It is often pointed out to new converts, quite rightly, that the word baptism is derived from the Greek word baptizo, meaning "to immerse." What is often forgotten is that words cannot be divorced from the context in which they are used. When this is done, the unfortunate result is that we end up misunderstanding the message.
Take an example of the word "eat." Everyone knows what to eat means simply putting food in the mouth, then chewing and swallowing it. Now let us examine these words of Jesus:
Jesus said to them, "Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." (John 6:53-58)
The point Jesus was making is quite clear to us today. He simply wasn't talking about physical food! He wasn't telling his disciples to chop him up and roast his meat over a fireplace for dinner. In fact, when his disciples couldn't understand him then, he explained himself in verse 63 of the same chapter: "The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you they are full of the Spirit and life."
This example demonstrates that to understand scripture, we cannot assume that the literal meaning of the words themselves gives us the intent of the Spirit. Where the context indicates a literal meaning of "eat," that's how we also are to understand it; but when the meaning is not literal, we surely cannot be at liberty to change it to a literal one. The context indicates the meaning or, if you like, the intent of the Spirit.
Back to the meaning of baptism. John's baptism was obviously one of immersion into water, in his case the river Jordan. This has unfortunately made many undiscerning Christians and bible scholars to see water whenever the word baptism is mentioned. Just as in the case of the word "eat" as examined in the example above, such an interpretation is unwarranted.
The following examples from scripture will help to illustrate this point:
(i) In Luke 12:50, Jesus says: "But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraints I am under until it is completed." He surely wasn't thinking of returning to John the Baptist for another dip into the river Jordan! He was talking of His coming death and calling it a baptism.
(ii) Writing about the deliverance of their ancestors from the bondage of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:2: "They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea." But, wait a minute, we have no record of Moses conducting baptisms in the desert or in the Red Sea, so what exactly did Paul mean? All what we know is that the Israelites became followers of Moses and were instructed down the generations to follow all the laws that God passed down to them through Moses. "Baptized into Moses," then, would mean becoming a follower of Moses, or professing the beliefs and teachings of Moses becoming of one spirit with him, so to speak.
(iii) This meaning can be ascertained from a reading of Galatians 3:26-27: "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." The phrase "baptized into Christ" cannot possibly mean anything else other than to be joined with Christ, to become one with Him. It has as little to do with water as "clothed yourselves with Christ" in the same passage has to do with physical clothes.
(iv) While chastising the Corinthians for their divisions and urging them toward unity in Christ, Paul surprisingly boasts about having baptized very few people. Then he makes an even more intriguing statement about his mission, saying it had nothing to do with (water) baptism:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. ( 1 Corinthians 1:13-17)
If water baptism is truly commanded of God, why would Paul "thank God" that he did not baptize many people instead of praying for the Lord to cause more people to come for baptism? Far from it, it is evident that Paul has come to a realization of the worthlessness of this ritual and is now thankful that He did not persist in this error for long, having baptized only a few people before coming to a realization of the truth.
Indeed, if water baptism is what Christ intended when He gave the Great Commission, and if it is of such great importance as many Christians have been made to believe, why would Paul talk so slightingly about such a practice by saying Christ did not send him to baptize? He makes clear his mission statement: to preach the gospel. He had no time for useless rituals. As he says elsewhere in Romans 1:16, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile." The Holy Spirit cannot at one time in the New Testament command a ritual and then at another point trash it so badly. Truly, the only explanation is that there has been a gross misunderstanding of the intent of the Holy Spirit by picking on the letter of the words in Matthew 28:19 without searching the Spirit.
(v) The figurative way in which scripture speaks is even clearer when one examines the following passage:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 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.
If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)
Now, although Paul says of believers that "our old self was crucified with him," we understand that this does not constitute a command for believers to be physically nailed to a cross upon being saved. Baptism and crucifixion are mentioned in the same breath in this passage, with absolutely no indication that one is to be treated as a spiritual reality and the other as a physical action. The point is that in the same way that believers are not expected to be crucified on a physical cross as a symbol of their crucifixion with Him, they are also not expected to be dipped under physical water as a symbol of their baptism into Christ.
It is important to note that the books of the New Testament and indeed the whole bible are not arranged in a chronological order according to the timeline in which they were written. In this regard, although the letter to the Romans appears first among the epistles and is placed immediately after the Acts of the Apostles and before the first letter to the Corinthians, it was actually written sometime after 1 Corinthians. Since by the time he wrote the latter Paul had come to a new realisation regarding water baptism and could mention it rather disparagingly (see point (iv) above), it follows that he could not have been referring to water baptism when he later wrote to the Romans that they had been "baptized into Christ."
(vi) And just in case any believer thinks that baptism is an activity to be conducted by any human being, Paul clears the air:
"For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." (1 Corinthians 12:13)
Of course, the Spirit never poured water on anyone's forehead or pushed them down into a river to baptize them. Neither did God give His Spirit in a cup for anyone to drink. Only a mind that is so worldly as to have lost all spiritual discernment would insist, in the light of this verse, that the baptism envisioned in the New Testament has anything to do with material water.
