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Meaning of Baptism
The verb used in the New Testament is (baptizo). The substantives baptisma and baptismos occur, though the latter is not used in the New Testament of the ordinance of baptism except by implication (Heb 6:2, “the teaching of baptisms”) where the reference is to the distinction between the Christian ordinance and the Jewish ceremonial ablutions. Some documents have it also in Col 2:12 (compare Heb 9:10, “divers washings”) for a reference purely to the Jewish purifications (compare the dispute about purifying in Joh 3:25). The verb baptizo appears in this sense in Lu 11:38 (margin) where the Pharisee marveled that Jesus “had not first bathed himself before breakfast” (noon-day meal). The Mosaic regulations required the bath of the whole body (Le 15:16) for certain uncleannesses. Tertullian (de Baptismo, XV) says that the Jew required almost daily washing. Herodotus (ii.47) says that if an Egyptian “touches a swine in passing with his clothes, he goes to the river and dips himself (bapto) from it” (quoted by Broadus in Commentary on Matthew, 333). See also the Jewish scrupulosity illustrated in Sirach 34:25 and Judith 12:7 where baptizo occurs. The same thing appears in the correct text in Mr 7:4, “when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.” Here baptizo is the true text. The use of rhantizo (“sprinkle”) is due to the difficulty felt by copyists not familiar with Jewish customs. See also the omission of “couches” in the same verse. The couches were “pallets” and could easily be dipped into water. It is noteworthy that here rhantizo is used in contrast with baptizo, showing that baptizo did not mean sprinkle. The term baptismos occurs in Josephus (Ant., XVIII, v, 2) in connection with John’s baptism (compare also Irenaeus 686B about Christ’s baptism). In general, however, baptisma is the substantive found for the ordinance. The verb baptizo is in reality a frequentative or intensive of bapto (“dip”). Examples occur where that idea is still appropriate, as in 2Ki 5:14 (Septuagint) where Naaman is said to have “dipped himself seven times in the Jordan” (ebaptisato). The notion of repetition may occur also in Josephus (Ant., XV, iii, 3) in connection with the death of Aristobulus, brother of Mariamne, for Herod’s friends “dipped him as he was swimming, and plunged him under water, in the dark of the evening.” But in general the term baptizo, as is common with such forms in the late Greek, is simply equivalent to bapto (compare Lu 16:24) and means “dip,” “immerse,” just as rhantizo, like rhaino, means simply “sprinkle.”
If baptizo never occurred in connection with a disputed ordinance, there would be no controversy on the meaning of the word. There are, indeed, figurative or metaphorical uses of the word as of other words, but the figurative is that of immersion, like our “immersed in cares,” “plunged in grief,” etc. It remains to consider whether the use of the word for a ceremony or ordinance has changed its significance in the New Testament as compared with ancient Greek
It may be remarked that no Baptist has written a lexicon of the Greek language, and yet the standard lexicons, like that of Liddell and Scott, uniformly give the meaning of baptizo as “dip,” “immerse.” They do not give “pour” or “sprinkle,” nor has anyone ever adduced an instance where this verb means “pour” or “sprinkle.” The presumption is therefore in favor of “dip” in the New Testament.
- Proselyte Baptism:
Before we turn directly to the discussion of the ceremonial usage, a word is called for in regard to Jewish proselyte baptism. It is still a matter of dispute whether this initiatory rite was in existence at the time of John the Baptist or not. Schurer argues ably, if not conclusively, for the idea that this proselyte baptism was in use long before the first mention of it in the 2nd century. (Compare The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Div ii, II, 319 ff; also Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus, appendix, xii, Baptism of Proselytes). It matters nothing at all to the Baptist contention what is true in this regard. It would not be strange if a bath was required for a Gentile who became a Jew when the Jews themselves required such frequent ceremonial ablutions. But what was the Jewish initiatory rite called proselyte baptism? Lightfoot (Horae Hebraicae, Mt 3:7) gives the law for the baptism of proselytes: “As soon as he grows whole of the wound of circumcision, they bring him to Baptism, and being placed in the water they again instruct him in some weightier and in some lighter commands of the Law. Which being heard, he plunges himself and comes up, and, behold, he is an Israelite in all things.” To this quotation Marcus Dods (Presbyterian) HDB adds: “To use Pauline language, his old man is dead and buried in the water, and he rises from this cleansing grave a new man. The full significance of the rite would have been lost had immersion not been practiced.” Lightfoot says further: “Every person baptized must dip his whole body, now stripped and made naked, at one dipping. And wheresoever in the Law washing of the body or garments is mentioned, it means nothing else than the washing of the whole body.” Edersheim (op. cit.) says: “Women were attended by those of their own sex, the rabbis standing at the door outside.” Jewish proselyte baptism, an initiatory ceremonial rite, harmonizes exactly with the current meaning of baptizo already seen. There was no peculiar “sacred” sense that changed “dip” to “sprinkle.”
