If we were to start reading the New Testament from the beginning, we would not be able to get very far before we encountered something called baptism. As early as Matthew 3:1, we run into a man by the name of John, who is otherwise known as “the baptizer,” and, a few verses later, we see why. This John, we are told, devotes his life to “baptizing” many different people (vv. 6, 7, 11), the Lord Jesus Himself being one of them (vv. 13–17). The baptisms that we encounter in these early chapters of Matthew’s gospel are described simply as occurring. Very little explanation is given as to how they were performed or why they were performed. We are left to conclude that the practice of “baptism,” whatever it is, must have been something that was familiar to Matthew’s Jewish audience in the first century.
The same thing can be said for all the baptisms that we see in the New Testament. Thus, when Jesus commands His followers to go and make disciples in Matthew 28:18–20, He instructs them to baptize those disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But He nowhere explains what He means by baptism, and we nowhere read that the disciples were confused by what He was saying. None of the remaining eleven who were with Him raises his hand or interjects with a question. They all appear to understand what Jesus is talking about.
When we turn to the Old Testament, we find evidence that the Jews had some kind of familiarity with the concept of baptism. The same Greek words that occur in the Gospels are used in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament—on several occasions. And since the Septuagint predates the birth of Christ by a good bit, we know that first-century Jews would have had some idea of what baptism was long before John the Baptist came onto the scene.
The account of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 is one occasion in the Old Testament that is particularly instructive in terms of helping us understand the Jewish mindset toward baptism. Naaman was the commander of the army of the king of Syria, a man of tremendous courage and might, but he had leprosy (v. 1). Through a series of providences, Naaman was directed to go and seek healing from the prophet Elisha. When he arrived at the prophet’s house, he was commanded to “wash in the Jordan [River] seven times” in order to be clean (v. 10). But we read in verse 14 that Naaman went and baptized “himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored.” The significant thing about this passage is the fact that “wash” in verse 10 and “baptize” in verse 14 are used interchangeably. Naaman was commanded by Elisha to “wash” in order to be healed, and he “baptized” himself and was restored to health.
Hebrews 9:10 is another significant passage that helps shed some light on the Jewish understanding of baptism leading up to the first century. It tells us unequivocally that the Old Testament ceremonial system, long before the time of Christ, included many different kinds of ritual “baptisms.” Although this passage does not explicitly tell us which specific kinds of rituals were known as baptisms, it does alert us as to their presence in the Old Testament. “Because the context of Hebrews 9 is talking about the temporary rites and practices of the ceremonial system, it is not a great stretch to see the ritual washings of the regulations for clean and unclean people as being chiefly in mind here. When we look back at these ritual washings (of which there are at least eleven), we see the repeated requirement to wash garments, objects, and people in water in order to rid them of their ceremonial uncleanness. Sometimes this washing is partial, as in Exodus 30:18–21, in which the priests are commanded to wash only their hands and feet before entering the tabernacle. Sometimes it is wholesale, as in Leviticus 14, where individuals are commanded to wash their whole bodies and also their clothes. In all these cases, however, washing or cleansing in water is the common feature.
Thus, when we consider the example of Naaman from 2 Kings 5 together with the many ritual baptisms from the Old Testament, we are able to conclude that the first-century Jew would have regarded baptism as a rite of washing or cleansing in water. The way this water would have been applied would have been less important than the meaning behind its application. For the first-century Jew, baptism would have meant cleansing or purification, and it would have been applied directly to the person who is unclean in the sight of God in order to wash him and render him clean or pure before God.
In the New Testament, after the death of John the Baptist, we see baptism taking on added significance. It becomes the outward sign of the new covenant people of God. We see this particularly in Matthew 28:18–20, where Jesus commands His followers to make disciples of all nations and peoples and to mark them out with water baptism. We also see it in Acts 2, when Peter instructs would-be followers of Christ to “repent and be baptized” (v. 38). The point is that beginning with the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, all who turn to Jesus in faith are to be marked out with the sign of baptism. It is something that everyone who puts his faith in Christ must now do. These two passages, among others, coupled with the clear statements in the New Testament indicating that circumcision no longer applies to new covenant Christians (see, for example, Acts 15 and Gal. 2:3–10; 5:7–12; 6:12–16), lead us to conclude that baptism takes on added significance in the ministry of the Apostles and the early church. It is still an outward rite of washing or cleansing with water, just as it was in the Old Testament, but it is now specifically commanded by the Lord to be administered to every disciple as an outward sign of God’s covenant with them.
If we allow that baptism functions in the same way in the New Testament that circumcision did in the Old—a point that I will be arguing in a later chapter—then Romans 4:11 is an important passage in formulating an answer to our question, What is baptism? This passage states that circumcision functioned as a “sign . . . and seal of the righteousness that [Abraham] had by faith.” Circumcision was a sign that represented or pointed to the right standing that Abraham had in the sight of God, a standing that he had received by faith. It was an outward reminder that Abraham had been changed, an external marking that indicated he belonged to the Lord and was in covenant with Him. Circumcision did not earn Abraham his acceptance with God. It simply marked him out as one who was in right standing with God already. It was a visible pointer to an inward spiritual reality that belonged to Abraham by faith.
But, according to Paul, circumcision was not just a sign; it was also a seal or an official imprint or inscription. The word that is used here is reflective of a signet ring that would be pressed into hot wax to certify the official character of a document or of a high-ranking official’s seal that would guarantee the authenticity of some correspondence from or action by that official. The point is that circumcision was designed to function as a guarantee to Abraham confirming all the promises of the covenant to him. It marked him off as belonging to the Lord in a visible way and confirmed to him his rightful place in the covenant.
If in fact baptism does replace circumcision in the New Testament, then this means that baptism functions in the same way that circumcision did, namely, as a sign and seal of the righteousness that is ours by faith. It is an outward sign that points to an inward spiritual reality and marks us out as belonging to the Lord. It is a confirmation that everything Jesus accomplished on the cross is ours by faith in Him.
With this in mind, we can say that baptism is a rite of washing or cleansing in water that is commanded by the Lord Jesus Himself to be a sign and seal of the inward washing of all our sins and thus of being counted righteous in God’s sight only through faith in Jesus Christ.
This excerpt is adapted from Baptism: Answers to Common Questions by Guy Richard. Learn more about baptism by visiting the Ligonier store or by downloading R.C. Sproul's free Crucial Questions booklet What Is Baptism?