What Is Baptism? (Part One)

What is baptism? For most of us, this seems rather obvious. Yet the concept of baptism is one of the most controversial in all of Christendom.
The Greek word for “baptism” is “bapto” and it means “to dip or immerse.” Yet there is no means a shortage of debate about whether baptism should be by immersion, sprinkling or pouring.
Three proofs can be offered to prove that baptism is by immersion. How is it defined by Greek authorities? How was it used by Greeks outside of the Bible? How is it used contextually in Scripture?
First, Greek authorities verify the definition of immersion. I hasten to add that lexical authority, on its own, is not conclusive. However, adding the Greek usage outside of the Bible and the contextual study of Scripture we can find validation for the Greek authorities.
The Theological Dictionary of The New Testament defines “bapto” as “to dip in or under.” /1 William Mounce defines “bapto” as “to dip or immerse.” /2 William Thayer defines it as “to dip, dip in, immerse.” /3 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia defines it as “to dip or immerse.” /4 Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich define it as “to dip or immerse.” /5
W. E. Vine writes, “to dip, was used among the Greek to signify the dyeing of a garment.” /6 As we contemplate this, we imagine a bowl of dye. We take a hand towel that we wish to dye completely and we ask whether we should immerse, dip or pour in order to accomplish our task?
If we take our towel and pour dye on it, we will find splotches instead of uniformity. If we take the towel and sprinkle dye on it, we will have a towel that has been spotted rather than solidly colored. Finally, if we immerse the towel we will find a towel that is completely dyed to our specifications.
In Acts 22:16, Saul (Paul) is told, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” Since we find that baptism washes away sins, we return to our illustration. If we want our sins washed away do we pour (splotchy), sprinkle (spotty) or immerse (complete)? Logic would tell us that the latter is the only right answer.
How would Jews have understood this concept? The Jews had the “mikveh” which the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia defines as “an immersion pool used for ritual washing.” /7
A Jewish authority defines “mikveh” as a ritual bath. According to Jewish law, individuals as well as various objects must be immersed and ritually cleansed on certain occasions. /8
The concept of a ritual cleansing by immersion is a short step to Christian baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. Washings were a very important part of Jewish life so they would have been able to make a simple transition to immersion for the remission of sins (cf. Exodus 19; Numbers 19). We could learn a lot from our Old Testament roots.
1/ Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964),
1:529.
2/ William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 112.
3/ Jospeh Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1977), 95.
4/ Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:415.
5/ Walter Bauer, William F. Ardnt, F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979),
131.
6/ W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1981), 1:97.
7/ Bromiley, 3:353.
8/ Myjewishlearning.com (see glossary under “mikveh”)


Is Baptism Immersion?

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Richard lives in Florence, Alabama and is married to Deirdre. They have three daughters. He is an avid reader, devoted writer and lover of history and research. He is the author of "The Most Important Question" and is working on more books.

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