Now we get onto the use of the words for baptism in the New Testament.
‘Going (poreuthentes) therefore (oun) Disciple you (matheteusata) all (panta) the (ta) Peoples (ethne) Baptising (baptizontes) them (autous) In (eis) the (to) name (onoma) of the (tou) Father (patros) and (kai) of the (tou) Son (uiou) and (kai) of the (tou) Holy Spirit (agiou pneumtos) Instructing (didaskontes) them (autous) to fulfil (tereo) All things (panta) Whatever (osa) I gave command (eneteilamen) you (umin)’
(Matthew 28: 19, 20)
The word ‘baptizontes’ comes from the word ‘baptizo’ and ‘bapto’ which has several meanings, the main one being to submerge. The word has been used for centuries in relation to immersing a cloth into a dye until the material is totally soaked through and through with the specific colour. This is an illustration of the disciple being ‘fully immersed’ in the teachings and practice of Jesus. So, its use is not always in relation to ‘baptising’ in water. In the verses above, it is quite clear that there is a command to go through the waters of baptism as a symbol of one’s desire to obey Jesus.
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…. Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
(Acts 2:38, 41)
The same word is used here, but the context is different. It is basically saying that to become a Christian, one needs to repent of all our sins, with the word ‘be baptized’ to mean to take on board what Jesus taught and put it into practice, then you will be forgiven by God, who will give you the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will guide you and empower you to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Otherwise, one is saying that one needs to not only ‘repent’ but also ‘be baptized’ to become a Christian, which you do not. If you look at other passages on repentance, the word ‘be baptized’ is not mentioned.
…this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
(1 Peter 3:21-22)
Here we have the NT Koine Greek word ‘baptisma’, which refers to the rite of baptism and why one is baptised (more about full immersion water baptism in the next blog).
…and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” “No,” they answered, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” “Into what then were you baptized?” Paul asked. “The baptism of John,” they replied. Paul explained: “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the One coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”…
Again a similar word referring to the rite of baptism, but this time it is used specifically to the time of John the Baptist who baptised before Jesus started His ministry. John’s ‘baptism’ was different from what we do today, because its focus was purely on ‘repentance’, as Jesus had not yet been resurrected for the full meaning of salvation as symbolised in future baptisms. The ‘repentance of John’s baptism was more about being sorry for not following God the way He had taught them in the Old Testament. In a way it was a ‘bridge’ between the old and the new order, the Kingdom lifestyle of Jesus.
‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’
There is often confusion because as you read Scripture, it appears that there are more than one baptism. There is water baptism, baptism of the Holy Spirit, the baptism of the dead, etc. My understanding is that water baptism (‘baptisma’ again – the rite) is symbolising our ‘spiritual death’ to our past for which Jesus died on the Cross, and our ‘spiritual rising from the dead to new life’ by the workings of the Holy Spirit as a result of the resurrection of Jesus, the beginnings of being transformed into the person God wants you to be as you obey Him.
“I (Jesus) have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!
Although the word here used is ‘baptisma’, it has several meanings. It means Jesus’ own baptism as an example to others and the beginning of His ministry, it also refers to a ‘baptism of fire’, a time of purification of the people which will mean there will be division in families and communities as each person decides whether to be totally committed to Jesus or not to follow Him at all. There will be increasing persecution, and not just in eastern lands, but also in the West. (This does mean being bold, regularly seeking to be open to God’s correction as one reads the Bible and apply it.)
The Baptism of, in, by, the Holy Spirit
The baptism of the Holy Spirit may be defined as that work whereby the Spirit of God places the believer into union with Christ and into union with other believers in the body of Christ at the moment of salvation. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was predicted by John the Baptist (Mark 1:8) and by Jesus before He ascended to heaven: “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). This promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4); for the first time, people were permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the church had begun.
First Corinthians 12:12–13 is the central passage in the Bible regarding the baptism of the Holy Spirit: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Notice that we “all” have been baptized by the Spirit—all believers have received the baptism, synonymous with salvation, and it is not a special experience for only a few. While Romans 6:1–4 does not mention specifically the Spirit of God, it does describe the believer’s position before God in language similar to the 1 Corinthians passage: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
The following facts are necessary to help solidify our understanding of Spirit baptism: First, 1 Corinthians 12:13 clearly states that all have been baptized, just as all been given the Spirit to drink (the indwelling of the Spirit). Second, nowhere in Scripture are believers told to be baptized with, in or by the Spirit, or in any sense to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This indicates that all believers have had this experience. Third, Ephesians 4:5 seems to refer to Spirit baptism. If this is the case, Spirit baptism is the reality for every believer, just as “one faith” and “one Father” are.
