing, and he will do it, for those who trust and obey!
(6) Baptism requires faith. It should not be allowed for anyone not able to express at least some rudimentary and basic level of acceptance of Jesus—who he is, what he has done, and what he promises.
This is not a matter of intelligence, but a matter of choice. A person must be capable of personally saying “yes” to Jesus and “no” to self. Those not there, or not capable of such a profession, should not get baptized in such an unworthy condition.
Baptism is about God’s call to a person, not about magically causing people to get saved.
As such, infants should not be baptized. They ought to be blessed, however. Those who have had such a ritual done to them, need to recognized that the label is meaningless and the act not magical. The may have been blessing, with the belief that it was a baptism, but they still need to make a personal choice of faith through their own baptism.
As such, the mentally and spiritually deranged, should not get baptized. If a handicapped person, however, is capable of knowing about Jesus, his work on the Cross because of their sins, and wants to be saved, then Amen: get them baptized. If a person is struggling with disorders or possible possession, the church needs to consider carefully whether or not that person’s desire to get baptized is expressed at a moment of self-control. Baptism is a holy act, and it must not be given to those who intend to make a mockery of it. Those leaders who know this, but choose to baptize all who want it, “participate in their evil work” and will be judged as if they had done those wicked things themselves.
This may raise the concern that if baptism is required for salvation, then no allowing a person to receive baptism is like preventing someone from getting saved. That may sound logical, but it is not true. Baptism is required for salvation, but it does not cause it. Putting people through the ritual will not do anything positive toward saving them, because it must be a willing and knowledgeable personal response by that individual to the call of God. If they are incapable or unwilling, then they should not get baptized. Any concern over their salvation should not focus on forcefully checking off boxes of rituals, but rather upon the grace of God who will always make a way possible for those he intends to save. Don’t fear failure, handicaps, or even death. God knows how to save everyone. What we all need to hang on to is faith in the incredible grace of God.
Those who get baptized, should never go through it again. Baptism is an expression of obedience as well as an expression of faith. Thinking that we are doing what God says, but without faith, is still disobedience. Once baptized, a person needs to trust that God only accepts the application of Jesus’ sacrifice one time. There is only one sacrifice, thus there is only one baptism. Failures and sinful behaviors need to be repented of and cleansed by the blood of Christ, not by our actions at getting re-baptized. If the believer has “fallen away”, not just fallen into a moment of sin, then there is no point in getting baptized, because God won’t even accept their effort at repentance. The moral: produce fruit in keeping with repentance, especially by repenting while you can and as soon as you can.
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened…if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (Heb 6:4-6)
Those who think they can do proxy baptisms for others, don’t understand that God demands individual surrender—that every knee bow and every tongue confess. It cannot be done by others. Such activities, that are alluded to in Scripture, are not condoning the activity, but rather using the beliefs to confront the disbelief by some in resurrection. This does not mean that such early-church practices, however, were wrong of themselves. Many new believers were concerned about how God viewed their loved ones who had died before having a chance to know the Messiah. They likely were using baptism as a way to promise to God that they were willing to stand beside a deceased loved one in bring them to faith.
If you have such a concern today, then do something about it, before their silver cord is broken. Anything other than reaching out while it is still called Today, should be surrendered to the amazing grace of God, who doesn’t want anyone to miss out, so trust that if they could have been or still can be saved, then not even their death stands in God’s way. Use faith, not baptism, as your expression of hope for the salvation of a past loved one.
Don’t be surprised, if after baptism, a believer’s world doesn’t change much. Dramatics are not to be expected; transformation is. If changes are slow in coming, then it is likely because that person is slow in continuing in their response. Sanctification—that process through which we participate in the work of the Spirit in becoming transformed into the likeness of Christ—begins with our participation in baptism, but it shouldn’t stop there. We need to continue to participate, not in rituals, but in application of what Paul called “the law of Christ”. We need to apply the details laid out in the New Covenant for what God desires to see in Christians. As we do, transformation expands; as we resist or hold back, change will be unlikely.
A baptized believer today, is likely to walk away from the ritual with mixed feelings; excited about what they have done, and what God promises to do in, through, and for them, but also wrestling with moments of doubt because they don’t see all the dramatic changes or experiences that they hear some others have had. Remember what Jesus told Thomas who struggled with doubt:
“Because you have seen me, you believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn 20:29)
Those who take God at his word—that they will be given the Holy Spirit, and will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and will be forgiven for all their sins, and will be saved—even though they don’t see the immediate and obvious evidence they long to see, must continue forward with faith rather than sight, and Jesus declares that such a person will be blessed far more than someone like Thomas who needed to see to believe. So it is with the experience of baptism. The evidence of change should become clearer over time, but God is more interested in our faith in what he promises to do in those who choose to accept baptism, than in putting on a light show for us at this time.
