(All quotes from the NRSV. Personal pronouns referring to divinity are not capitalized per this translation)
Must we be baptized to get into heaven? If so, must we be dunked under water, or is it okay to have water sprinkled on our heads? Should we have our children baptized as infants, or must we wait until they reach adulthood and let them choose to be baptized?
If we are to learn the answers to these questions, we must consult the Bible. And we must examine every baptism verse in the Bible. Don’t assume, however, that doing so will clear up all confusion over the issue. There’s a reason it exists.
Matthew 3:6-10, “…and they were baptized by him [John the Baptist] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume and say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Context: After the Bible tells the story of Jesus’ birth, it leads into the story of His ministry by telling of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus. See a repeat of this conversation in Luke 3:7-10.
Analysis: According to John the Baptists’ warning to the Pharisees, bearing fruit worthy of repentance is a key to baptism. Therefore, repentance is a key to baptism. Baptism by itself is worthless. It’s not for those who refuse to turn from their sinful ways. Before we may partake of a baptism acceptable to God, we must first renounce our sin and intend to obey God’s will as revealed throughout the Bible.
The Pharisees are an interesting example of people unacceptable for baptism, since they were the religious leaders of their day. They were the rule enforcers who fasted and tithed while refraining from drinking and adultery. They would have exceeded the standards of righteousness in the eyes of many of today’s devout, Evangelical Christians. Where they sinned so greatly, however, was in their arrogance, judgmentalism, and mercilessness—attitudes that run rampant among today’s devout Evangelicals.
Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Context: John speaks to those who have come to him to be baptized.
Analysis: Again, John associates water baptism with repentance. He then speaks of a second baptism that can only come from Jesus: the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.
Of course, the “fire” is not a literal fire. Rather, it is a term used to symbolize the power, majesty, and intensity of the Holy Spirit we receive.
Notice that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which comes from Jesus, is separate from the baptism of repentance, which comes from John the Baptist. While it’s possible for both to happen simultaneously, it’s not necessary that they do. Today, many Christians believe that we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptized, but this quote provides no indication of that.
Matthew 3:13-17, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Context: The Bible’s introduction of John the Baptist leads right into the story of his baptism of Jesus.
Analysis: Despite what I said in the analysis of Matthew 3:11, here we have an example of a baptism followed immediately by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. What we don’t know is whether or not Jesus is receiving the Holy Spirit for the first time or whether the Holy Spirit descends upon Him as a display of God’s approval, even though Jesus already possesses the Holy Spirit.
Most Christians would agree with the latter interpretation, because they believe in the Trinity to the extent that Jesus is God in the flesh and, therefore, cannot be separated from the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Context: This quote is known to many as the Great Commission, in which Jesus, after His resurrection, instructs His disciples to spread the gospel to the world.
Analysis: Are we to baptize entire nations and make disciples of them, or are we to baptize individuals from all nations?
Most of us today would probably choose the latter interpretation. However, when the nations of Europe converted to Christianity in the early Middle Ages, many of them did force baptism upon entire nations of people. The mentality in those days was that an entire society had to hold the same religious belief. Therefore, Christianity was not an individual choice but a national mandate. Baptism was a part of that mandate.
This national religion mentality continued until the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and other fighting among Christians defeated the will of those who insisted upon a single theology for an entire nation. Out of their religious war fatigue came the concept of denominations – the idea that people with differing Christian beliefs could live together in a community. The denominational structure relied upon personal choice and made it a driving force in Christianity, like it was in the early days of the church.
Of course, most people in recent centuries remained in the denominations of their families and perceived themselves to be Christians because they belonged to a Christian church. In the past couple centuries, however, Evangelical Christianity has popularized the notion of faith-in-Christ being a personal choice that has nothing to do with church membership or having grown up in a church. The personal choice to be baptized then accompanies this personal choice of faith in Christ. That’s why many of us today see this verse as a requirement to spread the gospel to people of all nations rather than as a requirement to force entire nations to be baptized.
Mark 1:4-8, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”
Context: The first chapter of Mark parallels the third chapter of Matthew, telling the story of John the Baptist.
Analysis: Again, in verse 8, we see that John’s water baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This verse lends additional support to the inseparability of baptism and repentance.
When the Bible says that “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him,” it doesn’t literally mean every single person in the city was baptized by him. In fact, many religious leaders opposed John’s ministry. It’s common for the Bible to use the word all to mean many or all kinds. For example, this verse may indicate that people from all walks of life came to John for baptism. Or it may simply mean that a great number of people came out to him – so many that it seemed like all the people.
