A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth


Baptism in the New Testament

Baptism is an action ordained by Jesus Christ when, appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, he commissioned them to "make disciples" of all ethnic groups, teaching them to observe his commandments (Matt. 28:19-20). Jesus himself, at the outset of his public ministry, was baptized by his relative John. Although John had baptized others because of their repentance, Jesus' baptism was to be a sign of his calling as the Son of God or Messiah (Mark 1:9-11). Over John's objection that their roles should be reversed, Jesus insisted on being baptized to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15), to do what is right. Thus Christians, in being baptized, are following not only the commandment but also the example of the Lord.

Baptism Is a Response to Jesus’ Resurrection

In the New Testament, baptism signifies not only repentance of sin, the turning away from a life in rebellion against God, but also the entrance into a new community created by Jesus' death and resurrection. As soon as a person received the witness of Christian preaching and acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, he or she was baptized and became a member of the body of believers. This first occurred on the day of Pentecost following the resurrection (Acts 2:1-41). Having gathered in Jerusalem, Jesus' disciples were suddenly "filled with the Holy Spirit" and began to speak in other tongues. For Peter, spokesman for the group, this is the evidence that Jesus lives and reigns and has poured out his Spirit upon his followers. For the first time the young church publicly proclaims, to a crowd of Jews from all parts of the Mediterranean world assembled in Jerusalem for the festival, that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Because death could not hold him, Peter declares, we know that "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). He concludes by appealing to his audience to change their minds about Jesus: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). According to Acts, 3,000 people became members of the Christian community on that day.

Baptism Means a New Life

From the account of this first baptism in Jerusalem, we note several aspects of Christian baptism. First, it marks the entrance into a new community of relationships. Those who responded to Peter's appeal assumed an identity as members of a specific group within the Jewish world. Second, baptism is an action through which the Holy Spirit is communicated to the new believer, as he or she comes to participate in the life of God within the body of Christ. Third, baptism follows repentance, a change of thinking. The convert is reoriented from the vales of the old culture or "world" — what Peter calls "this corrupt generation" — toward a new set of perceptions and priorities known as the kingdom of God.

How intimately baptism is associated with these things is clear from other examples in Acts and other apostolic writings. A traveling Ethiopian official, convinced by Philip's teaching that Jesus is God's servant prophesied by Isaiah, immediately requests baptism as they pass a stream of water (Acts 8:36). Peter explains to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius that Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is the one God has appointed as judge of all. While he is still speaking, the Holy Spirit comes on all his hearers, and Peter immediately orders that they be baptized (Acts 10:47-48).

Baptism Creates a New Family Identity

This last example illustrates another feature of baptism in the New Testament: it was sometimes baptism of entire families. The individualism of our society was not part of the culture of the first-century Mediterranean world. Of Cornelius it is said that "he and all his family were devout and God-fearing" (Acts 10:2), meaning that as Gentiles they were also worshipers of the God of Israel. The same situation occurs with the conversion of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34). Paul and Silas baptized his entire household in the dark of night, immediately following their explanation of the word of the Lord. Presumably the households of Cornelius and the jailer of Philippi, like typical families of the ancient world, were multi-generational and included younger children. Faith was a family affair, and when a family head submitted to Jesus as Messiah, he brought his wife and children with him into baptism. (In the same way, Paul states that an unbelieving husband or wife is sanctified by a believing spouse, 1 Cor. 7:14).

For Jews, circumcision was a sign of God's covenant with his people — not with isolated individuals, but with a community bonded to one another in the Lord. For Christians, the same is true of baptism. Paul compares it with circumcision, as an action which identifies the believer as a member of a new community. To the Colossians he writes: "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the deeds of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:11-12).

