A quick perusal of the New Testament will uncover several instances of the practice of baptism. Baptism, as defined by the 1689 London Confession is “an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.” But what is the proper mode of baptism? It is understood that baptism requires water. But is the church at liberty to innovate new modes of delivery?
Can a minister immerse, sprinkle, pour, or dab as he sees fit? Could it be that God established an ordinance by the very mouth of our Lord without also training His church as to the correct execution? God forbid! By deed and by word, Christ taught His church concerning the proper subjects and mode of baptism. It will be shown that the Greek term for baptism means immersion, that John the Baptist performed the ordinance by immersion, that Philip performed the ordinance by immersion, and that Paul skillfully used baptismal immersion as a picture of the inner spiritual work of Christ in salvation.
The English word baptism is a transliteration of the Greek term baptizo. The word literally means “to immerse or plunge”. It is an intensified form of another Greek term bapto, meaning “to dip.” In fact, baptizo is the Greek term for drowning. In Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically, John MacArthur writes that “neither of these terms are ever used in the passive sense. Water is never said to be baptized on someone, that is, sprinkled or dabbed on someone’s head.” Granted, word studies are not sufficient in themselves to claim baptism by immersion as the only acceptable mode. However these truths coupled with the fact that Greek terms for “pour” (ekcheōor) or “sprinkle” (rhantizō) are never utilized by the biblical writers in reference to the ordinance of baptism do at least indicate that the baptismal ordinance is literally the act of immersing.
There are supposed cases advanced as evidence that the word baptism doesn’t always mean, well, baptism. Luke 11:38 and Mark 7:3,4 are offered up as proof that baptism can also mean “to wash.” This is true. In both cases, the ‘washing’ being referred to consisted of the cups being immersed in water or the hands being immersed in water up to the elbow, both as purification rites according to the practice of the day. And so it is that the ‘washing’ in these passages is washing by immersion.
A passage which utilizes the term baptizo in a figurative sense is found in I Corinthians 10:1-2. God’s people undergo a baptism of sorts by the cloud and by the sea. The people of Israel were surrounded on all sides by water and covered over head by the cloud. Their ‘baptism’ was an immersion in the power and protective providence of God, who led the entire band safely to the other side. Is this not a picture of the baptismal work of Christ in the hearts of each and every one who believes? The unregenerate is made alive by the power of the Spirit, being baptized by the Spirit into Christ, and led safely to pass from death unto life. While the term baptizo is definitely used in a non-literal sense, the ‘baptism’ experienced by the people of Israel could have never been likened unto a sprinkling or a pouring. Immersion is the only analogy that fits the narrative.
The baptismal practice of John the Baptist lends support to immersion as well. He baptized “in the river Jordan” and in areas where “water was plentiful” (Matthew 3:6, John 3:23). If baptismal mode is truly incidental or flexible, then why did he go to the trouble of performing baptisms in the river Jordan? If any amount of water would suffice, why is St. John compelled by the Holy Spirit to mention the reason John the Baptist baptized at Aenon near to Salim, was that water was plentiful there? If John the Baptist administered the ordinance of baptism by immersion, the reason he needed access to a river of water becomes immediately evident. When commenting on John 3:22, even John Calvin, albeit reservedly and with some later qualification, admitted that “from these words, we may infer that John and Christ administered baptism by plunging the whole body beneath the water…..”
In Acts chapter 8, we read about the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the desert through the ministry of the Evangelist Philip (Acts 8:26-40). Philip came upon his chariot as the eunuch was reading a scroll containing Isaiah. Philip proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to the eunuch and this official of the Queen of Ethiopia was gloriously saved. What happens next makes sense only if immersion is intended.
When the eunuch sees water, he asks “What prevents me from being baptized?” (v. 36). The chariot is commanded to stop and Philip and the eunuch go down to the water (v. 38). Again, if baptismal mode is incidental, why did the man have to wait until he saw sufficient water? Are we left to assume that the caravan of this wealthy government worker lacked a pot of water? Ironically, Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this passage, attempts to make this very case. How absurd! If the earliest of Christ’s evangelists understood baptism to be flexible regarding mode, Philip could have easily baptized him with but a few drops of water. If pouring was an acceptable mode, then Philip could have poured water onto the eunuch from the same vessel. The fact remains that the eunuch was only baptized when sufficient water was available to perform the ordinance by immersion.
Of course, the argument is made that the Eunuch read in Isaiah 52:15 that Christ “shall sprinkle many nations;” and because of this, he was taken down to the water in order to be sprinkled. Again, if Philip would have understood Isaiah 52:15 to mean baptism by sprinkling, there would have been no need to go to any body of water. He could have simply sprinkled the man from his own water pot.
We also see in the writings of the Apostle Paul a beautiful portrayal of our unity with Christ depicted in the physical act of baptism by immersion. Speaking concerning the believer’s responsibility to fight against the sinful desires of the flesh, Paul reminds Christians in Romans 6:4 that we, “were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” And using similar language, Paul writes in Colossians 2:11,12 that, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Of course baptismal mode isn’t the central thrust of Paul’s purpose in writing either of these passages. But if physical baptism by immersion is not a picture of our spiritual burial with Christ into his death and of resurrected new life with him, then what is? No other baptismal mode accurately portrays this spiritual reality. Paul urges believers to consider the glorious day when they were publicly baptized upon profession of their faith. He exhorts them to see that moment of baptism as the physical representation of the real change wrought in their lives by the indwelling Holy Spirit and, thereby, to seek to live in the light of God’s glorious grace toward them in Christ.
The Greek term baptizo gives us reason to believe that the ancient Church immersed. John the Baptist baptized only in rivers and in areas where water was plentiful. Christ was baptized by John in the river Jordan. Philip baptized the eunuch only when they came upon a place of sufficient water. Paul skillfully utilizes physical baptism as a picture of death, burial, and resurrection unto newness of life in a manner to which only baptism by immersion can adequately correspond.
Ultimately, there is little doubt that the ancient church practiced immersion baptism. Why not follow in the footsteps of our ancient brethren? Why not baptize new converts in the same manner and mode as the Lord Himself was baptized? Prayerfully consider these words as you contemplate the issue of baptism.
Jason K. Boothe is Pastor of Horizons Baptist Church of Piketon, Ohio. For more information concerning the ministries of the church, please visit: www.horizonsbaptist.org.