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UNDERSTANDING: On the Lord’s Side

What the Bible teaches about Baptism…..



The scene was a secluded mountain in Galilee. A small group of disciples had gathered upon the hillside at the appointed place where they would meet the risen, glorious Lord – “but some doubted” (1). Perhaps it seemed too good to be true. After all that he had suffered, was He really alive again? The raging storms that had buffeted our Saviour at Calvary had passed; there must have been such a beautiful tranquility about that mountain spot that the disciples would never forget it. But the words uttered by the Lord on that occasion would never be forgotten either. Knowing that the time had come when He would depart, He issued His final instructions to them. These are words that have “stirred the heart of the Christian Church ever since and have sent countless missionary witnesses to earth’s remotest corners with the Good News of salvation.” (2)


In the words recorded by Matthew at the end of his Gospel (Mt.28:18-20), three distinct tasks were committed to those early believers – and to us too. First, they were “to teach” – or, better, “make disciples” – of all nations. Second, those who became disciples were to be baptized – “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” (emphasis added). Third, these baptized disciples were to be taught “to observe all things” commanded by the Lord Jesus.




Today, almost two thousand years after these famous words were uttered, we find ourselves surrounded by all kinds of differing views among Christians whenever the subject of baptism is raised. Some believe in sprinkling, others in total immersion. There is baptism for adults, for children, for households. Why is there such diversity of opinion? There is no evidence at all that the early Christians were confused by the Lord’s instructions! What has happened?


Paul once revealed his fear that the Corinthians might be “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (3). Down the centuries “clever” men have claimed to possess a fresh understanding of many Christian doctrines – baptism included – and have sometimes developed a new line of teaching by means of complicated reasoning. There are two ways in which we can interpret Scripture – one wrong and the other right. Imposition is the wrong way. By this method I impose my own thoughts upon the Word of God, making it say what I want it to say. Exposition is ever the correct approach, letting Scripture speak for itself. In considering baptism, we must endeavour to lay aside any preconceived ideas and read the Scriptures openly, letting the Holy Spirit interpret its message to our souls.


Various types of baptism are found in the Word of God. Both John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus baptized others. The Lord Jesus spoke of His death in terms of a baptism (4).  The baptism with the Holy Spirit, baptism with fire, and Jewish baptisms are among other types mentioned. Our purpose here, however, is to concentrate upon believers’ baptism, or Christian baptism as some prefer to call it.


The classic passage dealing with baptism is found in Romans 6. Here Paul speaks of our being “baptized into Jesus Christ” (v.3). Spiritually, this took place at the moment of conversion when we trusted Him as our Saviour and Lord and came into the blessing of His salvation. Physically, however, a literal baptism (which is a public demonstration of the work of God within the heart) should take place. William MacDonald wrote: “Baptism speaks of our identification with Christ in His death and introduces or marks the beginning of a new life, namely, His life lived out in us.” (5)





One of the first things that must be done is to establish what the word baptize really means. Greek scholar W.E. Vine has pointed out that the Greek verb from which our word “baptize” is derived means to dip. It “was used among the Greeks to signify the dyeing of a garment or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another.” (6)  That being so, when baptism is practised it needs to be by immersion, rather than by sprinkling. It is true that sprinkling was practised in Bible times – particularly in the Old Testament – but there is no evidence whatever to suggest that baptism involved sprinkling. We read in Exodus, for instance, of the sprinkling of blood (7), and those who were anointed with oil had it sprinkled upon them. The word “anoint” is found in the New Testament and is associated with the work of the Holy Spirit, but it is never used in connection with baptism. Those today who sprinkle water when performing a baptism appear to be confusing practices and doing something more akin to anointing. Further, immersion fits the doctrine of baptism unfolded in Romans as well as the practice of it in Acts, as we shall see.


The believer who is baptized demonstrates that, spiritually, he died with Christ, was buried with Him, and rose from death with Him. In baptism he is saying, “When Jesus died, I died – because He died for me. When He was buried, I was buried too and my old life was put away. Just as He rose from the dead, I am coming up from the water to show that I want to live a new life for Him.” Already we have noted how the Lord Jesus intended that those who become disciples should be baptized (8). It is hard to see how the baptism of any unconverted person can be made to fit into these passages. Indeed, to baptize someone who has never experienced the new birth is to destroy the whole meaning of Romans 6.




In the Book of Acts we find the early believers carrying out the Lord’s “Great Commission”. Looking simply at the narrative, let us see what we can learn from each baptism recorded there.

First of all, in Acts 2, Peter preached a stirring sermon on the Day of Pentecost, culminating in the victorious truth “that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (v.36). Overwhelmed with the thought of what they had done, the Jewish listeners cried, “What shall we do?” (v.37). Peter’s answer was simple and concise: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” (v.38). These people were members of the nation that had rejected their Messiah. They were to prove the reality of their repentance by coming out publicly on the Lord’s side and parting company with the “untoward generation” to which they belonged, (v.40). As a result of this, “they that gladly received His word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (v.41). Gladly receiving the Word proved that they believed; baptism followed their believing. 


