Baptism—A Christian Requirement
BAPTISM has been part of Christianity since its beginning. What does baptism signify? How important is it that persons be baptized? Let us consider some basic information about baptism and its significance from the standpoint of the Holy Bible.
The Scriptures indicate that the correct method of baptism is complete immersion. The word “baptize” is taken from the Greek word baptízein, meaning “to dip, to plunge.” When one is immersed in water, one is temporarily buried from sight and then lifted out of the water.
The first mention of baptism in the Bible concerns the activity of John the Baptist. In the year 29 C.E., God authorized John to do baptizing. The Scriptures state that John “came into all the country around the Jordan, preaching baptism in symbol of repentance for forgiveness of sins.”—Luke 3:1-3.
Going under and coming up out of the water symbolized that a person had sincerely repented, or felt sorry for sinning against God’s law given through Moses. He was, so to speak, dying to such a course and coming alive to renewed efforts at observing that Law. Since the Mosaic law was to serve as a “tutor leading to Christ,” John’s baptism was an important step in preparing Israelites for meeting the promised Messiah.—Luke 1:16, 17; 3:4-6; Gal. 3:24.
Jesus himself submitted to baptism by John. On that occasion God’s holy spirit came down upon Jesus, anointing him as the promised Messiah. (Mark 1:9-11) Though not a sinner in need of repentance, Jesus entered on a new course of life at that time. (1 Pet. 2:22) Thereafter he was to do his Father’s special “will” that would involve offering his life as a ransom sacrifice for the sins of mankind.—Ps. 40:6-8; Heb. 10:5-10.
Jesus did not put a stop to the baptizing activity of John the Baptist. In fact, we read that early in his ministry “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John—although, indeed, Jesus himself did no baptizing but his disciples did.” (John 4:1, 2) This baptizing directed by Jesus was in symbol of repentance in the manner of John’s baptism.
A CHANGE OF MEANING
After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to heaven, the Mosaic law came to its end. (Rom. 10:4; Eph. 2:15) Did that do away with the need for baptism? No, but now, for the Jews, it symbolized a presentation of themselves to Jehovah God on the basis of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus as the Messiah. However, just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he gave his disciples the commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.”—Matt. 28:19, 20.
Did you notice that now baptism would include not only Jews but also “people of all the nations”? During his earthly life Jesus had foretold that God’s special favor toward the Jews would end. (Matt. 8:11, 12; 21:43) This happened in 36 C.E. when God directed the apostle Peter to enter the house of Cornelius, a non-Jew, and declare the Christian message to him and his household. After these Gentiles accepted the truth about Jesus Christ, they received the miraculous gift of the holy spirit and were baptized.—Acts 10:1-48.
Since God was no longer dealing with a nation of people specially dedicated to him from birth, from that time on baptism became a fitting symbol of wholehearted dedication to God. Going under the water would indicate that a person was dying to a course of life centered around himself. Coming up from the water would symbolize coming alive to putting God’s revealed will in first place. (Compare Matthew 6:33; Philippians 1:10.) Jesus showed this to be a requirement when he said: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him disown himself and pick up his torture stake and continually follow me.”—Matt. 16:24.
What is the idea behind being baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit”? (Matt. 28:19) We can better understand this from considering Jesus’ words as recorded at Matthew 10:41: “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” (Authorized Version; Rotherham) This means the receiving of a prophet or a righteous man in recognition of what he is. Candidates for Christian baptism must recognize the Father, the Son and the holy spirit for what they are: the Father as Supreme Sovereign; the Son as ransomer and king; and the holy spirit as God’s active force that aids persons to do the divine will.—Ps. 83:18; Matt. 20:28; Rev. 19:16; John 14:16, 17.
How important is it that people submit to Christian baptism? Consider the apostle Peter’s counsel at Pentecost, 33 C.E., to Jews who shared community responsibility for sinfully impaling the Messiah or Christ, and who needed cleansing from that sin: “Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the free gift of the holy spirit.” (Acts 2:38) According to the Scriptures, persons who wish to gain forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ must repent and be baptized.
