The first two parts of our devotions on baptism considered the question, “why do we baptize?” In this next one, Pastor Josh addresses the question, “what is baptism?”
What is baptism? A good answer starts by recognizing the Greek word baptizo. Because our English word is a letter-for-letter transliteration of the Greek word, we gain help in determining its precise meaning from classical literature. Early Jewish historian, Josephus, used it of the crowds that flooded into Jerusalem and “wrecked the city.” Others examples are the dyeing of cloth and the drinking of too much wine. My favorite example is from a 200 B.C. recipe for making pickles by “baptizing” them in the vinegar solution. In each of these cases there is an idea of change—Jerusalem was wrecked; the dyed cloth changes color; the drinker becomes different; a food is pickled.
Consider how the etymology of the word baptism bleeds throughout our theological understanding of baptism. Bobby Jamieson writes:
Baptism is a church’s act of affirming and portraying a believer’s union with Christ by immersing him or her in water, and a believer’s act of publicly committing him or herself to Christ and his people, thereby uniting a believer to the church and marking off him or her from the world.
In this definition, notice that there are two parties involved: the church and the believer. Both parties have a role to play. The church is publicly identifying someone as a Christian. The New England Patriots wear silver, blue, and red so they can recognize one another on the field when they are trouncing the red, black, and white Atlanta Falcons. Paul says in Gal. 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Baptism is the team jersey for Christians identifying us with Christ..
For the individual believer, baptism functions as profession of faith. Water baptism does not create the reality of saving faith in the one being baptized. Consider the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43). Baptism doesn’t save anyone since the thief on the cross went to heaven without it. Rather, water baptism testifies to the presence of saving faith. Water baptism does not cause our sins to be forgiven. Rather, water baptism testifies that the individual is a sinner, has faith in Christ’ death for salvation, and hope in the final resurrection.
For the believer, baptism is where faith goes public. In this way, baptism can be likened to a swearing-in ceremony, where the believer is marking himself off from the world and declaring allegiance to Christ and his church.