11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” ~ Matthew 3:11-12

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. ~ Romans 6:3-5

Water baptism is a practice that has been central to the Christian faith since its beginning. But what does it signify? Why is it important? ‘Baptise’ comes from the Greek word ‘baptizo’ which means “to plunge, dip, or immerse.” It was used within the Jewish culture as a way of allowing non-Jews to convert to Judaism; a process known as proselytising. A non-Jew would immerse themselves in water as a symbolic act of washing away their evil. (There were other practices that had to be undertaken e.g. circumcision for males, but water baptism was essential to the process).

Within the New Testament, ‘baptism’ came to be used in two primary ways and we see both in Matthew 3. The context here is that the prophet John the Baptist was proclaiming to the people of Israel ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, and while he did so he would baptise people as they confessed their sins. This was strange because baptism was meant for non-Jews, and yet John the Baptist was calling upon Jews to be baptised as well. In Matthew 3:11-12, John explains that his baptism of water is for repentance, but there was One who is coming after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire; this One is Jesus.

The concept of baptism by fire is not picked up much within the rest of the New Testament, and is synonymous with judgement, but here at the start of Matthew’s Gospel we see these two concepts of baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it’s interesting that when many people later read Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:16-20 about going out and “making disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” that they think Jesus is speaking primarily of water baptism. But given John’s words here in Matthew 3, that wouldn’t make much sense! After all, Jesus is the One who comes after John, whose baptism has replaced John’s, and comes with the Holy Spirit and with the fire of judgement for those who do not accept Him as Lord with all authority in heaven and earth.

Baptism by the Holy Spirit into Jesus Christ is the primary kind of baptism that Christians are to embrace in the New Testament, sprinkled throughout the Apostle’s ministry in Acts (more on this in a bit), and explicitly picked up on by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 as being the way in which God brings people into the body of Christ – the church. Being baptised by the Holy Spirit is to be ‘immersed in’, or joined, to the body of Christ, made one of God’s people, and empowered by His Spirit to serve our sisters and brothers through ministry. But what, then, is the point of this language of ‘baptism’ (of ‘plunging’, or ‘dipping’, or ‘immersing’)? And if baptism by the Holy Spirit has replaced John’s baptism of water, then why do Christians still baptise with water? Are we doing something unbiblical and rooted in the pre-Jesus world?

The Apostle Paul’s section in Romans 6:3-5 instructs us as to why the language of baptism is still appropriate. When we speak of baptism, we are really speaking of being plunged, dipped, and immersed into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You see, Christianity has been called a relationship, a way of life, a decision to follow Christ, and so on. While all these descriptions are true, they don’t capture the seismic change that differentiates a non-Christian from a Christian. For a relationship, a way of life, and a decision don’t necessarily have to involve death. But our Lord Jesus died, and was raised to new life. And by being immersed into Him, by being united to Him by the Holy Spirit and joined to His body, we also die and are raised to new life. Christianity is walking in newness of life by dying.

However, as we see throughout the book of Acts, the act of conversion to Christianity was tied to the practice of water baptism as well. It was almost unthinkable that a Christian who repented of their sins and believed in the Gospel would not be baptised in water. Although baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit are distinct concepts, they are not to be separated. When the New Testament speaks of baptism (without clarification as to whether or not it is by water or by the Holy Spirit) it is most likely because the two ideas were closely aligned together. This is because it has been understood, and believed, that now that Jesus has inaugurated the era of baptism by the Holy Spirit, baptism with water is a physical sign of this spiritual reality. Consider what is written in 1 Peter 3:21-22:

21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

In this context, Peter is writing about the waters of the flood that Noah and his family were saved through while they stayed on the ark. God saved them out of the waters of the flood as they passed through. Peter is drawing a link with the baptism of Christians, whereby baptism really does save us. There is a lot of disagreement of what is meant by these verses. Does this mean that water baptism is what actually saves us? I don’t think so. We know from many parts of the New Testament that what saves us is faith and repentance in Christ Jesus apart from any work we do ourselves. And even here in 1 Peter 3 we see Peter clarify that baptism itself isn’t the removal of dirt from the body but is a pledge (i.e. a profession or an appeal) towards God. Specifically, this pledge is made towards God and leads to salvation because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The idea, then, I think is that baptism is an appeal to the fact that we have been joined to Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection and that is what will save us. Water baptism is the outward symbol of this joining because it is an expression of how we have been truly joined to Jesus spiritually (by the Holy Spirit). That is why Peter can say that baptism saves us. As Michael Bird puts it,

‘Baptism is the sign and seal that believers have entered into the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and its liberating power is manifested in them…baptism is no empty symbol; it points to the reality of sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection and in some way even ushers in that reality.’

That is to say that when Christians baptise with water we are pointing to the fact that this person has been united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, in His death and resurrection. So as they enter the water they are witnessing to their death. And as they come out of the water they are witnessing to their new birth.

So let’s be clear here:

  • Jesus died and rose again ->
  • Baptism by the Holy Spirit into Jesus is how we become joined to Jesus and what He has done ->
  • Baptism by water points to this baptism by the Holy Spirit

Water baptism doesn’t require a large cloud of witnesses. After all, in Acts 8 Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch and the only other person there was the one driving the chariot (there was also the horse). Additionally, water baptism isn’t something that has to be done in a church. Water baptism doesn’t need to be performed by a minister, as there is no warrant or mandate for that in the Scriptures. Any Christian can baptise another Christian. But it is an expectation that Christians will perform this act as a sign of their spiritual reality. An unbaptised Christian (by the Holy Spirit and by water) is not a category that the New Testament can conceive of. But there is nothing inherently deficient in the Christian who has not been water baptised yet. Indeed, for many there is a delay in the time from their faith and repentance in Jesus and when they are baptised with water. They aren’t any less Christian because they haven’t performed the outward sign – what matters is that they have the internal reality of truly being baptised by the Holy Spirit into Jesus Christ.

I’m not going to enter into the discussions of water baptism for infants, water baptism for confessing Christians, etc. as that would require a lot more space and writing! But I will say that water baptism is a sign that has been with the Christian church for centuries and it is part of what we do as a community. It connects us to the heritage of the past and reminds us that Christianity is not invented or discovered – it is received from those who came before us. Thank God that He joins us to His Son and gives us a new life. And if you have, or will be, baptised with water then never forget the reality to which this outward act points to. Quoting Michael Bird again,

‘Baptism is the testimony to our new self, new master, new life, and new walk, which should never be undersold or forgotten.’

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.