The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, we will try to demonstrate from the Scriptures that Christian water baptism is a FORM rooted in the culture of the Jewish people to’ represent the inward FUNCTION of new identity for the believer in Jesus Christ. Specifically, this is found in the central facts of the gospel: His death, burial and resurrection.
Second, we will try to evaluate the implications of this fact as it relates to contextualization and the place of FORMS in a national ministry.
An analysis of the various words used for Baptism in the New Testament yields the following observations:
- There are 115 references to Baptism in the entire New Testament (list below).
- Five different English words are used: baptism, baptisms, Baptist, baptize and baptized.
- These five words are transliterations of four Greek words: /BAPTISMOS/, /BAPTISMA/, /BAPTISES/ and /BAPTIZO/.
- The Greek word BAPTISMOS is transliterated “baptism” in Heb. 6:12 and translated “washing” in Mark 7:4 and “washings” in Heb. 9:10.
- The verb “baptize(d)” is a transliteration of the Greek BAPTIZO’. It appears 78 times.
- The noun “Baptist” is a transliteration of the Greek BAPTISTES. It is always used in reference to John the Baptist. It appears 14 times.
- The noun “baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek BAPTISMA. It appears 22 times.
It seems clear that the terminology is a transliteration of Greek words. The meaning of these Greek words when used in the contemporary secular literature of that day and/or the Scriptures in a context other than-the-teaching on baptism will be important if we are to capture what was intended by its use. According to Vine’s, “BAPTIZO, to baptize, primarily a frequentative form of BAPTO, to dip, was used among the Greeks to signify the dyeing of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another.” 1
BAPTO is translated “dip” in Luke 16:24 and “dipped” in John 13:26 and Rev. 19:13. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word TABAL, is translated BAPTIZO or BAPTO. These words have been translated “dip” 9 times in Exo. 12:22, Lev. 4:6,17, 14:6,16,51, Num. 19:18,Deut. 33:24, Ruth 2:14 and “dipped” 6 times in Gen. 37:31, Lev. 9:9; Josh. 3:15; I Sam. 14:27, II Kings 5:14, 8:15. Therefore, when not transliterated the word is translated “dip” or “dipped”. Of special significance seems to be its use in Gen. 37:31 and Rev. 19:13.
The Greek word, BAPTO was not a theological word. It rather seems to have been a technical word that came out of the dyer’s trade, as was the case with many other words in the New Testament. They were lifted out of a philosophy or trade of the day. As we already mentioned, when applied to the teaching of baptism this word was transliterated.
Translated, its meaning would have been “to dip” or “to immerse”. John the Baptist would then have been John the Dipper or John the Immerser!
When a dyer dipped a piece of unbleached cloth in a bath of purple dye and pulled it back out again, the process was called BAPTIZE. Out of this grew the metaphorical use of IDENTIFICATION. By dipping, the cloth into the purple bath not only was an action of dipping performed, but also, there was a change of identity accomplished. The unbleached cloth became purple cloth. The process resulted in a change of identity. The metaphorical meaning for BAPTIZE came to be IDENTIFICATION. Identification is then the truth that came out of the symbolism or FORM of IMMERSION. Expressed in other words: as a FUNCTION, baptism meant IDENTIFICATION. As a FORM, baptism meant IMMERSION IN WATER.
Further observations can be made by looking over the references to baptism. We also observe several types of baptism mentioned. There is the baptism of John (Matt. 21:25), the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt. 3:15 and Luke 3:l6), the baptism unto death (Rom. 6:4), baptism into Moses (I Cor. 10:2), baptism for the dead (I Cor. 15:29) and the baptism Jesus mentioned in Mark 10:38: “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
We would need to study the context to understand how the concept of baptism is used in each case. For instance, in the case of the baptism of John, he was preaching a repentance to the nation of Israel and appealing to them for the imminence of the Kingdom promised in the Scriptures. Those among the Jewish people who identified with the message of John came to him at the Jordan River and were immersed in water. Later when the Apostles began to preach the message of the gospel, those who identified with their message, and believed, were likewise dipped in water. In each case the message was different. People were identifying themselves with different messages, yet the form used to symbolize this identification was the same: immersion in water.
