Baptism: What does it mean?

Baptism is one of the two sacraments we as Christians have been asked to keep (the other is the Lord’s Supper). There is a lot of confusion about the purpose of baptism and it’s meaning. It is to have a very real effect on our lives.

This paper explores what baptism is and what it means in the Bible.

Baptism in the Bible

There are several baptisms in the scriptures. In the New Testament these are the baptisms of John the Baptist, the Lord’s own baptism by John the Baptist, the Lord’s disciples baptising at the beginning of the Lord’s ministry (John 4v1-3), the baptisms of the 3000 on the day of Pentecost, Philip baptising the Samaritans, the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the baptism of Paul (Acts 22v16), the baptism of Cornelius and his house, the baptism of the Philippian jailor and his house, the baptisms of Lydia, Stephanus and Crispus with their houses and the baptism of the Ephesians (Acts 19v3-6). In the Old Testament there are two baptisms, one to Moses (see 1 Corinthians 10) and Noah’s baptism (see 1 Peter 3v18-21).

What is baptism?

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28v19).

Baptism in Christianity is to the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is clear that it involves water although it is not clear how much. The greek word “baptizo” is often translated as immersion but there appears to be controversy over this. In Judaism (what the disciples would have been brought up with) water was used for cleansing. Ceremonial cleansing could be done in several ways.

  • Sprinkling (see Exodus 24v8, Hebrews 9v21, Hebrews 10v22) with blood.
  • Pouring
  • Immersion (see 2 Kings 5)

How the water is applied doesn’t appear to be clear in scripture although Romans 6 (quoted below) would seem to imply by using the word “burial” that we go out of sight which would be best seen in immersion baptism.

What does baptism mean?

"What then shall we say? Should we continue in sin that grace may abound? Far be the thought. We who have died to sin, how shall we still live in it? Are you ignorant that we, as many as have been baptised unto Christ Jesus, have been baptised unto his death? We have been buried therefore with him by baptism unto death, in order that, even as Christ has been raised up from among [the] dead by the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we are become identified with him in the likeness of his death, so also we shall be of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man has been crucified with him, that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin." (Romans 6v1-6).

From this passage it appears that baptism is the means by which a person has been identified with Christ. It is a sign that the ‘old man’ is put out of sight and that a new life is to begin. Therefore we cannot continue with sin because that is the life that we have died from in baptism. We are then raised in Christ. We crucify our ‘old man’ with Christ and “reckon” ourselves dead. Crucifixion doesn’t mean the ‘old man’ is dead but the death sentence has been passed on him and although the flesh may still cause us to fail in our lives here, it is finished as far as we are concerned. The flesh will die but the new creation in Christ will continue after death. We are to display that now in our lives.

"For also in the power of one Spirit we have all been baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bondmen or free, and have all been given to drink of one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12v13).

"For ye, as many as have been baptised unto Christ, have put on Christ. There is no Jew nor Greek; there is no bondman nor freeman; there is no male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3v27-28).

We have ceased to be what we were before. i.e. Jew, Greek, bondman, freeman, etc. We have become identified in Christ with the Lord’s people on earth. We are linked with the others who are standing for the Lord Jesus. We ‘put on Christ’ in baptism making us one together with every other baptised believer and with Christ.

For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank of a spiritual rock which followed them: (now the rock was the Christ;) yet God was not pleased with the most of them, for they were strewed in the desert." (1 Corinthians 10v1-5).

This is a baptism of the Old Testament, but it is still a baptism. Israel passed through the Red Sea and in effect passed from Egypt (a picture of the world) into a new life of dependence on God and the leadership of Moses. They left Egypt behind and set themselves to travel to the Promised Land.

So baptism is leaving one thing behind and taking on something new. In Christianity we leave the world that rejected Christ behind and take on Christ. We dissociate from the world and its pleasures and associate ourselves with the one which the world rejected instead. In other words we change the basis on which we lead our lives from one of self-will (the ‘old man/the flesh’) to one of the Lord’s will and indicate that we are doing this by being baptised.

Baptism also is to be to a name. It seems very important to know what name someone was baptised to. Names of baptisms which were carried out were Moses (1 Corinthians 10v1-5), John the Baptist (Acts 19v3-6) and the Lord Jesus (Acts 8v12-17, Acts 10v46-48 & Acts 19v3-6).

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28v19).

And now why lingerest thou? Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name." (Acts 22v16).

And he said, To what then were ye baptised? And they said, To the baptism of John. And Paul said, John indeed baptised with the baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on him that was coming after him, that is, on Jesus. And when they heard that, they were baptised to the name of the Lord Jesus. And Paul having laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied." (Acts 19v3-6).

"But I speak of this, that each of you says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ. Is the Christ divided? has Paul been crucified for you? or have ye been baptised unto the name of Paul? I thank God that I have baptised none of you, unless Crispus and Gaius, that no one may say that I have baptised unto my own name. Yes, I baptised also the house of Stephanas; for the rest I know not if I have baptised any other. For Christ has not sent me to baptise, but to preach glad tidings; not in wisdom of word, that the cross of the Christ may not be made vain." (1 Corinthians 1v12-17).

"There is one body and one Spirit, as ye have been also called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all." (Ephesians 4v4-6).

Paul makes it clear how important names are in baptism in this scripture. There is only one baptism important to Christians! He makes clear that his purpose was not to baptise but to do the more important job of preaching the gospel. He makes a distinction between baptism and the gospel indicating that the gospel was more important because it concerned eternal life through faith and salvation of the soul.

So baptism is identifying a person with Christ, dissociating from one thing and associating with another, and is to a name.

"Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the country round the Jordan, and were baptised by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins." (Matthew 3v5-6).

"I indeed baptise you with water to repentance, but he that comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to bear; he shall baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Matthew 3v13).

"There came John baptising in the wilderness, and preaching the baptism of repentance for remission of sins. And there went out to him all the district of Judaea, and all they of Jerusalem, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." (Mark 1v4-5).

"And he came into all the district round the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." (Luke 3v3).

"And tax-gatherers came also to be baptised, and they said to him, Teacher, what should we do? And he said to them, Take no more money than what is appointed to you. And persons engaged in military service also asked him saying, And we, what should we do? And he said to them, Oppress no one, nor accuse falsely, and be satisfied with your pay." (Luke 3v12-14).

"(And all the people who heard it, and the tax-gatherers, justified God, having been baptised with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rendered null as to themselves the counsel of God, not having been baptised by him.)" (Luke 7v29-30).

In John’s baptisms he makes this clear by telling various people how their baptism of repentance should change their lives. Jews being baptised by him were giving up their old ways and the religion of the Pharisees and repenting, awaiting their Messiah. Luke 7 makes it clear that the baptism of John was of the counsel of God. The Pharisees refused to give up their form of religion and therefore were not living according to the counsel of God as they needed to. Those baptised by John gave up their old life accepting their need to repent, but the coming of the Lord Jesus was needed to effect the change.


So in baptism a person is recognised as being a sinner. It would seem that baptism is best performed by a person being fully immersed although this is not necessarily so. However, it seems to be the best method based on it’s description as a burial in Romans 6.

It is symbolic of the acceptance of knowledge of that sinful nature and it is used to identify a person with a name. For a Christian that name is the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The result of the baptism should be that a person seeks to live their life in repentance as they are identified with the Lord in His death and glory.

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