It is critical to note that despite the fact that most Christian churches today practice water baptism, there is no command or requirement from God for Christians to do so. In a previous “age,” under the Mosaic Law and before the Day of Pentecost, there was such a command and requirement, as we have seen from verses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. For whom? For Jews and proselytes (Gentiles who converted to Judaism)—to be baptized in water. But, as Jesus told the disciples, that command was going to be, and now has been, superseded by the greater baptism in holy spirit. God’s gift of holy spirit cleanses a person internally at the moment of his new birth when, via incorruptible seed from our heavenly Father, he is forever sealed “…in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
It is absolutely true that many first-century Christians did practice water baptism as a way for new converts to express their faith. Verses like Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12ff; 9:18; 22:16 show that water baptism was a custom of the early Christian Church. Why? Not because Jesus had commanded them to do so. It was a custom for several other reasons. First, nearly all of the first Christians from the Day of Pentecost on had formerly been Jews, in whose minds the tradition of water baptism was very deeply ingrained. The book of Acts records the agonizing struggle involved in the transition from the old Jewish mindset to the truth of “the administration of God’s grace” (Eph. 3:2), progressively set forth by Paul in the Church Epistles. Jewish tradition, based largely upon circumcision and water baptism, did not readily give way to the new program for the Church, a program not of fleshly ordinances but of a quickening (life-giving) spirit.
The second reason why water baptism was a custom in the early Church was due to the fact that the New Testament epistles of Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Hebrews, which make it clear that water baptism was only a shadow of the coming baptism in holy spirit, were not written for nearly a generation after the Church began. It was about 21 years after the Day of Pentecost before the first Church Epistle was penned (circa 49 A.D.), and more than 30 years before Ephesians and Colossians were written. During that time, there was no definitive revelation from God contradicting the Jewish custom of water baptism.
The third reason why water baptism continued as a custom in the early Church was that few, if any, of Jesus’ original disciples had really understood what he said in Acts 1:5-8, and most were still practicing “the baptism of John.” Especially around Jerusalem, many ex-Jewish Christians were still “zealous for the law,” and the ritual of water baptism thus became deeply rooted in the Church. Even when the revelation of the Church Epistles was completely unfolded, and Ephesians 4:5 loudly proclaimed that there is only “one baptism” for the Church, most believers continued to practice the old tradition of water baptism. Sad to say that the same holds true to this day.
In regard to the persistence of Jewish tradition, think about what else Jesus told the disciples in Acts 1 at the same time he said that water baptism was on the way out. He told them to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature (which includes the Gentiles). Did they? No, not for a long time. Historians say that it took about ten years before even one Gentile was accepted into the faith (Acts 10), and that 25 years after the start of the Church, Paul was still fiercely battling his Judaizing opponents, as evidenced by what he wrote in his letter to the Galatians. In fact, Galatians reveals that even Peter, who the Lord originally sent to the Gentiles (Acts 10), was still so deeply influenced by his Jewish roots that Paul had to have a face-to-face confrontation with him in order to keep him walking in the greater revelation he had been given years earlier (Gal. 2:11-14). Old habits truly do die hard.
It is significant that statements like that found in Philippians 3:3, where Paul says that Christians are to “put no confidence in the flesh,” were written very late in his life after the revelation of “the Sacred Secret” of the “one body of Christ” had been completely revealed to him. The progressive unfolding of these truths in the Church Epistles finally made significant inroads into the Church and many people realized that such Jewish rituals as circumcision and water baptism were no longer required.
The fact that the first Christians were very steeped in their former Judaistic traditions explains why they continued baptizing new converts in water. In Acts 8, for example, Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch at his request. It is significant that the eunuch, not a Jew, had just come from Jerusalem, the headquarters for Judaism, where he had gone “to worship.” Perhaps he was considering becoming a proselyte to Judaism. After hearing and believing what Philip taught him about Jesus Christ, he asked to be baptized in the river, and Philip was glad to comply, in accordance with his previous Jewish background dictating that proselytes were to be baptized.
The early Christians carried on pretty much as they had as Jews under the Mosaic Law until God was finally able to convince at least some of them that “Jesus Christ is the end of the law for righteousness” (Rom. 10:4 – KJV). Saul’s conversion (Acts 9) was the first step, and the next chapter of Acts contains the account of a landmark occurrence in the early Church. How hard was it for someone who had been a Jew all his life, until the Day of Pentecost when he suddenly became a Christian, to jettison his Jewish mindset and accept the truth of a greater, internal baptism? Peter is a perfect example. In Acts 10, it took the Lord Jesus giving him a rather remarkable three-exposure vision of a “floating zoo” complete with audio exhortation to get him to go to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. There Peter found out that the new birth and the corresponding gift of holy spirit was for Gentiles too, something he should have known from what Jesus taught the disciples in Acts 1.