(vii) In a rather difficult passage intended to encourage believers going through suffering and persecution, the apostle Peter tells them:
It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 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. In that state he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits 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, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Peter 3:17-22)
Among other things, Peter in this passage compares the salvation of believers to that of Noah. But lest anyone should think that he is writing about water baptism, he makes clear that he is not referring to "the removal of dirt from the body." What a harsh indictment of water baptism it can only remove dirt and is of no additional value. True baptism, to Peter, is "the pledge of a clear conscience toward God." It is this clear conscience that distinguished Noah in his day and enabled him to obey God, who saved him and his family from the flood. Believers are told that they have this same baptism "which now saves you also," meaning that God will use their union and communion with Him, which enables obedience of the type exemplified by Noah, to save them from the evils surrounding them in the same way that He had saved Noah before them.
A majority of Christians especially evangelical groups are agreed that water baptism cannot save, saying it is a mere outward show of an inner change. It would therefore be nonsensical for Peter to make the statement "baptism that now saves you also" if water baptism were in view. The baptism that Peter must have been thinking about was obviously union with Christ, because it is only through our union with him that we have eternal life and can claim victory over sin and death. In the words of Christ in John 15:5, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."
The passage above is a pointer that the same Peter who conducted water baptisms in the Acts of the Apostles later came to a new realization regarding true baptism. God is continually shedding His light upon His people and it would be wrong to think that the apostles were any different or that they had the full revelation of God right from the beginning; rather, we must trace the progression of their thoughts as they obeyed Christ and more light was revealed to them.
The Great Commission
Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit and cannot contradict itself. If baptism is not a physical act, we must therefore find out what Jesus meant when He appeared to give a command to the Eleven to baptize:
"Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20):
Baptism into Christ, as has been shown using the examples above, means union with the Lord. Christ, in turn, tells us that He is one with the Father, and that the Father is in Him and He in the Father (see, for example, John 14: 9-11). The Holy Spirit, on His part, is the Spirit of Christ and also the Spirit who comes from the Father (John 14:26, Romans 8:9). Now, if we are united with Christ, and Christ is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, then it can be said that we also are one with the Father and the Spirit. In that case, when we have been baptized into Christ, we are also baptized into the Father and into the Holy Spirit, because these three are one. And so, by preaching the gospel and making disciples of all nations, the apostles will essentially be making them become one with divinity, which is the same as baptizing them into Christ, or, taking into account the reality of the Trinity, "baptizing them in (understood as into) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
At least one major authority holds this same view regarding the meaning of "in the name" in this instance:
It is a commitment to ("in the name" is literally "into the name," implying entrance into an allegiance) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all three of whom were involved in the event of Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3:16-17). Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus has taken his place along with the Father and the Spirit as the object of worship and commitment. Matthew's unique use of the Trinitarian formula summarizes in the more formal language of the community the essence of what Jesus had taught his disciples about God, instruction that had implied a unique relationship between Jesus and the Spirit with the Father. (Daniel G. Reid (ed), The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament, p99)
Jesus's command, understood this way, has nothing to do with physical water or a formula to be recited while dipping people into a pool or pouring water onto their foreheads. His words simply point to a spiritual reality of oneness with God, which He desires to be achieved through making disciples of all nations.
It is a clear principle in scripture that every matter shall be settled by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15, 2 Corinthians 13:1). An important teaching about a practice that is meant to be obeyed by churches across the world cannot be left to only one witness, Matthew. The Great Commission to the disciples is recorded by various witnesses in the New Testament. It is important to look at these other versions to ascertain whether any command was really given for water baptism.
(i) In Mark's record:
He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:15-18)
It should be noted that Mark's record in these verses cannot be taken as authoritative due to questions of authenticity. Many bible versions actually have a disclaimer indicating that the earliest manuscripts do not contain Mark 16:9-20. Doctrinal teaching cannot be based on any part of scripture that is in doubt. Any text whose authenticity is in question can only be used for purposes of edification. In this case, therefore, Mark's record cannot be taken to be a reliable or second witness to Matthew with regard to water baptism.
(ii) The Great Commission is recorded differently by Luke:
He told them, "This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high." (Luke 24:46-49)
It is clear that Luke's record has nothing to support the doctrine of water baptism. If there was any such command, surely Luke would not have overlooked such an important matter.
(iii) Similarly, John has no record of water baptism being commanded:
Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:21-23)
Is it possible that an important command to the church to baptize new believers in water throughout all generations henceforth would have escaped John's attention as well?
(iv) In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives a slightly different version of the Commission recorded earlier in his gospel account:
He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:7-8)
Just as in his earlier record, Luke's narrative in Acts has no mention of a command to baptize believers in water. The failure to find a second witness to this command among all the witnesses to the Great Commission to support Matthew if it is assumed that water baptism is what Matthew really meant in the first place means that the whole doctrine stands on very shaky ground.
Isaac Mwangi is a Kenyan freelance writer and author of "The Nature of the Apostolic Church". He may be contacted via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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