The more we submit to implementing the words of God in adjusting our thoughts and practices in life, the more room we allow for the Holy Spirit to be active within us. The promise of receiving the Holy Spirit can be believed and claimed right at the start of baptism, but the recognition of that presence and transformation will likely take time and maturity to sense.
Baptism is not the end, nor the guarantee of salvation. Jesus remains our guarantee, so if we desire to remain in him, then we must continue to respond to his word and to the prompting of his Spirit. Change comes as we surrender to Christ.
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith…for if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ…If you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 1:5-11)
Being baptized by the Spirit is about transformation into being and living like a child of God. It is not about circus dramatics that attract attention. If God chooses to display himself, great. If he disguises himself from physical observation, as is often the case, then look for his evidence in the transformed nature and choices and desires of a person. Desiring what God desires is unnatural and can only happen consistently in a person being changed on the inside by the work of the Spirit.
Burning bushes don’t save bushes. Water flowing out of rocks, don’t save rocks. Wicked high priests who prophesy by the Spirit like Caiaphas, don’t save the leader. Speaking in tongues don’t save the speakers. Baptism doesn’t save the believer. God saves through faith in Jesus, and he grants the promise of salvation to those who get baptized and continue in that response of faith.
(7) Baptism is the link between two stages of knowledge regarding God. It takes one degree of knowledge to respond to God, but that initial awareness is not sufficient to complete what God intends for salvation. People don’t control either part of this knowledge. Both are entirely about revelation, even though both involve human participation.
When God calls a person to faith, he reveals awareness of Jesus, of a person’s own condition heading for death, and of what Christ has accomplished to bring us back to God. This is an external level of work by the Holy Spirit that does not actually change a person at the level of their nature. It is a head knowledge at this point, but not a heart one. In other words, it is possible to know these things but still not be identified by God as holy—and without holiness, no one will see God.
This knowledge can only deepen into our heart and transform both our mind and heart’s desires by an internalized work of the Spirit. God will only allow this level of intimacy by the Spirit to operate in someone willing to obey his command to submit to baptism. This is where the knowing about Jesus begins to mature into a relational-knowing.
This truth is why baptism should only be offered to those who are capable of expressing such knowledgeable faith. Infants and those ignorant of Christ cannot do such things.
(8) All biblical references to the actual practice of Baptism all refer to it as water immersion. The concept of baptism, however, references the ideas of immersion, internalizing and sprinkling.
Paul connects the concept of identifying with the death of Christ by going under water in a manner comparable to going under the ground when a person dies. This is the symbolism of immersion.
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.” (Rom 6:3-5)
“having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Col 2:12)
Jesus presented the idea of his experience of baptism through death on the cross, by drinking from a cup given to him by God. This reference is toward the internalizing of what that cup contains, in a manner similar to the old prophets who in visions were given scrolls and such to eat that would produce dramatic responses inside of them of both enjoyment and bitterness.
Peter speaks about the concept of baptism by sprinkling, which can cleanse the heart of a sinner, like the symbolized blood from the Old Testament sacrifices that God required to be sprinkled over the people as a ritual cleansing.
Other references to baptism include enduring trials, being tested by fire, and in participating in the Cross.
The concepts are all instructive, but the practice remains an actual act of water immersion. Any other activity that uses the label of baptism, is not actually what the Bible requires upon believers in order to demonstrate their faith and receive the Spirit for salvation in Christ.
(9) Baptism is conducted under Church authority. Like the Great Commission, believers are given the command to go into all the world, preaching and baptizing; however, both remain supervised functions of the Church. It is through ordained leaders, that God conveys the right of conducting baptisms.
This is not to suggest that lay members (non-ordained) can’t administer baptism to another believer, but rather that the authority to do so must remain an act of submission. That authority has been granted to those upon whom Jesus anointed as his Apostles. Through them, they laid hands on others, in some cases to administer baptisms, and in other cases to transfer the authority to do so.
“beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection”. (Act 1:22)
In replacing Judas as one of the apostles, the Spirit revealed that an acceptable minister for this role must be one who had been baptized by John and had continued as a follower of Jesus since that pivotal time. The authority for baptism and church ordination is a right of succession placed by Jesus upon those original 12 apostles and thereafter upon those whom they commissioned.
Over the generations, that right to convey the grace of God to bring believers into the family of God and grant the power of the Holy Spirit to indwell a person, has been literally handed down through the laying on of hands, from one minister to another. Individual believers have no right to dunk themselves or others. Just as each person getting baptized must humble themselves and submit to the act of baptism and the accompanied laying on of hands for transferring this blessing, so those administering the ritual must do so under the supervision and approval of the larger Church.
