Why I Believe Baptism is Essential (June 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By John Alan Turner

Imagine for a moment that you’re a man living in the first century. Your mother is Greek. Your father is Roman. You grew up hearing stories of Greek and Roman gods like Zeus and Apollo.

Then, as an adult, you move to Jerusalem to do business. You’re not very religious, but you’re doing business with Jewish people who are very religious.

Because you’re a good businessperson, you want to learn more about what these Jewish people believe, how they think. You find out they only believe in one God. But they really believe. And they’re good people; they live with good morals.

This idea of one God intrigues you. You even start reading some of their literature. You have a couple of kids, and you’re starting to wonder how you might be able to raise them with good morals and values.

You go so far as to ask some of your Jewish friends what it would take for you to become Jewish. Does that even happen, or do you have to be born into it?

Your friends assure you that it does happen, but you’ll have to ask a professional about the details. You get taken to the outer court of the Temple where you meet with some experts on Jewish law. They tell you there are several things you have to do.

First, you must be circumcised.

(At this point, you start to think that maybe Zeus isn’t so bad.)

Second, you must submit to the Law of Moses. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. There are 10 of these commandments and a lot of other rules about what you can’t eat.

Third, there’s a formal meal you have to eat once a year. It re-affirms a covenant from a long time ago.

Fourth, there’s a special sacrifice you have to make with a priest in the Temple.

Finally, there’s a ceremony where you wash yourself in a pool. Really, there’s no washing involved. It’s more just a dip. You immerse yourself in water. It’s symbolic of washing away your Gentile-ness and coming out of the water as a Jewish convert. It’s almost like you get born again when you come up out of the water. You’ve now come alive to Judaism.

This is a lot to think about, and you want to go home and talk with your wife about this. But you’re concerned that you might not be able to remember everything they said. So, you ask them to write down the list of things you have to do.

When they get to the last item on the list, the word they write down is the word everyone would use for “wash” — that word was baptizo.

You may have been told that this word meant “dip, plunge or immerse” but, according to most Greek dictionaries, it could also mean “sink, drown, bathe, wash.”

Most people in the first century would think one of two things when they heard this word. First, they would think of dyeing fabric. Second, they would think of washing something. It was just a regular, common Greek word that people used everyday. It was not a religious word at all.

So, when the Jewish lawyers told you about a ceremonial bath, you understood it as washing. You were symbolically being cleansed of your Gentile-ness and you were putting on Jewishness. Their use of the word baptizo made perfect sense to you.

There’s even a story in Luke 11 in which Jesus is invited to have dinner with a guy who is surprised that Jesus doesn’t wash his hands before he sits down to eat. The author of that story uses a Greek word that is a variation of baptizo. The word he uses is baptisthe, and it gets translated “wash” in that context.

It gets translated as “wash,” because that’s what it meant. It doesn’t mean that Jesus should have immersed his hands while chanting a mystical incantation. He didn’t pray first and ask his hands some questions about their beliefs or their intentions. Jesus was expected to put his hands in some water and wash them off. Period.

The point is this: baptism was a normal word that meant “wash” and had no religious baggage tied to it.

Now you have your written list of things you must do in order to convert to Judaism in your hands. You head home, but your wife’s not there. You ask the kids, “Where’s your mother?”

They say, “She’s down at the river washing clothes.”

You go down to the river and begin telling her about your conversation, but, before you can even get to circumcision, you hear some guy yelling.

You ask your wife, “Who is that?”

She says, “He’s been here all day yelling at people. He looks like a crazy homeless man.”

You go check him out, and he’s saying some really interesting things — especially in light of your recent conversation with the Jewish legal experts. He’s saying, “Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand! There is one coming who is greater than I am. Get ready for him. I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes, but you should make sure you’re ready to meet him.”

There’s a large crowd gathered, so you ask one of the people there about him. You learn his name is John. As you’re watching, John wades out into the water, and people line up to go out to him. When they get to him, he washes them. Does he dunk them? Immerse them? Plunge them? Splash them? Dowse them?

Any of those actions would fit with what you know about the word baptizo. So, it doesn’t surprise you to know that he’s got a nickname: John the Washing Man. John the Dunker. John the Dipper. John the Plunger. John the Dowser. John the Baptizer.

