Water Baptism

By C. K. Lehman From

Biblical Theology, Volume Two, New Testament
(see end of article for copyright information)

Perhaps the most significant way in which to introduce Paul's teaching on baptism, the Lord's Supper, the prayer veiling for women, and the holy kiss is to regard them as symbols of Christian worship. With the background of Jesus' teaching on baptism at the Lord's Supper, as well as His recognition of the kiss as an expression of love, it is natural that Paul would unfold further their meaning.

In Luke's report of Paul's conversion experience (Acts 9:17-19), he brought Paul's experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit and his Water baptism into close relationship, from which it would appear that Luke understood water baptism as symbolizing Paul's being filled with the Holy Spirit. As Paul recounted this experience he noted the words of Ananias, "Be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name (22:16). This suggests that the act of being baptized symbolized the washing away of his sins. This leads to the significant teaching of the apostle relating to baptism (Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:11-15). In the letter to the Romans, Paul advanced from his teaching on justification by faith to the bearing of this experience on one s manner of life. He asked, "How can we who died to sin still live in it?" He proceeded to show that all who had been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized in His death. They were buried with Him by baptism into death. In this manner Paul proceeded to set forth the meaning of this symbol. Paul found in Christ's death, burial, and resurrection the archtype of Christian's baptism. He himself who had been baptized into Christ Jesus had experienced a corresponding death to sin and resurrection to a walk in newness of life. He would have his readers understand that they who have been united with Christ in a death like His "shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."

In the letter to the Colossians, Paul presented the same truth in a slightly different setting. He introduced Christian baptism by noting that the Colossians had come to fullness of life in Christ. He then laid hold of the symbolic, as well as the typical meaning of circumcision by noting that in Christ they "were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ" (2:11). By this he was declaring that Christ's literal circumcision was the type of His crucifixion. The spiritual significance of circumcision in the Old Testament stands forth in the words, "And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of the offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God and with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live" (Deut. 30:6).

With this background of Old Testament teaching Paul found in water baptism a symbol of the believer's being buried with Christ and of being raised with Christ through faith in the working of God. To this he added, "You, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of the flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross" (Col. 2:13, 14). All this gives great depths of meaning to the significance of water baptism. In a word, he who is being baptized is identifying himself with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. For the believer also, by this symbol, is dying to sin and being raised to newness of life.

These contexts may have some bearing on the mode of baptism. While many Bible scholars conclude that Paul's language explicitly sets forth immersion as the mode of baptism, I have come to believe that Paul did not express his thought through the imagery of immersion, but rather that of symbolizing our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. This finds support in the references to baptism in the Book of Acts, as well as in Paul's letters. Paul's significant words in 1 Corinthians 6:11 may refer to baptism, "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." The aorist form of each of these verbs gives grounds for believing that Paul is referring to their conversion experience. It is significant that apelousasphe (were washed) is the aorist middle voice in contrast with the aorist passive forms of the other two verbs. Hence it carries the meaning, "You washed yourselves" or "You washed your sins away." Robertson adds the comment, "This was their own voluntary act in baptism which was the outward expression of the previous act of God in cleansing . . . and justified.

The outward expression is usually mentioned before the inward change which precedes it. In this passage the Trinity appears as in the baptismal command in Matthew 28:19." This verse bears some relation to the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19), which may add weight to interpreting were washed as referring to baptism. It should be further noted that the aorist form of these verbs gives grounds for the acts of being washed, sanctified, and justified, as being simultaneous. On this account the punctiliar acts of being sanctified and justified intensify to a superlative degree the meaning of "were washed."

In I Corinthians 10:1-5 Paul used the expression which illuminates the meaning of baptism. He wrote, "Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea." This incident vividly portrays an intimate relation of Israel to Moses as expressed by the words "were baptized into Moses." So closely were the people associated with Moses that no difference could be made between his experiences and theirs. This thought is enriched by noting that they shared with Moses the same supernatural food and drink. The phrase "into [eis] Moses" should help us understand the similar phrase, "baptized into Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:3).

Paul gave another definitive expression in Galatians 3:26-29, "For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. . . . You are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." The verb enedusasthe (put on) was commonly used in the sense of clothing one's self or putting on garments. Paul expressed this truth elsewhere in the words, "Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom. 13:12-14). Walter F. Adeney gave the explanation, "As the garment covers the person and is closely wrapped about him, so Christ is thought of as closely united to His people and giving them their characteristic appearance.

Finally, it is essential to observe that the apostle noted that there is one baptism (Eph. 4:5). The context of this expression (vv. 1-6) is one of the most profound teachings of Paul. Note its setting: "Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all" (vv. 3-6). The most essential truths set forth in this context include the definite assertion of monotheism and at the same time of the Trinity. This gives immeasurable significance to the one hope, one faith, and one baptism. Baptism is one because Christ alone instituted it. Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that they were baptized, not in his own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:12-17). Thus baptism is distinctive of the Christian faith, having been instituted by Christ Himself (Mt. 28:18-20).


From Biblical Theology, Volume two, New Testament, by Chester K. Lehman, pp. 411-14. Copyright 1974 by Herald Press, Scottdale. Copyright now owned by Leland M. Haines, Northville, MI.

IBSN 1-890133-13-2. Third printing, 1997. Available from Biblical Viewpoints.


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June 22, 2000