Baptism: It’s All Watered Down Today

Water baptism is a popular church event today but should it be?

Say "Baptism" among modern Christians and all that comes to mind is water. This is based on John's baptism, which was rite of "Mikveh" [1],  in the tradition of Judaism. This rite is derived from nine passages in the Hebrew Bible [2]. It was one of the three rites of passage to convert to Judaism. John used this rite in the same way is was meant in the Judaism: a symbolic ceremonial washing. He used it to refresh the people's commitment to Judaism. As the dirt came off physically, so symbolically the sin was washed away. John called for repentance from sin (spiritual dirt) to prepare Judeans to receive their Redeemer. Looking to John's baptism as a foundation for Post-Pentecost practice is continuing one of the Old Covenant rites of conversion to Judaism.

John indicated that his baptism was only good until the arrival of the Redeemer, who would replace it with a new baptism of holy spirit and fire [3]. Jesus also repeated the temporary nature of John's baptism in Acts 1:5. Both foretold that spirit baptism was going to replace the Jewish water purification ritual.

John's prophecy:

ESV: Matthew Chapter 3 [11]  I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Jesus' prophecy:

ESV: Acts Chapter 1 [5]  for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with [in] the Holy Spirit not many days from now.

Jesus' teaching:

ESV: Mark Chapter 10 [38] Jesus said to them, You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? [39] And they said to him, We are able. And Jesus said to them, The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,

This passage says something a bit different from what most readers suppose. In verse 39 we find this statement, "you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized," Whatever baptism Jesus experienced, his disciples will also. To understand what he was talking about, the reader needs to go back and look a Jesus' baptism. There was a brief discourse between John the Baptist and Jesus which reveals what each thought water baptism really was.

ESV: Matthew Chapter 3 [15] But Jesus answered him, Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he [John] consented. [16] And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;

There were two parts to Jesus' original baptism: water and spirit. John objected to baptizing Jesus until Jesus explained that it was to fulfill all righteousness meaning it was necessary for the sake of the pure Torah Observance. The second part was the descent of the holy spirit upon Jesus. This was Jesus' spiritual baptism, he was baptized by God Himself with holy spirit. This baptism of spirit was unique to Jesus. This only happen for Jesus.

So what baptism is Jesus speaking about when he says "you will be baptized"? Obviously his disciples had been baptized in water unto repentance (Mikveh) by John. Many of Jesus' disciples were first disciples of John. If Jesus was referencing a future baptism, then he was not talking about water at all. Jesus was repeating John's statement, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." The future baptism of which Jesus spoke is being baptized into holy spirit … not water.

Today, Christians claim the validity of continuing the Moses Law rite of Mikveh by only quoting words of Jesus which seem to validate their claim, not looking at the whole of his teachings on the topic. They also point to the fact that water baptism continued in the first part of the book of Acts. Until Peter saw otherwise, ceremony and ritual were still thought of as necessary for righteousness in addition to holy spirit baptism. Exclusively "saved by grace" did not fully entered the consciousness of the either the church leadership nor the followers for many years. Salvation, under the influence of believing Pharisees, was a concept of grace PLUS works of holiness by works. Modern denominations who are rooted in the holiness reformation movement subscribe to this Pharisee concept even today.

Pentecost inaugurated a transformation in spiritual reality. This transformation was not understood nor practiced for a number of years after Pentecost. The Jerusalem Pharisee believers were the main influence in the congregations after Pentecost and they did not give up their legalism, man made reforms and practice of Phariseeism. They thought salvation was adopting both Jesus as Messiah AND becoming a proselyte of Pharisee-Judaism. Under this Pharisee burden, the rite of Mikveh continued as they demanded all followers of Jesus live like Pharisee Judeans.

However, a practical transition did occur when the universal nature of holy spirit was witnessed by Peter when he was invited to preach to the Roman military centurion, Cornelius and his family. While he was relating the story of Pentecost and the events following, the holy spirit fell on the gentiles gathered and Peter saw them speak in tongues just like had happened to the Jews at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. In his astonishment he said this:

ESV: Acts Chapter 10 [47] Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? [48] And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. …

Peter's Old Covenant concept of salvation kicked in and commanded water baptism (Mikveh), thinking they had to perform a rite of conversion to Judaism. Up until this point, no one had considered the possibility that one could embrace Jesus as Messiah, as evidenced by speaking in tongues, without becoming a proselyte of Judaism. But Peter was faced with a new possibility: Judaism and its ceremonial rites was not a necessity for baptism in holy spirit. He saw that embracing Jesus as Messiah was universal, not confined to the Jews. Ceremonies, rites and rituals of any kind had no bearing on receiving salvation embodied in receiving holy spirit.

Peter told the story in Jerusalem this way:

ESV: Acts Chapter 11 [15] As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. [16] And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. [17] If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?

Today, Christians ignore the lesson Peter taught in Jerusalem in Acts 11: Water baptism (Mikveh) was contrary to the work of God in salvation. Learning to live like the Judeans lived (Judaizing) was resisting God and contrary to the work of God to bring salvation to all people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Just because not everyone understood this lesson nor adopted it in the first century, is not a rational to continue opposing God's universal salvation and diminishing the expression of God's gift of holy spirit. Quoting first century ignorance and resistance to the truth is not a foundation to continue a practice taught against by the apostles but it is commonly done today. Peter declares this truth in his own epistle (I Peter 3:21). He uses Noah as an example of baptism but clearly states that it is not a baptism of water (Mikveh) which is effectual but a baptism through Jesus's resurrection … a spiritual baptism.

The apostle Paul's ministry was not to water baptize either, though some of his companions did so (I Corinthians 1:17) and many others. He even states that he taught the gospel in power, not in the wisdom of men. That would include thinking that any ceremony or rite of man has any bearing on the gospel. Further he states in Ephesians 4:5 that there is only one baptism. Now which is it, water baptism or spirit? Many Bible teachers have tried to escape the obvious by arguing Paul is talking about a form of water, immersion versus dipping or sprinkling. Paul was not doing any such thing in that passage. If you look at his ministry, he plainly meant spiritual baptism.

In Acts 19, Paul is also very clear that the water baptism (Mikveh) ministry of Apollos was insufficient for New Covenant believers. Due to poor punctuation in this passage, it is not clear to most readers that Paul did not baptise anyone in Ephesus (he only explained John's baptism) but instead of water, he laid his hands upon them (like Peter in Samaria) to minister the baptism of holy spirit. That repaired the problem of teaching the gospel with words and ritual but without baptism in holy spirit in evidence.

Baptism in holy spirit is the only baptism that should be practised in the church today. All water baptising today stands in the way of God's baptism of holy spirit in evidence. Emphasizing water, only continues the Old Covenant of thinking that works has some bearing on spirituality. Instead it is the reality of holy spirit within a believer which influences works, not the other way around. For the first century apostolic faith to again become the normal practice among believers, the church needs to awaken to the teachings of the apostles.

[1] Mikveh is a Hebrew word for self-immersion ritual of purification, the ritual modern Christians call baptism.

[2] Leviticus 15:16; Leviticus 15:13; Leviticus 14:6-9; Leviticus 15:5-10 and Leviticus 15:19-27; Exodus 29:4 and 40:12; Leviticus 16:24, 26,28; Numbers 19:19; Numbers 19:7-8; Leviticus 17:15

[3] Fire in the Hebrew Bible was symbolic of both God's presence and His judgement.

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