In conclusion, the baptism of the Holy Spirit does two things, 1) it joins us to the body of Christ, and 2) it actualizes our co-crucifixion with Christ. Being in His body means we are risen with Him to newness of life (Romans 6:4). We should then exercise our spiritual gifts to keep that body functioning properly as stated in the context of 1 Corinthians 12:13. Experiencing the one Spirit baptism serves as the basis for keeping the unity of the church, as in the context of Ephesians 4:5. Being associated with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection through Spirit baptism establishes the basis for our separation from the power of indwelling sin and our walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-10; Colossians 2:12).
Now, sometimes the Holy Spirit comes upon one in a powerful way that often release one from ‘bondage’ to something like a fear, or a hatred of something or someone, or it is an occasion when God gives you power to do something extraordinary.
“When it comes to the Holy Spirit, most evangelicals fall into one of two extremes. Some seem obsessed, relating to him in strange, mystical ways. Their experiences with the Spirit always seem to coincide with an emotionally ecstatic moment created by the swell of music in a worship service or a weird confluence of events: “I was praying about whether to ask Rachel out, and suddenly I saw a billboard whose background was the same color as her eyes, and I got goose bumps—I knew it was the Holy Spirit!”
Other Christians neglect his ministry altogether. They believe in the Holy Spirit, but they relate to him the same way I relate to my pituitary gland: I’m really grateful it’s in there; I know it’s essential for something; I would never want to lose it . . . but I don’t really interact with it. For these Christians, the Holy Spirit is not a moving, dynamic person. He’s more of a theory.
Yet Jesus made his disciples the most astounding promise about the Holy Spirit, one so astounding I think many of us do not really take it seriously: it was to their advantage, he said, that he return to heaven if it meant they receive the Spirit (John 16:7). If you ask Christians whether they would rather have Jesus beside them or the Spirit inside them, which do you think most would choose?
Doesn’t that show how far apart we are from grasping what Jesus was offering to us?
The Holy Spirit appears 59 times in the book of Acts, and in 36 of those appearances he is speaking. “But wait,” some say, “we can’t use Acts as a pattern for our time! The apostles were a unique group.” And I understand that Acts represents a special epoch of apostolic history. But you cannot convince me that the only book God gave us with examples of how the church walks with the Spirit is filled with stories that have nothing in common with our own. As John Newton put it, “Is it really true that that which the early church so depended on—the leadership of the Spirit—is irrelevant to us today?”
How We Experience His Presence
How then do we experience his presence? We certainly have seen this question greatly abused. As I noted, many equate his movements with emotional flurries, irrational impressions, or random confluences of events. As I study Scripture, I see six ways we experience his presence: in the gospel, through the Word of God, through the community of the church, in our various spiritual giftings, in our spirit by communion with him in prayer, and through his sovereign control over our circumstances.
1. In the Gospel
One of the most surprising discoveries I had while writing Jesus, Continued . . . (Zondervan, 2014) was how often Paul equates fullness of the Spirit with going deeper in the gospel. For example, in Ephesians 3:14–18, the apostle prays that the Ephesians would have the strength to comprehend the love of Christ—its breadth and length and height and depth—so that they may be “filled with all the fullness of God.” According to Paul, those two things—knowing the love of Christ in the gospel and being filled with “all the fullness of God”—are synonymous.
Puritan Thomas Goodwin compared this experience to that of a toddler son when his father swoops him up into his arms, spins him around, and tells him, “You are my son and I love you!” In that moment, the boy has become no more his father’s son, legally speaking, than he was the moment before. But being caught up in his father’s arms he feels his sonship more intimately. When God’s Spirit fills us, he sheds abroad God’s love in our heart, making our spirit rise up to say, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 5:5, 8:15).
2. Through the Word of God
The Spirit’s primary vehicle for moving and speaking in our lives is the Scriptures. The Spirit works in us to shape us into being the kind of people God wants us to be, because then we will do the things God wants us to do. Almost every time we see the phrase “will of God” in the Bible it refers to shaping our moral character in response to the gospel. I’m not sure this is the kind of thing you can put a percentage on, but I’d say that about 99.4 percent of God’s direction for us can be found in the Bible. The Spirit conforms us to Christ’s character (Rom. 8:29; 12:1–2) and helps us walk the paths of wisdom (Prov. 2:20–22). As we do, we accomplish the will of God.
3. Through the Church
The most common way the Spirit speaks in the book of Acts (other than in and through Scripture) is through the church. For instance, Acts 13:2 records, “While [the church was] worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” God gave the church specific insight into what Saul and Barnabas were to do. Throughout his life Paul received instructions about where to go and what to do through members of the church, and he gave similar words of instruction to Timothy. I find nothing that indicates that God has stopped speaking this way—to his children through the church.
