The History of Baptism

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Nov 16th 2014
The two things that the Church of Christ is known for by those who are not members are the fact that we don't use instruments of music in our worship, and we require all to be baptized by immersion. Baptism is not a modern religious invention, it has a history as long as Christianity itself and in this lesson, I'd like to review that with you.

The two things that the church of Christ is known for by those who are not members are the fact that we don't use instruments of music in our worship, and we require all to be baptized by immersion.

It is true that we do not use instruments in our public worship and we do place a heavy emphasis on the need to be baptized in order to be saved. Because of this, some think that these two features were invented by us and we are unique in these practices.

For example, that a cappella music and baptism by immersion are strictly "church of Christ" things.

For those who are not members of the church, this kind of thinking is understandable. New Testament Christians however need to be able to explain and teach about these things clearly, especially the matter of baptism since this factors into the Bible's teaching on salvation. For this reason I'd like to provide a brief history of the practice of baptism.

Purification / Water

Water has always been used by God in a symbolic way:

  • The Great Flood (Noah) - An action and symbol of judgment and purification
  • Moses and the parting of the waters of the Red Sea - A way to freedom for the Jews
  • Moses and the parting of the waters of the Red Sea - A way of judgment for the Egyptians
  • Water used as a symbol where life is separated from death

This symbolism crystallized as the priests were appointed to serve at the tabernacle in the desert and part of their preparation for service was to bathe in water as a way of demonstrating their purification from the world and separation for priestly service.

“Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them to minister as priests to Me: take one young bull and two rams without blemish, and unleavened bread and unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil; you shall make them of fine wheat flour. You shall put them in one basket, and present them in the basket along with the bull and the two rams. Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the doorway of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. You shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the tunic and the robe of the ephod and the ephod and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod; and you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. Then you shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. You shall bring his sons and put tunics on them. You shall gird them with sashes, Aaron and his sons, and bind caps on them, and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute. So you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.
- Exodus 29:1-9

Note the order:

  1. The tabernacle was built.
  2. The priestly garments were made.
  3. The sacrifices were prepared.
  4. The priests were purified with water.
  5. The garments were then put on.
  6. The sacrifices were offered at the tabernacle.

In this way, God taught the people to associate water with spiritual cleansing in preparation for entry into His presence and service. For example:

  • Washing of hands = innocence - Deuteronomy 21:6
  • To "be washed from sin" - Psalm 51:2

Eventually the Jews extended this symbolic purification to those who were being converted to Judaism. By the time of Jesus, if a Gentile embraced the Jewish religion he was required to do three things:

  1. Be circumcised.
  2. Take a ritual bath seven days after his circumcision.
  3. Offer sacrifice at the temple.

The idea of purification associated with water was not only a Jewish concept, it was practiced among Gentiles as well. The oriental mystery religions required a ceremonial cleansing in water (sometimes a rushing stream) in order to be admitted to their religion.

The point here is that by the time of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles the association of water and moral purification, new birth, or sanctification was a familiar concept in the minds of both Jews and Gentiles.

Baptism in the New Testament

John The Baptist

The first mention of baptism in the New Testament is through the preaching of John the Baptist. His preaching was a mixture of the old and new:

  1. Old Teaching - His life and style of preaching was like the prophets of old. Jesus compared him to Elijah (Mt.17:12). He commanded that the people be purified from their old sinful lives through water (baptism), an idea they were familiar with from the Old Testament and current practice.
  2. New Teaching - The promises of the Old Testament, that a Messiah was coming, were about to be fulfilled (He referred to this as the Kingdom being at hand). When the Savior came, He would purify them not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mt. 3:11). The meaning of this became clearer as Jesus and His Apostles began their ministry and preaching.

Jesus

We see that baptism figures prominently in Jesus' work because it is the first event that takes place in His public ministry (Mt. 3:13-16).

John baptizes Jesus at His insistence, and the Father speaks from heaven and the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove. This is the only place in Scripture where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appear simultaneously. A new element is added here, that baptism is not only for purification but also a way to respond to the will of the Father, to do what is right.

