Pastor David B. Curtis


Water Baptism

Matthew 3:11

Delivered 09/09/2001

There is a story about a Baptist pastor who had just started serving a new congregation. For eight Sundays in a row he preached on the importance of baptism. Finally, the chairman of the deacon board approached him and said, "Preacher, we think you need to choose another theme to preach on." The pastor responded, "Well, I did not know you felt that way. Why don't you just pick out a Bible text and I'll preach on that." The deacon then randomly opened a Bible, closed his eyes and put his finger in the middle of the page. He said, "OK, Pastor, here's the text, Matthew 3:10, "The ax is laid at the root of the tree." The next Sunday the pastor got up in the pulpit, read that verse, and then said, "Amen. That's wonderful. They laid the ax at the root of the tree. Why would anyone do that? So they could cut down the tree, of course, and then dam up the creek, and get the water deep enough to have a baptism."

Unlike that pastor, I don't have a preoccupation with baptism, but I would like to talk about it today. No subject is potentially more controversial in the church than baptism. There was a book written a few years ago called, Baptism: The Water That Divides. While we practice "believers baptism by immersion," most other churches utilize other methods such as sprinkling or pouring, and will usually baptize infants. Then there are those folks who argue that baptism was only intended for 1st Century Christians, or that the Bible commands only spiritual baptism, not water baptism, but they don't have much evidence to support their case and have not been very convincing. Though we differ about the mode and objects of baptism; how it should be done and to whom it should be done, most Christians agree that it is important that we be baptized. Let's consider what the Bible has to say about baptism.

The first references to baptism in the New Testament are in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist. John practiced baptism to such an extent that he gained the title, "the Baptist." John baptized down by the Jordan River. People came to him from all over Israel - from Jerusalem, from Galilee, from everywhere. And, as recorded in Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 3, John said to them:

Matthew 3:11 (NKJV) "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

There are several things we can learn about baptism from this verse. The first thing I want us to see is that water baptism wasn't something new. It should be apparent that John the Baptizer didn't just pop onto the Jewish scene in A.D. 25 and say something like, "Folks, I'm starting something totally new today that you have never seen before. It is called 'baptism' and here is how it goes...." The very least we must admit is that baptism was familiar enough to the Jewish people of John's day that it didn't provoke any challengers in regard to its mode.

John 1:19-20 (NKJV) Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ."
John 1:25-27 (NKJV) And they asked him, saying, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" 26 John answered them, saying, "I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. 27 "It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose."

The words of verse 25 imply rather strongly that the Jews expected the Messiah or one of his precursors to "baptize" the Jewish people. They didn't say, "What is baptism?" What they said was, "Why are you baptizing?"

Baptism in the Old Testament:

Exodus 19:9-10 (NKJV) And the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever." So Moses told the words of the people to the LORD. 10 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes.

In Exodus 19, they arrived in the area around Mt. Sinai and were told by God that He would make a covenant with them on the third day after their cleansing. They could not meet with God to make a covenant in an unclean condition. They had to be purified first. And Jewish commentaries on this passage point out that the purification of the people here at Mt. Sinai was not just a washing of their clothing, but a total immersion of their bodies as well.

Rabbi Kaplan writes, "The command to 'wash their garments' seems puzzling, until we look into the general laws regarding purification. There, we find that whenever a person is required to 'wash his clothing,' he is also required to immerse himself in the Mikvah. When the Torah states that an individual must wash his clothing, this means that he must purify his clothing as well as his body in the Mikvah. Thus, we know from tradition that an important part of the preparation for the receiving of the Ten Commandments consisted of immersion in the Mikvah." [Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Waters of Eden - The Mystery of the Mikvah. Subtitled "An Exploration of the Concept of Mikvah - Renewal and Rebirth." New York, NY: National Conference of Synagogue Youth of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, 1976. p. 21]

As we learn about the Jewish Mikvah, we realize that water baptism was not something that John invented. Here are some statements from William Sanford LaSor's and Nitza Rosovsky's articles in Biblical Archaeology Review regarding recent discoveries in Palestine which shed much light on the purification rituals that were practiced in the days of Jesus:

Until the discoveries of modern archaeology, we knew about ancient Jewish ritual immersion baths only from literary texts. Now, however, archaeology has provided us with numerous examples of Jewish ritual immersion baths, called mikvah, dating to the late Second Temple period, prior to and during the time when John the Baptist lived. These mikvaot undoubtedly provide the background for Christian baptism.
Alongside the Temple esplanade enlarged by Herod the Great in the first century B.C., archaeologists have discovered 48 mikvaot - ritual immersion baths... Close as they were to the Temple on the great esplanade, these 48 mikvaot must have served thousands of pilgrims who purified themselves before climbing up to the Temple area... Ritual immersion in mikvaot, practiced in Judaism, undoubtedly influenced baptism in the fledgling religion of Christianity...