4. In Our Giftings
Paul tells us “each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). This becomes a primary vehicle for his guidance in our lives. There is a scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Father Christmas gives each of the Pevensie children a mysterious gift. They don’t realize it at the time, but these gifts prove essential in their coming battle with the White Witch. Peter suddenly sees that his sword was given to lead an assault; Lucy recognizes that her gift—a healing ointment—was given to bind up the wounded in battle. Lewis’s imagery mirrors Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians: we perceive what God wants by looking at the gifts he has placed within us.
5. In Our Spirit
Throughout Scripture we see that God guides his people in mission by putting special burdens into their spirits. When Nehemiah left for Jerusalem to rebuild its walls, he didn’t have a command from God. He simply said that God had “put it into his heart” to do it (Neh. 2:12). When Paul came to Athens, Luke records his spirit was “provoked” within him about the idolatry in Athens (Acts 17:16). He evidently took this provocation as a direction to stay and preach the gospel there. Later in his ministry he would identify a holy “ambition” that God had put in his heart to preach Christ only where he had never been named (Rom. 15:20). Up until then, his ministry had been broad—debate the gospel, build up the churches everywhere—but the Spirit later narrowed the focus of his ministry. Throughout our lives we (at times) experience a “holy discontent” about a particular situation or the pressing in of a specific promise of God to our context. This is often the Spirit’s invitation to pursue a particular ministry.
6. Through Our Circumstances
Throughout Paul’s life we see him interpret open and closed doors as evidence of the Spirit’s leadership. In his first letter to the Corinthians he explains he will stay in Ephesus to preach because a “wide door for effective work” has been opened, which he evidently took as the Spirit’s leadership (1 Cor. 16:8). Again, no special prophetic word, no handwriting in the sky, no Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich—just an open door.
This one can be tricky, because an open door doesn’t always mean something is God’s will. Jonah happened on a ship to Tarshish, but God’s will for him was 180 degrees the opposite direction. Likewise, a closed door doesn’t always mean something is not God’s will. In Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians of why he would stay in Ephesus (mentioned above), he notes many difficulties lay ahead of him. He didn’t interpret these difficulties as evidence God wanted him to leave, but to stay.
Hold Them All Loosely
More havoc has been wreaked in the church and world following the words “God just told me to ________” than perhaps any other phrase. So we must hold our various senses of the Spirit’s movement in tension with each other and always in submission to the Scriptures. They are the final record of what he says.
Except for the gospel and the Scriptures, then, the key with all of these points is to hold our interpretations loosely. We must submit what we sense the Spirit is doing in our hearts or how we’re reading our circumstances to the Scriptures and the counsel of the church. Paul tells us we are to “test” the prophecies given to us in the church. This isn’t an exact science or a formula, and as much as that might disappoint us, it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus said, after all, that experiencing the Spirit is something like a mysterious encounter with the wind (John 3:8).
Now, in conclusion we need to examine a little known verse in 1 Corinthians, used by the Mormons, hence their deep interest in genealogy, which we need to examine.
‘Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?’
(1 Corinthians 15:29)
Near the middle of his great reflection on the resurrection, the apostle Paul pauses to ask his readers: “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf” (1 Cor. 15:29)? The verse could also be translated: “Why do those who are baptized for the dead do it? That is, if the dead are not raised at all, why are they [certain Corinthians] baptized for the dead?”
The phrase “baptism for the dead” is so obscure and perplexing, the meaning so uncertain, and the variety of interpretations so numerous that it seems wise to say it seems impossible to know what the phrase means. Given the difficulties, some wonder why we should even bother to investigate. But baptism for the dead matters, both because Mormons place extraordinary importance on it, and also because Paul uses it to defend the coming resurrection of believers.
Variety of Interpretations
The simplest reading of the text is that some Corinthian Christians were baptized vicariously on behalf of some who’d already died, seeking a spiritual benefit. The problem with this view, though, is twofold. First, there is no precedent for baptism for the dead in the Bible, the early church, or pagan religions. No one knows who did it or what spiritual benefit they sought. Second, the notion of Christians being baptizing for the sake of those who’ve died offends our theology. It sounds like a magical sacramentalism. It seems to contradict justification by faith alone.
To avoid these problems, some scholars have proposed that Paul’s key terms have rare or figurative meanings. First, they say “baptism” is metaphorical, as in Peter’s expression “baptism with fire.” Second, they say “for” does not mean “on behalf of.” Third, they say “the dead” are the spiritually dead or the dying, not the physically dead. Yet the text gives us no reason to seek metaphorical meanings. All stripes of scholars agree that the plain sense is most likely, though no one knows precisely what the Corinthians did. The question resembles discussions of the authorship of the Book of Hebrews. So many scholars have worked on the matter that someone, surely, has proposed the right author. But since we suffer ignorance at key points, we are forced to make guesses. Even if a scholar surmises correctly, he still surmises; whoever is right cannot have the pleasure of basking in it. Still, even if certainty eludes us, we can learn important things. We may never know the name of Hebrews’ author, but we do know what kind of person he was. Likewise, we may never know precisely why the Corinthians were baptized for the dead, but we can know that the Mormon view is false.