Does this mean that the waters of baptism wash away sins? It would be wrong to draw such a conclusion. When commenting on the flood of Noah’s day, Peter gives baptism a deeper meaning, saying: “That which corresponds to this [the passing of eight persons through the Flood waters in an ark] is also now saving you, namely, baptism, (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the request made to God for a good conscience,) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”—1 Pet. 3:21.
How, then, do we make a request to God for that good conscience? By doing as Noah did, dedicating ourselves before passing through the water. Like Noah, we dedicate ourselves to Jehovah God to do his will and from then on proceed to do it. This results in our getting a good conscience, for when we know that we are doing God’s will we enjoy a good conscience. Thus the dedication of ourselves to God is really a “request made to God for a good conscience.” The good conscience results, not from doing our own works of self-righteousness, but from doing God’s prescribed works, God’s will. This is what we dedicate ourselves to do.
Thus our dedication of ourselves to God through Christ constitutes a “request made to God for a good conscience.” Of ourselves, in our imperfect, sinful condition, we are not acceptable to God. So, because we repent of sin and turn around and dedicate ourselves, Jehovah applies the cleansing blood of Christ’s atoning sacrifice to us, thereby relieving us of the condemnation of sin and giving us a good conscience toward Him. Therefore, our obediently passing through the baptismal water symbolizes our dedication of ourselves to Jehovah God through Jesus Christ.
Does this suggest that after baptism a person should no longer recognize himself as sinful? Not at all. Even Paul, a baptized Christian and an apostle of Jesus Christ, lamented: “So, then, with my mind I myself am a slave to God’s law, but with my flesh to sin’s law.” (Rom. 7:25) However, dedicated, baptized Christians can have a good conscience in that they know that the sin-atoning value of Jesus’ sacrifice blots out past sins and those they may commit from day to day through human imperfection. (1 John 2:1, 2) Therefore, Christians need not feel weighed down with guilt feelings because of their former course of life and inherited sinful state.
ONLY A BEGINNING
Should persons view their baptism as evidence that they have finally “made it” and are all set to receive life everlasting? That would be unwise, for the Bible portrays baptism as only the beginning of a person’s dedicated sacred service to God. Remember, Jesus’ baptism occurred at the start of his Messianic service. With his apostles and other early disciples too it was a preliminary step. Did you notice the apostle Peter’s expression that baptism “is also now saving you?” (1 Pet. 3:21) The commentary by G. F. C. Fronmüller notes: “The Present [tense of the Greek word for “saving”] is used because the saving has only begun and is not yet completed.”—Matt. 10:22; Rom. 13:11; Phil. 2:12; Rev. 2:10.
Showing that more is required for salvation than just baptism are the following words of the apostle Paul: “For if you publicly declare that ‘word in your own mouth,’ that Jesus is Lord, and exercise faith in your heart that God raised him up from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one exercises faith for righteousness, but with the mouth one makes public declaration for salvation.” (Rom. 10:9, 10) It is evident from this that besides faith and baptism, “public declaration” to the effect that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised him up from the dead is a requirement for salvation.
While this public declaration is made at the time of one’s baptism, this does not mean that thereafter there is no need for further declaration of one’s hope before others. To the contrary, the Bible shows that we must continue to declare such at congregational meetings, before governmental or judicial authorities who may demand an explanation of our Christian hope, and in publicly proclaiming the “good news” of God’s kingdom.—Heb. 10:23; 1 Pet. 3:15; Matt. 24:14.
Clearly, for all who wish to gain an approved standing with God, Christian baptism is a requirement. In view of what it symbolizes, baptism is not to be taken lightly or entered into without careful advance preparation. Are you thinking of getting baptized soon? If so, reflect seriously on its meaning. Be determined forever to live up to the dedication to God that it represents.