The mention of baptism in I Cor. 10:2 and 15:29 illustrates for us its use when identification is intended. In the first case, Paul seems to be exhorting the Corinthians to remember the experiences of the Israelites under Moses in the desert and to learn from them so that they not fall into the same kind of unbelief. He says that the forefathers were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. What does he mean by this? If we change the word baptized by its equivalent identified, the sentence would be: “the forefathers were identified into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”. The cloud and the sea were symbols of God’s workings among their people- Moses was their leader. By identifying themselves with Moses and the symbols of God’s workings among them, they were recognizing God leading them and delivering them out of Egypt. .
In I Cor. 15:29 Paul says: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?” The interpretation of this verse has led some to teach the concept of proxy baptism. Here again, if we apply the meaning behind baptism, which is identification, and substitute the word baptized for the word identified the verse will read: .“Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are identified for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people identified for them? And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?” The teaching of the entire chapter is the resurrection of Christ and the hope of future resurrection of all believers. Paul is reminding the Corinthians of men who have died for the gospel because of the eternal hope embodied in the resurrection of the dead. He is exhorting the Corinthian Christians to identify themselves with that example, being willing to suffer, if necessary, unto death, because of the assurance of the resurrection. Identification with those who have died, and not some rite of baptism, is what Paul is teaching in the passage. This is clear as we examine the context of the chapter.
Therefore, we conclude that baptism in its intrinsic meaning, as a FUNCTION, is IDENTIFICATION. The FORM used in the New Testament to convey its meaning was IMMERSION IN WATER.
In another look at the 115 references to baptism in the New Testament, we further observe that 97 of them are in the Gospels and the book of Acts. There are only 18 references in the Epistles. This is significant if we recognize the historical nature of the Gospels, and Acts and the doctrinal nature of the Epistles.
The 16 references in the Epistles are all found in Paul with the exceptions of Heb. 6.2 and I Pet. 3:21. The reference in Heb 6:2, where the Greek word BAPTISMOS has been transliterated baptisms, seems to point out the ceremonial washings of the Jews. The same Greek word BAPTISMOS, is used by the same author, in the same book in Heb. 9:10. There it is translated “washings”. The reference in I Pet. 3.21 is very significant. It will be analyzed later when we consider the particular historical context of the first century Christians.
Paul refers to baptism in Rom 6:3,3,4, 1 Cor, 1:13.14,15,16,16,17, 10:2; 12:13; 15:29,29. Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:5, Col. 2.12.
We have already suggested an interpretation of I Cor. 10:2 and 15:29,29 above. In 1 Cor 1: 13.14,15,16,16,17, Paul is dealing with quarrels and divisions among the church at Corinth. They have been baptized by various individuals and were identifying themselves with the baptizer rather than with Christ. The Context of Rom 6:3,3,4 seems to yield the interpretation of identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Cross-references to this are Col. 2:12 and Gal. 3:27. In 1 Cor. 12:l3, baptism is referred to by Paul as the Spirit’s ministry in bringing the believer into the Body of Christ at the time of regeneration. The reference in Eph 4:5 is also in the context of Paul’s teaching of the unity under one Spirit in the Body of Christ.
From this we conclude that when Paul refers to baptism, he has in mind both its FUNCTION, that is IDENTIFICATION, and its FORM, that is IMMERSION IN WATER. The primary emphasis, nevertheless, is in the new identity of the believer regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Spirit baptism gives him a new identity, placing him into a new realm, the body of Christ. From then on, he is a new creature.
We would like to move on now and attempt an answer to questions which seem crucial for the understanding of the place of water baptism in a national ministry. We would like to state the questions as follows:
What does the Scripture say about the historical circumstances of the first century Christians?
How does the understanding of this historical background help us understand the special meaning and vital importance of water baptism as a FORM of expressing their allegiance and identification with Christ?
If we find satisfactory answers to these questions, we could then have a clue to the more practical and relevant questions affecting a national ministry. The questions are:
What is the place of water baptism in a given national ministry today?
What would be the broader implications of water baptism being a FORM?
What biblical principles should we apply to discern the FORM of water baptism, if any, in our particular historical context?
What would be the relevance of all this to the continual unfolding of our thinking regarding the place of FORMS and its bearing on contextualization of a national ministry?
