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Understanding the Baptism in Water

Updated on June 23, 2012
The meaning of water baptism is a sign of purification—a sign of consecration.
The meaning of water baptism is a sign of purification—a sign of consecration.

A Symbol Rooted Within the Various Rescue Stories of the Bible

What do you believe about water baptism? Do you believe that you receive salvation by being baptized or are you baptized because you have received salvation?

Baptism itself belongs to the tradition of prophetic signs. The Hebrew prophets, from time to time, performed acts to symbolize their message like Jeremiah making a yoke and wearing it or Ezekiel laying on one side in full view of the public and then on his other side. Isaiah going naked and Hosea marrying a harlot. These signs acted out the message. Likewise, this was part of Jesus’ regular ministry: when he washes the feet of his disciples (Jn 13:5) or when he tells them to shake off the dust from their feet as they leave an unwelcome house or town (Mt 10:14). Baptism and the Lord’s Supper belong to the tradition of prophetic signs.

The meaning of water baptism is a sign of purification—a sign of consecration. It is not a testimony to the world, but something we receive from the hand of God himself by the agency of the church.[i] Water baptism also has its symbolism rooted within the various rescue stories of the Bible from the creation in Genesis to the calvary account in the Gospels.[ii]

New Life. When creation took place, the Spirit of God, like a mighty wind, swept over the face of the waters separating the waters and calling forth dry land to appear (Ge 1:2,9). In the Greek, the word exodus is from exo meaning “out” and hodos meaning “door, way, or road.” We could say that the creation itself began with an exodus, an exit, a departure or going out from chaos to order. The Spirit of God rescues the earth from the formless void and darkness that engulfed it. The earth was baptized through the chaotic waters into a new life.[iii]

New Freedom. In the Old Testament we also have the great stories of Noah, Moses, and the Hebrew people. God rescues Noah from a great flood in an ark, the baby Moses from the Nile River in a basket, and the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery and death in the dry land crossing of the Red Sea. These stories are all related in that God saved his people from certain death through a water-rescue[iv] exodus experience. And finally, after the death of Moses, Joshua led the people through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The chosen people were baptized through the water into a new freedom.

New Covenant. In the New Testament, John the Baptist initiated a renewal movement by calling the people of God out into the Judean wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized in the Jordan River (Mk 1:5). Jesus himself submitted to John’s baptism in order to identify himself with those he had come to rescue in this new exodus movement (Mk 10:45). As Jesus was coming up out of the water, God’s Spirit descended upon him like a dove and a voice declared him to be the beloved Son of God—the Messiah of Israel who will fulfill the covenant plan of his Father. The people of God were baptized through the water into a new covenant.

New Creation. Jesus was also aware that his ministry would reach a climatic end in his own crucifixion—“a baptism to be baptized in” (Mk 10:38). And he chose the Passover, the great Jewish festival that commemorated the Hebrew exodus, as the time of his departure. Jesus even celebrated the Last Supper with his twelve disciples symbolically pointing back to the past exodus in the twelve tribes of Israel’s (God’s son)[v] slavery and deliverance as well as pointing toward the future exodus in his own (God’s Son) death and resurrection. The believers are baptized through the waters of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection that they might walk into a new creation (Ro 6:3-4; Ro 6:6; Gal 2:19).

Based on the theme of the exodus and the people of God’s water-rescue experiences throughout scripture, Christian baptism was practiced early on as a prophetic sign of sanctification and means of entry into the family of God. In fact, it was Jesus, by all authority given him in heaven and on earth, who commanded his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit… ” (Mt 28:19). And that is the given order or sequence: to make disciples or followers of Christ of all nations and then baptize them into the body of Christ, the church and new Christian family. First by believing and receiving salvation in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and then by obeying and being baptized by plunging into the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Water baptism is the last step into the final exodus that would lead the people of God toward a new life, bring a new freedom, fulfill a new covenant, and enter a new creation.

