What does the Bible say about baptism?

Ngu Jeffrey Smith
     
Baptism of Christ, painting in Daniel Korkor (Tigray, Ethiopia).

What is the purpose of baptism? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some people believe that baptism is just a ritual with no purpose. Others believe that baptism is symbolic. Still others believe that baptism offers salvation. Is it possible for all three of these to be true at the same time?

As Christians, we know that we should be baptized for the simple reason that Christ commanded it; He commanded the disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Jesus Himself was baptized in the Jordan River by John (Matthew 3:13-17), and because we are created in His image and likeness, it makes sense that we should follow His example.

Baptism only shows up in the New Testament beginning with John the Baptist; there is no mention of it in the Old Testament. However, baptism is part of a bigger theme of purification and washing that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. We’ll get to purification in the New Testament later, but when it comes to this practice in the Old Testament, there were two rituals – one was washing, and the other was circumcision.

In order to help us understand the purification ritual of baptism, let’s first take a look at the other rituals of washing and circumcision.

Washing

Washing is a regular theme in the Bible, and the Israelites had several laws about it. There were laws about washing their bodies, clothes, and objects. The main purpose of this ritual was so that a person could be clean to take part in certain rituals; yes, there are practical and sanitary reasons for people to wash, but the Bible also makes it clear that washing was very much a symbolic gesture.

This verse from Jeremiah speaks of salvation resulting from washing the heart:

O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4:14)

And here, the command to wash is followed immediately with a command to put away evil:

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. (Isaiah 1:16)

And finally, this portion from the Psalms connects cleanliness with the removal of sins and iniquities:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice.

Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Psalm 51:7-9)

Indeed, washing was a symbolic ritual for the Israelites of the Old Testament. Yet, the fact that an action is symbolic does not mean it is unnecessary; just the opposite. Symbols have power when people know about them. They serve as a reminder and inspiration for those who believe in them.

But Jesus brought a new understanding of the cleansing rituals that existed among the Jews of the New Testament. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus showed us that the old washing rituals were no longer necessary to follow, and that what was important was the spiritual symbolism behind the washing. In a certain encounter with the pharisees, they draw attention to the disciples who are not washing properly. Jesus, in turn, responds with these words: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11). His response highlights that what’s important is not a person’s hygiene, but their clean heart. Jesus emphasized this teaching later in the same gospel where He says that the Scribes and Pharisees “cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). Here again, Jesus rejects the emphasis on external cleanliness while pushing the importance of a clean heart.

Circumcision

As seen above, the purpose of washing was to serve as a symbol of purification, and there was another very different symbol that served a similar purpose: circumcision. Circumcision was a physical and permanent symbol by which the Israelites could identify themselves. As we read in Genesis, this symbol served also as a sign of their covenant with Jehovah: “you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:11).

Cutting the body doesn’t really make a person chosen, and there is evidence that the Israelites were not the only people with this custom. As we see from the following verses, the practice of circumcision was a symbol that pointed to a higher idea:

When you come into the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised (Leviticus 19:23)

Naturally, fruit from trees cannot be physically circumcised, so there must be something symbolic about the ritual.

Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be rebellious no longer (Deuteronomy 10:16)

Here is that higher idea: circumcision is a ritual that symbolizes a spiritual process in a person’s heart. The heart, of course, is actually referring to a person’s love, or the quality of their life.

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,

And take away the foreskins of your hearts,

Lest My fury come forth like fire,

Because of the evil of your doings (Jeremiah 4:4)

Similar to washing, circumcision is symbolic of removing evil from the heart, that is, from life. The physical act of circumcision is not necessary for salvation, but the spiritual act of removing evil is.

The covenant that is represented by circumcision is a promise to the Lord to stop doing evil; this is why most of the commandments use the phrase “thou shalt not”. The purification rituals of washing and circumcision serve as symbols in the Bible for that enduring effort to NOT do evil that clouds our heart. Paul, also, makes it clear in his letter to the Galatians that circumcision itself doesn’t save: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

So, washing and circumcision are symbols, and symbols act as reminders of things we should be doing. In the case of these two rituals, when we read about them in the Bible, they remind us of the covenant we have with the Lord and of the daily effort that we should put into keeping a clean heart.

Baptism

Just as washing and circumcision are symbolic of spiritual purification of the heart, baptism also has similar spiritual symbolism. Washing and circumcision were symbols specifically given to the Israelites in the Bible, and Christians have their own rituals that hold spiritual reminders as well—baptism is one of those rituals.

Every symbol serves a purpose, that is, a higher truth that it points to. For the Christian, baptism points to a higher truth. In and of itself, baptism is nothing more than water being applied to a person’s body—the water simply comes from the ground, and the priest who does the ritual is an imperfect human. What, then, is the purpose of baptism? What is the higher truth that it points to?

First, baptism serves as a sign that a person is a Christian. The sign is not a physical sign, like circumcision is, but it is a sign for the spirit. Christianity, likewise, is not a religion of the body, but a spiritual religion. For this reason, the baptism that is done to the body doesn’t save a person, but is a sign of the spiritual salvation that the Lord can do in us when we give our hearts to Him. Baptism doesn’t save a person any more than the washing and circumcision in the Old Testament. What does save is when we apply the water of truth to our hearts.

Second, baptism serves as a reminder that the Lord Jesus Christ is our Redeemer and Savior. He does not become our Redeemer and Savior simply through baptism because baptism is simply a symbol. The Lord becomes our Savior when we live His Word. This is why He says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21). It is when we live His Word and so when it enters our hearts that we are saved.

What is the purpose of being Christian if we don’t live as a Christian? And what is the purpose of looking to the Lord if we don’t live as He teaches? The third higher truth that baptism points to is similar to the washing rituals that appear throughout the Bible: having a clean heart. To clean means to remove the dirt, and so, having a clean heart means to have a heart without the dirt of evil in it. The water of baptism is a symbol of this cleaning that has to happen for the Lord to enter in. John called the ritual a “baptism of repentance”, meaning a baptism of change. The Lord calls us to change our lives, to be born a new into a spiritual live.

Christianity is not simply a religion of this world that depends upon worldly rituals, it is a spiritual religion that depends on how a person lives. Which of these is truly a Christian, one who is baptized but lives a prodigal life, or one who is unbaptized but lives the life taught by Christ? The answer is easy.

Baptism is all three of these: it is without purpose, it is symbolic, and it offers salvation. For those who don’t believe in the usefulness of baptism, it really is just a ritual with no purpose. Baptism is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean it serves no purpose or has no power. Symbols are incredibly powerful for those who believe in them. With baptism as a powerful symbol, it doesn’t guarantee salvation, but it can be a useful tool that the Lord uses to lead a person to salvation. It is a symbol of our cooperation with the Lord to cleanse our hearts, to rid our lives of selfishness and materialism.

Here are some references in Swedenborg's works on the subject of baptism:

NJHD 202-207, TCR 669, TCR 677-684, AC 2302, TCR 721, AC 5135:3.