When Peter got to Cornelius’ home, he was surprised to find that Cornelius had also heard from God and was hungry to hear the truth about Jesus Christ. Peter thus began his soon-to-be-interrupted sermon with these words: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34 and 35).
Shortly after Peter had set forth enough of God’s Word for Cornelius and his relatives and close friends to be born again, his teaching was shockingly interrupted:
Acts 10:44-46 [Author’s translation, with punctuation and capitalization corrected] (44) While Peter was still speaking these words, the holy spirit came on all who heard the message.
(45) The circumcised believers [Jews] who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the holy spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.
(46) For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Unless you have ever been steeped in unmitigated prejudice toward a particular group of people, you probably cannot begin to identify with what an incredible shock this was for Peter and the other Jews who were there with him. “Astonished” is putting it mildly! The Jews considered the Gentiles in the same category as dogs, which is how they referred to them. Think about it: how disconcerting would it be for you to be teaching the Bible at your church / home fellowship and have your pet beagle suddenly begin speaking in tongues, evidencing the fact that it was born again?! Seriously, that’s about how shocked Peter was when Cornelius and all the other Gentile “dogs” did just that. And I believe Peter got flustered:
Acts 10:47 and 48a
(47) “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the holy spirit [no article] just as we have.”
(48a) So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Most Christians read these verses and assume that Cornelius and his cohorts were then submerged. Even if they were, it was not because God’s Word prescribed it. But there is another way to look at this. First of all, the Bible does not say that they were baptized in water—it says Peter ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, which I believe implies water as per his previously Jewish mindset. But was that command carried out? Not necessarily. Acts 11 begins by stating that the news of what happened at the home of Cornelius swept across Judea, and that the still-zealous-for-the-old-water-baptism church leaders back in Jerusalem quickly confronted Peter about his going into the home of a Gentile “dog.” He told his inquisitors the whole story, just as Acts 10 records it, but when he got to the part about the Gentiles speaking in tongues, he said:
Acts 11:15-17 [Author’s translation, with punctuation and capitalization corrected] (15) “As I began to speak, holy spirit came on them as he [it] had come on us at the beginning.
(16) Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with holy spirit.’
(17) So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
When did Peter remember that Jesus had said, “Hey, water’s out, holy spirit’s in”? We cannot be certain, but it is surely possible that he remembered it right after he blurted out, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized in water?” His next thought may well have been, “Well, actually I can, because I just remembered what Jesus said about it.” Based upon the overall scope of what Scripture declares about baptism, it is feasible to believe that Cornelius was not baptized with water. But, again, even if he was baptized, it was not because baptism was a prescribed ritual for the Church, it was because Peter, with his deep-rooted Jewish mindset, forgot what Jesus had said and was still “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20).
Paul also fought his own mental and emotional battle against the Jewish traditionalism for which he had been as zealous as he later became for the Lord Jesus Christ. He succeeded in overcoming his traditional mindset, and pioneered the preaching of the truth that he ultimately compiled in Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians—the heart of the Word for the Christian Church. Let us look at what he said regarding water baptism as he addressed divisions regarding it (and other things) among the Corinthian believers:
1 Corinthians 1:13-17
(13) Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
(14) I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius,
(15) so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.
(16) (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else).
(17) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Paul does admit that he baptized a few people in water according to the old tradition, and we can only speculate as to why. Based upon his epistles, it is unlikely that Paul was still zealous for the Law like many other ex-Jewish Christians. A more plausible explanation is that the people he baptized were desirous to keep this custom, and he decided to accede to their wishes, much like in Acts 8 when Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch who asked him to do so. Paul makes it very clear, however, that water baptism was an insignificant part of his ministry.
It is very important to realize that Paul could not have said, “Christ did not send me to baptize” if Christ had in fact commanded Christians to go into the world and make disciples and baptize them in water (Matt. 28:19). Christ did command us to go into the world and make disciples and baptize them, but it is Church tradition, not the Bible, that says this baptism means in water. We have already seen that we are now to be baptized, fully immersed, in holy spirit. If Christ did not command water baptism, and he did not send Paul to baptize, how can water baptism be necessary for salvation? It cannot. Furthermore, Paul would not have been “thankful” that he baptized only a few people if it were a prerequisite to being saved.
On page 99 of his book, Baptism, Donald Lake’s comment on this section of Scripture is most pertinent:
That Paul did not conceive of baptism as an essential saving element is clearly indicated by 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. For Paul, there seems to be one essential baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit by which we are incorporated into the body of Christ (cf. 12:12 and 13; Eph. 4:4 and 5). The rest of the New Testament corpus does not present a unified picture regarding the meaning and administration of baptism.