We will begin, therefore by trying to understand the historical background of water baptism.
Let us start in Acts 2:14-42. It is the first time the gospel was preached after the ascension of Christ. It was preached by Peter to an audience of Jews and proselytes
(Acts 2:14.22,29). Peter started his message by responding to the charge of drunkenness, explaining the phenomenon of speaking in foreign tongues as the fulfillment of prophecy. For this he quoted Joel. A side by side comparison of Joel’s
prophecy in Joel 2:28-32a and Peter’s quotation in Acts 2:17-21 results in the following observations:
Acts 2:17 is a quotation, word for word, from Joel 2:28.
Acts 2:18 is quoted word for word from Joel 2:29, except that Peter adds at the end of the quote the phrase; “and they will prophesy”. Two times, both in Joel and Acts, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is mentioned. Now the phenomenon accompanying the pouring out of the Spirit, that is “they will prophesy”, is mentioned only once in Joel but twice by Peter. Why? The answer might be in the fact that Peter is explaining the phenomenon of foreign tongues, emphasizing “they will prophesy”.
What is perhaps more significant is that Peter, after his own addition, returns to Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2:19-21, quoting Joel 2:30-32a word for word again. The message of Joel is a message of the judgment following the outpouring of the Spirit. In other words, according to both Joel and Peter the outpouring of the Spirit and the sign of “prophecy” were to be followed by judgment.
In Acts 2:37-40, when the people were cut to the heart and responded to the message, they asked Peter what their proper response would be. Peter’s answer was twofold: first, repent (that is, change of mind regarding Jesus) and second, be baptized, adding in Acts 2:40 the sentence: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”.
Two questions seem to be relevant at this point. First, what does Peter mean by “this corrupt generation”? Second, what connection, if any, could exist between “be baptized” and “save yourselves from this corrupt generation”?
The expressions “wicked and adulterous generation”, “this generation”, unbelieving and perverse generation”, “adulterous and sinful generation”, “this wicked generation” used by Jesus, began to appear in the gospels right after the nation of Israel, led by the Pharisees, pronounced a verdict of rejection on His claims to be the Christ based on the charge of being demon-possessed. Matt. 12:22-45.2 The above expressions are especially emphasized in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matt. 12:39,4l,42,45; 16:4; 17:17, 23:35.36; Mark 8:12,38; 9:19, Luke 9:4l;11:29,30,31,32, 50,51; 17:25). It is worth noticing that the expressions are conspicuously absent in the gospel of John.
The expressions refer to the generation of Jews alive at the time of Jesus (unlike the Peters, Johns, Simeons, Annas the faithful remnant) which rejected Christ and as a result brought upon themselves the irreversible judgment prophesied by the Jewish prophets in place like Isa. 6:11-13, Daniel 9:26; Hos. 5:14.15; Zech. 11:4-17. In reference to that particular generation of Jews, Jesus said, “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.” (Matt. 23:35,36) And, “Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Luke 11:51b).
This irreversible judgment came upon the Jewish nation with the retaliation of the Romans to the Jewish revolt in 66-70 A.D. and with the consequent destruction of the nation. Luke refers to this in Luke 21:20-24; 13:1-5; 19:42-44 and other passages. When John wrote his gospel, after 70 A.D., the judgment had already passed.
Summarizing: When the nation of Israel, led by the authorities, rejected Jesus as their Christ or Messiah in Matthew 12, the entire generation of Jews alive at the time of Jesus were judged and destined for destruction. Only the faithful remnant who responded to Jesus and by faith owned Him as their Christ or Messiah were able to escape.
To see this more clearly, let us quickly look over to two of the five New Testament epistles specifically addressed to Jewish Christians, the epistle to the Hebrews and the first epistle of Peter.
