Water Baptism - What's the picture?

You may remember some months ago when I posted about the controversy over baptism among Oklahoma Southern Baptists. The situation surrounding that post was a nasty fight about whether or not baptism should be required for membership within a local church.

Perhaps the only good that came out of that spat for me was that it caused me to hone in on exactly what I believe should be essential for membership within a local church, and exactly what the Scriptures say about the purpose for baptism.

As a part of that thinking, I've been looking through the Scriptures at the various references to baptism, and have come up with a question: What exactly is baptism supposed to picture?

The answer I gave for many years was that baptism pictures the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the traditional stance of the Baptist church and of most of the Bible churches with whom I'm familiar. This view is based first on the fact that it makes sense to us. Water baptism (by immersion) is a good picture of someone dying, being placed in the ground, and rising out of the grave. Secondly, the view that water baptism is a picture of Christ's death and resurrection is based on the fact that Romans 6 describes baptism along with the death and resurrection of Christ.

However, I'm not sure this was what the first church would have had in mind when they were dunked. The picture of death and resurrection might be clear to us today, but would it have been as clear to a person in the first century? Jesus was buried in a cave, not in a hole in the ground. The burial practices for most people in ancient Israel was not anything like what we picture today. As a result, I'm not sure that the image would have been quite as potent to a first century Christian as it is to us today.

With regard to Romans 6, I think we ought to reexamine the passage. Romans 6:3-4 says

"Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (6:3-4).

If Romans 6 is talking about water baptism, we need to reexamine our theology of salvation. Because if Romans 6 is talking about water baptism, the only way to "live a new life" is to be water baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. This passage isn't talking about water baptism at all. In fact, as my father-in-law has said, "Romans 6 doesn't hold any water. There's no water in Romans 6."

Furthermore, people were water baptized long before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What did that baptism picture? Add to that that Jesus was baptized. Was Jesus identifying Himself with His own death and resurrection? That seems like a little bit of a stretch.

I've thought of a couple of possibilities for what baptism might picture other than the death and resurrection of Christ. First, it could be a picture of cleansing. This would have been clear to the first century Christians - most of Jewish origin - who might have seen it as a reference to the priest's ceremonial bathing to demonstrate his cleanliness before God.

It might also be possible that baptism was just supposed to demonstrate a person's identification with Christ. You might know that the Greek word "baptizo" literally meant "to dip." A person who worked with cloth might "baptize" her cloth in die so that a white piece of cloth would be identified as blue. Maybe baptism was simply intended to demonstrate identification in the sense that we're identifying ourselves with Christ Himself and nothing more.

I'm not sure I know the answer. What I do know is that baptism is commanded of Christ-followers. I do know that it seems to be important to Jesus (Matthew 28:18) and to the apostles who began the early church.

So I'm opening up the table for you. What do you think? What's the picture intended by baptism?


梦中林 said...
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Terry said...

Bro. Chris,

I have stumbled upon your blog on Water Baptism and have enjoyed what I have read. You ask some pointed questions to which I have asked some years ago and still wonder the same thing.

Some, as well as myself, have often taken on the traditional definition of water baptism as you have. But I often wonder if today's believer truly understands the concept and principle of water baptism as Christ commanded.

So here is my struggle. I am taking on the task of teaching a water baptism class and still wonder the following things: What is the true meaning of Water Baptism? Why should one be Water Baptism? How do I debunk the confusion of Water Baptism? and How do I make it relevant for today's believer?

I have been "in" the ministry for over 25 years and I feel as if I do not have all of the answers. So as I begin the class tomorrow, I have the privilege of conveying what the Spirit of the Lord will be giving me as I avail myself to Him.

Pastor Terry

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