Verse 17 is the key to understanding this section of Scripture. Paul not only states that Jesus Christ did not command him to baptize people in water, but he also contrasts what Christ did not send him to do, baptize people in water, with what Christ did send him to do, preaching the Gospel. Why? Because the “Good News” for the Church Administration, properly called the “administration of the Sacred Secret” (Eph. 3:9), is not about a ceremonial outer washing required by an externally-imposed law. It is not about a man’s own works – like water baptism. No, it is about a life-saving internal wholeness that comes by God’s grace in response to one’s heartfelt obedience to Romans 10:9. The ritual of water baptism is not a part of the Gospel in the Church administration, this age of grace in which we now live. Just like circumcision, water baptism is not good news.
Identification With Christ
We saw in Colossians 2:11 and 12 that a Christian has been “buried” with Christ via holy spirit baptism into him, and also raised with Christ into newness of life. What this is all about is the identification with Christ that each Christian has, and what it was that brought about that identification. This subject of each believer’s identification with Christ is one that gets a lot of ink in the Church Epistles. The following verses in 1 Corinthians 10 shed much light on what it means that each Christian is “baptized into Christ.”
1 Corinthians 10:1-5
(1) For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.
(2) They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
(3) They all ate the same spiritual food
(4) and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied [followed (later in time)] them [the texts omit “them”], and that rock was Christ.
(5) Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
Nearly all Christian commentators agree that Moses was in many ways a type of Christ. It was Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness en route to the Promised Land. He was at that time the “head” of Israel, so to speak. 1 Corinthians 10:2 states that all the Israelites were baptized into Moses. Moses was the element into which each Israelite was figuratively immersed. What does that mean? It means that each and every one of them was identified with Moses in God’s sight when they crossed the Red Sea and went from bondage into the hope of a new life. Everything that God gave to and did for Moses, He gave to and did for each Israelite who chose to follow Moses—provision and protection “in the cloud and in the sea.” Those who followed Moses all “ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink” that he did.
Metaphorically and prophetically, the “spiritual rock that followed,” more than 1400 years later, was Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah for Israel. As Moses believed God’s promise of a Savior and followed God in that light, all the Israelites who followed him were saved by that same promise because they were “one” with Moses. Likewise, all those today who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord are “baptized into him” and forever become one with him in God’s sight. Then, as we walk in the steps of our Lord, provision and protection are ours in the wilderness of life. The difference between us and the Israelites is that we are guaranteed the “Promised Land” to come because of the finished work of Jesus Christ and our salvation by grace through faith in him. Amen.
The Red Sea experience is Scripture’s Old Testament benchmark for the power and goodness of God, just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the New Testament benchmark. Each is what God refers to in Scripture as the standard of His power to deliver and redeem His people. In the above verses in 1 Corinthians, the point is that “in Moses” every Israelite crossed the Red Sea and thus had the potential to enjoy the Promised Land. Similarly, “in Christ” every Christian is forever separated from the bondage of Satan and has the potential to enjoy the promises relevant to this current Church administration.
But notice in verse 5 that even though every one of the Israelites was baptized into Moses and thereby had the opportunity for everything Moses had, “most” of them chose to turn away from God and thereby reaped the consequences of their disobedience. Likewise, Christians today can choose either to follow the Lord Jesus Christ or turn away from him. Those who refuse to follow him will suffer consequences, but the Good News today is that the name of Jesus Christ means a lot more than the name of Moses! Because of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us by his sinless life and substitutionary death, and what God did in his resurrection, ascension, and exaltation, every Christian, regardless of how he “drives” in this life, is guaranteed “a parking place in Paradise,” that is, everlasting life. Rewards, however, will vary from person to person according to how each believer conducted himself after his new birth.
Remember, 1 Corinthians 12:13 says that Christians were all baptized by [“in”] one spirit into one body, so we all have been “soaked” in the same thing. In Moses? In Paul? No, in Christ Jesus. The true baptism is not just putting some water on someone, or putting someone in some water. It is the awesome spiritual nature of God in Christ in us soaking us through and through, making us whole, and giving us the power and potential to be like our Lord Jesus. As Colossians 2:10 (KJV) says, each believer is “complete” in Christ. Every Christian has equal opportunity to maximize the limitless spiritual potential resident within him. That is God News (I meant “Good,” but let’s just leave that divinely-inspired typo)!
Consider the following verses that augment the aforementioned truth that every Christian belongs to Christ and can “show him off” to the world:
Galatians 3:26 and 27
(26) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,
(27) for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
Clothing is a very important part of life for almost everyone. It is a daily topic of conversation all over the world, and most people feel quite uncomfortable if they are not appropriately dressed. Thankfully, each Christian is “properly dressed” because each has been “clothed with Christ.” We can be sure that when God looks at us Christians, He sees us clothed with Christ. As in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 22 about the king’s wedding feast where only those who wore the robe he supplied could come in, God sees each Christian clothed in a white robe and righteous in His sight. Now it is up to us to make our behavior line up with what’s on the inside so that those around us can see what we’re “wearing.”
