This is the sixth and final post in a series on baptism. Primarily, my concern is to determine the various meanings of the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizo), 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 (baptizo) 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 (baptizo).
In this post, I want to examine several passages in the New Testament that do not mention water as the medium of baptism in the context. In some cases, there is no medium mentioned at all. In other cases, the medium mentioned is not what we might expect. Thus, these passages are ambiguous – at best – in terms of the meaning of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo).
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 specify water as the medium for baptism in some passages. And, since we have seen that the authors of the New Testament use the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) 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 (baptizo) 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 (baptizo).
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 (baptizo) 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 (baptizo) 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 (baptizo) 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 and mediums for the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) 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, this does not mean that every instance of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) means “immerse in water.”
Examining the Verb “Baptize” Series:
- The verb Baptize in the Old Testament (LXX)
- The verb Baptize in Philo’s writings
- The verb Baptize in Josephus’ writings
- The verb Baptize in a context with water in the New Testament
- The verb Baptize in a context WITHOUT water in the New Testament
- The verb Baptize in ambiguous contexts in the New Testament