Jesus had no sin and no need of purification but needed to do the will of the Father perfectly. Baptism was thus shown to be a command of God, and Jesus was willing to submit to it to demonstrate His perfect obedience.

The people did it to show obedience and to be purified - Jesus only for obedience. After John's imprisonment and death, Jesus' ministry of miracles and teaching begins to accelerate. He continues with John's preaching theme and practice of baptism but now proclaims that the kingdom of God is not just coming, it is at hand (Matthew 4:17).

John, the gospel writer, says that Jesus:

...made and baptized more disciples, though He Himself did not baptize.
- John 4:1-2

Jesus Himself, therefore, is baptized and carries on the practice in His own ministry before His death on the cross. After His death and resurrection He spends forty days comforting, encouraging, and teaching His Apostles. Matthew and Mark record one of the important principles that He commanded them to teach and practice after His departure:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
- Matthew 28:18-20

They were to preach the gospel and make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They were to teach all of Jesus' commands, including this one to their disciples who were to pass it on to future generations.

And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:15-16

In Mark's gospel we see the same command but this time Jesus establishes the necessity of obedience and the penalty for disobedience.

Even though water was used in Jewish and Gentile religious rites, Jesus now takes this practice of baptism and gives it His own significance as well as His own conditions. Without Jesus' stamp on baptism, it is just water, just symbolism. But as the divine Son of God, Jesus gives baptism its power and true meaning.

Because of Jesus' words, baptism becomes part of the Christian religion, part of a believer's life, part of the Apostles' preaching, and something that can no longer be changed or neglected by man because it now belongs to God.

The Apostles

Jesus commands baptism but He leaves to the Apostles the task of preaching it, performing it, and explaining it.

1. Preaching / Performing Baptism

The need to be baptized as part of a response to God's offer of salvation is found in all of the preaching of the Apostles.

Acts 2:1-38 - Peter's first sermon climaxes with the exhortation to be baptized as a response to the peoples' question, "What shall we do?" ... and he answers, "repent and let each of you be baptized." Acts 2:38

Acts 22:17 - Paul's first action upon believing in Jesus was to be baptized. During his missionary journeys he always baptized those who believed his preaching of the Christ - (e.g. Acts 19:5).

There are 10 examples in the book of Acts alone where people who have heard the gospel respond by being baptized.

  1. 3000 at Pentecost - Acts 2:41-42
  2. Samaritans - Acts 8:12
  3. Simon the sorcerer - Acts 8:13
  4. Ethiopian Eunuch - Acts 8:36
  5. Paul the Apostle - Acts 9:18
  6. Gentile converts - Acts 10:47
  7. Lydia - Acts 16:15
  8. Jailor - Acts 16:33
  9. Crispus - Acts 18:8
  10. Disciples at Ephesus - Acts 19:5

You really only need one example of something in the Bible to prove your point, God has provided ten examples to demonstrate baptisms' role and importance in the preaching and response to the gospel.

2. Explaining Baptism

The book of Acts is a history of the early church and so it describes what the Apostle said and did. As far as baptism is concerned, the Apostles did as Jesus commanded them:

  • They preached that people needed to be baptized.
  • They baptized the people who believed.

It is left to the writers of the epistles to explain the significance and meaning of baptism. For example:

Baptism as a burial:

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
- Romans 6:3-4

The word baptism comes from a Greek word "baptizo" which means to dip or immerse. The Greeks had another word for the pouring (eckcheo) of water or the sprinkling (rhantizo) of water. The fact that throughout the N.T. the word "baptizo" is used tells us that immersion or burial in water is the correct format for baptism.