As in Galatians 3:27, a number of Scripture verses in the Church Epistles, such as 1 Corinthians 12:13 that we looked at earlier, use similar language to speak of “baptism” or “baptize” – without mentioning water. Due to the erroneous traditional teaching they have received, most Christians immediately associate water with the word “baptism.” However, we have no more right to automatically read the word “water” into the word “baptism” when neither the text itself nor the context indicate that it is there than we do to read “literal circumcision of the foreskin” into the word “circumcision.” Philippians 3:3 says “circumcision,” but it refers to spiritual circumcision, not fleshly. Similarly, many verses use “baptize,” but refer to holy spirit baptism, not water.
We will conclude this section titled “Baptized Into What, or Rather Whom?” with some classic verses that should put the finishing touch on our understanding of the great truth about what it means to be baptized into Christ. These verses in Romans 6 immediately follow the doctrinal heart of the book of Romans: Chapter 5, verses 12-21, wherein the most foundational message of God’s Word is summarized.
In Romans 5:12-21, the stark contrast between the “two Adams” is capsulized, showing their antithetical behaviors and the totally opposite results thereof. The first Adam’s disobedience brought death unto all men, leaving them with no alternative but “outside-in” living, that is, reacting to the satanic stimuli around them so as to “gratify the cravings of their sinful nature” (Eph. 2:3). Scripture calls Jesus Christ “the last Adam,” and his obedience made possible everlasting life to all who believe in him, and an alternative “inside-out” lifestyle now, that is, choosing to respond to circumstances according to the spirit and the Word of God. In Christ, God’s abundant grace more than made up for the sin of Adam.
(1) What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
(2) By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
(3) Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
(4) We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
(5) If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
(6) For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with [rendered inoperable], that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
The subject of Romans 6 and 7 is the battle between the old, sin nature inherent in each descendant of Adam and the new, righteous nature now born into each child of God, that is, each Christian. In the above verses, a Christian’s total identification with Christ should be clear. When we were “baptized into Christ Jesus,” we were figuratively immersed into his death. Note the pattern of death unto life: Jesus had to die in order to be raised from the dead unto a greater life. Unfortunately, the NIV Study Bible authors mistakenly assume that being “baptized into Christ Jesus” means being baptized in water, but what they say in their note on verses 3 and 4 (p. 1713) is right if taken in regard to the true baptism in holy spirit:
Baptism depicts graphically what happens as a result of the Christian’s union with Christ, which comes with faith—through faith we are united with Christ, just as through our natural birth we are united with Adam. As we fell into sin and became subject to death in father Adam, so we now have died and been raised again with Christ—which baptism symbolizes.
Remember that the water of Noah’s flood both destroyed all the wicked people and saved all the good people. Likewise, our individual immersion into Christ figuratively “killed” (literally, gave each of us power over) our “old man” (our sin nature) and gave us the ability to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4 – KJV). That is, we died to the penalty of sin, and are thus guaranteed everlasting life. Romans 6:8-14 goes on to tell us how to overcome the power of sin still resident within us—by reckoning it dead and refusing to succumb to it.
There are many Christians who realize that water baptism is a lesser baptism than that of holy spirit and actually accomplishes nothing spiritually significant for a person. Nonetheless, some, equating it to wearing a wedding ring (not required by law, but symbolic of a union), advocate it as an important, though symbolic, public act signifying one’s repentance, salvation, and commitment to Christ. When confronted with the fact that Scripture nowhere says anything like that, some have justified their belief by stating that water baptism is what the historic Christian Church has chosen as a holy sacrament.
That raises the question of whether or not Scripture gives any Christian the right of fide implicitus. Historically, certain dignitaries were granted this authority of “implied fidelity,” in which the recipient is deemed trustworthy and above reproach in terms of decision making. He could thus issue binding edicts about doctrine or practice among the people under the rule of the king or whoever gave him this right. The Bible makes it clear that only one man has ever been granted such authority by God, and that, of course, is Jesus Christ. After his ascension and exaltation as “Lord,” Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Clearly, neither God nor the Lord Jesus has issued any edict requiring water baptism for Christians for any reason, and thus no church or man has the right to do so.
The “one baptism” for Christians is not that of being dipped into water. Rather, it is as if we were immersed into the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ, who pours into our thirsty souls living water, the life-giving holy spirit of God, His own divine nature. It is that presence and power that nourishes us each day so that we can walk through this darkening world with newness of life and serve Him in newness of spirit.