Baptism: Immersed in Christ
Oftentimes, when we talk about baptism, we start in the Acts of the Apostles. However, the topic of baptism should begin with Jesus' immersion in the Jordan River. Too often, we base our rites and theological implications for baptism on our need for it. Instead, we should ask, "Why was Jesus baptized?" and, "Why did he surprise John the Baptizer with his insistence?" This begins the discussion of baptism as a type of death and resurrection. No, the usual claim that, "Baptism is an outward sign of inward grace," is nowhere in scripture. It is normally said because too many Christians have no idea why the church baptizes people. The sentiment of an "outward sign" is not wrong per se, but it was not how the New Testament authors described it. To start with Jesus himself, his baptism inaugurated his earthly ministry and was followed by Satan tempting him in the desert. This ministry ended with both his crucifixion and resurrection, so John baptized Jesus not only into his death, but also into a new life. Each being in God's tri-unity presented himself, with the Father speaking overtly about Jesus' faithfulness and the Holy Spirit coming to guide him (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23). Paul of Tarsus also wrote about baptism as a type of death and resurrection in his letter to the Romans:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6:3-5).
Streams of Living Water
So how does water represent a grave? A late first-century document called the Didache—a summary of apostolic teaching probably written by Jews in the Roman province of Syria—declared,
Concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before (Did. 7:1-4).
The Didache settles any debate over the methods of baptism the New Testament seems to leave open. Full immersion in cold running water was the preferred manner the first-century Christians baptized new believers. However, their rite was not rigid nor legalistic, permitting an alternative if immersion or running water were unavailable. The Didache was considered for inclusion in the New Testament, but its distribution was too limited for the criteria of universal appeal. However, its geographic origin and its early date give the Didache valid authority as an early church liturgical manual. The writers knew the verb baptizō (G907) included more definitions than just "to immerse," which was the reason they occasionally made exceptions to immersion. In the Septuagint (LXX) version of Ruth, for example, the translator used baptō (G911) to describe Ruth dipping her bread (cf. 2:14; see here).
When the Didache speaks of "living water" (Greek: hudōr zōn; G5204, G2198), this is the running water found in natural bodies of water (e.g., lakes, oceans, rivers, streams). In contrast, the Jewish people used the mikveh (H4723) for their ritual bathing, especially at the temple. Even in ancient times, before the advent of the germ theory of disease, people knew the still water of wells and cisterns had contaminants that needed to be boiled away. The community that produced the Didache probably lived in the mountains, and thus enjoyed frequent access to running water. They wanted their fellow Judeo-Christians to avoid the mikveh if possible. The other reason for "living water" concerned Jesus himself. When he met the Samaritan woman, Jesus told her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10). Later, in his gospel account, John explained that "living water" actually referred to the Holy Spirit (John 7:39), especially after Jesus taught, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (John 7:37-38).
Festival of Booths
When Jesus spoke of "living water" at the temple, his immediate context was the Festival of Booths (Hebrew: Sukkot: H5523; John 7:2). This Jewish holiday recalled the time when the Israelites fled Egypt and had to live in ramshackle booths (Hebrew: sukkah; H5521) in the desert (Lev. 23:42-43). Sukkot is a celebration of water. Today, we take the provision of water for granted, because most of us have it from the tap. In the ancient Near East, water was a precious resource that was not taken lightly. Jews deliberately made their sukkah with gaps in the roof to allow rainwater to come through. When Jesus addressed his fellow Jews at the temple to announce himself as the giver of living water, he was doing so with the voice of God. So, how does baptism tie into all this? Well, when Jesus told Nicodemus that only those who are "born from above" or "born again" (Greek: gennēthē anōthen; G1080, G509) can be saved, he likely had the prophet Ezekiel in mind:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses . . . A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances . . . You shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36:25-29).
Baptism is the start of this "born from above" process. Simon Peter wrote, "Baptism . . . now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 3:21). In other words, baptism has nothing to do with the amount of water, but the amount of righteousness. Getting dunked or sprinkled with water does nothing for your salvation without faith resulting in good works (James 2:24). However, our baptism is for a real purpose, just as Jesus himself was baptized. This is to leave our past in the watery grave of baptism so we may rise anew with a heart compliant with God's will.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, at the baptism of Jesus you revealed him to be your Son, and your Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove: Grant that we, who are born again by water and the Spirit, may be faithful as your adopted children; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019.
Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson. "Didache." EarlyChristianWritings.com. Ed. Peter Kirby. Fullerton, CA: Early Writings, 2020. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Second ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020.
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