What does the Bible say about Baptism? A brief survey.

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here are 100 occurrences across 76 verses of words directly stemming from the NT Greek word “To Baptise” – once one has filtered out references to ‘John the Baptiser’.

We might usefully break this down into these sorts of headings (with a single example of each):

1. Instructional

Jesus or Peter telling people to be baptised.

Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
[Matt 28:19-20 – NRSV]

2. Baptism Occurrences

Examples when people were baptised in the early days of the church or in Jesus’ ministry itself. Of particular interest to many (and a real battleground in the debate over infant baptism) are times when a household is baptised along with a recently converted individual (specifically, the occasions in Acts 16 of Lydia and then the jailer).

They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.
[Acts 16:32-33 NRSV]

3. Baptism’s Effects

Moving on from narrative, we find baptism spoken of more theologically – seeming to have “an effect” on those who are baptised (I put that in quotation marks, since what sort of effect and how it ‘works’ is one of the crucial areas of debate).

How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
[Rom 6:2-3 NRSV]

4. The Old Testament Connections

As with every key theological concept in the NT there are interwoven patches of OT passages and context in the NT writings. 1 Corinthians 10, Galatians 3, Colossians 2 and 1 Peter 3 are all good examples.

In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
[Col 2:11-12 NRSV]

5. Hints and Implications

There are plenty of other places, too, where baptism may be appearing – though needless to say these are contentious – images such as being “washed”, “sealed” or “anointed” can often seem to imply a baptism background.

And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
[1 Cor 6:11 NRSV]

So..?

I’m not going to have time to do serious in-depth study on every one of the passages where baptism is mentioned, let alone on all the possible hints in the NT, but it’s a vital place to start, in a debate whose waters (pun intended) have been so muddied by the baggage of history and controversy.

One final comment…

Baptism is never described – I believe – as a ‘witness to faith’ or a ‘testimony’, ‘declaration’ or any such thing. In fact, it’s never described in active “something you do” terms – as might implied by a classically ‘baptist’ understanding of the rite. Although it’s absolutely clear that most people are baptised in the NT immediately after conversion, it’s never stated that their baptism is to show or declare their faith. Instead, as we’ve already begun to see in the few quick quotes above, baptism seems to be spoken of as something that God does to them (eg. the Col 2 passage) and which then makes demands of their life (eg. the Rom 6 passage).

3 Comments

  • Good thoughts. Baptism also shapes our lives. Paul calls believers to reflect on their baptism, as some of the verses you quote point out. It therefore has to do with commitment to a particular way of life. For me one of the big problems, not with the baptism of infants but the baptism of infants whose parents and godparents show no evidence of being shaped by baptism themselves and no interest in what that might mean.

  • An interesting conversation. It seems to me that baptism is a response, a context for the whole of our future existence, it does act as a witness but that to me is incidental. What is primary is the faith response and demonstrating a new stance in relation to Christ.

  • An anecdotal story of baptism which was an act of witness for me – entirely unscriptural but a moment of utter joy ….

    Whilst living in Colombia I attended an evangelical independent church. New Christians were encouraged to be baptised at a very special natural location which was a stream of thermal waters. On one occasion I travelled to witness some members of the congregation being baptised. One of them was an old women in her 80s who just happened to be a catholic nun. She was clothed from head to foot in white. Very gently she was dropped back into the warm water by one of the church elders and as she came out of the water she leap out and cried ‘Again! Again!’ – or rather ‘Otra vez! Otra vez!’. It felt like watching one of my children when they have done something they completely love and want to keep repeating endlessly to feel that amazing feeling over and over.

    As you say baptism isn’t meant to be simply about the ‘moment’ of rebirth into faith but an initiation into a life-long journey, however for this lady coming towards the end of her life, it was clearly a symbol – celebrating God’s presence throughout her journey. So now whenever I see anyone baptised I’m always reminded of that moment – of someone so funny, so full of humility, simply overflowing with life, joy and love for her Lord.

    “he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household” Acts 16:34

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