A (1984) study by Bryant G. Wood of the University of Toronto says, "John the Baptist's ministry was to Jews. This fact is surely of major significance in any attempt to understand John's baptism. No person seeking to influence Jews in any matter concerning religion would introduce something entirely new. If he could not support his ideas either from Scripture or from the sayings of recognized rabbis, he could not expect a hearing. We have only to examine the rabbinic sayings or the Mishnah to appreciate how much stress was laid by Jews on the continuity of tradition. We may therefore reasonably conclude that John's baptism was not something new. It was something that grew out of Jewish ritual immersion in mikvaot... "

Why wasn't baptism explained in greater detail in the New Testament? Maybe it is because they already knew what it was and didn't need an explanation. For Biblical evidence that John's baptism was considered to be one of the Jewish "purifications," just consider:

John 3:23-26 (NKJV) Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. 24 For John had not yet been thrown into prison. 25 Then there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified; behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!"

Verse 25 says, "Then there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purification." The next two verses tell us they were actually discussing the difference between John's and Jesus' baptisms. John calls his and Jesus' baptisms "purification" which is the Greek word katharismos. There are only seven New Testament verses which use this same form of the Greek word: (Mark 1:44; Luke 2:22; 5:14; John 2:6; 3:25; Hebrews 1:3; 2 Pet. 1:9). All the occurrences of katharismos in the gospels refer to Jewish purifications. The implication is that John's and Jesus' baptisms were considered to be part of the Jewish purifications, implying that Christian baptism was based on John's baptism which was a purification ritual. The physical ritual itself was not new at all. Only the purpose and meaning were new.

Jewish people had to undergo ritual immersion before entering the temple for any purpose. There were signs posted at the entrances to the temple warning people not to enter unclean. A severe penalty was imposed on violators. (See Josephus Ant. 12:145; Wars 4:205).

Numbers 19:19 (NKJV) 'The clean person shall sprinkle the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, wash his clothes, and bathe in water; and at evening he shall be clean.

This is a reference to the ordinance of the Red Heifer. There were two parts to the cleansing by the ashes of the red heifer. The ash-water was sprinkled on the third and seventh days, then on the seventh day they washed their clothes and bathed. This bath was an immersion.

So, the first thing we see in Matthew 3:11 is that baptism wasn't any thing new. The Jews were very familiar with water baptism as a symbol of purification. They could not enter the temple without first being purified.

Matthew 3:11 (NKJV) "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

This passage also show us that there is a difference between symbolic baptism and the real baptism. When we speak of baptism, we must remember that we are talking about more than a simple rite which people undergo. This rite of water baptism is but a symbol of something else, and it is this "something else" which constitutes the real meaning of baptism, the reality behind baptism. John has tied together symbol and reality.

John 1:33 (NKJV) "I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'

Again, we see two baptisms, one with water, one with the spirit. These two baptisms are linked. The rite of water baptism is linked to the reality of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If you turn to Acts 1:4, you will find that, after the resurrection, at the close of his own ministry, Jesus confirms this link:

Acts 1:4-5 (NKJV) And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, "which," He said, "you have heard from Me; 5 "for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

In just a few days that promise was fulfilled. The Holy Spirit was poured out upon these disciples, and, for the first time, the body of Christ was formed. That is the purpose of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is to form the body of Christ by introducing every individual believer into that body. Now, admittedly, this is a metaphorical body - not a physical body but a spiritual one. Yet it is a very real body. And all through the rest of the Scriptures you find the apostles speaking of the reality that the church is the body of Christ, the instrument through which the Lord Jesus performs his work. He intends to do so not only now but throughout all eternity.

Another passage of great significance in this connection is in the 12th chapter of First Corinthians. There, in Verses 12 and 13, the apostle tells us:

1 Corinthians 12:12-13 (NKJV) For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body; whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free; and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

This is the reality of which water baptism speaks. Notice that there are no requirements to receiving the baptism by the Holy Spirit. "All" is mentioned twice, all believers have received the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Paul's point here is unity, the baptism by the Holy Spirit makes us members of the body of Christ. To not be baptized by the Holy Spirit is to not be a Christian.

"We have all been baptized" - past tense. It happened at salvation. That is why there is

no command in Scripture to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. There is no exhortation to receive the Holy Spirit- you already have Him.

The baptism by the Holy Spirit is the work of Jesus Christ in putting us into the church through the agency of the Holy Spirit. It happens at salvation.