We need to note that not every believer from the get-go will experience the saving love of Christ cleansing and transforming his or her life through the act of water baptism. But the believer will most certainly live out the truth of what happened to them in baptism. Baptism does matter in the life of the believer because the reality that is sure to follow will validate its meaning. We could liken water baptism with the symbol of a wedding ring. The act of placing the ring on each other’s finger symbolizes the sacred union between husband and wife. The consummation of the marriage follows after the symbolic ritual when the two become one flesh (Gen 2:24).

What happens to those who have been baptized and “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” (Heb 6:5-6) and then have fallen away rejecting the faith? It was no different with the children of Israel who rebelled against the LORD after being rescued from a life of slavery and miraculously delivered through the Red Sea (Dt 31:27). Those who rebel against God can’t get un-baptized. While they are still united with Christ in this sacred relationship, they are considered disobedient family members, not outsiders, who have lost their fellowship with the Lord. We can still love these wayward sinners and yet hate their sin that separates us from having true fellowship with Christ and one another. For we know that our Father is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4:2) his lost prodigal children.


[i] Colin Brown, Systematic Theology II: Christology and Soteriology (Pasadena: Fuller Theological Seminary Notes, 1993), 70.

[ii] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 212.

[iii] Ibid., 212-215. The theme of “through the water” is based on Wright’s sweeping presentation of baptism from the creation, covenant, new covenant, and new creation with Jesus at the center of this historical biblical account.

[iv] Ibid., 212. The water baptism is likened to the rescue-through-water experiences of the people of God.

[v] Exodus 4:22. The LORD instructed Moses, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’” [Italics mine]. God identified himself with the nation of Israel, in the manner of a relationship between a father and his son. Jesus, the Son of God, identified himself with Israel, as the nation’s representative, through the waters of John’s baptism. The Holy Spirit descended upon him and the Father declared him his beloved Son.

Copyright 2009 Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.

Recommended reading:

Baptism in the New Testament:
Baptism in the New Testament:

This enduring study of Christian baptism by G. R. Beasley-Murray presents a critical defense of the doctrine of believers' baptism on the basis of the New Testament evidence. / Beasley-Murray first discusses the various rites that precede Christian baptism historically, then analyzes the relationship between these earlier rites and baptism. From these antecedents — Old Testament ritual washings, Jewish proselyte baptism, the lustrations practiced at Qumran, and the baptism of John the Baptist — Beasley-Murray proceeds to the foundations of Christian baptism in the career of Jesus, its emergence as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and its development in the New Testament epistolary literature. / Throughout this work, Beasley-Murray continually focuses on the necessity of baptism and its relationship to grace, faith, the Spirit, the church, ethics, and hope. He also presents a careful, well-balanced examination of the rise and significance of infant baptism — one of the most debated elements in the doctrine of baptism today.



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    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for a fine piece on Baptism. I like your analogy with the wedding ring. To be baptized is to make a public commitment to God that one is a Believer and accepts Jesus Christ as one's Savior.

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 

      9 years ago from Roseville, CA

      And obeying Jesus through faith in Him, in the Spirit alone, is the "work of faith" by grace in which we are truly saved. Amen!

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      JD: Thank you for your valuable input in regards to what it means to be a disciple and follower of Jesus. Disciples are defined by whose teaching they follow and obey even if it means taking up one's cross to the death. Nobody in his or her right mind would die for a lie. These disciples not only believed, but obeyed Jesus to the death! In so doing, they did not short-change the Master's commission. God bless your discernment of the truth and study of his word.

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      GR: What is the principle intention of Jesus’ commission? It is to “teach” all nations; to “disciple” all nations.” The word “teach” comes from the Greek root matheteuo. In Matthew 28:19, matheuteusate comes from the same root word. By “teaching all the nations,” Jesus is saying matheuteusate—“admit them disciples.” We must look at the entire context of the gospel of Matthew to understand and validate the usage of “make disciples” in other translations.

