I suspect that the first meaning that comes to most people’s minds is that baptism has something to do with bathing, such as washing away sin. That’s understandable, but I believe that the Bible teaches far deeper meaning than that.
It’s true that many religions include some kind of ceremonial cleansing ritual. The Old Testament laws did instruct the people to wash themselves for several reasons:
- Before approaching Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:10-17)
- Before dedicating Aaron and the other first priests (Exodus 29:1-9) and Levites (Numbers 8:5-7)
- Before offering sacrifices (Exodus 30:17-21, Leviticus 16)
- After touching a dead or unclean animal (Leviticus 11:24-28)
- To confirm healing from leprosy (Leviticus 14:8-9)
- After being around anyone unhealthy (Leviticus 15)
Before the time of Jesus, the Jewish people already had a practice of requiring baptism for converts into Judaism. Even today, you can find information on Jewish tevilah (immersion) 1 and mikvah (bath) 2 for both ritual cleansing and conversion 3.
John the “Baptist” (get it?) baptized “for repentance”, preaching that his listeners needed to repent (turn away from) their sins. His baptism was a symbol of that repentance. No wonder he objected when Jesus came to him for baptism. He knew that Jesus had nothing to repent! Matthew 3:13-15
The New Testament church expanded on the existing concepts of baptism, and added other layers of meaning to it. Besides symbolizing cleansing and repentance, it also became the way that new believers demonstrated their faith in Jesus (Acts 2:37-38, Acts 8:34-39, Acts 10:44-48, Acts 19:1-5). This would have been the result of Jesus’ followers taking His instructions seriously: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20).
To me, the deepest and most beautiful meaning of baptism is that it symbolizes the Christian’s identification with Jesus in His death and resurrection. My favorite way that this is shown happens when a Christian baptizes a new believer: They often say “buried with Christ in death” as they go down under the water, then “rising to walk in newness of life” as they come back up (Romans 6:4-5).
The thought that we are allowed, even invited, to share not only in Jesus’ death that paid the price for sin, but also in His resurrection 4 5 that defeated death, is truly incredible 6 (Romans 6:8-11, Colossians 2:12, 1 Peter 3:21). This shared experience of going from death to life thanks to Jesus is what unites Christians world-wide, regardless of race, nationality, status, or any other characteristic (Galatians 3:26-28, Ephesians 4:4-6). Baptism is a picture of that experience.
I can see parallels between baptism and a wedding ceremony. If that sounds strange, stay with me a moment and think about these similarities:
- The ceremony doesn’t cause the relationship; it affirms the relationship that already exists.
- It demonstrates a lifetime commitment to another person.
- It is a solemn occasion, marking a pivotal moment in the relationship.
- It is a joyous occasion, celebrated with loved ones.
Maybe “dunking in water” doesn’t have the same look as exchanging rings and kisses. But it does have the same effect of announcing that two lives are now entwined. I think that makes it pretty special!
Footnotes and Scripture References
- This link is a particularly good look at Christian baptism from a Jewish perspective: Baptism: Pagan or Jewish?