Summary: The Bible makes few mandates for baptism, but what it does demand makes it beautiful.
In Matthew 3 we are introduced to the Baptism of Christ. This ceremony which has become the norm for almost all Christian churches is also the subject of some division and much misunderstanding.
To help us appreciate baptism and its significance.
We will look at what is and what is not mandated for baptism and the meaning of baptism.
The principal sacrament
Baptism can be viewed as a sacrament. The most ancient definition of a sacrament used by the early church fathers was a physical act with divine grace, that included physical ceremonies for the church, but was also broad enough that some called all of life a sacrament. Later definitions became more complicated and divisive. The principal sacrament is baptism. Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:13-17) though the mode is unclear, as we will later discuss. Baptism pictured a new beginning in Moses for Israel (1 Corinthians 10:2), a new beginning through Noah’s flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), neither of which were immersions. It also is pictured in Jesus’ suffering (Luke 12:50) and washing away our sins (Mark 7:4; Titus 3:5). Invoking the name of the Trinity is mandated (Matthew 28:19) but the mode or age are not. Baptism of the Holy Spirit was pictured by fire landing on people’s heads (Acts 1:5; 2:3) and so either placing water on the head or immersion are appropriate. The regeneration of baptism or rebirth differs it from all other ceremonies that could be called sacraments.
If it was good enough for Jesus...
Have you ever heard someone say that if an immersion baptism was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me? We read that Jesus came "up out of the water" after his baptism. The Greek in Matthew 3:16 means Jesus literally came "up away from" the water. It is perhaps purposefully not clear whether he was immersed or merely stood ankle deep. Some early church mosaics and paintings show Jesus standing ankle deep in the Jordan River and John the Baptist using a shell to pour water over him. In this case Jesus would have also come up out of the water when he left. Historical evidence outside the Bible suggest that Jesus probably was immersed, but the Bible record is perhaps purposefully vague. Is the method of baptism not as important as the fact of baptism?
Dippers & washers
Who is right about baptism, the dippers or the washers? Baptize literally means to dip, but in the Bible it is not always used literally. It is also used to mean wash (Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38; Acts 22:16). So both are correct. But doesn’t history tell us that dipping was the original mode? History is not infallible. So, Protestant faith is based on sola scriptura, the Bible alone, and the Bible is deliberately vague as to which mode is preferable. When Jesus came up out of the water after his baptism, it could have been ankle deep (Matthew 3:16). Israel was baptized into Moses by walking dry shod through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). So, less literal modes of baptism like washing are also legitimate. Dippers and washers are equally baptized into Jesus Christ.
Right or righteous
A choice between two good things is often the most difficult of all. It’s a dilemma to make a decision between doing the right thing versus fulfilling all righteousness. Both choices may be good and right, but which one is God’s will? As Jesus approached John to be baptized (Matthew 3:13-17), the right thing in John’s mind was that he should be baptized by Jesus. Logically, the lesser ought to be baptized by the superior. However, that was not Jesus’ purpose. His purpose at that time was humility not high position. He was born in a stable, served in an itinerant ministry without a building and died on the cross. What was God’s reaction to Jesus’ choice of taking the lesser position? He was well-pleased. How about us? Do we always demand our rights or willingly fulfill all righteousness?
What is baptism
Repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins and receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39) included children. Baptism is to wash away sins (Acts 22:16). God can choose to give the Holy Spirit before physical baptism (Acts 10:45-48). It is the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), a spiritual rebirth. Jesus declared baptism necessary (John 3:5). It is a baptism into Jesus and his death and a new life (Romans 6:3-5). It is also like circumcision (Colossians 2:11-13), performed on children. Three whole households were baptized (Acts 16:15; 16:33; 1 Corinthians 1:16). At least one must have contained children. A baptism is a physical washing (the mode is unimportant), a spiritual washing (cleansing from sin) and must include Jesus' prescribed invocation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).