The fact that the baptism by the Holy Spirit is universal is explicitly taught in 1 Corinthians 12:13, we were all baptized, and implicitly taught in Ephesians 4:5

Ephesians 4:5 (NKJV) one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

Speaking of unity, one Lord- every believer has the same Lord. We all have the same faith- this is a common basis for unity. One baptism- this is the Spirit baptism, it is a basis for unity. Not all Christians have been baptized in water, but they have all been baptized by the Spirit. There are not two types of Christians, some with the baptism by the Holy Spirit and some without. Those who have not been baptized by the Holy Spirit are not Christians.

In the nine verses in the NT that speak of the baptism by the Holy Spirit, none of them ever command us to seek it. What is the inference here? All believes have it. The baptism by the Holy Spirit is positional work of God, at faith we are placed into the body of Christ, and we can never loose that status. We are exhorted to be filled with the Spirit but never to be baptized. It is the filling of the Spirit that leads to power in our Christian lives. Filling has the idea of control.

What is the result of the baptism by the Holy Spirit?

We can understand this by understanding the meaning of the word "baptize". The primary meaning of the word "baptize" is: "to immerse or dip." But there is more then one meaning for the word baptize. In any language there may be a literal and a metaphorical meaning of the word. For example, we see this in our use of the word "fox." Used literally, it is a member of the canine family. But it is used metaphorically of an attractive female. The word "baptize" used metaphorically means a change of identity. It means identification with or united to. We see this secondary meaning in:

1 Corinthians 10:1-2 (NKJV) Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,

They were all identified with Moses. For years the children of Israel had been joined to Egypt, and identified with Pharaoh. But as they come out of Egypt in the exodus, the red sea and the pillar of the cloud broke that identification and identified them unto Moses. We also see this metaphorical use in:

Mark 10:38-39 (NKJV) But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39 They said to Him, "We are able." So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized;

What is he talking about? Death! How is death a baptism? In his death he identified with sinful man and bore his punishment. They will be identified in his death (verse 39).

The baptism by the Holy Spirit is identification with the body of Christ, it is a positional work that takes place at salvation, and in water baptism, you are publicly identifying yourself with Jesus Christ. Water baptism signifies our experience of being baptized by the Holy Spirit through which we are made a part of the body of Christ. In many ways it is like a wedding ring. This ring on my finger is a sign to remind me and everyone who looks at my hand that I am married, that I have one wife, Cathy. Baptism is an event which tells all who witness it, including the one who has been baptized as he or she remembers what happened, that this individual is a Christian, who has one Lord, Jesus Christ.

Now, someone may ask, "If all believers are baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, why do we need the symbol of water baptism? Primarily, because the Lord commanded it! If you want to read that command you can turn to the last verses of Matthew's gospel. On the same occasion when Jesus referred to the coming baptism of the Holy Spirit, he also said to the disciples:

Matthew 28:18-19 (NKJV) And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 "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,

Who is this his command to? The disciples. They could not baptize with the Holy Spirit; the only baptism they could perform is with water. The command continues:

Matthew 28:20 (NKJV) "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.

Who is the "them"? It refers to those that the disciples had taught and baptized. What were the disciples to teach them? They were to teach them to "observe all things" that the Lord had commanded them. Thus, they were to make disciples and baptize and to teach those who they discipled and baptized to do the same. And on and on it goes.

That should be enough, shouldn't it? If our Lord asks us to be baptized, and if we desire to obey his command and fulfill his will, then we should do it, whether we understand any more about it or not, because he knows better than we. If he asks us to use this symbol of the reality into which we have entered, then he has a good reason for it, and our part is but to be obedient to the command of Christ.

Water baptism has the function of focusing our attention upon the introduction to the Christian faith. It helps us to understand and grasp what is involved in being made a member of the body of Christ, how it cuts us off from the old life we once lived and introduces us to a new atmosphere, a whole new realm of living, so that we enter into a new life.

Now let's ask and answer some common questions on baptism:

Who Is to Be Baptized?

I will barely touch on the problem of infant baptism because I do not think you can find a single verse in the New Testament which even suggests that it is proper. Baptism is an expression of faith by the individual. It cannot, therefore, be practiced by an infant who is incapable of expressing any faith of his own. Only the baptism of believers is authorized in the Bible. See the two messages on Paedobaptism (#1 or #2).

One Roman Catholic archbishop says that infant baptism is a valid practice because it is something the church has instituted. He cannot understand, however, why any Protestant churches, who claim to believe in the authority of Scripture alone, practice infant baptism, since there is not even one instance of it in the Bible. I agree with the archbishop on that point. In this church we don't practice infant baptism because we don't believe the practice is taught in the Bible.

Is Water Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

NO!!! We do not believe that baptism is a means of salvation. We think it symbolizes the salvation we receive through Jesus Christ, but we don't believe one receives that salvation by being baptized.

