The Gospels tell us that John the Baptist was sent by God to announce the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He preached out in the wilderness near the Jordan River and many people gathered to hear him. The message he declared was, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NLT).
The word “repent” comes from Greek word metanoia, which means “a transformative change of heart, or a spiritual conversion.” It literally means “to change your mind.”
John instituted a symbolic act—baptism—which was an outward sign to demonstrate the change of heart that had taken place internally. Those who desired God’s forgiveness for their sins came to the Jordan River and gathered on the shore. Then one by one, they entered the water to have John perform this outward act of baptism—submerging them entirely under the water.
The Bible says that baptism is a symbol of dying to our old sinful nature and rising again into new life in Christ. Water baptism is a symbolic act of our old nature—the Bible also calls it our “old man”—dying with Christ and then our new life or ”new man” being resurrected with Christ.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4 ESV).
In water baptism, you act out what has happened inwardly in your spirit—going from old to new, death to life, crucifixion to resurrection!
Water Baptism Is Christ’s Command
It’s important to remember that water baptism is not just a suggestion in the Bible. Jesus Himself commanded it:
“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, teaching them
to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV).
However, while this ritual is an important experience in the life of a believer, we must remember that water baptism does not lead to salvation. Instead, the act of being baptized is a public witness of the salvation that you have already received by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Many stories in Scripture show that the early church leaders moved immediately to have new believers baptized. A powerful example is when Paul and Silas were arrested for preaching the Gospel in Acts 16 (NASB). While chained in a dungeon, they offered up praise to God despite their circumstances. Suddenly an earthquake shook the jail, and the chains and the doors came unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he took a sword and was about to commit suicide. Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here” (v. 28). Trembling with fear, the jailer asked how he could be saved. Paul answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31). The jailer believed, and he and his family were immediately baptized (v. 33).
Jesus Christ Is Our Example
One of the most amazing moments in the Bible is when Jesus humbled himself and asked John to baptize Him in the Jordan River. Remember, John’s baptism was for repentance of sin. But Jesus lived a sinless life, so there was no need for Him to be baptized.
So why did He do it?
In the last chapter, we spoke about how our goal is to become like Christ. Most theologians believe that Jesus submitted to baptism as an example for the rest of humankind to follow. God places such a value on water baptism that Jesus makes it the first act of His public ministry. Then God the Father validates Jesus at the same time that the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. In a voice from heaven the Father said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy” (Luke 3:22 NLT).
There is Only One Baptism
The apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians that there is in a sense only one official baptism from God’s perspective.
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-5 ESV).
This verse has caused some confusion over the years because the Bible also speaks of other baptisms—including the baptism of John, the baptism by Jesus’ disciples, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So which baptism is THE baptism that Paul is speaking of? The words of John the Baptist give us clarity on this question: “I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8 NASB).
John is making it clear that to be baptized with the Holy Spirit is the most important thing. John baptized with water, but through Jesus, we are baptized with the Holy Spirit at the time of our salvation—where the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and makes His residence in our hearts.
While water baptism is an important outward sign, the ONE baptism that Paul speaks of is the baptism of the heart at the time of salvation. Once again, water baptism is a powerful ritual, but it is not required for salvation.
There is a difference, however, between this baptism of the Holy Spirit at the time of our salvation and the infilling of the Holy Spirit for power to be God’s witnesses in the earth. Some have also called this a “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” or the “filling with the Holy Spirit.” This clear distinction is shown when Paul arrived in Ephesus and he found some disciples. He asked them:
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we
have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what
then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism” (Acts 19:2 ESV).
So the Bible makes it clear that these people are already believers and disciples of Jesus, but they had not “received” the Holy Spirit. They had only been baptized “into John’s baptism.” Paul then more fully explained the gift that was available to them—and the gift that is also available to you:
“And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the
people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On
hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when
Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they
began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (Acts 19:4-6 ESV).
This act of the filling of the Holy Spirit is subsequent to the Holy Spirit dwelling with us at the moment of salvation. This is a wonderful gift that gives the disciple access to the power of God. It also gives us the strength and courage to walk out the plan God has for our lives. We will talk about this in depth in chapter 4, “The Work of the Holy Spirit.”
The Power of Having Your Sins Washed Away
In the first chapter, we mentioned that there could be no sin in the presence of a perfect and holy God. So no one who has ever knowingly done wrong can go to Heaven based on his or her good works—their sin disqualifies them. The wonderful thing about receiving God’s free gift of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is that it completely washes our sins away. When we accept Jesus as our Savior, all our sins from the past, from the present, and even in the future are obliterated.
That is one of the powerful things that water baptism represents.
When you are submerged in that water during the act of baptism, it is a powerful symbol of how all your sins have been completely forgiven and “washed away” by the shed blood of Jesus. For as the writer of Hebrews declares:
“According to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT).
When Saul (later Paul) encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was directed to go into the city and meet with Ananias, a mature disciple of Jesus. When Ananias found him, he said to Saul, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16 ESV).
There is a wonderful old hymn of the Christian Church called “Nothing but the Blood,” that powerfully communicates this concept.
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! Precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
The message of this song is encapsulated in the symbolic, but powerful act of water baptism.
What Happens When You Are Water Baptized?
For some, the act of baptism is a symbolic moment, which is most often accompanied by great joy. Since this is a public declaration of faith, it can also be a somber occasion where the new believer ponders the decision that has been made to follow Jesus with all his/her heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37).
Sometimes, in His sovereign will, God will also bless a new believer with a spiritual gift during the time of water baptism. Some have been known to emerge from the water quoting Scripture, prophesying, or even speaking in tongues. The Bible calls these experiences “manifestations of the Holy Spirit” (more on this in chapter 4). Others have risen from the water experiencing supernatural peace and the ability to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt them in the past. Some have been filled with such joy that they laugh—sometimes uncontrollably. Some have been filled with such compassion and sorrow for the lost and hurting in this world that they weep.
Some have shared that after being water baptized they experienced a change in their thinking and a significant reduction in their desire to commit sin. Some have emerged from the water completely delivered from addictions to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, pornography, sexual sin, overeating, and other sinful cravings.
Others may not grasp what has taken place, and they see it as simply an act of obedience as a new Christian. And that is fine, too. What truly matters is that you have obeyed Jesus’ command to be baptized with water. God always honors and blesses obedience to His Word.
Being Filled with the Holy Spirit
In chapter 4, we will explore the exciting relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit. The Word of God and the Holy Spirit have the most powerful impact in helping a person grow from a believer into a disciple of Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit will empower you to make an impact on the world for the Kingdom of God!