Paul described baptism as a dying with Christ in order to be raised with him (Rom. 6:3-5). This resurrection is not only a future event, but is experienced now through participation in the body of Christ. To be united with other worshipers in the fellowship of Christ is to have eternal life, for Jesus himself is "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). Baptism marks the entrance into this life. It was so important in the New Testament community that Paul understood it as a symbol of the unity of the church, for which there is "one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Eph. 4:4-5). Baptism was equally important to Peter, who viewed it as an action which saves the believer "by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21).

The Forms of Baptism

The Greek word for "baptize" means to dip, and was used in the garment industry to refer to cloth that had been dipped into a vat of dye. From this, it would seem that the symbolism of baptism is that of taking on a new coloration, the likeness of Christ. Along with this, New Testament baptism would have been by immersion, which also clearly expresses Paul's symbolism of dying and being raised up to new life in Christ. Jesus himself was baptized while standing in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9).

But the form of baptism does not seem to be an issue in the New Testament. Since there is no river in Jerusalem, the 3,000 baptized at Pentecost may simply have had water poured over them. And it is unlikely that Paul and Silas, their injuries from a beating freshly bandaged, would have sought out a stream in which to immerse the Philippian jailer and his family in the middle of the night. What was being symbolized was taking on a new identity by entry into the life of Christ. This symbolism did not depend on the amount of water that was used.

Baptism in Early Christian Worship

In the early centuries following the New Testament period, baptism continued to be the sign of a life-changing commitment to the lordship of Christ. As the church grew, it established standard procedures for receiving new converts. Before being baptized, they underwent a period of instruction and training in the Christian life, which could last for several years. When they were ready they were brought into the assembly and confessed their faith in a statement similar to what is now called the Apostles' Creed. Then they would be separated into men and women for baptism, which was performed in the nude.1 Clothed in white garments, they would return to the assembly and take part in the Eucharist for the first time. Pentecost and Easter were special times for receiving the newly baptized.

In the earliest church baptism was not administered by clergy, but probably by any baptized Christian, and some have suggested that it may even have been self-administered. Baptism occurred in a small chamber rather than an auditorium. In this period there were no church buildings, but worshipers met in homes, or later on, in homes that had been converted into meeting places. The oldest known church building is a house at Dura Europos in Syria which had been converted for Christian worship and included a pool for baptism.


 1 This statement has occasioned some response, and requires further explanation. The nudity was probably not symbolic of some higher truth, such as coming closer to the Creator, or of being reborn from the womb. It was simply a byproduct of the need to change one's garments from the believer's everyday clothing to the white garment that was worn by the newly baptized. In those days people did not have underwear as we know it, and amongst the lower socio-economic strata from which the church drew a large proportion of its converts, many people probably did not have extra sets of clothing to wear into the baptismal pool. It was the white garment that was symbolic, not the nudity. Looking at the Scriptural background for this, we note that the white, or linen, robe was the garment of an Israelite priest. Possibly the use of the white garment in baptism relates to the calling of all Israelites to be priests to the Lord (Exod. 19:6, etc.), a calling reiterated for Christians in the New Testament (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 5:10).

Regarding any virtue being attached to nudity as such, the Bible indicates that priests going up on the altar — they had to go up a set of steps to offer sacrifices — were to be sure that they were wearing "breeches," or underwear of a sort, so that their private parts would not be exposed to the altar which represents God's holiness. The relevant passage is Exod. 28:42-43, "And you shall make for them linen breeches to cover their naked flesh; from the loins to the thighs they shall reach; and they shall be upon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; lest they bring guilt upon themselves and die. This shall be a perpetual statute for him and for his descendants after him."

Therefore, the phrase we sometimes hear, "naked before the Lord," referring to an open expression of our thoughts and shortcomings in prayer or meditation, is an image contrary to the Bible's understanding of what is proper in the presence of the Lord. From the Christian standpoint it is proper and necessary to appear before the Lord not "naked" in our own inadequacies but rather "clothed" with the righteousness of Christ. As the apostle Paul says, we are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom. 13:14). The tenor of these words suggests that literal nakedness would not have been viewed as an appropriate symbol of a positive spiritual truth.