The Roman Catholic Church views baptism as a means of saving grace. Rome believes that the act of baptism in water actually conveys or passes on grace to the person baptized. What this means is that when a person is baptized, it brings about a transformation in their life, that transformation is spiritual death to spiritual life. So for the Church of Rome, faith has no part in ones salvation; so we could say that to the Church of Rome, or to Catholics to be baptized is to be saved.

This is why it's so important that a Catholic priest baptizes infants. If the infant is baptized near birth, their entrance into heaven is unhindered; however if they are not baptized, they can in no way gain entrance to heaven. Instead they go to limbo, which is a place of natural happiness, but it is short of heaven, because God is not there. Listen to page 1213 from the Catechism of the Roman Church: "Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door to which gives access to the other sacraments. Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the church and made sharers in her mission: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word."

This is an unbiblical view. The Bible teaches that we are saved by faith:

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.

The Bible explicitly states that we are saved by faith and not by any work of man or ceremony performed by man. The New Testament passages stress that salvation is only through faith apart from works. Yes, baptism is often linked closely to conversion in the New Testament, but it is never required for conversion to Christ.

Acts 10:44-47 (NKJV) While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, 47 "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"

What is most interesting is that in this passage spiritual cleanness (the real baptism) was already present before water baptism had been performed. The real baptism occurred before the water was applied. In Levitical cleansings of lepers, this was the normal situation (the leper was healed first, then goes to the temple for the ritual which confirms the cleansing and restores fellowship in the community of Israel). Baptism was a ritual related to changing one's relationship with the visible church: changing a status of unclean to clean, or a status of "cut off" (disfellowship) to fellowship and association with the covenant community. Water baptism was not what cleansed the inside. Only Christ can cleanse that. It is that inner baptism which is the essential baptism, and that can occur independently of the external ritual. The proof of this is seen especially in the case of Cornelius' conversion. This is not just an exception to the rule. It defined the rule. It was not some isolated case long after the Gentiles had already been coming into the faith. It was the initial gateway of the Gentiles into the faith. Their water baptism was a symbol, an outward testimony of the inner reality. What Is the Proper Mode of Baptism?

Jay Adams in The Meaning and Mode of Baptism writes, "Baptism was a priestly purification before entering the temple to serve. It definitely has some merit, especially in regard to why Jesus (our High Priest) was baptized (certainly not to wash away His sins). If each Christian is a priest in the new temple, maybe we need to go through the purification ritual also. What is interesting, though, is that the mode of the priests' baptism was immersion."

There are at least three kinds of evidence for believing that the New Testament meaning and practice of baptism was by immersion. 1) The meaning of the word baptizo in Greek is essentially "dip" or "immerse," not sprinkle. 2) The descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament suggest that people went down into the water to be immersed rather than having water brought to them in a container to be poured or sprinkled (Matthew 3:6, "in the Jordan;" 3:16, "he went up out of the water;" John 3:23, "much water there;" Acts 8:38, "went down into the water"). 3) Immersion fits the symbolism of being buried with Christ:

Colossians 2:12 (NKJV) buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

We believe that the proper mode of baptism is immersion. By that we mean putting the person completely under the water. Luther and Calvin both acknowledged that "baptize" means to immerse and that the early church certainly baptized by immersion. Brenner, a Roman Catholic historian, writes, "For the first 1300 years of church history, baptism was generally and regularly an immersion of the person under water, and only in extraordinary cases a sprinkling or pouring with water. The latter were disputed modes of baptism and often forbidden." The reason, then, that sprinkling or pouring became the common mode of baptism in various churches seems to be convenience. It is a lot easier to sprinkle water on someone than it is to immerse that individual in a pool of some type.

What is the Purpose of Water Baptism?

Hodge writes, "The design of baptism is, that it be a visible sign of our covenant to be the Lord's, and devoted to his service; and hence it is a public profession of our faith and badge of our allegiance, and hence of our formal initiation into the Christian Church, and a symbol of our union with our fellow-Christians. 1 Corinthians 12:13." [A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith. Reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust. pp. 344]. Water Baptism portrays what happened to us when we became Christians.

Romans 6:1-4 (NKJV) What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

This is what happened to us: we were united to Christ. His death became our death. We died with him. And in the same instant, his life became our life. We are now living out the life of Christ in us. And all this is experienced through faith.

Let me say that if you understand what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and if you know you are trusting in Him as Lord and Savior, then you should be baptized as an act of obedience.

And please remember as I close, baptism is not something to split churches or friendship over. It is something that many wonderful brothers and sister in Christ have differed on for centuries. The main issue is that we are saved by God's grace through faith in Christ alone.

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