Understanding Baptism: The Background & Importance of Baptism

baptism web (new)

The first time that we see the word baptism in the Bible is in Matthew 3, and the concept is attached to John as a part of his name. Now we need to know that the word baptism is a transliteration instead of a translation. When the translators of the Bible worked through the New Testament, they decided that they would take the greek word, baptizo and simply transliterate the sound of the word instead of the meaning. The word baptizo means to immerse in water. Because of this, John could be correctly identified as John the Immerser.

Where did this idea of baptism come from?

The origination of baptism can be traced back to the practice of ritual purity stemming from the commands for such purity in Leviticus, as well as other places in the Old Testament Law. This being the case, the immersion of people for repentance was not something that John invented. This practice would have been very familiar to the people of his day. In Hebrew, this ceremonial washing was called mikveh.

Mikveh was associated with repentance and was performed for two primary purposes. Most of the time, mikveh was practiced by a Jew prior to worship in the temple or in a synagogue. In this case, the individual would go down into the water, spread out their fingers and toes (so that the water could touch every part of them) and pledge their heart, their mind, their hands, and their feet to the service of the LORD. In this process, they would fully immerse themselves in the water to display their complete commitment.

Mikveh was also used by Gentiles who had made the decision to convert to Judaism. Converts would go into the water, recite the Shema (Deut. 6:4-8), and immerse themselves as a picture of their new life as a Jew.

Mikveh was an important precursor to baptism.

John’s baptism can best be understood in the context of the first use of mikveh.  He baptized for the repentance of sin and to prepare the way for the One who was coming. Just as mikveh displayed a desire to be right before the LORD before entering into His presence in worship, so too did the baptism of John offer Jews the opportunity to display their repentance prior to the appearance of the Messiah.

While John’s baptism was important, it was never intended to be the final form of baptism in the Christian church. John made this point clear in Matthew 3:11, when he referenced the fact that “He who is coming after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit…”  Much like the conversion aspect of mikveh in the Jewish faith, Baptism in the Christian church is the means of public declaration of repentance and belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The vast majority of Christians recognize baptism as an extremely important practice in the church. Here are three reasons from the Bible why this is the case.

Baptism and the Great Commission (Matthew 29:18-20)
In the great commission we find four action words.  One imperative verb, and three participles.  This is important because imperative verbs give us commands while participles tell us how to accomplish the command.  The imperative verb of the great commission is to make disciples. The three other verbs give us particular ways to fulfill the command to make disciples.  We make disciples by going, teaching, and baptizing.  So Jesus chose to use baptism as a part of His commission to us.  Clearly baptism is important.

Baptism and Salvation (Mark 16:16)
Mark 16:16 “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

From this verse we can see that baptism is closely connected with salvation.  This being the case, we need to be careful to clearly define this relationship.

First of all, we know that we are saved by believing the good news of Jesus Christ.  We are saved by God’s grace (Jesus dying on our behalf).  And this gracious act is only credited to our account through faith (trusting in Him and pledging our allegiance to Him.) Salvation is by grace alone, by faith alone, and by Christ alone.  We don’t work for it.  We can’t earn it.  And we surely don’t deserve it.

So why does Mark 16:16 include the phrase, “and is baptized”?

Believing in something is completely intrinsic, meaning that it is something that takes place on the inside.  We can’t see someone believing.  We can only see the actions that are produced by the belief.  So with that it mind, it is important that we see that, biblically, the first action of saving faith in Christ is the outward symbol of baptism.

Baptism is like my wedding ring.  It tells the world that I am married.  With the ring on, everyone that I come in contact with can quickly see that I am married.  But if one morning I forget my ring, do I stop being married?  Nope.  The ring is only an outward symbol of a greater inward reality.  Baptism is the same.  It displays our faith to the world through a tangible act of obedience.  Baptism doesn’t save us.  It provides an outward symbol that we have believed the Gospel of Jesus.  And it is that belief that saves us.

Baptism and the Example of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17)

The final passage that I want to point out is found in Matthew chapter 3 (as well as all of the other Gospels.)  This passage teaches us about the baptism of Jesus.  Jesus came to John for baptism, but John tried his best to refuse. In the end though, Jesus insisted by telling John that this baptism needed to be performed to “fulfill all righteousness.”  Now Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for repentance.  Repentance is for those like you and me that sin. Jesus was sinless.  So for Jesus, baptism was different.  His baptism marked the beginning of His ministry and served as an example for all of those who would follow Him.  After His baptism, Christian baptism became directly linked to an association with Jesus the Messiah.   In this passage, we also read of the extraordinary involvement of the entire Trinitarian God.  Jesus is baptized, the Father speaks from heaven, and the Holy Spirit comes down like a dove.  There are only a few times in the Bible that the entire Trinity are pictured working in concert.  In Creation, in Salvation, in the Return of Christ, and in the Baptism of Jesus.  So when we see the Trinity mentioned in a passage together, we need to understand the significance of the event.  The baptism of Jesus was a big deal, which solidifies the importance of the baptism of those who follow Him.

You can listen to this sermon here.

Next week we will examine the What, How, and When of baptism as we continue to walk through this important subject together.