- Greek Usage:
The Greek language has had a continuous history, and baptizo is used today in Greece for baptism. As is well known, not only in Greece but all over Russia, wherever the Greek church prevails, immersion is the unbroken and universal practice. The Greeks may surely be credited with knowledge of the meaning of their own language. The substitution of pouring or sprinkling for immersion, as the Christian ordinance of baptism, was late and gradual and finally triumphed in the West because of the decree of the Council of Trent. But the Baptist position is that this substitution was unwarranted and subverts the real significance of the ordinance. The Greek church does practice trine immersion, one immersion for each person of the Trinity, an old practice (compare ter mergitamur, Tertullian ii.79 A), but not the Scriptural usage. A word will be needed later concerning the method by which pouring crept in beside immersion in the 2nd and later centuries. Before we turn directly to the New Testament use of bapti zo it is well to quote from the Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods by Professor E. A. Sophocles, himself a native Greek. He says (p. 297): “There is no evidence that Luke and Paul and the other writers of the New Testament put upon this verb meanings not recognized by the Greeks.” We expect therefore to find in the New Testament “dip,” as the meaning of this word in the ceremonial sense of an initiatory Christian rite. Thayer’s Lexicon likewise defines the word in this ceremonial Christian use to mean “an immersion in water, performed as a sign of the removal of sin.”
Baptists could very well afford to rest the matter right here. There is no need to call for the testimony of a single Baptist scholar on this subject. The world of scholarship has rendered its decision with impartiality and force on the side of the Baptists in this matter. A few recent deliverances will suffice. Dr. Alfred Plummer (Church of England) in his new Commentary on Matthew (p. 28) says that the office of John the Baptist was “to bind them to a new life, symbolized by immersion in water.” Swete (Church of England) in his Commentary on Mark (p. 7) speaks of “the added thought of immersion, which gives vividness to the scene.” The early Greek ecclesiastical writers show that immersion was employed (compare Barnabas, XI, 11): “We go down into the water full of sins and filth, and we come up bearing fruit in the heart.” For numerous ecclesiastical examples see Sophocles’ Lexicon.
- New Testament Usage:
But the New Testament itself makes the whole matter perfectly plain. The uniform meaning of “dip” for baptizo and the use of the river Jordan as the place for baptizing by John the Baptist makes inevitable the notion of immersion unless there is some direct contradictory testimony. It is a matter that should be lifted above verbal quibbling or any effort to disprove the obvious facts. The simple narrative in Mt 3:6 is that “they were baptized of him in the river Jordan.” In Mr 1:9-10 the baptism is sharpened a bit in the use of eis and ek. Jesus “was baptized of John in (eis) the Jordan. And straightway coming up out of (ek) the water, he saw.” So in Ac 8:38 we read: “They both went down into (eis) the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they came up out of (ek) the water, the Spirit …. caught away Philip.” If one could still be in doubt about the matter, Paul sets it at rest by the symbolism used in Ro 6:4, “We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” The submergence and emergence of immersion thus, according to Paul, symbolize the death and burial to sin on the one hand and the resurrection to the new life in Christ on the other. Sanday and Headlam (Church of England) put it thus in their Commentary on Romans (p. 153): “It expresses symbolically a series of acts corresponding to the redeeming acts of Christ. Immersion = Death. Submersion = Burial (the ratification of death). Emergence = Resurrection.” In Col 2:12 Paul again says: “having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” The same image is here presented. Lightfoot (Church of England) on Colossians (p. 182) says: “Baptism is the grave of the old man and the birth of the new. As he sinks beneath the baptismal waters, the believer buries there all his corrupt affections and past sins; as he emerges thence, he rises regenerate, quickened to new hopes and new life.”
