Some Questions About Baptism

the-baptism-of-jesus“I have a question regarding whether Jesus actually baptized his followers? I have found in scripture that he baptized the disciples but thereafter, he commands his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Also, there is reference to Jesus baptizing with fire and spirit. If baptism in the biblical days was done by immersion, why then do we sprinkle rather than immerse? Thank you!”

Good questions.


Jesus Baptizing:
With regards to Jesus baptizing, I couldn’t find any reference to Jesus baptizing anyone himself. Actually, most commentaries that I looked at made a point of the fact that he didn’t do any baptizing himself (or at least none that are recorded or made reference to). Jesus focused on preaching the Gospel rather than doing baptisms in his earthly ministry. Many commentators suggest that Jesus didn’t baptize in order to avoid divisions amongst followers (i.e. “I’m holier because Jesus baptized me!”). Paul talks to the church in Corinth about not trying to cause divisions about who was baptized by whom (or in whose name) in  1 Corinthians 1:14-17, so that could be a good argument. Theologically speaking, in Christian baptism, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection for new life (Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27), and the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost in Acts 2, so Jesus wouldn’t have been baptizing people into His name during his earthly ministry. Instead, Christian baptism would have started taking place after his death and resurrection after he sent the Holy Spirit. Jesus united himself with baptism so that in and by it, we are united with him. How beautiful!

 


Baptism with “Holy Spirit and Fire”:
In Matthew chapter 3 we find this statement from John the Baptist: 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” For more context, be sure to check out Matthew 3.

As with the study of any passage in Scripture, we must keep clearly in mind the context of the surrounding text. Based on the context of this passage, it appears that John is talking about the eschaton (if you like phonetics… ˈeskəˌtän), the final judgment on the Last Day when Jesus returns in glory. Jesus brought the kingdom of God when he came, died, and rose again, but we live in a time of “now and not yet.” The kingdom is here, but not in its fullness. When Christ returns, the kingdom will come in the fullness that the prophets and Jesus describe throughout the Old and New Testament.

While some might argue (including the People’s Bible Commentary from CPH) that this is pointing to the Holy Spirit descending like tongues of fire at Pentecost in Acts 2 (which Jesus promised in John 14:15-31 and Acts 1:5), the context surrounding all of this seems to point to the Holy Spirit and fire being a contrast rather than compounded blessing. We especially notice the contrasts surrounding this phrase:

  • Separation of good and bad trees, with the bad trees having a fiery judgment (3:10)
  • Separation of wheat and chaff with chaff having a fiery judgment (3:12)

maranathaAll of this seems to point to Christ’s return in glory with divine judgment rather than Chrisitan baptism as we know it. Surely we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism, but even that is looking forward to Christ’s return. The Holy Spirit, here, is a reference to those who are repentant and the fire is for the judgment of those who have denied Christ. When completely taken out of context, this passage is often used to make the argument for strange experiences that Christians should expect to have if they’re really Christians, but when taken in context it appears to be a reference focusing on the Last Day and Christ’s Judgment. It’s not too far to make it a reference to Pentecost, but textually it doesn’t seem to be making that point.

Here are some thoughts from people far smarter than myself:
Dr. Jeff Gibbs, Exegetical Professor at Concordia Seminary and author of the Concordia Commentary on Matthew

  • “John contrasts his own ministry of preaching and baptizing with the work of the One coming after him, who is far more significant than John himself, even though (as the readers/hearers of the Gospel know) John himself is the end-time voice in Isaiah 40:3 and the eschatological Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6). John’s baptism takes place in light of the Last Day, in anticipation of God’s final ruling deeds…. We must keep clearly in mind that however we take the two elements in the phrase, John is proclaiming what the Mightier One will do at the eschaton” p. 172.
  • “The promise ‘He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ refers directly to the final salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when he returns in glory. …OT texts and documents of Judaism attest to the expectation that God would pour out his Spirit on the Last Day; other texts also mention the theme of fire as divine judgment.” p. 173.
  • “Though Matthew’s Gospel gives us no direct information about Pentecost and the pouring out of the Spirit on the church, we can suggest a relationship between Pentecost and the Last Day. The pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost was for salvation, for forgiveness and reconciliation with God; these gifts already given will avail for final salvation on Judgement Day. Moreover, we know that Paul reveals that the Holy Spirit, who is already given through post-Pentecost Christian Baptism, is the down payment of our final eschatological inheritance (Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5).

The Lutheran Study Bible Notes on this passage – “Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit those who repent, but the unrepentant will experience the fire of eternal punishment. Jesus baptized His disciples with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and continues to pour out the Holy Spirit on believers through Word and Sacrament.” p. 1582


The Method of Baptism
There is no one set method of baptism in Scripture. But there are some variations that we’ve seen throughout time.

  • Submersion – This is when someone is completely submerged under baptismal waters (Romans 6:3-5?)
  • Immersion – This is when the candidate stands or kneels in shallow water and water is poured over the head. Or the head of a candidate is pushed partially into water. (Most early Christian archaeological evidence suggests this form was common.)
  • Affusion – Water is poured on the head of someone standing outside of the water being used for the baptism (this is common for most Lutheran congregations)
  • Aspersion – Water is sprinkled on the head.

Submission and Immersion were likely in the early church based on art and archeology.

The word “baptism” (βαπτίζω) doesn’t demand the full submersion of an object. It often means to submerge but can also generally mean “to wash” (i.e. doing dishes involves ‘baptizing’ dishes). The important part in baptism is the combination of the water and the Word (God’s promise). In the Small Catechism Luther brings out Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:16 for the significance as well as Acts 2:38-29 and 1 Peter 3:21 to emphasize this point. Plus we can look again to those Romans and Galatians passages above on the subject of what is happening in baptism rather than just how it is being performed.

infant-baptism_825_460_80_c1I have heard it said that, historically speaking, Lutherans started using affusion more often as a response to the people who were saying, “You can ONLY be baptized through submersion, otherwise you’re not REALLY baptized!” Since the important point was the water and the promise, the method was deliberately taken out of focus. We could baptize in any of these forms so long as we have the promise of God in His Word connected to it. It’s not sinful to baptize someone via full submersion (that’s how I was baptized before I was in the Lutheran church) and it’s no less effective to baptize someone through affusion as we do at Immanuel using a shell to pour water over a person’s head at the font. Regardless of the method, anytime someone says, “You can only be baptized through submersion,” or “Baptism is only done right if it’s done through affusion,” I know it’s time to have a chat because, the “how” isn’t the point. Instead, it’s the water and word of God’s promise that is our focus and always has been. Good arguments could be made for each method, but if we lose sight of God’s promise and the hope we have in Christ, then we’re already on the wrong path.

There’s so much more that could be talked about, but I’ll leave it at this. If you have a question after reading this or something wasn’t clearly stated, feel free to email (pastor.demski@gmail.com) or call me (847-254-9666).