      In Matthew 5:2 and following, Jesus is shown teaching his disciples that they are to exceed “the righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees in verse 20. Jesus is the teacher of the church who supersedes the Sinaitic revelation and its rabbinic interpretations. In verses 21-22 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” It is inevitable that the new wine, the new teaching of Jesus, will ultimately burst the old wineskins of the old order. The new teaching or foundation Jesus is building upon is not a new law, but the fulfillment of the old, now freed from rabbinic distortions. Only now does the original intention of God’s law become clear when Jesus wiped the dust from their rabbinic interpretations, “from the beginning it was not so”(Mt 19:8). The follower or disciple of Jesus is called, not to lawlessness, but to a superior righteousness—the foundation of which is the law and Christ’s interpretation of it.

      This is the very reason why, after his resurrection, this interpretation must be passed on through the agency of teaching (Mt 28:20). Remember that the teaching of Jesus was considered subversive by rabbinic standards. In fact, the religious establishment ruled his teaching as blasphemous and called out for his crucifixion. Jesus in turn, categorized these self-appointed inquisitionists and sign-seekers as part of “an evil and adulterous generation” (Mt 16:1-4). And right after exposing his adversaries, he warns his disciples about the yeast or teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 16:11-12). Towards the end of the chapter 16 he tells his disciples (the ones who Jesus will commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel), “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Jesus’ followers, by the way, were his disciples as they were exclusively taught “to obey everything” he commanded them (Mt 28:20).

      What, therefore, is the goal or specific results set forth by Jesus for his eleven apostles (some found in doubt in verse 16) in his commission? In view of the yeast-infused interpretation and teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the specific goal is “to make disciples of all nations”—not just believers of any old teaching, but disciples like themselves, who obeyed everything he commanded them to the point of literally and ultimately taking up their crosses. Church history teaches us that the apostles, save for John, died martyrs for what they taught and obeyed—they all followed Jesus’ teaching and way of life to the death.

      I appreciate your visit to my hub and your concern regarding the questionable mention or addition of "disciples" in modern translations. It is based on the entire context of Matthew's gospel and the implication of Jesus' specific and subversive teachings over and against that of the teachings of scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees.

      Another interesting note: In Matthew 23:15 Jesus pronounced a woe to the scribes and Pharisees calling them hypocrites. Why? Because they cross sea and land to make a single convert and in the process of teaching and obeying their commission, if you will, they make the new convert twice as much a child of the devil as themselves! It's important to qualify what Jesus meant in Matthew 28:19. As opposed to going to all nations or ethnic people groups, "proselyting and making children or disciples of hell," rather Jesus said to his disciples, “Go therefore and teach all nations, meaning I give you a command to teach what I have taught you—a specific teaching that will result in “making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19) with all authority in heaven (not hell) and on earth that has been given me" (Mt 28:18).

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 

      9 years ago from Roseville, CA

      In response to those who don't advocate discipleship: Disciples are students of the Word, and we all must "study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth." (2 Tim 2:15/Acts 17:11) How are we to "test the spirits" if we don't study and rightully divide the Word?

      Cults happen because people don't study; they just read English words and develop their own interpretations, starting false doctrines. Jesus told his disciples to "Follow Me", and He is still speaking these words to the hearts of men. To follow Him means to be a disciple, study His teachings rightfully and teach them to others, by accurately preaching and equipping the saints to test the spirits of the prophets/prophecies.

      Gicky, I am blessed by your writings and teachings as always. Water baptism is stated in the Word as that of repentance; yet salvation came upon those who believed prior to water baptism also. So you are correct, that water baptism does not save us. The washing of the heart is what saves us (the blood of Jesus Christ) Amen! God bless you mightily as you continue in His ministry.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Disciples is questionable no disciples mentioned....only modern bibles have disciples added to the verse. caused cults

      M't:28:19: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:


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