Something stands out right away to me, and that is that it is a much debated topic, with many opinions offered from many different denominations, and of course all claiming having the edge on it. I believe the main reason that there is such controversy, is because the matter is fought in our own understanding of scriptures, which like in many other cases can be very dreadful. True baptism of the Spirit versus ritual water baptism has been a thorny issue in the Church since the apostles. Many strange practices have been developing around water baptism, a good indication of the fact that the churches got through the ages weaker and weaker in putting the Word of God first (resulting in the problems we have, ever since). It also shows how sentimental activities become established rituals, and than are elevated to the status of doctrines, even though they have little or nothing to do with scripture, it becomes a routine in relative ignorance and under perhaps subliminal group pressure. And once it’s over, it’s over, life gets back to normal. However, believing water baptism to be important fosters a problem. For one thing, it obscures the importance of the baptism of the Spirit and has also been responsible for many misunderstandings about that key doctrine.
Now the main justifications for baptism are: When you are baptized, you are in fact visually preaching the gospel. As you stand in the water waiting to be baptized, A, you symbolize Jesus dying on the cross. As you are lowered into the water, B, you symbolize Jesus buried in the tomb. As you are raised from the water, C, you symbolize Jesus rising from the dead.
And since you personally are being baptized, you are also saying, “I died with Jesus Christ, I was buried with him and now I am raised with Christ to brand-new life.”
If one would conclude with careful, unbiased and critical interpretation of scripture, that the words “baptism/baptize” in the epistles invariably refer to the baptism of the Spirit. And how would this not be true? John foretold it.
Luke 3:16 says: “John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:”
In Mat 3:13-17 it says: Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You `come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. [Jesus saying, permit it at this time, Hm?] After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
I think it would be important to understand, that this passage is a very unique analogy to symbolize the message Jesus is representing. Jesus answered John in verse 15, “Permit it at this time” which should make us tune in, because i really believe it is not by coincident that he is saying it the way he does.
He is the only One whom John tried to prevent from being baptized. Why? Because John knew full well that Jesus was “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn.1:29). Jesus had no sin, but the baptism of John was a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk.1:4; Lk.3:3). Jesus had no need of repentance, for He had no sin. Beyond all argument, Jesus metaphorically is revealing of what is going to happen. What the baptism of John meant for Jesus was different from what it meant for everyone else. Jesus went down into the water where the sins of the world had been symbolically washed off, and took them symbolically upon Himself. And when He came up (a picture of the resurrection just as the baptism was a picture of the cross), the Spirit descended upon Him and the Father proclaimed His good pleasure with the Son and His work (Matt.3:16-17; a preview of the ascension and session). It is impossible for us to duplicate the symbolism of Jesus’ water baptism by our own water baptism, because His water baptism presaged His death for us on the cross. That is why He says prior to His suffering “I have a baptism to undergo”, speaking of His sacrifice on the cross (Lk.12:50; cf. Mk.10:38).
This last point about John’s baptism is important from another perspective as well. John’s baptism was, as quoted above, “for repentance and forgiveness” and his ministry had the purpose “to prepare a people ready for the Lord” (Lk.1:17). In other words, John’s baptism was looking forward to the ministry of the Messiah and to the cross. Now that the Messiah has come and the cross is a reality, it does beg the question of why we now think we have to undergo a water baptism, and not exclusively undergo the baptism of the Spirit, for John said that he baptized with water for repentance, but the Messiah would baptize “with the Spirit” – and indeed this has been the case since Pentecost (Matt.3:11).
Really, it’s not a question of “doing what Jesus did” when it comes to water baptism. Instead, it’s a case of “doing what we’ve always done just because we’ve always done it.” As it is in fact, the true picture that scripture gives is clear: of a single water baptism for preparation, that of John, which is entirely symbolic, followed by a very real baptism with lasting effects: the baptism of the Spirit given as a gift for the Messiah’s victory (His baptism of the cross), a powerful and real event for every believer when they believe (with the book of Acts documenting the transition from ritual to reality: Acts 19:1-7; cf. Acts 10:44-48).
We should not really even be asking “what would Jesus do?”, but “what does Jesus want me to do?” That is what our Lord always did in following the will of His Father and ours at all times. Jesus wants us to follow Him in truth (Jn.17:15-19). And the only way I know to do that is to learn what is really true according to the Bible, believe it, and live it (and help others do likewise).
The Lord knows who are truly His (2.Tim.2:19). Likewise, all we who believe in Him cry out in faith to God “Abba, Father!”, for the Spirit Himself testifies to our hearts that we are indeed His children (Rom.8:15-16; Gal.4:6). We know that we believe in the One who died for us; therefore we are saved, and that salvation has the effect of motivating us under the leadership of the Spirit to walk faithfully after Jesus.
It is possible to fulfill the “great commission” of Matthew 28:19-20 without water, but not without infilling of the Holy Spirit. When I consider the great “concern” that many water baptizers have about whether their brothers and sisters in Christ have been baptized, and whether it has been done “correctly”, this attitude of pressing necessity over the “if” and “how” of water baptism seems to me to run contrary to Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians. For when Paul says at 1Cor.1:16b “I don’t remember whether or not I baptized anybody else”, wouldn’t it be a real act of negligence on his part not to take whatever means necessary to make positively sure that every believer in Corinth had been water baptized, if indeed water baptism were important?
All things considered, it would seem prudent for us as followers of Christ to place the emphasis where He placed it, where the Word of God places it, namely, on the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The symbolism if any, of water baptism is for the believer to reflect repentance, which simply means “change.” Turning from our sin and selfishness to serve the Lord. It means placing our pride, our past and all of our possessions before the Lord. It is giving the control of our lives over to Him. Now unfortunately after the water baptism the gift of the Holy Spirit should be manifested as a confirmation so to speak. It’s a little like praying for the sick without having the power thereof, but doing it because the scripture tells us. The water baptism can mean everything but does not have to mean anything, unless the life is completely given over to the Lord.
“Peter replied, ‘Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church–about three thousand in all.” (Acts 2:38, 41)
Like in any other case I am learning that it is imperative not to mistakenly modify the actual significance and understanding of scripture. What I am starting to see is that in my blindness and unawareness of my heart and mind, I have unbeknownst to myself taken faith out of the spiritual realm, and have through my intellect put it into the realm of the philosophical, carnal understanding. Our own experience varies, but Scriptures does not. If baptism as the churches interpreted it, is the necessity of every believer to ultimately fulfill, clearly it is a part of a system. The problem with this is that Jesus left no system. Let me pause a moment to remind us, that God Himself teaches us when we obey Him. If we learn these things, then we understand that the Holy Spirit, God in action, leads us into action. We were not saved just to linger in fond contentment, emotionally charged, happy that we are saved, holding meetings and gatherings to congratulate one another on our good fortune that we are redeemed. The entire Christian life is “in the Spirit.” By the Spirit, the Son of God is the Anointed One. This sets the pattern. Just as He went about doing good because He was anointed with the Spirit, so must we all.
Paul in Galatian 3;1-3 said: O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?
This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
We need a refined discernment, but we cannot simply expect the Holy Spirit to come down and clean up all the mess we have made. We have clear direction from the Word of God with regard to what he has done through Christ, how he expects us to live, how he expects us to order his Church.
And it does little good for men to cry out for extra biblical manifestations when biblical principle is violated all around us. We have been given truth and we cannot simply do what is right in our own eyes and then expect the Holy Spirit to come down and bless our labors. I think this is one of the problems and there are of course many, many more, but all confirming in one way or another how biblical principles are violated.
Hope it is a help.