There is nothing in the New Testament to offset this obvious and inevitable interpretation. There are some things that are brought up, but they vanish on examination. The use of “with” after baptize in the English translation is appealed to as disproving immersion. It is enough to reply that the Committee of the American Standard Revision, which had no Baptist member at the final revision, substituted “in” for “with.” Thus: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance” (Mt 3:11; compare also Mr 1:8). The use of both “with” and “in” in Lu 3:16 is a needless stickling for the use of the Greek en with the locative case. In Mr 1:8 en is absent in the best manuscripts, and yet the American Revisers correctly render “in.” In Ac 1:5 they seek to draw the distinction between the mere locative and en and the locative. As a matter of fact the locative case alone is amply sufficient in Greek without en for the notion of “in.” Thus in John 21:8, the translation is: “But the other disciples came in the little boat.” There is no en in the Greek, but “the boat” is simply in the locative case. If it be argued that we have the instrumental case (compare the instrumental case of en as in Re 6:8, “kill with sword”), the answer is that the way to use water as an instrument in dipping is to put the subject in the water, as the natural way to use the boat (Joh 21:8) as an instrument is to get into it. The presence or absence of en with baptizo is wholly immaterial. In either case “dip” is the meaning of the verb The objection that three thousand people could not have been immersed in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost is superficial. Jerusalem was abundantly supplied with pools. There were 120 disciples on hand, most of whom were probably men (compare the 70 sent out before by Jesus). It is not at all necessary to suppose that the 12 (Matthias was now one of them) apostles did all the baptizing. But even so, that would be only 250 apiece. I myself have baptized 42 candidates in a half-hour in a creek where there would be no delay. It would at most be only a matter of four or five hours for each of the twelve. Among the Telugus this record has been far exceeded. It is sometimes objected that Paul could not have immersed the jailer in the prison; but the answer is that Luke does not say so. Indeed, Luke implies just the opposite: “And he took (took along in the Greek, para) them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized.” He took Paul and Silas along with him and found a place for the baptism, probably, somewhere on the prison grounds. There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament to dispute the unvarying significance of baptizo.
- The Didache:
Appeal has been made to the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, which may belong to the first half of the 2nd century. Here for the first time pouring is distinctly admitted as an ordinance in place of immersion. Because of this remarkable passage it is argued by some that, though immersion was the normal and regular baptism, yet alongside of it, pouring was allowed, and that in reality it was a matter of indifference which was used even in the 1st century. But that is not the true interpretation of the facts in the case. The passage deserves to be quoted in full and is here given in the translation of Philip Schaff (Presbyterian) in his edition of the Didache (pp. 184 ff): “Now concerning baptism, baptize thus: Having first taught all these things, baptize ye into (eis) the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, in living water. And if thou hast not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm (water). But if thou hast neither, pour water thrice upon the head in (eis) the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” There is thus no doubt that early in the 2nd century some Christians felt that baptism was so important that, when the real baptism (immersion) could not be performed because of lack of water, pouring might be used in its place. This is absolutely all that can be deduced from this passage. It is to be noted that for pouring another word (ekcheo) is used, clearly showing that baptizo does not mean “to po ur.” The very exception filed proves the Baptist contention concerning baptizo. Now in the New Testament baptizo is the word used for baptism. Ekcheo is never so used. Harnack in a letter to C. E. W. Dobbs, Madison, Ind. (published in The Independent for February 9, 1885), under date of January 16, 1885 says: “(1) Baptizein undoubtedly signifies immersion (eintauchen). (2) No proof can be found that it signifies anything else in the New Testament and in the most ancient Christian literature. The suggestion regarding `a sacred sense’ is out of the question.” This is the whole point of the Baptists admirably stated by Adolph Harnack. There is no thought of denying that pouring early in the 2nd century came to be used in place of immersion in certain extreme cases. The meaning of baptizo is not affected a particle by this fact. The question remains as to why this use of pouring in extreme cases grew up. The answer is that it was due to a mistaken and exaggerated estimate put upon the value of baptism as essential to salvation. Those who died without baptism were felt by some to be lost. Thus arose “clinic” baptisms.
- Baptismal Regeneration:
(For the doctrine of baptismal regeneration see Justin Martyr, First Apology, 61.) Out of this perversion of the symbolism of baptism grew both pouring as an ordinance and infant baptism. If baptism is necessary to salvation or the means of regeneration, then the sick, the dying, infants, must be baptized, or at any rate, something must be done for them if the real baptism (immersion) cannot be performed because of extreme illness or want of water. The Baptist contention is to protest against the perversion of the significance of baptism as the ruin of the symbol. Baptism, as taught in the New Testament, is the picture of death and burial to sin and resurrection to new life, a picture of what has already taken place in the heart, not the means by which spiritual change is wrought. It is a privilege and duty, not a necessity. It is a picture that is lost when something else is substituted in its place.
- The Subjects of Baptism.
