Chapter 4

Baptism As Practiced By Christ And The Apostles

In the days after John’s ministry, Jesus and His apostles included baptism in their own public ministries. As we seek to understand the meaning of baptism for ourselves, it’s important for us to follow the unfolding story of what it meant to them.


Jesus’ Practice Of Baptism. After His baptism by John, Jesus, through His disciples, baptized those who came to Him:

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized (Jn. 3:22; see 4:2).

While we might speculate that Christ, like John, baptized in anticipation of the need for personal and national repentance, no details are given about His baptismal message or methods.

Nevertheless, it was such a significant part of His early ministry, that some of the followers of John were so disturbed and threatened by Jesus’ practice of baptism that they called it to the prophet’s attention:

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified— behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!” (v.26).

John’s response was a beautiful expression of the change of heart he was asking of the nation. He replied:

A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, “I am not the Christ,” but, “I have been sent before Him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease (vv.27-30).

Jesus’ Picture Of Baptism. Jesus did not just practice baptism, however. He used the word picture of baptism and the principle behind it when dealing with a problem among His followers.

Two of His disciples (James and John) sent their mother to Jesus to request that, in the kingdom, they be allowed to sit on either side of Christ the King. It was an audacious request that outraged the other disciples. In dealing with the question, however, Christ did not speak in terms of their audacity—He spoke in terms of the broader spiritual meaning behind the physical act of baptism.

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mk. 10:38).

Here it is clear that Christ was using baptism, along with the cup, as a picture of being fully involved and immersed in what awaited Him. The cup points to Christ’s words at the Last Supper in which He took in His hand the cup and told His men that His very life-blood was going to be “shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28).

He then told them about a coming “immersion” He would face—challenging them to think about whether they could embrace that baptism. What was it? According to Bible scholar William Hendriksen:

The word “to be baptized” is probably used here in the figurative sense of “to be overwhelmed” by agony. Jesus must be plunged into distress (The Gospel Of Mark, p.412).

Could they be fully and completely involved with Him in His suffering? Certainly not. In fact, of the two brothers, James did not even stand with Christ at the cross—let alone allow himself to be “overwhelmed by agony.” In reality, they were making a promise that could not withstand the test of being “baptized” into the consequences of that promise.

Jesus’ Command To Baptize. Interestingly, as Jesus’ personal baptism began His earthly ministry, some of His final commands include the challenge to His followers to baptize and be baptized:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” —Jesus (Mt. 28:19)

As part of Christ’s Great Commission to His followers, Jesus regarded baptism as being part of the discipling process. He told His disciples to baptize converts in the “name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Pastor James M. Boice said this of the baptism Christ called for in this commission:

This does not mean that empty rites or ceremonies are to take the place of a vital relationship with Christ. Rather, first, at some point one’s commitment to Jesus as Savior and Lord must become public, for baptism is a public act (it is a declaration before the world that a person intends to follow Jesus); and, second, the person is uniting with the church, which is Christ’s visible body. This is both natural and necessary. If a person is truly converted, he or she will want to join with other similarly converted people (The Gospel Of Matthew, Volume 2, pp.648-649).


When Christ ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1), He left behind a cadre of followers who were committed to the message of the cross. But they were also committed to obeying Christ’s instruction about baptism.

Baptism In The Book Of Acts. In the early church, new believers were baptized. This practice began on the Day of Pentecost:

Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” . . . Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them (Acts 2:38,41).

On the day the church was born, baptism became the external mark of identification for those who had committed their lives to Christ. The imagery of cleansing from the mikvah and the transformational call pictured in John’s baptism were foundational to the baptismal practices of the fledgling church.

Verse 38, however, raises a huge question. What does it mean to be baptized “for the remission of sins”? And what are the implications of that statement on salvation by grace through faith?

There’s no question that Peter linked repentance and conversion, and then linked baptism to both. The question that has been debated for centuries is how those three relate to one another.

While there continues to be much disagreement about Peter’s intended meaning in Acts 2:38, Bible scholar George Ladd gives us some helpful thinking:

Baptism would be the public evidence of [a] repentant spirit . . . The reception of the Holy Spirit is not dependent upon baptism, but it follows baptism which is an outward and visible sign of a penitent spirit. In the early church, converts were baptized without delay. So being baptized and receiving the Spirit were practically simultaneous (The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p.1128).

Others have pointed out that when Peter said, “Let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” the word for can refer to being baptized “with a view toward” the forgiveness that comes through Christ.

The record of the early church’s practice of baptism continues throughout the book of Acts (8:36; 10:47-48; 16:15; 18:8; 19:5), and in every case it seems to have been the outward public response of those who looked to Christ and His rescue as the source of their forgiveness and new life.

Baptism In Paul’s Letters. More than any other apostle, Paul presented his perspectives on baptism when he wrote about this practice in his own public ministry.

Paul’s Own View Of Ministry. While recognizing the important spiritual significance of baptism, Paul apparently did not make baptism a priority of his own public ministry. We see this in his letter to the Corinthians, wher e he asked those who had developed an unhealthy identification with their own leaders:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other (1 Cor. 1:13-16).

Paul baptized only a few people himself. Apparently, he did not want to confuse the grace and salvation of God with the physical act of baptism. His priority was preaching the gospel, not baptizing new believers (v.17).

At the very least, this shows us that Paul did not view baptism as a work necessary for salvation. He saw it as an act of obedience for the redeemed, not as a part of the redemptive transaction.

Paul’s Words On “Spirit Baptism.”

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13).

Here Paul sees baptism as more than a public rite involving water. If he was referring to water baptism at all in this passage, he was referring to a baptism that physically and publicly illustrated how the Spirit of God has placed us into the body of Christ. His focus was not about being immersed in water or in the Spirit. Rather, his focus was on the fact that we come into relationship with one another by the same Spirit as we place our faith in Christ.

Paul’s Teaching On “Baptism Into Christ.”

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? (Rom. 6:3). For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27).

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about Spirit baptism, he was clearly speaking of the believer being placed into one body—the body of Christ. In a similar way, in his letter to the Galatians he referred to being baptized “into Christ.” Here Paul was not primarily speaking of being identified with Christ in the eyes of men. Instead, he was emphasizing that in God’s eyes those who have been “baptized into Christ” actually died with Christ when He became our substitute in His death.

Paul’s Statement On Baptism For The Dead. While Paul wrote to clarify the nature of what it meant to be immersed and washed “in Christ,” sometimes he made statements that are difficult to understand in our own day and culture. For instance, Paul raised an interesting and confusing thought about baptism when he wrote:

Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? (1 Cor. 15:29).

This statement has been taken by some to imply that we can be baptized not only as an expression of our own faith but also in behalf of those who have already died.

In reality, however, Paul didn’t tell us what he was referring to when he spoke of baptism for the dead. So it’s dangerous to build a theological position on such an obscure passage.

Because Paul made the comment while emphasizing the importance of a future resurrection of the dead, it’s likely that he was referring to a pagan practice to illustrate belief in an afterlife, without intending to affirm the practice itself.

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