Baptism to many sincere Christians, is a confusing subject. While it is easily recognized that the observance of baptism has its authority by precedent (Matt. 3:13) and precept (Matt. 28:19) from Christ Himself and that it was practiced in the first churches, as recorded in the Book of Acts, the full meaning of the act is seldom recognized.
First we should consider the meaning of the term. The translation of the Greek word baptisma into English is given as "immersion" in leading Greek lexicons and dictionaries. Undoubtedly the transliteration of the word by translators of the King James Version was to avoid confrontation with the Church of England (of which King James was titular head), which practiced baptism by sprinkling. Through common usage "baptism" has come to be accepted as an English word, but every occurrence of the word demands or allows the translation "immerse."
All of the illustrations of baptism used in the New Testament (Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 10:2; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:20-21) imply immersion. Baptism has symbolic significance to the believer's experience of Christ.
The Primary Meaning of Baptism
The primary meaning of baptism in the Scriptures is a witness to the spiritual significance of the atonement in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. When Jesus said to Peter and John, "I have a baptism to be baptized with and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!" (Luke 12:50), He was saying that He would be covered with afflictions and become "exceeding sorrowful, even unto death" (Matt. 26:38). The figurative expression of being plunged into deep water is used in Scripture to illustrate the sorrow and reproach of death itself (e.g., Isa. 43:2 Psa. 69: 14-15, Lam. 4:54). Christ's baptism included death and burial, and it is this atoning baptism of Christ which becomes the objective in symbol for all other baptisms of the Bible. Redemptive atonement is the central theme of all Scripture. (Note Rom. 6:4)
The Old Testament records baptisms that look forward to the atoning baptism of Christ and in the New Testament account baptisms look back to its fulfillment. In the days of Noah the earth was baptized in water (Gen. 7), but Noah and his family were saved in the Ark. Peter says that what took place in the flood was a "like figure" to the baptism which now saves, which baptism was climaxed by "the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 3:18-21).
Similarly, Israel is said to have been baptized in the sea and cloud when they crossed the Red Sea after observing the Passover (1 Cor. 10:1:5; Ex. 12:2-7). It is not difficult to recognize that the death of the paschal lamb and the burial of the people "in the sea" and "in the cloud" typically and prophetically pointed forward to Christ's death, burial and resurrection and therefore are relevant for today's Christian (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). John the Baptist, who baptized Christ in the Jordan, declared: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Christ's baptism then pointed ahead to His atoning death by which He would fulfill all righteousness for a sinful world.
After Christ died and rose came Pentecost. Not only was John's prophecy of Christ's atoning death fulfilled but also his further statement: "He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Matt. 3:11). "With" and "in" are both translated from the same Greek word. The word used is the dative not of instrument but rather of location. The believer is never baptized with the element but in the element. On Pentecost a pillar of fire was divided into tongues of fire so that an individual tongue of fire sat upon each of the 120. At the same time the Holy Ghost filled the room where they were (Acts 2), covering them so as to immerse them. Thus, the believers were baptized in the Spirit and into the one Body of Christ, of which Paul speaks in First Corinthians 12:13 and Romans 12:4-5.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the household of Cornelius signified to Peter that the Gentiles were also to be included in the Body of Christ because the baptism of the Spirit had brought forth Christ's Church at the beginning (Acts 11:15-17). This occasioned Peter's re¬mark (Acts 10:47): "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" Each Biblical description of the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2, 10, 19) reveals the oneness of the Church as a body, made possible by the finished atoning work of Christ.
The believers at Ephesus were baptized into John's baptism (Acts 19:1-5), but when Paul explained that the Holy Spirit had been given and that the Person and work of the Holy Spirit testified to the finished work of Christ, they were baptized again into the name-of Jesus. Paul's question in this instance is significant: "Unto what then were ye baptized?" The rite must symbolize the meaning or the purpose has not been fulfilled. Thus, this entrance into the one body was to be externally symbolized by water baptism as a testimony of true experience (Acts 2:41; 10:48; 19:5).
The Necessity of Water Baptism
Since water baptism has a clear and definite purpose revealed in Scripture, two areas of Christian responsibility are evident.
First, baptism is necessary in order for the local church to exhibit a vital testimony. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are ordinances, and their observance witnesses to the spiritual and corporate nature of the church's fellowship. That baptism carries this significance is clear from Paul's evaluation of the Corinthian church: "I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name" (1 Cor. 1:14-15). Because baptism testifies to the oneness of the Body of Christ and the Corinthian church was divided over loyalty to human ministers, Paul was thankful he had baptized only a few believers.
Paul was not making baptism an optional practice (cp. 1 Cor. 1:14-15); indeed, he recognized its significance where the testimony of an established church was true and vital. The church which lightly esteems baptism will, in all probability, lightly regard carnal division, or vice versa. Identity with Christ in baptism should also demonstrate unity in the one Body of Christ. Until corrective measures are taken and the significance of the new birth is restored, the form of observance ought not to serve as a substitute for what it is supposed to represent.
The corporate nature of a church's responsibility is to be recognized in the ordinance of baptism and should constitute a testimony to its own faith, serving to strengthen the faith of a convert as he seeks identity in the local body. The process of discipleship as given in the Great Commission is teaching, baptizing and observing continually all that Jesus had commanded (Matt. 28: 19-20). The church that fails to follow through in one aspect of this process will in that measure fail in its discipling process as directed by our Lord.
Second, baptism is necessary to a confession of obedience for the convert. The common expression that baptism is "an outward sign of an inward work" is incomplete. It is rather an outward confession of an inward commitment to discipleship and becomes both a safe¬guard for the church and a confirming experience for the believer. When Christ was baptized in the Jordan River the Father's voice affirmed Christ's identity and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16-17), witnessing to the significance of Christ's identity in the coming atonement. When a believer is baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit he confesses his identity with Christ and the Triune God is present to affirm his confession.
God has provided an ordinance wherein witness to obedience of faith can be given to God, to the church and to one's own self. Baptism should bear witness to a full awareness of an actual death to one's old unregenerate life and to the resurrection of a new life in Christ. The convert thereby declares that he is to be counted in all that is necessary to discipleship. He is no longer "of the world" since he has committed himself to Christ and His service, cutting every tie that would bind him.
The Book of Acts declares concerning the church in Samaria: “But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12). In such an act both the church and the convert are strengthened and the commandment of the Lord is obeyed.
(taken from a paper by Dr. Samuel J. Stoesz, Th.D.)