Baptism has long been seen as a symbol of cleansing. Prior to the start of the church, the practice of baptism already existed in Jewish culture as an act of repentance and purification. John the Baptist baptized people as an act of repentance, preparing the Jewish people for the soon-coming Messiah.
The followers of Jesus were baptized and baptized others as well. Shortly before Jesus ascended to heaven, He command His followers to baptize people from all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as they became disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).
When the church began at Pentecost, 3,000 people believed and were baptized (Acts 2:41). This practice continued as the church spread from Jerusalem to other locations through the Roman Empire and beyond.
Romans 6:3-4 offers an important look at the symbolism of water baptism: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." Going into the water symbolizes death and burial. Coming up from the water of baptism symbolizes resurrection from the dead and the start of a new life.
This concept is noted again in Colossians 2:12: "having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead." We are dead in sin before Christ. In baptism, we are buried with Him, then raised with Him for a new life.
Despite the obvious importance the Bible places on believer's baptism, it is clear water baptism is not what provides salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is found in Jesus and only in Jesus (Acts 4:12). A classic example of this can be found in the thief on the cross. He believed in Jesus just before his death; Jesus promised the man would be with Him in paradise that day (Luke 23:43). Though the thief was never baptized, Jesus promised him salvation based on the man's simple faith.
Further, Scripture repeatedly shows baptism was originally intended for the Christian believer. The tradition of infant baptism developed later, though many used biblical passages to affirm the practice. Baptism also originally took place in water, or by what is known as immersion, as was evident in the baptisms given by John the Baptist in the Jordan River and the baptism of Jesus Himself by John (Matthew 3:13-17). Though no single form of baptism is commanded, immersion best reflects the original pattern presented in the New Testament.
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