A number of life’s more significant events are marked by a ceremony: a birthday, the granting of citizenship, the completion of a course of study, marriage, and even death. Traditions hold an important place in our lives.
Some celebrations and ceremonies endure because they contain symbolism and emotions that transcend the event itself. The wedding ceremony is a good example: the bridal dress, the wedding cake, the exchange of vows, and the minister’s final pronouncement that the couple is now “husband and wife.”
However, none of these symbols and actions are essential to being married. What really makes two persons married is that they’ve made a public declaration of mutual commitment. This is formalized in the written, signed contract, witnessed, and registered with the state. The marriage license, as with any contract, carries specific obligations and rights on the part of its signatories.
The Bible compares the relationship between Christ and His church—the people who comprise it—with marriage. Christ is depicted as the Bridegroom and the church as His bride (Matthew 25; Revelation 22:17). And, as with a marriage, when people commit to Christ, promising spiritual fidelity, Christ says they should do so in a public ceremony.
The ceremony that formalizes the relationship between Christ and His people is baptism, and with it come obligations in exchange for certain rights. Foremost among the obligations is a promise to live the Christian life. The greatest of the rights is eternal life with Jesus. Also, just as a bride will usually take the name of her groom, so the baptized Christian wears the name of Christ. He’s called a Christian.
Christ and baptism
Christ Himself emphasized the importance of baptism. “ ‘The one who believes and is baptized will be saved,’ ” He said, “ ‘but the one who does not believe will be condemned’ ” (Mark 16:16, NRSV).* This is not to say that one is saved only because he or she is baptized. Baptism isn’t a mystical rite. It isn’t holy or invested with a supernatural quality. Rather, salvation is about a relationship with Christ, which leads to following His ways and being prepared to participate fully in this commitment, including baptism.
Christ says, “ ‘Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father’ ” (Matthew 10:32). If this were not the case, how could Christ have offered Paradise to the thief nailed to the cross next to Him? That thief had no chance to participate in the formal rite of baptism, but he believed Christ was the Messiah and his Savior, and so he received Christ’s promise of salvation.
It was the apparent imperative to be baptized or “be damned”—the King James Version rendering of Mark 16:16—that possibly led the early Christian church into baptizing infants. This change in the way a person was baptized diluted much of its symbolism in the process.
For centuries now, baptism has taken a variety of forms in various denominations. Most sprinkle or pour water on the head of participants (usually infants) and mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross. Even with adult baptism by immersion, practices vary. Some practice a “trinity” baptism, immersing the new believer three times. Typically, though, it’s a single immersion—face up, as if laid in a coffin.
Christ Himself was baptized
Those who believe in Christ as their Savior will want to be baptized. Christ set the example in this. It was His first act of ministry in Palestine as He abandoned the life of a carpenter. So if the first act of His new life was to be baptized, it should be ours too.
Interestingly, Christ’s last command to His disciples, as He was about to leave earth for heaven, was to “ ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ ” (Matthew 28:19; emphasis added).
And that’s what the disciples did. They began in Jerusalem, going next to Judea, and finally into the wider world among the Gentiles. And wherever they went, their message was the same: accept Jesus and be baptized. The book of Acts tells many stories of conversion—Roman officers, civil servants, jailers, and persecutors—and each one was followed by baptism.
From history and archaeology, it appears that in the ancient Jewish world, baptism by immersion, while not unknown, was not common until Christianity adopted it as the rite of entry into its ranks. Before then, baptism was reserved for Gentiles—non-Jewish persons— converting to Judaism, and for the ritual washing of priests.
Deep beneath the ancient city of Jerusalem are ornate examples of ritual washing baths dating from the time of Christ and the apostles. At the fascinating archaeological sites of Qumran and Masada, despite their location in the dry desert high above the Dead Sea, we also find examples of such washing pools.
Ancient churches contain baptismal pools
The sites of numerous ancient Christian churches throughout the Middle East, Turkey, and eastern Europe include baptismal fonts large enough to accommodate one or more persons and deep enough to completely immerse them. The font situated at the entrance to the museum in Constantinople probably came from coastal Turkey, and the Church of Saint John, a few miles from Ephesus in Turkey, contains another beautiful example.
All over Italy, there’s evidence of baptism by immersion well into the Middle Ages. The baptistry in Florence, famous for its great bronze doors, is furnished with a large font. Another example is the Baptistry of St. John in Pisa, Italy, which also contains a large font.
The baptisms performed by John the Baptist were not symbolic of a commitment to a savior. Rather, his baptism was part of a call for his Jewish audience to repent in a way that went beyond their historical connection to Abraham.
We conclude from the Gospel account that John baptized Jesus somewhere near “Bethany on the other side of the Jordan” (John 1:28). While the actual location is in dispute, tradition suggests it was southeast of Jericho, probably near where the Jordan enters the Dead Sea and adjacent to the desert where Christ was tempted.
If so, it wasn’t far from where Joshua lead Israel through the flooded Jordan into Palestine. Going through the parted waters of the Jordan was something like a mass baptism, as was the parting of the Red Sea when Israel fled Egyptian captivity.
The precise location doesn’t really matter, but the textual implication is that John was baptizing in a place where there was enough water to completely immerse people.
To follow Christ’s example calls for a baptism by total immersion— buried under the water. To use any other method loses much of the symbolic meaning.
That baptism by complete immersion has fallen out of favor is obvious. But for many people, once they see the underlying reasons for baptism by immersion—both following Christ’s example and formalizing their commitment to accept Him as Savior—they wouldn’t have it any other way.
*Scripture texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of hte Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by Permision. All rights reserved.