Jesus commended the practice
Jesus commended the practice of baptism in His Great Commission: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19; cf. Mk. 16:16). Earlier He spoke of the need to "be born of water" (John 3:5), seemingly a reference to baptism. Water baptism is an "initiation" act (Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 13, 16, 37, 38; 9:18; 16:15, 33; 19:5; I Cor. 1:14-17; 12:13; Gal. 3:27, 28) that proclaims the repentant, believing person has been born again.
Jesus in His own baptism opened or initiated the way for man to be acceptable before God and thereby be worthy of inclusion in His Kingdom. And that is accomplished by following Jesus in baptism, which demonstrates that I am His disciple and desire to follow Him as My Lord (Matt. 3:15-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Lk. 3:21, 22). His own baptism is different than His follower baptism because He was sinless and therefore was not an example of repenting and being born again. John the Baptist's gives an example of baptizing that is closer to Christian baptism. Those baptized "confess[ed] their sins" (Matt. 3:6). The repentant and believer in Christ will want to publicly proclaim their turning from sin and desire to show they are members of the kingdom of God.
Jesus told Nicodemus, in response to a question, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Three time Jesus, or John, spoke about what is important: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (3:4); "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (v. 15); "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (v. 16). In none of these did He mention baptism. Yet we know of its importance from His teaching on the Great Commission.
Baptism, according to Paul, was not as important as preaching. Paul wrote, "For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect" (1 Cor. 1:17). He wrote this to a quarreling group where some claimed they were better than others because of they were baptized by a certain person. "Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius" (1 Cor. 1:12-14). We see here that Paul did not put as much emphasis on it as some others did. Paul was not necessarily downgrading baptism. From his own life He knew it was important: "Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized" (Acts 9:16-18).
"Baptism" is an ordinance of the church. What does it signify? The term itself has several meanings: to dip, immerse, wash, cleanse, purify by washing (Mk. 7:4). In the Greek New Testament baptism meant neither immerse nor pour as such, but carried a special meaning to baptize (J. C. Wenger, Introduction to Theology, p. 238). For this reason the word is untranslated in the English Bible; the transliterated word baptism is used to shown that this was an initiation act and not immersion. We see a similar change in the word usage in the Lord's Supper. The Greek term deipnon (supper) is not used in the sense of a formal meal held in the evening but of the practice of wine representing the blood and bread the body of Jesus given for our redemption on the cross.
The mode of baptism is not described in the Bible, and therefore various modes have been used. These are pouring, sprinkling, and immersion.
The pouring mode has the strongest biblical support since pouring is used to refer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Joel prophesied "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2:28). John the Baptist spoke, "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire" (Matt. 3:11-12). Jesus told His disciples, "John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence" (Acts 1:3-4). This promise was fulfilled at Pentecost. Peter spoke that "this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh" (2:16-18). Joel's prophecy of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and Jesus' promise of baptism of the Holy Spirit show a relationship between baptism and pouring. Paul wrote to Titus, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (3:5-7). The Greek word translated shed comes from the Greek term for "pour." When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church he stated, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). Here he makes a direct connection between Spirit and baptism.
Jesus spoke about baptism and death. He asked the twelve, "Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? And they said unto him, We can. And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized" (Mark 10:38, 39).
Water is used symbolically for the "washing" of regeneration: "born of water and of the Spirit" (John 3:5); "be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16); "in virtue of his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5). Regeneration means death to sin (Rom. 6:24; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 2:1-2). Renewing brought about by the Holy Spirit gives a new life.
The chosen People passed through the Red Sea when they left Egypt. They "were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Cor. 10:2). This act was connected to the Rock, Christ (v. 4). In passing, they were not immersed in water. If anything, the clouds would have poured water on them, but, in fact, they passed through on dry land.
Various circumstances surrounding baptismal events strongly suggest pouring. In the desert city of Jerusalem, it is unlikely there would have been a large body of water available to baptize the 3,000 except for the city water supply. Surely the Jews would not have allowed Gentiles to contaminate (make ritually unclean) the water supply (Acts 2:38). Paul, upon his conversion, immediately "arose, and was baptized" (Acts 9:18). There was not enough time to find enough water to immerse him in. Later Peter, through a vision and a call, went to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and told him about Christ. During their meeting, "the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 10:44, 45). Peter asked, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (vv. 47, 48). Again we see the pouring out of the Holy Spirit linked to water baptism. The baptism here immediately followed the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Later Peter explained to the apostles in Jerusalem what happened: "And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost" (Acts 11:15, 16).
In Philippi, Paul and Silas were put into the jail because they freed a girl from an evil spirit. A miraculous earthquake freed them, but they remained in jail. When the Philippian jailer saw Paul and Silas still in jail, he asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul spoke, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway" (Acts 16: 30-32). It is very likely no water would have been available for the baptism except for pouring.
History appears to support pouring. A. D. Wenger in 1899 found no support for immersion in his visit to the catacombs of Rome (Wenger, p. 239). Lenski wrote about Rogers looking for clues in early church areas that showed immersion was used. He wrote, "This layman held the common conviction that in the early church baptism was administered by immersion, but when he sought to verify this conviction, he did not find one pictorial representation of immersion, all the delineations of ancient times portrayed pouring or some other mode. Moreover, the remains of all the ancient baptisteries were shallow, generally so small a man could not be immersed even if he lay down in the pool flat on his back. Mr. Rogers completely reversed his opinion regarding the practice of immersion in the early church" (Lenski, Matthew, pp. 1174-75; ref. Baptism and Christian Archaeology, by Clemet F. Rogers, Oxford, Clarendon Press).
An argument for immersion is from the "burial" symbolism found in Romans 6:4 ("we are buried with him by baptism into death") and Colossians 2:12 ("buried with him in baptism"). If we examine these texts in context, we find Paul is writing about a spiritual death, burial, resurrection, and new life. He is not writing about the mode of water baptism. Water baptism is not "unto death" in a literal sense but in a spiritual sense. In context Paul writes, "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" (Rom. 6:4), and "being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses" (Col. 2:13). If we look further, we see too this is the work of the Holy Spirit, for there is "no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:1, 2). Such newness of life was not brought about by water.
Another argument is found in John where he wrote, "John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized" (John 3:23). Lenski writes, "Neither ancient nor modern records speak of a place that had water enough to immerse numbers of people. Nor is the consideration here only water for the purpose of baptizing but also and very vitally, where multitudes camped for some time, water for drinking purposes. The imperfect tense of the verbs, the coming and the being baptized on the part of the people . . . means to state that the Baptist was here carrying on his work for some time" (Lenski, The Interpretation of John, p. 281).
After Philip explain the gospel to the eunuch who had great authority under Queen Candace of the Ethiopia, Luke writes, "He commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him" (Acts 8:38). Going down into the water does not necessarily mean immersion since they both went down into it and "they [both came] up out of the water" (vv. 38, 39).
In summary, baptism is important, being taught and practiced by Jesus and His disciples, and the Church. Since there is no forthright teaching on its mode, no one should claim they know the correct mode. Even though I personally believe there seems to be good reason to believe baptism symbolizes the out pouring of the Holy Spirit, I would not be right for me to say it can be done this one way. Let us all honor in brotherly love other modes,. Such things should not divide Christians, for our Lord called for us to be one (John 17). Jesus prayed "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (v. 21)._______________
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