This is the first of two posts on baptism: its importance, history and development in the early centuries and to us today.
I’ve seen many baptisms … they are some of the most exciting moments in a church family’s life… let alone in the life of the individual being baptised.
My baptism? The most important day of my life!
I come from a country where it is illegal to convert to Christianity. I was secretly baptised in someone’s bath.
“The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” It was around the year AD27. Jesus of Nazareth had left His carpenter’s workshop and was announcing this message. The new movement began in Galilee but we read how, in these early days, Jesus’ disciples also baptised those who responded, ‘in the Judean countryside’ (John 3:22). At that time, John had left the Jordon valley and “was also baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because the water was plentiful there, and people kept coming to be baptised” (John 3:23). Aenon” means “spring” or “natural fountain”; its location is unsure but, very possibly, it was in Samaria. The important thing was there was plentiful water – an important consideration in the dry Middle East.
Immersion in water was common among Jews at that time for ritual cleaning. Priests, before their temple duties, and Jewish men on the eve of the sacred annual feasts, immersed themselves in a specially constructed ‘Mikveh’ (a pool where water had gathered). Converts to Judaism were also immersed in a Mikveh. The origins of these ritual cleansings date back from early Jewish practice described in Pentateuch: “Then bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water” (Exodus 40:12).
However, John’s baptisms, out in the countryside, and a ’once for all’ event made them quite different from these Jewish ritual cleansings – as was the reason for conducting them: a sign of wholesale repentance accompanied by confession of sin, an important part of preparation both for the coming Messiah’s kingdom and the final judgement, a means to escape from the coming wrath (Matthew 3:1-12).
Jesus’ death and resurrection bought a whole new dimension to the understanding of baptism; not only was baptism a sign of repentance; it was a public, joyful and decisive association with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:12-14), a glad acceptance and personal embrace of all that He had accomplished on the cross (Romans 6:1-8), an outward sign of sins being washed away (Acts 22:16), a launch-pad into a new life lived in Christ. In baptism, the believer took on the name, (was joined to the family of) the Triune God – baptised into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Baptism was a personal choice but it also signified a full entrance into the family of believers (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
Universally, early converts to Christianity were baptised. How was this done? The New Testament doesn’t deal with such specifics! Perhaps availability of water would have been an issue. Certainly, the following account shows an unexpected baptism by immersion, following an encounter between Philip the Evangelist and an Ethiopian court official on the desert road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza: “ And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptised?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away” (Acts 8:36-39).
The Global Dictionary of Theology states that it is probable that immersion was the early church’s normal mode of baptism, but that it was not seen as an important issue.
The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, an anonymous book of sixteen chapters, and rediscovered in the 19th century is the earliest known written instructions about baptism outside of the Bible. Possibly, the first version of it was written as early as c. 60–80 AD and the second, with additions c. 100–150 AD. It instructs as follows:
“Now about baptism: this is how to baptise. Give public instruction on all these points, and then baptise in running water, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… If you do not have running water, baptise in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptises and the one being baptised must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptised to fast for one or two days beforehand.”