The historical context of the book of Hebrews reflects a time of tremendous persecution resulting in suffering for the Jewish Christians. The pressure was so great that some of the Hebrew Christians were being tempted to drop Christianity and return to Judaism. To show the absurdity of such an action, the author draws a sharp contrast between the Old Testament Levitical system and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He demonstrates that the old system had a place in God’s unfolding revelation, but now it has been replaced by Him to whom the system pointed. Jesus Christ. The author in several passages keeps exhorting the Jewish Christians not to even think of going back, but to perfect themselves in patient endurance. In Heb. 10:39 he says: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved”. Returning to Judaism meant IDENTIFICATION with that generation of Jews destined for destruction. The proper response of their faith should be IDENTIFICATION with Jesus, the Messiah, and SEPARATION or DISASSOCIATION from “that generation”. As if remembering the words of Jesus in Luke 21:20-24, the author pleads for the Hebrew Christians to flee, to hide, and to endure. It is very important in this context to take notice of the careful wording in Heb. 11 when the author uses examples in Jewish history to encourage faith in his audience. Notice in chapter 11 that these words are a historical description but allude to the immediate needs of these Hebrew Christians: “a better sacrifice” (v. 4); “was taken from this life so that he did not experience death” (v. 5); “when warned about things .not yet seen” (v. 7); “obeyed and went” (v. 8); “like a stranger ina foreign country” .(v. 9); “they were aliens and strangers on earth” (v. 13); “hid him” (v. 23); “He chose to be mistreated” (v. 25); and others. The mention of Rahab in this context is significant. She is commended for her faith, as demonstrated by committing treason against her own people, because she feared the God of Israel. This example is to be followed by the Jewish Christians, in obedience to Jesus’ warning (cf. Luke 21:20-24), by forsaking their own countrymen when their city and nation would be destroyed by the Roman army (cf. Matt. 10:34-39).
What does this have to do with water baptism? The answer, we believe, is found in one of the other epistles addressed to Hebrew Christians mentioned, the first epistle of Peter.
In I Peter 3:18-22, Peter draws an analogy between two different generations of people, the generation at the time of Noah and the Jewish generation at the time he writes. Both these generations are under judgment. At the time of Noah, the judgment came by means of water; the judgment at the time of Peter came a short time after he wrote and was by means of fire. In 70 A.D. In both occasions a faithful remnant was saved. In the first case, it was Noah and his family, a total of eight people. In the time of Peter, the faithful remnant was the Jewish Christians who recognized Jesus as their Christ. The remnant at the time of Noah was saved through the ark. The remnant at the time of Peter were to be saved through water-baptism. The reason for this was that the only acceptable way, acknowledged both by the Jewish community and as well by the Jewish Christian community, to officially mark the SEPARATION from Judaism and the
IDENTIFICATION with Jesus as Christ was water baptism.
Because of severe persecution from the Jews, some Jewish Christians were not willing to undergo Christian water baptism. They were, so to speak, living “incognito” among the Jewish community. By so doing, they were identifying with “that generation” which was under judgment and therefore destined to physical death. Peter says in verse 21 this is the reason they were living with a “bad conscience”.
Christian water baptism was therefore extremely important as a way of cutting away from their roots and taking up a new IDENTITY in Jesus Christ.
Finally, before we try to consider some of the implications of Christian water baptism being a FORM that was particularly important to the Jewish Christians of “that generation”, we would like to analyze the context of Matt. 28:19-20, where Jesus commands baptism as part of the fulfillment of disciple making.
In these verses we have the last words of Jesus to his apostles recorded in the gospel of Matthew. It certainly is intriguing to observe that the explicit command to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them …” found also in Mark 16:15, is surprisingly absent from both Luke and John. Also, the reference in Mark belongs in Mark 16:9-20, which according to most scholars is not part of the most reliable early manuscripts. If this fact is accepted, then we would have the command only in Matt. 28:19-20. Two questions then arise. First, to whom is this gospel written? and second, what is the purpose of Matthew in writing his gospel?
The gospel of Matthew was written to Jewish Christians in the first century to demonstrate how Jesus is the Christ, King or Messiah of the Jews. It was written with the purpose of explaining to these Jewish Christians why, in spite of this fact, His kingdom was not established. It was not established, Matthew explains, because the nation rejected their promised King.
Again, because of the special circumstances of “that generation” under judgment, and the hesitation of Jewish Christians to break away from Judaism, Christian water baptism is emphasized in Matt. 28:19-20. These verses and I Pet. 3:18-22 help us to understand the particular significance of water baptism as a FORM in the unique historical circumstances of that day.
