Barry Newman's Blog

January 24, 2010

Biblical Baptism Revisited (part VIII)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 9:56 pm

The Importance of the Baptismal Water Ceremony

The ceremony of baptism should not be treated lightly.  John the baptiser said that God (“the one”) had sent him to baptise with water (John 1: 33).  As mentioned earlier, it could have been understood by him as an enacted sign.  In turn, Jesus thought it important enough to have his disciples baptise.  And after Pentecost, Peter, Philip, Paul and others continued the practice though with a focus that now centred on the resurrected Jesus.

What was its purpose?  What did it signify? For Jews, even if it was not a mimicking of Jewish proselyte baptism, or for anyone, it would have been humbling.  It certainly could act as an indication that you, the newly baptised, were now attached to the one who baptised them or the one in whose name they were baptised.  However there could have been other ways to achieve that end if that was all that was involved. In Paul’s own baptism it is linked with the notion of cleansing. Ananias says to him, “Be baptised and wash away your sin” (Acts 22: 16). John the baptiser may have seen himself as involved in the fulfilling of something like Ezekiel 36: 25 – “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean.”  The cleansing of the pagan leper Naaman in the river Jordan centuries before may have come to the mind of some.  However, “baptizo” is rarely directly associated with cleansing in the Classical/Hellenistic literature before or at this time. The imagery of being immersed in water bringing about one’s death should not be ignored as another contender and perhaps the main contender for what was being symbolised. You died to your previous way of life, your old allegiances, and for example, whatever earlier understandings of Jesus you had.  Baptism and repentance went hand in hand. You needed to become a new person. Coming out of the water could have been see as symbolic of coming into a new life – of having a new life and adopting a new approach on how to live having repented of the old way of life.  Paul’s reference to being baptised into Christ Jesus … being baptised into his death … buried therefore with him into his death … that as Christ was raised up from among the dead … so also we should walk in newness of life (Rom 6: 3-5) is consistent with this imagery.  This is not to suggest however that Paul was referring solely or mainly to a literal water baptism. The understanding adopted here is that Paul had a metaphorical usage in mind that carried with it something of the symbolism of a literal immersion.  See the previous blog series, “Biblical Baptism”.

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