by Brian E. Coombs Pastor of Messiah’s Church
A common and commanded practice in the Church of Jesus Christ is the sacrament of baptism. Some of Jesus’ concluding words before returning to Heaven were, “Disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). And such is the unanimous conviction of His Church.
But the Church is not unanimous in some practical aspects of the sacrament of baptism. One frequent cause of division is the answer to the question, “Shall non-professing children be baptized as well as professing adults?” Many say “yes,” many say “no.” This controversy concerns the subjects of baptism, i.e., who shall be baptized? Another cause of division concerns the mode of baptism, i.e., how shall persons be baptized? Shall it be by pouring (effusion), sprinkling (aspersion), or dipping (immersion)?
The title of this tract has said it clear enough – we, as a particular church, do not practice immersion. Hereafter is a brief explanation of why we do not. Fuller treatments of the issue line theological libraries. But here, the basic underpinnings of our thinking are stated.
Our Baptist brethren commonly lay great stress upon immersion as not only a valid mode of baptism, but moreover, the only mode of baptism. Hence, many (but not all) Baptistic churches will not accept into membership persons who have been baptized in another non-immersion Christian church without first their rebaptism. Their defense of immersion-only baptism frequently runs along the following two lines of thought. The first line is Romans 6:3-4, that “all of us who have been baptized have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death…buried with Him through baptism into death.”
Baptists find the idea of immersion from the word “buried,” especially in the context of baptism as the mode of burial, “buried with Him through baptism.” Some additionally claim that “burial” necessarily speaks of immersion or full enclosure or covering. The second line is that immersion is claimed to be the explicit mode of baptism as recorded in the Gospels and Acts. But the idea of being “buried with Christ through baptism,” when seen in the context of Romans 6, speaks of union with Christ, and not a mode of sacramental baptism. This is seen more clearly when recognizing other expressions Paul used, “planted together with” or “united with” (v.5) and “crucified with” (v.6). Paul’s point was to depict the believer’s association with Christ in His redemptive work – that by the Spirit’s baptism the believer was crucified, buried, and raised with Christ. He was not speaking of the mode of sacramental baptism, but rather the effect of Spiritual baptism, that is, our status when born again by God’s Spirit.
In this light, the use of “baptize” words does not mean one and the same as “immerse.” That the people under Moses were “baptized in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2) does not refer to their immersion. They surely walked on dry ground (Exodus 14:22). If any were “immersed” it was the Egyptians! This leads to the necessary remark that, often, the sense of the word “baptize” is “to effect a new relationship with” or “to put into association with.” This is true in terms of believers’ relation to the Trinity (Matthew 28:19; 1Corinthians 1:13), the Body of Christ (12:13), the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), and Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:6-12). Baptism is the sign of a new relationship or identification with another. In the case of 1Corinthians 10:2, Israel’s baptism into (i.e., identification with) Moses as the Mediator of God’s covenant was realized in their exodus (the sea) and journey (the cloud).
Concerning the second line of thought, we would say that the passages in the book of Acts, which allegedly teach immersion, are not what many would make them say. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), which although at first glance may appear to teach baptism by immersion, actually directs otherwise. Phillip’s interchange with him occurred on “a desert road” (v.26), a note often omitted in discussions, but which is inserted parenthetically by the writer and could be seen as an indirect, but obvious, comment on water amount. In view is the Negev, the southern, dry region between Gaza and Jerusalem. Archaeology has never confirmed the presence of anything close to immersive waters in that location. It is no surprise that the eunuch blurted, “Look! Water!” (v.36). Despite this, our Baptist brethren continue to explain that the text, “they both went down into the water…they came up out of the water” (vv.38-39) requires immersion – “down into…up out of.” Yet, it is wholly reasonable, and faithful to the text’s grammar, that they were ankle deep in a recent desert wadi (rain stream), from which Philip placed water on the professing eunuch, and from which they returned to the road.
Saul of Tarsus’ baptism (Acts 9:18), although claimed by Baptists to imply immersion, shows otherwise, too. A literal rendering of the text is, “he, having risen, was baptized.” The text is not “he, having been baptized, arose.” Saul was baptized while standing in a Damascan house (vv.10,17), which removes all possibility of immersion.
The Philippian jailer’s and his household’s baptism (Acts 16:33) equally speaks to a non-immersion baptism. Paul and Silas’ midnight, audible devotions sparked the jailer’s listening (v.25), which accompanied by the earthquake and its effects (vv.26-30), led to their preaching and the jailer’s conversion (vv.31-32). It is hard to imagine a group of men and household trudging through the dark environs of Philippi for a river of water some time around midnight. It is more reasonable to associate the baptismal water as coming from whatever pitcher or bowl was used to wash Paul and Silas’ stripes, as the text implies (v.33).
In addition to these accounts, the mass conversions on Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and soon thereafter (Acts 4:4), argue most reasonably for non-immersion baptism. Any public mikvahs (small bath-like tubs of water) that were stationed nearby, although almost practical for immersion baptisms, would not have been able to handle thousands of people, if in fact someone could be positioned in it. The water unquestionably would have been sponged and dripped away in the peoples’ clothing and been much trouble to refill.
But more to the context, neither the Jewish nor Roman authorities would have allowed the Christian sect to have religious use of their public water stations for that One whose name and message both the Jewish and Roman kingdoms despised. This setting allows more reasonably for a non-immersion baptism of the new converts. Much like the practice under the Old Covenant (Exodus 24:7-8), the apostles could reasonably have walked among the people sprinkling them with baptismal water.
