WATER BAPTISM
TOWARD A DEFINITION

By Robert L. Goldsby

Contents

Water Baptism

What Does "BAPTIDZO" Mean?

New Testament Use

Old Testament Insight

Conclusion



WATER BAPTISM

This doctrine of God has been used by men and Satan to separate Christians as much as, perhaps more than, any other issue. Divisiveness over doctrinal issues is usually a result of failing to see that we are all progressing toward unity of the faith, but do not yet have it (Ephesians. 4:3,13). We are commanded to guard or maintain the 'unity of the Spirit' while walking toward unity of the faith. Struggling with our differences and sharpening our Biblical skills is good and necessary. Violating God's family is not.

This doctrine is, nevertheless, a vital and important one. It is one of the basics of the faith and is commanded by God, Hebrews 6:1-2, Acts 2:38-41.

WHAT DOES "BAPTIZE" MEAN?

It has been widely taught that baptism (Baptidzo) means immersion. That is not true. While immersion is included in the definition, so are other modes. Even a cursory reference to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance and Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich Greek Lexicon illustrates this. There are a lot of references to secular documents in these Greek dictionaries and lexicons which define the word for us.

Lenski says it this way in his commentary on Matthew:

"Baptidzo, as all lexicographers agree, has a variety of meanings. It may mean to dip, immerse, wash, lave, sprinkle, cleanse, in fact, refer to the application of water in any form. This unquestioned fact is not altered by a reference to the original etymology, which is then limited to the meaning to immerse. The word must be understood in the sense which it had at the time Jesus spoke, and the New Testament shows conclusively that Baptidzo was used to designate all manner of application of water.
"Yet a striking feature evident in all (baptism accounts in Acts) is that the mode used in any instance is not described. We have not as much as a hint except that immersion could not have been the mode used under the indicated circumstances.
"As regards post-Apostolic times, most valuable is "Baptism and Christian Archaeology," by Clement F. Rogers, Oxford, Clarendon Press. This layman held the common conviction that in the early church baptism was administered by immersion, but when he sought to verify this conviction, he did not find one pictorial representation of immersion, all the delineations of ancient times portrayed pouring or some other mode. Moreover, the remains of all the ancient baptisteries were shallow, generally so shallow that a man could not be immersed even if he lay down in the pool flat on his back. Mr. Rogers completely reversed his opinion regarding the practice of immersion in the early church."

["The Interpretation Of St. Matthew"; R.C.H. Lenski, 1943, Augsburg Publishing House, pg. 1173 - 1175.]

New Testament Use Of Baptidzo

As Lenski indicates, the important issue is, how did Jesus and the Apostles use it, further, how does the Holy Spirit use this word in the Bible. The word, in Greek, is: Baptidzo (baptivzw) and is found in the following verses. Examine each verse and note what insights are gained about the "mode" (immersion, sprinkling, pouring, washing, etc.).

  1. Mark 1:5; - While it mentions they were baptized in the Jordan, no hint is given as to the mode used. While the Jordan is a small river, at times no more than a creek, immersion was certainly possible. The oldest pictures of Jesus baptism (found in Rome's catacombs) show Jesus and John standing in the Jordan while John pours water over Jesus. That fact that they used the Jordan river does not indicate the mode of baptism used.
  2. Acts 8:36-39 - Here we see the account of the Eunuch who desires to be baptized. Despite the disagreement over the preposition in the Greek (going in or into the water, does it mean immersion or standing in) there is no clear indication either of the amount of water nor the mode of baptism.
  3. Mark 7:1-4 - Many scholars feel the word Tables (NIV uses Dining Couches) has been "added" by a scribe and is not part of the signature manuscript. Even if that is true, what we learn is that, at the time of the writing, the scribe understood baptism to mean wash, even to washing tables (which they did not carry to the river and immerse). Clearly he knew it did not mean immersion exclusively.
  4. I Corinthians 10:1-3 - Ask yourself, was Israel immersed in this water? Obviously not. How were Moses and Israel "baptized" in the cloud and sea? They may have been sprinkled, they were obviously not immersed. Pharaoh's army got immersed! The Bible does not use baptidzo exclusively for immersion.
  5. I Peter 3:20 - Again, the word "Baptism - baptidzo" is used in this passage. Be honest, was Noah immersed - under the waters? Obviously not. The Bible does not use baptidzo exclusively for immersion.

Those who insist that baptidzo means immersion only appeal to the earliest etymology of the word, the original roots. An example of such an appeal is found in the Enhanced Strong's Dictionary from Logos Research.

"Not to be confused with 911, bapto. The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptidzo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be 'dipped' (bapto) into boiling water and then 'baptized' (baptidzo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptizing the vegetable, produces a permanent change.

"When used in the New Testament, this word more often refers to our union and identification with Christ than to our water baptism. e.g. Mark 16:16. 'He that believes and is baptized shall be saved'. Christ is saying that mere intellectual assent is not enough. There must be a union with him, a real change, like the vegetable to the pickle!"

Bible Study Magazine, James Montgomery Boice, May 1989.

Understanding the etymology of a word is valuable and the above provides interesting insight to the word. The problem is that the quote is two centuries before the New Testament (Koine) Greek! Look at the changes in English words over 200+ years. An appeal to a 200+ year old recipe to establish immersion for the New Testament Greek fails to prove anything, as Lenski says above.

As we have seen from our inductive study of the Greek word baptidzo, it does not mean immersion exclusively in the Greek of the New Testament. Immersion cannot be insisted on by any honest student of Scripture.

OLD TESTAMENT INSIGHT

Ezekiel 36:22-27 This text sheds some insight on God's intent concerning the mode of baptism in that it is a prophecy of baptism and the new birth experience. Like most prophecy, it has both a short term application (God's promise to Israel) and a long term application.

The Hebrew word is zarak (qr'zÉ): It is used 35 times in the KJV and is variously translated: sprinkle 31, scatter 2, here and there 1, strowed 1. As you can see, the primary meaning, and translation, of this word is to sprinkle.

Be honest with the text. This text is an O.T. prophecy of the New Birth experience. Does it not sound like the events in holy baptism? If one accepts that God works in baptism to bring about a changed life, absolutely. Look at Romans 6. In water baptism a real transaction takes place. In baptism we die with Christ (not just a symbol), we are buried with Christ (not a symbol) and we are resurrected with Christ to new life (not a symbol). Since God is not capricious in the way He deals with man, and since He has told us that "I change not", that He is constant and consistent, we can expect that He is consistent also in this matter of His action toward us.

CONCLUSION

The Bible text uses the word baptidzo in its full range of meanings and is not limited to the older meaning of immersion exclusively. While immersion best pictures what takes place when one is baptized (Romans 6:1-ff), the emphasis is not on the mode but on what God does. My personal preference is to use immersion, but that is a preference not a command of Scripture. Those who insist that without immersion you have no baptism go beyond Scripture and place an improper emphasis on man's part in baptism, failing to recognize that in baptism God is acting in our behalf. He said through Ezekiel:

" 25Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them."

The emphasis in baptidzo is God acting in man's behalf, just as He promised in Ezekiel.


See the study list for more on the subject of baptism, its meaning and purpose.


This page last updated January 18, 1998
The document was written by Robert L. Goldsby (5101 NE 121st Ave #140, Vancouver, WA 98682-2121) and is the sole property of the author. It may be used for personal and group Bible study but may not be used for any commercial or publishing purposes without the express written consent of the author.