Historically, God has demonstrated that he has a short fuse for those who rebel against the authority he has set up, and who think they have just as much right to lead others in the things of God. Baptism is to be honored, promoted, and participated in by everyone, but it is only to be conducted under the direction of anointed church leaders.
Baptism has been designed as a sacred ritual and sacrament of the Church and needs to remain within and under that leadership.
(10) Baptism is a life-long process that begins with the act of immersion. This is huge, and often missed. Baptism is much more than a momentary glitter in a person’s history.
Most view baptism as a brief act of standing in water, answering a few questions about accepting Jesus, and then, as they are guided under the water, hearing “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the…” bubble, bubble, bubble. And then a bunch of clapping and cheers from onlookers as they wipe the water from their eyes as a freshly baptized believer.
That is baptism, but it is not the end of it. Baptism is a process that continues throughout life. This is why the Bible refers to baptism in different ways, not just as a public expression of faith. Consider that when Jesus spoke of undergoing a baptism, he was referring to the pending experience of suffering and dying on the Cross, but he had already experienced the baptism in water at the hand of John.
“But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” (Lu 12:50)
Jesus was not introducing additional baptisms, nor was he replacing the water baptism initiated through John, nor was he referencing something unique just to himself. He was speaking about another phase of that one baptism. This is why believers are told that unless they take up their cross and follow Jesus, they can never be counted as true Christians. We all must endure aspects from that same cup.
“You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with”. (Mk 8:39)
We do not and never will pay for sin, as Jesus did for us, but we do participate in a similar experience of the cross every day by dying to ourselves so that we can devote ourselves to doing the will of our Lord. That is still spoken of as baptism.
As already seen in Scripture, there is only one baptism, and this experience of suffering like Jesus through rejection and abuse by others, and even through self-restraint, for his name sake, is an ongoing part to being baptized. When going under the water, and in that way identifying with dying and being buried with Christ, we start a process of death to our natural ways that continues every day.
This is what is meant, in other passages that speak about a baptism of fire.
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt 3:11)
This is not a second baptism, but a continuation that begins with water and the receiving of the Spirit, and then progresses through the fiery trials of life. Suffering is part of what it means to be baptized. It is part of the experience. Both water and fire are symbolic, but the experience is very real. Baptized believers must accept the cup that the Lord hands to them, knowing that it is full of fire and loss.
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation…but each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid…If any man builds on this foundation using…hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is…It will be revealed with fire….” (1 Cor 3:10-15)
How we build our Christian faith, and the way in which we try to live out our lives, will be tested and revealed with fire. That is part of getting baptized. Those who go under the water, must also travel through the fire. What comes out the other end, can never be destroyed.
“Though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Pet 1:6-7)
“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”. (Col 1:29)
Baptism is an active process that purifies the willing participant by continually washing their soul with the blood of Christ. It starts gentle, but it matures by being tried like precious metal exposed to the furnace. It is Jesus’ promise that all believers will undergo this fire—like an intense seasoning of salt to the soul.
“Everyone will be salted with fire.” (Mk 9:49)
The tongues of fire mentioned in connection with the outpouring of the Spirit on that first Christian Pentecost were a description of what those present saw occurring of how the Spirit came upon them—like flames of fire—not a baptism of fire. Those who confuse this, will easily miss the repeated references in Scripture to Christians being subjected to trials of purification that are specifically identified as experiences of fire.
Also, this fire has nothing to do with the fire designed for those who reject God, rather it is a purifying flame. It is meant for our good, not our harm, regardless to how it feels or what others think about our experiences. With this understanding, it is not something to run away from. Rather we are advised to accept it from the Lord’s hand, as something designed for our ultimate good.
“I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire”. (Rev 3:18)
This is why the Lord cautions everyone to “count the cost”, before thinking they can get started and just hope for the best. Faith in Christ requires absolute devotion for eternity, such that those who do things to try and spare their life or preferences, will find that they have actually lost everything. As revealed through the Parable of the Soils, many will accept Jesus, and get started down the path of Christianity, but when trials come, they will be scorched for lack of water, and choked out by the difficulties of pain and pleasure.
There is no better way. Baptism is the process through which God transforms a believer into his child. It is the glorious act that reverberates throughout our lives washing and cleansing us so that we will be prepare and ready to meet our Lord in the air when he returns. Baptism is the mystical portal through which Christians pass to receive the promised fullness of Jesus’ grace and glory in eternal salvation.
As the Lord declared: “We need to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
The call to one and all, as it was delivered to Saul, who became Paul:
“And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Act 22:16)