Even though you’re not a really religious person, you can tell that there’s some kind of religious significance to this. He’s not just giving them a bath. They’re buying into what he’s saying, and the people who buy in get washed. This is just like the thing Gentiles do to become Jewish. But all these people are already Jewish.

There’s one thing that’s different here, though. You were told you’d be going into the pool alone, dipping yourself under the water and coming out. But these people are going to John and having him wash them.

Suddenly, John the Washer looks at you and points his finger and says, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

What?!

Then you feel a firm hand on your shoulder and are gently pushed aside as this other guy walks past you.

“Who is that?” you ask the person next to you.

“It’s John’s cousin. His name is Jesus.”

You’ve heard some things about this Jesus. He’s supposed to be a really great teacher of some kind. And you’ve heard rumors that he can perform miracles.

Jesus walks out into the water and tells his cousin, “I want you to wash me.”

John says, “I can’t wash you. You wash me.”

“No, John, you have to wash me.”

“I don’t want to wash you. I want you to wash me.”

Eventually, John relents and washes Jesus in front of all these people. Jesus comes up out of the water, and everyone hears a voice from the sky say, “I am so proud of my Son.”

Then, a bunch of people follow Jesus while John continues to baptizo people.

Jesus takes his followers to another place, and they start washing people, too. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t do it, but some of his followers do.

Now there are two groups of people washing others.

This is a little confusing, since it’s different from what you were told earlier by the Jewish scholars. But you’re starting to figure out that this washing thing has to do with who you’re following. You can follow John and be washed by him. But John seems to be telling people that Jesus is the one they should really be following.

So, maybe it would be better to go to Jesus and have his followers wash you.

Or you could go back to the Temple and baptizo yourself.

The question you’ve got to answer for yourself is this: Who do you want to follow? With which group do you want to be associated?

That’s how baptism, as we know it, got started.

One other thing: Jesus continues doing his ministry and John continues doing his. John eventually gets arrested and killed, and some of his followers leave Jerusalem to go into other parts of the world doing what John did, telling people to get ready for the one who is coming.

Jesus gets arrested and killed, comes back to life and goes back to heaven. There are people going around the world telling others, “He’s coming,” but he has already come and gone.

Years later, in Acts 19, the Apostle Paul meets some of these people in a city called Ephesus. They’re still telling people, “Get ready for the one who is coming.”

Paul asks them where they’d heard this message, and they tell him they got it straight from John the Washing Man. Paul informs them that the one who was to come has come and gone.

They had been baptized by John the Washer; then they took off to tell everyone his message. Now they get additional information, so they get re-washed by Paul in the name of Jesus.

And that’s really what the New Testament teaches about baptism. From then on, everyone who believed in Jesus was washed in his name.

Run back through what you know about history now. When a person wanted to convert from being a Gentile to being a Jew, what did they do? They made a public declaration of a new association, and this washing ceremony was part of it.

Why did John baptize people who were already Jewish? These people were making a public declaration that they were associating with John and his teaching about the one who was to come.

Why was Jesus baptized by John? He was telling everyone that John’s message was legitimate by identifying himself with that message.

Jesus’ disciples baptized people who wanted to associate with their teaching. Once Jesus physically left the earth, you couldn’t physically associate with him anymore. But you could be baptized in his name. You could have your old identity symbolically washed away, and you could symbolically come alive to a new way of living. And that’s the best way I know of explaining the meaning of baptism today. Baptism is a public declaration of a new association, a public statement of your new identity. Does it really matter if you were splashed or held under for a good, long time? Do the right words have to be spoken in the right order? Do you have to understand all the fine points of Christian doctrine?

No. No. And no.

Baptism isn’t the thing. Baptism is supposed to point to the thing. The thing is your faith in Jesus Christ. But sometimes people are like dogs. When you point to a ball, a dog usually just looks at your finger.

I do not believe your baptism saves you. It is by grace through faith that we are saved — because of the completed work of Christ on our behalf.

But I do believe baptism is essential for salvation — as in “fundamental” or “central” to the nature of salvation. There’s no salvation without publicly identifying with your Savior, and that’s what baptism is.

Seen in this light, why wouldn’t you want to do it? What would it say about the nature of your faith if you didn’t do it?

Baptism is a way of saying, “I’m going all in with this Jesus guy and these Jesus people. I want to be associated with him and with them.”

And that’s why I believe baptism actually is essential.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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