The word "baptism" comes from the Greek word baptizo which means to immerse or dip. To baptize something, then, means to completely submerge it in a liquid. In a biblical sense, to baptize a person in water means to put that person completely under the water, then immediately raise him or her up again.
Water baptism is a symbolic act whereby a new Christian identifies with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. Water baptism is a way of giving outward testimony to an inward work of God, and is also a public profession of a person's repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
The Bible teaches that there is a baptism necessary for salvation; however, it is not water baptism but rather spiritual baptism! A person must be baptized into Christ in order to be saved: "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27). At the moment of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (Yeshua), a person is "Buried with him [Jesus] in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" (Colossians 2:12).
Water baptism is purely an outward sign of God's cleansing work in a person's heart, and thus is meaningless without a prior spiritual baptism into Christ. Nevertheless, water baptism is an important first step of obedience for a new believer to begin walking out his or her faith. The Bible calls it a work "meet for repentance" (see Matthew 3:8, Acts 26:20). Furthermore, water baptism helps new believers understand the spiritual truth that according to their faith, their old man is dead in Christ and their new man is alive in Christ. "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin"
Indeed, water baptism by itself does not save anyone. People in the Old Testament were not saved by their animal sacrifices but rather by their faith in the coming Lamb of God. In a similar way, one is not saved by being immersed in water, nor is water baptism a requirement for one's salvation. A person is saved purely by his or her faith in Jesus Christ. Just as it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (see Hebrews 10:4), the natural water used in baptism will not wash away sin. Spiritual baptism into Christ is what saves, for a heart must be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb: "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood" (Revelation 1:5).
The Bible says, "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled [with the blood of Jesus] from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water [the old man becoming a new man]"
(Hebrews 10:22). It would be silly for us to interpret the "pure water" in this passage to mean the absence of impurities in a church baptistry or river. Rather, the "pure water" mentioned here is symbolic. Believers are sanctified and cleansed "with the washing of water by the word" (Ephesians 5:26). Jesus reinforced this truth when He said, "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you" (John 15:3).
Indeed, the cleansing work of God unto salvation happens in our hearts. He draws us to Himself, we respond by repentance and faith in Jesus, and then our clean conscience toward God saves us! "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 3:21). And, it is through Christ's resurrection that we have the hope of salvation, because as Paul said, if Christ be not resurrected, then our faith is in vain (see I Corinthians 15:14).
Who Should Be Water Baptized?
Water baptism is only appropriate for those who have repented of their sins and believed in Jesus with all of their heart. A biblical example comes from Acts 8:36-38. "And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him."
Disciples of Jesus in the New Testament church were baptized to proclaim their total allegiance and commitment to Jesus, regardless of the consequences. For a first century Christian, this meant identifying with Christ even unto death, since many of them faced severe persecution.
Let's look at some other examples of water baptism in the New Testament:
All the biblical accounts agree: water baptism is for those who believe. "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned" (Mark 16:16). Yes, even a child who is old enough to understand the significance of repentance and faith in Jesus can be baptized. Water baptism demonstrates obedience to the command of Jesus (see Matthew 28:19) and gives evidence of saving faith (see James 2:22).
What Does Water Baptism Mean?
When God baptizes you into Christ, you become a new creation in your spirit, not in your body (flesh). You still walk around in the same body (earthsuit) that you had before you were born again (see John 6:39-40). But something inside changes: your spirit is quickened (made alive) by the Holy Spirit! Now, you have the ability to communicate with God, hear His voice, love Him with all your heart, overcome sin, and walk out your salvation by faith.
Thus, water baptism symbolically identifies us as new creations in Christ. By going down in the water, we illustrate that our old man is dead to sin and buried by faith in Christ. As a result, we are free from our old master Satan. By being raised up out of the water, we show that our new man is raised by the Spirit, alive by faith in Christ, and our new Master is the Lord Jesus. We then commit to walk in righteousness, not through our old ways and fleshly habits but through our new life in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling our spirit. "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken [make alive] your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you" (Romans 8:11).
Four Examples of Baptism
To help us better understand the spiritual significance of baptism, let's look at four types (illustrations) of baptism in the Bible.
1. Noah's Baptism
Although Noah wasn't "water baptized," he was saved by his faith in God and by the Ark (which is symbolic of our being in Christ). Noah preached to the unbelievers of his time, "Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water" (I Peter 3:20; also see I Peter 2:5). Because of Noah's faith, he became an "heir of the righteousness which is by faith" (Hebrews 11:7) and was saved, just as we will be if we enter into and stay in the spiritual Ark (baptism into Christ). The wickedness of Noah's generation will be seen again on the earth before Christ returns (see Luke 17:26-27), and those who are not in Christ will perish.
2. Moses' Baptism
Moses led a generation of Israelites out of Egypt and they were "baptized" by the cloud and the sea. Paul said that "All our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ" (I Corinthians 10:1-4). Once again, this is a picture of spiritual baptism. Those Israelites were not "water baptized" but they were spiritually baptized by passing through the Red Sea and following the cloud (the presence of Jehovah) by faith. "By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned" (Hebrews 11:29). Those Isralites whose faith endured through the wilderness tests (Joshua, Caleb, and the younger generation) inherited the Promised Land.
3. John's Baptism
John the Baptist came preaching the baptism of repentance to prepare the way for the Messiah. Whoever believed John's teaching showed their change of heart (repentance) and faith through water baptism. "John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mark 1:4-5). John later baptized Jesus to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). In baptism, Jesus not only set a precedent for His followers but also publicly declared that He was leaving His past life as a carpenter to enter into the mission for which He came. He was the promised Messiah Who would baptize with the Holy Ghost and fire (see Matthew 3:11), and at His baptism the fullness of the Holy Ghost came upon Him (see Acts 10:38).
4. Apostles' Baptism
In the New Testament, the apostles preached repentance, baptizing new believers in water just as John the Baptist did. But their message went deeper than John's. Now, they preached Christ's death and resurrection and the infilling of the Holy Spirit with power, which was given at Pentecost. The book of Acts recounts many examples of believers being water baptized and being filled with the Holy Spirit (though not necessarily in that order). "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" (Acts 10:47).
So we see from both the Old and New Testaments that baptism is a spiritual work of God which is entered into by faith. For Christians today, water baptism is our proclamation that we are turning from our old life (repentance), we are are dead to sin (crucified with Christ), our past is buried with Christ, and we have been raised anew into Christ's life by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 2:6). "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin." (Romans 6:3-6). Believers can reflect back on the specific time of their water baptism as a signpost of their commitment to follow Jesus, thereby building up their faith in hard times.
Questions and Answers
Finally, we address a few concerns that some may have about baptism.
Water baptism is a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. It is not a commitment to any denomination or church, so beware of any church that requires allegiance to a creed (other than the Bible) or refuses to baptize you in a biblical manner. When God baptizes you into Christ, you become part of the Body of Christ, which is the non-denominational, world-wide family of God. "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (I Corinthians 12:13).