It is significant that even the Teaching of the Twelve apostles with its exaggerated notion of the importance of baptism does not allow baptism of infants. It says: “Having first taught all these things.” Instruction precedes baptism. That is a distinct denial of infant baptism. The uniform practice in the New Testament is that baptism follows confession. The people “confessing their sins” were baptized by John (Mt 3:6). It is frankly admitted by Paedobaptist scholars that the New Testament gives no warrant for infant baptism. Thus Jacobus (Congregationalist) in the Standard Bible Dictionary says: “We have no record in the New Testament of the baptism of infants.” Scott (Presbyterian) in the 1-vol HDB says: “The New Testament contains no explicit reference to the baptism of infants or young children.” Plummer (Church of England), HDB, says: “The recipients of Christian baptism were required to repent and believe.” Marcus Dods (Presbyterian), DCG, says: “A rite wherein by immersion in water the participant symbolizes and signalizes his transition from an impure to a pure life, his death to a past he abandons, and his new birth to a future he desires.” It would be hard to state the Baptist interpretation in better terms. Thus no room is found in the New Testament for infant baptism which would symbolize what the infant did not experience or would be understood to cause the regeneration in the child, a form of sacramentalism repugnant to the New Testament teaching as understood by Baptists. The dominant Baptist note is the soul’s personal relation to God apart from ordinance, church or priest. The infant who dies unbaptized is saved without baptism. The baptized individual, child (for children are often baptized by Baptists, children who show signs of conversion) or man, is converted before his baptism. The baptism is the symbol of the change already wrought. So clear is this to the Baptist that he bears continual protest against that perversion of this beautiful ordinance by those who treat it as a means of salvation or who make it meaningless when performed before conversion. Baptism is a preacher of the spiritual life. The Baptist contention is for a regenerated church membership, placing the kingdom before the local church. Membership in the kingdom precedes membership in the church. The passages quoted from the New Testament in support of the notion of infant baptism are wholly irrelevant, as, for instance, in Ac 2:39 where there is no such idea as baptism of infants. So in 1Co 7:14, where note husband and wife. The point is that the marriage relation is sanctified and the children are legitimate, though husband or wife be heathen. The marriage relation is to be maintained. It is begging the question to assume the presence of infants in the various household baptisms in Acts. In the case of the family of Cornelius they all spoke with tongues and magnified God (Ac 10:46). The jailer’s household “rejoiced greatly” (Ac 16:34). We do not even know that Lydia was married. Her household may have been merely her employees in her business. The New Testament presents no exceptions in this matter.
III. The Present Obligation.
The Baptists make one more point concerning baptism. It is that, since Jesus himself submitted to it and enjoined it upon His disciples, the ordinance is of perpetual obligation. The arguments for the late ecclesiastical origin of Mt 28:19 are not convincing. If it seems strange that Jesus should mention the three persons of the Trinity in connection with the command to baptize, one should remember that the Father and the Spirit were both manifested to Him at His baptism. It was not a mere ceremonial ablution like the Jewish rites. It was the public and formal avowal of fealty to God, and the names of the Trinity properly occur. The new heart is wrought by the Holy Spirit. Reconciliation with the Father is wrought on the basis of the work of the Son, who has manifested the Father’s love in His life and death for sin. The fact that in the acts in the examples of baptism only the name of Jesus occurs does not show that this was the exact formula used. It may be a mere historical summary of the essential fact. The name of Jesus stood for the other two persons of the Trinity. On the other hand, the command of Jesus may not have been regarded as a formula for baptism; while in no sense sacramental or redemptive, it is yet obligatory and of perpetual significance. It is not to be dropped as one of the Jewish excrescences on Christianity. The form itself is necessary to the significance of the rite. Hence, Baptists hold that immersion alone is to be practiced since immersion alone was commanded by Jesus and practiced in the New Testament times. Immersion alone sets forth the death to sin, and burial in the grave the resurrection to new life in Christ. Baptism as taught in the New Testament is “a mould of doctrine,” a preacher of the heart of the gospel. Baptists deny the right of disciples of Jesus to break that mould. The point of a symbol is the form in which it is cast. To change the form radically is to destroy the symbolism. Baptists insist on the maintenance of primitive New Testament baptism because it alone is baptism, it alone proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus, the spiritual death and resurrection of the believer, the ultimate resurrection of the believer from the grave. The disciple is not above his Lord, and has no right to destroy this rich and powerful picture for the sake of personal convenience, nor because he is willing to do something else which Jesus did not enjoin and which has no association with Him. The long years of perversion do not justify this wrong to the memory of Jesus, but all the more call upon modern disciples to follow the example of Jesus who himself fulfilled righteousness by going into the waters of the Jordan and receiving immersion at the hands of John the Baptist.
by A. T. Robertson