In the epistle to the Romans Paul explains why this is so. The burial in water accurately simulates the actual spiritual process taking place. Just as Jesus died, was buried, and resurrected in His glorified body, we also die to sin, are buried in a watery grave, and resurrect as new creations who will one day receive glorified bodies. There are many such explanations of the significance of baptism by other writers. For example:

  • Luke says that sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit is received at baptism - Acts 2:38
  • Paul explains that Christians enter the church or the body at the time of baptism - I Corinthians 12:13
  • He also describes baptism as the time when, through faith, one "puts on" Christ or establishes a relationship with Christ. - Galatians 3:26
  • Peter says that baptism is that time in the process of salvation that an individual appeals to God for a clear conscience and salvation - I Peter 3:21

And so, throughout the New Testament the Apostles preach, perform, and explain the significance of baptism. Through their efforts, the early church carried on the teachings and practices of the Lord concerning this and other elements of the Christian faith.

Baptism and the Early Church

Although the record of the preaching and practice of the Apostles end at the close of the first century, history records that the early church continued faithfully in their examples and teaching. In the October 1996 edition of the Christian Chronicle newspaper there is an article describing the architecture of 500 early Christian church buildings from the 3rd - 5th century AD. Some interesting features:

  1. Most were shaped in the form of a cross.
  2. They were built in the style of Roman or Greek administration buildings (small buildings measured 60ft x 45ft x 20ft).
  3. Many were elaborate with marble or polished floors and columns rising up to high ceilings.
  4. Certain other features were:
    • Separate halls used for fellowship meals (at the back)
    • Rooms to store items used for benevolence to the poor
    • Large auditorium with benches
    • Raised stage area with pulpit and chairs for elders who sat there during worship
    • Teaching rooms (classrooms)
    • Elaborate baptisteries, usually at the side of the building with connected changing rooms. These baptisteries were very interesting:
      • They were made in different designs (cross shaped, round, rectangular etc.).
      • Decorated with fish / water / grape images
      • They all had stairs and could contain about 4-5 feet of water.
  5. Every building had a baptistry and every baptistry was purposefully designed to provide for enough water to immerse.

The conclusion, of course, is that after the Apostolic age the early church continued its practice of water baptism by immersion as had been taught and performed by Jesus and the Apostles before them.

Baptism and the Middle Ages

By the 4th and 5th centuries new forms for baptism (pouring and sprinkling) were introduced as the influence of the Roman Catholic Church developed. These practices were carried on well into the Middle Ages until the Protestant Reformation.

With the translation of the Bible into the language of the masses there was a return to the original biblical form of baptism by total immersion. Protestant reformers and scholars understood the original biblical languages and as a result began to re-introduce the Biblical form of baptism into their religious practices (baptism by immersion).

It wasn't until the "Restoration" movement of the 18th century, however, that the churches of Christ restored not only the original form of baptism (burial in water) but also began to emphasize the original Biblical role and purpose of baptism:

Baptism was necessary in order to:

  • To become a disciple - Matthew 28:18
  • To obey Christ - Mark 16:16
  • To be born again - John 3:5
  • To receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit - Acts 2:38
  • To be added to the church - Acts 2:47
  • To be united to Christ - Gal. 3:26
  • To have a clear conscience - I Peter 3:21

These were not "new" ideas, they were Biblical teachings long ignored that were restored as part of the main teachings on baptism in the New Testament.

And so we find ourselves in the modern era teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and including in that preaching the central role, baptism, as the proper response of faith for one who has believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, repented of his/her sins and is ready to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Summary

Whenever there is a debate over the subject of baptism we simply ask people to look at the Bible and see that we are merely teaching what Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church taught about this subject. We need to do this because the Bible also commands that we must not add, subtract, or change anything contained in God's word (Rev. 22:18-20).

Hopefully, we have followed this instruction in all matters including the teaching on baptism. Because of this I ask that you review carefully the reasons why you were baptized and the way in which it was done. If you were not baptized by immersion, then the manner of your baptism is not according to what the Bible teaches on this subject and you should reconsider being re-baptized in the same way that the disciples were re-baptized by Paul in Acts 19.

In addition to this…

If you have never been baptized, then I encourage you to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, acknowledge that belief before others, repent of your sins, and be immersed in water (baptized) for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and will be assured of eternal life with God in heaven (Acts 2:37-38).

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for the Ottawa West Church of Christ