It’s interesting to note that this quote says the people came out to John “confessing their sins.” This is something we don’t practice today. It’s easy to see why we don’t. It would be embarrassing for most of us to confess our greatest wrongs in front of those witnessing our baptism. Naturally, many of us would hold back our darkest secrets. However, it’s inspiring to see that those baptized by John were so repentant that they didn’t care if everyone knew about their past sins.
Mark 16:16, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”
Context: Jesus sends the disciples out into the world to spread the gospel. He follows these words with descriptions of signs believers will share, such as picking up serpents and drinking poison without harm.
Analysis: Baptists and other Christians who insist that adult baptism is necessary to obtain eternal life quote this verse more than any other to support their belief. Most Christians, when asked to give the biblical requirements for salvation, quote verses instructing us to believe in Christ. But this verse adds a second requirement to believing in Christ—baptism.
However, if we read the last part of this verse, it says that “the one who does not believe will be condemned.” It does not say that the one who fails to be baptized will be condemned. Therefore, we must conclude that this verse fails to damn the unbaptized.
What hurts this verse’s credibility most, however, is that the earliest New Testament manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20. Apparently, these verses were tacked on to the end of Mark a couple centuries after it was written. Today, most Bible’s include these verses for tradition’s sake, but they sometimes go as far as to separate it from the rest of Mark, so that people think twice before taking these verses as the Word of God. Therefore, it’s best that we not use verse 16 as the foundation of our baptism theology.
Luke 3:3-6, “He [John the Baptist] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all the flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’”
Context: Like Matthew and Mark, Luke also tells the story of John the Baptist.
Analysis: Yet again, repentance and baptism are intertwined. This quote, however, calls this a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It shouldn’t alarm most of us that repentance is for the forgiveness of sins; nonetheless, this is the first verse to define repentance in this manner. Some might argue, however, that this passage implies that baptism is also needed for the forgiveness of sins.
The prophecy from Isaiah gives us added understanding of the purpose of baptism. It exists to “prepare the way of the Lord.” For years, I understood this to mean that John the Baptist had to begin his ministry first so that Jesus could then be baptized by him. However, this passage may also mean that a baptism of repentance prepares us to receive Jesus. Naturally, most of us choose to submit to Jesus before we are baptized. But to know Him intimately, we need a baptism of repentance to lead the way.
Luke 7:28-30, “‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)”
Context: Jesus speaks to a crowd about John the Baptist. He goes on to explain how both His and John’s ministries were rejected by the religious leaders of the day.
Analysis: Here we have proof that not “all” people in Jerusalem were baptized by John, because many of the Pharisees and lawyers resided in Jerusalem, yet this passage says most of them refused to be baptized by him.
Luke goes out of his way to tell us that the violent, thieving tax collectors, who were seen in the eyes of the people and the religious leaders as most evil of all, received John’s baptism of repentance, but the religious leaders were too arrogant over their righteousness and spiritual knowledge to allow themselves baptized by a simple man from the wilderness.
Luke 12:49-50, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Context: Appears to be unrelated to quotes which precede and follow it.
Analysis: At this point, Jesus had already been baptized by John. Here he uses the word baptism as a metaphor for His trial and crucifixion. We will learn later how baptism symbolizes our being buried with Christ in earthly death and being resurrected in new life.
John 1:24-27, “Now they had been sent by the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.’”
Context: John the Baptist is questioned about his identity before baptizing Jesus.
Analysis: The Pharisees wanted to know by whose authority John baptized others. In their eyes, John had to be someone special, someone they respected, or someone who had credentials, in order to carry out God’s work. John answered by telling not who he was, but the purpose of his baptism. He then pointed to Jesus as the authority for his ministry, but this answer failed to satisfy the Pharisees, since they saw Jesus as a nobody, too.
John 1:31, 33, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel…I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
Context: John the Baptists testifies about his experience baptizing Jesus.
Analysis: How did baptism begin? It all started with a revelation from God to John the Baptist. He received no human instruction to baptize. It wasn’t Jesus’ who told him to baptize. Nonetheless, God worked His revelation to John together with His plan for Jesus’ ministry.
It’s interesting to think about the fact that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus after baptism. This seems to imply that Jesus didn’t possess the Holy Spirit until this point in time, but that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were one throughout His ministry. This passage alone could spark hours of conversation about exactly how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another and work together. But I’m not going to get into all of that, because it’s a subject that none of us in this world can fully understand, and because our understanding of it has no impact on how we live our daily lives.