The baptism of Jesus by John is probably the classic text used to support immersion baptism. As one Gospel puts it:
Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water. (Matthew 3:13-16)
But the same remark applies here as it did to the Ethiopian eunuch – “After being baptized Jesus came up immediately from the water” can essentially mean “Jesus came up from ankle deep water situated on lower ground.” The text does not necessarily imply that John dunked Jesus in the Jordan River, let alone state that. Prepositional references in the baptismal accounts do not help in establishing John’s mode of baptism.
However, the identity of John himself does! Unfortunately, this is lacking in many discussions about the mode of baptism. It is important to understand that John, the baptizer of Jesus, was a priest by heritage. He was a prophet by chief function, but he was a priest by heritage. His father was Zacharias, a descendant of Aaron and priest of the division of Abijah. John’s mother, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron, too (Luke 1:5). Having this heritage, and so being qualified to serve as priest, meant he was trained in and intimately familiar since childhood with the ceremonial rites of purification given in the Law. He would have known all about the specific mode of administering ceremonial washings.
But the Lord God commissioned John as a prophet (John 1:22-23) and sent him “to baptize with water” (vv.33,26). This was the reason for an official delegation sent from the Jews to inquire of his office. And it is interesting to note that the delegation consisted of “priests and Levites” (v.19) – those trained in ceremonial washings and purification. John identified himself as a prophet, although not the Prophet, i.e., Messiah (v.23). They then inquired of the priest turned prophet, “Why then are you baptizing?” (v.25).
The Jews demanded to know why this priest was prophesying, but moreover, why he was baptizing. This assumes that John not only baptized in a mode recognizable to the priestly delegation, but moreover, acceptable to them, for baptism, they implied, was something closely aligned to the work of the expected Prophet-Messiah. Never do they rebuke John regarding his mode of baptism. He must have baptized, then, according to the mode prescribed in the Old Testament Law.
But what was the mode used throughout the Old Testament? The idea of ceremonial immersion is never found in the Old Testament. By far, the mode of ceremonial application was sprinkling or pouring. The ceremonial blood was sprinkled around the altar (Exodus 29:16, 20-21; Leviticus 1:5,11; 16:14ff.). A leper who appeared for cleansing was sprinkled seven times (Leviticus 14:7), as was his house (v.51). From a pint of oil, the priest also had to perform a sevenfold sprinkling before the LORD (v.16). One who had touched a corpse would be rendered unclean unless the water of purification was sprinkled on him (Numbers 19:13). Levites were sprinkled for their cleansing and consecration as priests (Leviticus 8:30; Numbers 8:7,11). Most important to the subject of New Testament baptism, the members of the covenant community were sprinkled (Exodus 24:7-8).
Likewise, pouring is found as a frequent mode of ceremonial applications. Priests were ordained as such with the pouring of anointing oil (Exodus 29:7). Aaron himself was ordained with the pouring of oil (Leviticus 8:12; 21:10). In addition to sprinkling, sacrificial blood was also poured out at the altar (Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:7,18,25,30,34; Deuteronomy 12:27). Drink offerings were poured out (Exodus 37:16). Oil was poured on grain offerings (Leviticus 2:1,6). And with the law of leprosy (mentioned above), the pint of oil was poured into the priest’s left palm (Leviticus 14:15,26).
So it is very much the case that John’s baptism, in line with Old Testament, priestly, ceremonial purification, was either applied in the mode of sprinkling (aspersion) or pouring (effusion). To do otherwise would have been a great departure from biblical and priestly precedence. John’s baptism was not immersion, as much as we might be inclined to think toward immersion because of the Jordan River and the number of people that came to John. Sprinkling or pouring was undoubtedly performed by priestly John at his baptisms. This being the case with John’s baptism, he should properly be referred to as John “the baptizer,” instead of the misnomer John “the Baptist.”
This mode of sprinkling or pouring, like under the Old Testament, is used in the New. Sprinkling has a proper application in Christ (Hebrews 12:24). Believers are “sprinkled with His blood” (1 Peter 1:2). They have had their hearts “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and [their] bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22; cf. Ezekiel 36:25). Clearly, the Old Testament “baptisms” (or, “washings”) of Hebrews 6:2 are later described as having been performed by sprinkling (9:13,19,21 with Exodus 24:6,8). Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18 with Joel 2:28ff.). And, showing Himself to the nations as mediatorial Ruler, Jesus “sprinkles them” (Isaiah 52:15).
As Reformed theologian John Murray has ably noted, “It would be strange if baptism with water, which represents the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, could not properly and most significantly be performed by sprinkling” (Christian Baptism, p.24).
So, we have shown that the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles – even in connection with relevant Old Testament passages – do not speak of baptism or any other ceremonial washing in terms of immersion. It is always either sprinkling or pouring. In response to these Baptistic lines of thinking, we believe the Scripture, when properly understood, does not present immersion as the only mode of baptism. In fact, we do not see the idea presented at all. The Scripture is completely silent on the matter of immersion. It is along this line of thinking that our church does not consider immersion as an essential feature of baptism. To be more specific, we find biblical basis for applying the water of baptism only by pouring or sprinkling. Our Confession speaks thus:
Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person (28:3).
So, it is the practice of our churches to either sprinkle or pour the baptismal water upon its recipients. But one final word is appropriate. Although it is our conviction that sprinkling or pouring are the biblical modes of administering Jesus’ sacrament of Baptism – and we do apply the water in this way—we, notwithstanding, do receive into membership persons who have been baptized by immersion. We do not require a second baptism in this case.