Two Guiding Principles
Two principles must guide us. First, we establish what we know and work from there. Second, our conclusions must fit the context of 1 Corinthians and cohere with Paul’s theology.
Beginning with the context, Paul has heard some Corinthian Christians deny the future bodily resurrection of believers. Given how integral Jesus’s resurrection is to the gospel, the aposlte asks, “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15:1–12). In light of the union of Christ and believers, if anyone denies the resurrection of Christians, he also denies the resurrection of Christ.
If dead Christians aren’t raised, then neither is Christ. And if Christ isn’t raised, Paul’s gospel is false, our faith is vain, and we’re still lost in sin. But, Paul continues, Christ has been raised—so that all who are united to him have resurrection life. He was raised as the firstfruits of the dead (15:12–28).
With this, Paul’s theological argument for the resurrection of believers ends. The next section, beginning with our verse, adds a series of ad hoc arguments for the resurrection. Paul’s theme is that both his and the Corinthians’ practice are consistent with belief in the resurrection of the dead. The significance of Paul’s practice is clear: If there’s no resurrection, he asks, why does he face danger every hour? Why should he risk death daily? There is no gain in such sacrifices without the resurrection. Indeed, it would be better to “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:30–32).
Two conclusions emerge. First, just as Paul’s sacrifices presuppose the resurrection, so the Corinthians’ practice of baptism for the dead presupposes the resurrection. Second, since 1 Corinthians 15 is about resurrection of the dead, not gaining salvation, the Mormons take the passage out of context.
Additionally, since Paul doesn’t rebuke the Corinthians for their practice, then their baptism for the dead was harmless or, at worst, a minor offense. If baptism for the dead actually perverted the gospel, he would have denounced it, as he condemns other sins in the letter.
Mormon View Undermines the Gospel
These conclusions are sufficient to refute the Mormon view of baptism for the dead. Whatever baptism for the dead means, the practice of the Mormons cannot be correct, for it both disregards the biblical context and undermines the biblical gospel. Mormon baptism for the dead is a proxy administration of baptism for a deceased person who didn’t hear the Mormon “gospel” while alive.
Joseph Smith instituted the practice in 1840 in response to concern among his followers for forebears who died unbaptized. Today, these baptisms are also performed as an act of love for unrelated persons selected from genealogical records in Mormon archives.
According to Mormon teaching, the practice affords the dead the opportunity to pursue salvation through a system of works righteousness. Mormons explicitly teach salvation by good works. Baptism for the dead is part of that system.
Like some Christians, Mormons wonder about the fate of those who died before the time of Christ. Whereas Christians wonder about those who miss the gospel of his atonement, Mormons fear missing his teachings on the way of righteous living.
Further, Mormons claim Smith’s baptism for the dead restored a lost apostolic practice—something allegedly at the center of Jesus’s post-resurrection teaching. According to Mormons, the gates of hell will not thwart the salvation of the dead for which this baptism is essential. “Worthy” Mormons with special temple privileges serve as proxies by undergoing baptism in a basin, patterned after the bronze sea of Solomon’s temple.
The Mormon practice is antithetical to the gospel. The Gospels and Acts declare that Jesus’s post-resurrection teaching focused on his kingdom, the Old Testament witness to him, and the charge to make global disciples. If the Corinthians practiced what Mormons do, Paul couldn’t have tolerated it, since it contradicts the gospel.
What Does It Mean?
Still, the question of the proper interpretation of baptism for the dead remains. Confessing I’m no closer to certainty than anyone, I think it wise to take the passage at face value: it seems that certain Corinthian were baptized on behalf of people—possibly family members or friends who’d died.
Paul knew about this and, even if he didn’t fully approve, his casual tone shows it wasn’t a major error. The best guess, then, is not that they thought baptism played a role in saving the dead, which would be a major error, but that they exaggerated the value of baptism.
It seems likely the Corinthians were concerned about believers who died before they could be baptized, and feared some spiritual loss as a result. This view suits the context and coheres with other Scriptures, which show Paul as a lion when he detecting any challenge to the gospel itself.”
For me, this verse is a commentary on those who ‘baptise’ people for those who are dead are confused, for only those who personally have made a commitment to follow Jesus can be baptised and only Jesus can be a ‘substitute’ for us in dying for our wrongdoing/rebellion against God because He was perfect.
In my next blog, I want to look at the rite of baptism in a bit more detail.