Summarizing our conclusions
Baptism in its intrinsic meaning, as a FUNCTION, is IDENTIFICATION or CHANGE OF IDENTITY. The FORM used in the New Testament to convey its meaning was IMMERSION IN WATER.
When Paul refers to baptism, he has in mind both its FUNCTION and its FORM. His primary emphasis, however, is in the NEW IDENTITY of the believer. He has been regenerated and placed into a new realm, the body of Christ, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The rejection of Jesus as their Christ by the Jewish nation brought, upon the generation of Jews alive at the time of this rejection, an irreversible judgment which resulted in their physical death. Only those Jews who, by faith, acknowledged Jesus as Christ were able to escape.
IMMERSION IN WATER marked the UPROOTING or DISASSOCIATION of the Jewish Christians from the rest of the nation. This act or FORM was recognized by both the Jewish community and the Jewish Christian community as the way of officially identifying with Jesus Christ.
Some possible implications of the conclusions above.
We have been using the expressions FUNCTION and FORM in this paper without attempting to define explicitly their meanings. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines FUNCTION as; “… the action for which a thing is specially fitted or used or for which a thing exists. … the normal and specific contribution of a bodily part to the economy of a living organism. FUNCTION referable to anything living, material, or constructed implies a definite end or purpose that the one in question serves or a particular kind of work it is intended to perform.”
The same source defines FORM as: “One of the different modes of existence, action or manifestation of a particular thing or substance.”
FUNCTION has also been defined as the “essence of an activity”. FORM, on the other hand, has been defined as: “the pattern or structure of that activity”.3
The relationship between FUNCTION and FORM can be illustrated as follows:4
FUNCTION -> FORM -> RESULTS
These relationships, when-applied to Christian water baptism in the New Testament and the Jewish Christians before 70 A.D., yield the following:
Change of Identity Water at 70 A.D.
It is extremely significant in this regard that three men Josephus, the famous Jewish historian in the first century; Hegesippus, a Jewish Christian in the second century whose parents escaped in 70 A.D.; and Eusebius of Caesarea, a Gentile Christian in the fourth century - mentioned in their writings that when the Jewish Christians received the letter to the Hebrews, they obeyed the exhortation, were baptized, and when the opportunity arose, fled the land finding refuge across the Jordan.
After 70 A.D., these relationships changed. The FUNCTION continued to be IDENTIFICATION or CHANGE OF IDENTITY, the FORM, adopted by the church continued to be IMMERSION IN WATER but the RESULTS sought were not any longer salvation from physical death.
For us in Latin America today, two thousand years of traditions later, what does water baptism mean? In Latin America the original FORM has become a FUNCTION and the original FUNCTION has been replaced by confusion and/or ignorance. The pattern of the essence has become the essence itself.
Water baptism in our culture has become associated with traditions. These traditions are closely tied to the idea of “church” for secularized Latins. They have given up on and/or are not any longer seriously considering “church” a viable option when trying to understand life.
Water baptism has also become associated with foreign traditions imported by missionaries, traditions brought from outside together with the teaching of the Scriptures. Today, to Latin Americans water baptism means identification with those traditions. The sharp dichotomy between Catholicism and Protestantism leads Latins to think of adult water baptism as a way of identifying with Protestantism and, unfortunately, with colonialism”. Most likely inadvertently, some missionaries in the past have confused CONTEXTUALIZATION with COLONIALISM.
As we learn what is implied in contextualizing the ministry we struggle to understand the relationships between the essentials of the ministry, such as the essence and functioning of a local church, the meaning of Biblical leadership, and the FORMS needed for the exercising of these essentials. One question we currently face is how to decide what forms our ministry should assume. In the particular case we have analyzed water baptism, should we practice as the Jewish Christians of the first century practiced?
Should we practice as the other expressions of the Christian church practice today? We believe the answer could be found in a more fundamental question: to whom is God calling us to minister and what is the vision God has given us? We are answering these questions by saying that God is calling us to the secularized Latin who is responding to the gospel but is not willing to identify with the structures mentioned above. We believe God has given us the vision to disciple this secularized Latin and we see as our aim to contribute to the Great Commission, multiplying the number of secularized Latin laboring in the harvest.