In Acts 8 the scene switches from Jerusalem to Samaria. This time the evangelist is Philip, who “preached Christ unto them” (v.5). As a result of this, people “believed” and “were baptized, both men and women” (v.12). When he was called to leave this remarkable work and go to the desert, Philip obeyed (v.26). The rest of the chapter describes his divine appointment with a man from Ethiopia who was returning home in his chariot. The man was reading a scroll he had obtained and at that very moment happened to be looking at Isaiah 53. From the Scripture open before him, Philip “preached unto him Jesus” (v.35). Seeing an oasis, the man requested baptism, and, assured that he was a genuine believer, Philip “baptized him” (v.36-38). Although the encounter was only brief, the man “went on his way rejoicing” (v.39). By being baptized he had obeyed the Lord, and obedience invariably results in rejoicing. Incidentally, the narrative states that both Philip and the Ethiopian man “went down … into the water” (v.38). This would have been necessary if the practice involved the baptismal candidate’s immersion.            


The dramatic conversion of Saul is the main theme in Acts 9. Following Ananias’ visit and the restoration of his sight, Saul’s one concern was to be baptized (v.18). The importance of baptism is again apparent in Acts 10 when Peter preached in the home of Cornelius. Convinced that these new Gentile believers had received the Holy Spirit in the same way as the Jews, Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (v.46-48). Clearly, as far as Peter was concerned, baptism was no optional extra!


Two further incidents concerning baptism are brought before us in Acts 16. In the first, Paul and Silas were visiting Philippi and made contact with a group of devout women at the river side. Among them was Lydia, a woman whose heart was opened by the Lord, and “she was baptized, and her household” (v.14-15). Afterwards, the Philippian jailor and all his family were baptized, having believed in God, (v.33-34). This second incident makes it plain that those who were baptized already believed in God, and we have no grounds really for inferring that anything else was intended in the earlier incident in the chapter.


The first part of Acts 18 describes the progress of the Gospel at Corinth. Here “Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized” (v.8). Once again the order is important – hearing, believing, and being baptized. No doubt Paul was recalling this occasion when he stated that apart from a few individual cases, he had not done the baptizing. His ministry had been to preach the Gospel (9). However, from Acts 18:8 it seems evident that Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas had all heard and believed before they were baptized.


The one remaining account of people being baptized is found in Acts 19:1-5. At Ephesus, Paul came across a number of disciples who had experienced only the “baptism of repentance” which had been performed by John the Baptist. On hearing the truth about Christ from Paul, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”. This incident strongly suggests that anything short of believers’ baptism is not enough. If these individuals (who had submitted to John’s baptism) saw the need to be baptized again as followers of the Lord Jesus, how much more important it is today for those who have experienced some sort of church ceremony as infants (mistakenly called “baptism”) to come out clearly on the Lord’s side through being baptized as true Christian believers.


A study of these passages in Acts reveals one thing that is generally different from the pattern of events today. In those early days, baptism followed very quickly after conversion. Today individuals very often are not baptized until some months or years after they have trusted the Lord. Although it is vital to understand what baptism means, perhaps we have erred in not preaching it more positively as something that should follow salvation.




It might be helpful to review some things that this brief survey has revealed from these references to baptism in the New Testament.


  • 1. Baptism follows believing rather than precedes it. The normal order of events is: hearing the message, believing it, and being baptized. A number of incidents in Acts make this clear.
  • 2. Baptism involves parting company with the world and declaring allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 3. Those who submit to Christian baptism are displaying obedience to Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit enables an obedient believer to rejoice.
  • 4. Baptism was not considered to be some kind of optional extra by God’s servants in Acts. They preached the need for believers to be baptized.
  • 5. Other ceremonies carried out prior to conversion (even if they are called “baptism”) are really not adequate. The person who has trusted Christ as Saviour and received Him as Lord will want to follow the biblical pattern and be baptized as a believer.
  • 6. It is difficult to see how the sprinkling of water fits the mode of Christian baptism. Paul uses the expression “buried with Him by baptism into death” (Rom.6:4). The person who is briefly submerged beneath the water is, in a sense, buried. Baptism by total immersion fits the picture used in Romans 6; sprinkling does not.


In a helpful pamphlet, R.K. Campbell has rightly stated: – “Baptism does not give newness of life, but is a profession of having it and purposing to walk in it.” (10) For some today (especially those converted from an Islamic background) baptism is a costly step. The disciple of Christ knows that by submitting to the ordinance of baptism, persecution will result because others will see the act as one of commitment to the Lord.


Have you believed on the Lord Jesus Christ? If He is your personal Saviour, have you been baptized? The Lord wants you to take this step and show that you are on His side. Don’t put it off. If you have been baptized as a believer in the Lord Jesus, are you living under His lordship? We must never forget that there are divine obligations in being His disciples, for our lives are to be lived for Him. Remember the confession of faith you made at your baptism and, with the Holy Spirit’s help, seek to “walk in newness of life” (11).


END NOTES:- (1)Matt.28:16-17.  (2)C.E. Tatham, Matthew, Emmaus Bible School, 1976.  (3)2 Cor.11:3.  (4)Matt.20:22.  (5)W. MacDonald, Buried by Baptism, Emmaus Bible School, 1957.  (6)W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Oliphants, 1940.  (7)Ex.24:8.  (8)Matt.28:19.  (9)1 Cor.1:13-17.  (10)R.K. Campbell, Baptism: What Is It? Scripture Truth Depot, U.S.A.  (11)Rom.6:4.