What Is Baptism?

The practice of “baptism,” whatever it is, must have been something that was familiar to Matthew’s Jewish audience in the first century.

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.

 

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 mind-set 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.

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