For the vast majority of Christians, the terms “baptism” and “water” are virtually inseparable. It is ironic, therefore, that throughout the centuries they have fought among themselves about this issue, sometimes violently. It is sad to say that Church history is rife with such disputes.
The sincere searcher for truth deserves to see a thorough biblical exposition of whatever issue he/she desires to know about. This brief FAQ is designed to pique your curiosity to the degree that you will read our free online booklet titled What is True Baptism?
When it comes to any spiritual matter, the question we must always ask, and then answer, is “What does the Word of God say?” To derive from Scripture the meaning originally intended by the Author, we must come to the Word without preconceived ideas. One such misconception is that “baptism” always refers to baptism in water.
The Greek word baptizo simply means “to dip” or “to immerse.” The word itself has absolutely nothing to do with the element into which something or someone is immersed. In other words, it is possible to be “baptized” into things other than water. Acts 1:5 is pivotal in the study of this subject, and we need to get a running start with the previous verse:
Acts 1:4 and 5
(4) On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about [see Luke 24:49 for one of his previous references].
(5) For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit [there is no article “the” in the text, and “Holy Spirit” should be properly translated as “holy spirit,” because it refers to God’s gift].”
It is clear that Acts 1:5 mentions two baptisms; one in water, and one in holy spirit. This is important because Ephesians 4:5, which is specifically speaking to Christians, says there is only one baptism.
The question we must now answer is: Which one of the two baptisms Jesus spoke of in Acts 1:5 is relevant for us today as Christians, and which one has been deleted? Again, Acts 1:5, and similarly, what John the Baptist himself had said in Mark 1:8, make it clear that the older baptism was in water, and that would be replaced by baptism in holy spirit. That understanding fits well with the following verses:
Hebrews 7:18 and 19
(18) The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless
(19) (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
Hebrews 9:9 and 10
(9) This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and the sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.
(10) They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings [baptismos]–external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
Throughout the Old Testament and up to the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2, water (and related liquid terminology) is metaphorically used in Scripture to refer to the spirit of God, that which He gave certain people to equip them for service on His behalf. The old, ceremonial, outer washing in water prescribed in the Mosaic Law for Israel pointed toward, and has now been superseded by, the new, actual, inner cleansing in holy spirit (the divine nature of God, who is the Holy Spirit). The old water baptism could not, and still cannot, change the heart of a man, but the spirit of the Holy God can revolutionize a person from the inside out and enable him to be like Jesus Christ, his true baptizer.
Baptism in water was one of the Old Testament “shadows” cast by the approaching light of Christ. Bringing into reality that greater cleansing, which water baptism only symbolized, required Jesus’ sinless life, sacrificial death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the gift of holy spirit. The Good News is that he did it all—for us!
At this point you may be thinking: “Hold it! You are saying that water baptism is passé, but then why did the early Christians do it?” Good question! And Scripture has a good answer.
Many Christians think that it was John the Baptist who introduced the idea of water baptism. No, the truth is that it was part of the Mosaic Law, and deeply ingrained in every Jew. What John actually did introduce was the phrase “baptized in holy spirit,” showing that water baptism was a symbolic precursor to the greater reality of an internal cleansing via holy spirit.
Remember that for a number of years after the Day of Pentecost when the Church, the Body of Christ, began, all of the first-century Christians were former Jews, and were steeped in Jewish tradition, including the practice of water baptism. Such a mindset is not easy to break away from, as evidenced by the fact that they continued to practice the old water baptism even after Jesus had clearly told them that there was a new baptism (Acts 1:5).
It is critical to note that although those early ex-Jewish Christians did, as do many Christians today, practice water baptism, there neither was nor is any command or requirement from God to do so. Prior to Pentecost, and the beginning of the Church, there was such a command—for Israel. But as Jesus said, that command was superseded by a new kind of “baptism,” one specifically for those who would believe on him as “Lord” and by way of it, be born again.
If you are currently an advocate of water baptism for believers today, what you have read here so far should bring to your mind other verses that might seem to contradict our thesis. We trust you will find that our booklet (What is True Baptism?) cogently explains those verses so that you see how they fit logically with the greater number of clear verses on this subject.
Water baptism is one of the oldest and most cherished Christian traditions, and we realize that our challenging its relevance to believers today may seem to you akin to jeopardizing a family heirloom. But please consider our exposition of this subject in Scripture, the only valid standard for separating truth from error.
You may find that what we set before you is true, and therefore more spiritually invigorating and liberating than the position you now hold. Our hope is that you are enlightened to reach for the greater possibility, the awesome spiritual reality of holy spirit baptism, that is, the new birth and all that is contained in this glorious gift. You need not settle for a “shadow” when you can have the real thing.