the weblog of Alan Knox

Ambiguous Baptism in the New Testament

Posted by on Jan 17, 2008 in ordinances/sacraments | 8 comments

This is my sixth and final post in a series on baptism. Primarily, my concern is to determine the various meanings of the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō), and how those meanings may be used in the New Testament. So far, by examining the usage of the verb in the LXX, in Philo, and in Josephus, we’ve seen that βαπτίζω (baptizō) is very similar to the English verbs “immerse” and “plunge”. They can be used to mean “to submerge under water”, but they can also have other meanings. Thus, context becomes very important in understanding the meaning of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō). In this post, I want to examine several passages in the New Testament that do not mention the medium of baptism in the context. Thus, these passages are ambiguous – at best – in terms of the meaning of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō).

Now, before I start listing some of the passages, please note that I am not making a particular claim about these passages. I am merely recognizing that Scripture itself does not give us the medium for baptism. And, since we have seen that the authors of the New Testament use the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) with meanings other than “to immerse in water”, we must at least acknowledge that the meaning of the verb in these passages is ambiguous.

Also, some of these passages are very popular, and some are used in doctrinal positions for certain groups of Christians. Again, I am not making a statement about the meaning of these passages. I am only suggesting that “to immerse in water” may or may not be the best way to think about the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) in these passages.

First, consider the “Great Commission” from Matthew 28:19-20:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

When Jesus instructs his followers to “baptize”, does he mean “immerse in water”? Perhaps. This is the traditional interpretation. However, water is not mentioned in this context at all. As we’ve seen before, when the meaning of “baptize” is “immerse in water”, we usually find water in the context. If the phrase “in the name of the Father…” was changed to “in the water…”, then we would immediately know how to interpret the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō).

Could it be, then, that instead of “immersing in water”, Jesus has something else in mind? Could it be that in order to “make disciples” (the command), we need to “immerse” people in the “name” (character, authority, etc.) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? This seems to fit better into the context, especially when “teaching” is considered along with “baptizing”.

Again, I’m not making a definite claim at this point. I’m only demonstrating that this use of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) is ambiguous – that is, unclear from the context.

Also, consider the following passage from the second chapter of Acts:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:37-41 ESV)

Again, the traditional interpretation of the two instances of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) in this passage is “immerse in water”. Thus, Peter was instructing the people to “repent and be immersed in water”, and three thousand people were “immersed in water”. However, again, notice that water is not indicated in this context either.

If we begin back at Acts 1:4, we read the following:

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5 ESV)

Jesus told his followers that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” soon, pointing to the day of Pentecost. Later, the Spirit did descend on his followers, just like Jesus promised. In fact, the purpose of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is to demonstrate that the coming of the Holy Spirit was predicted in Scripture, made possible because of Christ, and was available to everyone listening to his words. Re-read Acts 2:37-41 above. When people ask Peter, “What should we do?”, his response was to tell them that the Promise (the Holy Spirit) was available to them. Those who received his words were “baptized”… in water? … or in the Spirit?

These are only two passages where the meaning of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) is ambiguous, that is, the medium of immersion is not clear from the context. If you would like to consider other “ambiguous” passages, look at Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33, Acts 19:1-5, Romans 6:3, 1 Corinthians 12:13, and Galatians 3:27. If some or all of these passages are not specifically about “immersing in water”, then we should consider other possible meanings for the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) in these contexts.

Again, I still believe that John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Philip, and others in the New Testament practiced water baptism by immersion. I still believe that baptism in water is an important method of testifying to the work of Christ in a person’s life. However, my belief in water baptism does not mean that every instance of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) means “immerse in water”.


Baptism Series
1. Baptism in the LXX
2. Baptism in Philo
3. Baptism in Josephus
4. Water Baptism in the New Testament
5. Other Baptism in the New Testament
6. Ambiguous Baptism in the New Testament


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-18-2008


    Thanks for all the work you have put into these posts. You have made me think, in particular, about how I go about interpreting scripture. I realize that I sometimes tend to read into passages things that aren’t necessarily there.


  2. 1-19-2008


    You are an excellent teacher. Glory to God for the gifting you carry!
    I enjoyed your thoroughness, clarity and balance.

    Good job!!

  3. 1-20-2008


    I think we all tend to read things into different passages. I know that I do this at times. This is one thing that we can help each other with.

    David (ded),

    Yes, if you or others learn anything from me, then please give all honor to God.


  4. 1-21-2008


    Thanks for these posts. I just started reading them, but they have already given me a lot to think about. I have always been struck by the fact that in each of the gospels and in the book of Acts the authors are careful to point out the distinction between water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit. I am just as struck by the fact that most of the bible teachers I have sat under (maybe all) have failed to deal with this distinction. Or failed to realise it themselves. Being ” Baptists ” probably causes many of us to assume certain things when we approach any text with the word baptism in it.
    Thanks again for the post.


  5. 1-21-2008


    Thanks for the comment. I’ve also found that some shy away from talking about “baptism with the Holy Spirit” because they think they will be associated with the Pentecostal/Charismatic teaching.


  6. 10-8-2010

    Thanks for your thoughthful detail.

    In my own group in dealing with the command found in Matt. 28:19 we note”But water baptism is not here mentioned, and it is clear that spiritual baptism is intended, because “into the name” means “into the virtue and power or “into the character” of God.”

  7. 7-24-2012

    This was an interesting series. Do you understand the word’s root, “bapto”, to carry the meaning of immersion as well? And how do you handle the “diverse washings” in Hebrews 9:10? I’ve seen it tied into the sprinkling passages (verses 13, 19, 21) mentioned throughout the remainder of the chapter. I’d love to get your thoughts on this stuff.

  8. 7-24-2012


    You may have noticed that I’m re-publishing this series now – fixing the Greek fonts and adding/modifying a few things here and there. I’d prefer to wait until the end of this update before responding to your comment. But, quickly, I have not studied the verb “bapto,” and I know there were several different kinds of washings among Jews and Christians. Neither of those include the verb “baptizo” which I studied in this series. Also, I was primarily looking at how the meaning of the verb “baptizo” changes based on the context, specifically when water is not part of the context.



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