Baptism, "Baptisma," "Baptizo"

In this article, we look in detail about how Jesus used the terms "baptize" and "baptism" and how they differ from our modern, religious use of the word.

To start, you should know that the English words "baptism" and "baptize" are two of the several untranslated Greek words used in the Bible. The noun form of the word is βάπτισμα (baptisma), which Jesus uses only six times. This Greek word is only found in the NT and later works. It is from a common Greek verb, βαπτισθεὶς (baptizo). Jesus uses this verb only eight times.  However, three of those verses overlap with the use of the noun, so there are only a total of eleven verses that use either word.

The verb means  means "to dip", "to plunge", "to be drenched", "to be drowned," and "getting in deep water."  From the verb, we know that the noun means "dipping" or "dunking" and therefore, "temporary immersion." The fact that the immersion is temporary is important.  But what type of temporary immersion and for what purpose? 

From the narrative, we know that the practice of dunking people in waters began with John, but from Jesus's words, we know that it meant something more than being dunked it water, but what?

What Did Jesus Mean?

Jesus uses the verb form in the following verses:

  1. Matthew 26:23 He that dips [his] hand with me in the dish,
  2. Matthew 28:19 Go you therefore, and teach all nations...
  3. Mark 10:38 You know not what you ask...
  4. Mark 10:39 You shall indeed drink of the cup...
  5. Mark 14:20 It is one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in the dish.
  6. Mark 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;
  7. Luke 12:50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with;
  8. Act 1:5 For John truly baptized with water;

Notice that in Matthew 26:23 and Mark 14:20, the term refers to the dipping of bread. In these verses, the word is translated so its other meaning is hidden. 

The verb is only not translated when it refers to something else, but we cannot tell from the way Jesus uses it exactly what it means.  In  Mark 10:38, Mark 10:39, and Luke 12:50 Jesus does not seem to be referring to being dunked in water alone. In Luke 12:50 particularly, Jesus seems to be referring to a future event, (even though no future tenses are used). However, we know that Jesus was baptized by John at the beginning of his ministry, so what does he mean by the word?

These verses give us hints alone. The association with the "cup" (see discussion of symbolism here)  in Mark 10:38 and Mark 10:39, make the action sound like a trial, a test of suffering. The Luke verse and Mark 16:16 could refer to that kind of baptism as well.  Mark 16:16 gives a somewhat humorous viewpoint, connecting trust with having one's head held underwater. Here, the dunking seems to set a high level of trust. It is clearly this level of trust that matters not baptism because of the last part of the phrase doesn't mention baptism.

The most informative verses are not in the Gospels but in Act 1:5.  This verse makes it clear that Jesus uses the word baptized more in the sense of being "immersed"  by or into something. This verses uses "water" as an instrument of immersion but recognizes a difference between being dipped by water and being dipped into spirit. Note that in this construction, we go into spirit rather than spirit unto us during the dunking. Also ot that this immersion is only temporary. We are in it only for a period of time.

Maybe the picture will become as clear as modern teaching if we look at his use of the noun form, which seems to have been invented with John the Baptist.

These are the verses where Jesus uses the noun:

  1. Matthew 21:25 The baptism of John, whence was it?
  2. Mark 10:38 You know not what you ask...
  3. Mark 10:39 You shall indeed drink of the cup...
  4. Mark 11:30 The baptism of John, was [it] from heaven...
  5. Luke 20:4 The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?
  6. Luke 12:50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with;

Three of these verses also contain the verb, so they were in the previous list. The three new verses are referring to the same issue:  Jesus asking the Pharisees their view of the dunking used by John. The context seems to indicate that this dunking means something more than just the physical act since Jesus asks if it was from the Divine or from men. Since the Pharisees are afraid to answer this question because of the reaction of the people, there seemed to be something Divine about it that people recognized, but what?

The Key to the Mystery

Where are Jesus's words explaining the purpose and meaning of baptism? It seems to come down to two verses:

  • The statement in Matthew 28:19 to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The last part of this message is uncertain (discussed here) because if we don't understand was "baptize" means, we cannot understand what it means to be baptized in someone's name.
  • The statement in Mark 16:16 that those who believe and who are baptized will be saved. So it would seem that baptism is necessary for rescue, but the second part of this verse doesn't mention being baptized as protection against condemnation, only the lack of faith is important there.

So we are brought back to the question: what did baptism mean to Jesus (and by extension John) beyond being dunked in the water? Did they see it as erasing "original sin," the stain of Adam? This is difficult to see because we are all flawed after baptism and after Jesus died for us. We all make the same mistakes as people who are not baptized do. We make the same mistakes as people made before Jesus died. Jesus may have opened a door, but baptism doesn't get us through that door, at least as far as being fallen, flawed creatures.

Looking at the teaching of Jesus and John, we have to go back to the original one:

Translated more accurately, this means "Change your minds! It has gotten near. This realm of the skies."

So baptism is a change of mind, consider the dunking of the head as a cleansing of the mind. Is there more than one what to "change your mind?" Our minds can be cleansed in one sense by trusting enough to allows ourselves ot be dunked in water. The dunking is only temporary because otherwise it would be fata1.  However, our minds can also be changed by being dunked into spirit. Yes, there is any number of new and better perspectives from which we can see the world. Baptism is an action that shows our willingness to be changed, the wash way the old way of life, but any temporary immersion into something that changes our mind is a baptism.