During this time of Lent, in preparation to celebrate Easter, I am reading through the four Gospels a couple of times. One of the times is via Audible. There is something quite beneficial in listening to familiar scripture – we hear things that we might easily have glossed over while reading. Listening to the Gospel of John, I became aware of a fair amount of discussion about baptism in the first few chapters – John the Baptist, Jesus’ own baptism, Jesus and John baptizing concurrently, etc.
A question surfaced at Young Life College several years ago as to where the concept of baptism came from. To them, it appeared to have been something new with John the Baptist’s ministry. So I did some digging and discovered some interesting stuff…
At the time of John the Baptist, baptism was not new to Judaism and was mostly reserved for proselytes (Gentiles converting to Judaism, which was rare). It appears that first-century Christians borrowed a term used in the Greek world in describing what takes place within baptism. Two different, though related, Greek words show up in the New Testament:
- Bapto – which basically means to dip (as in ‘dip into dye’) and is used only three times in the New Testament, one being when Jesus dipped the bread into wine during the last supper (John 13:26).
- Baptizo – derived from bapto, means to dip repeatedly (so the item being dipped gets washed), immersed or submerged (as in a sunken vessel). It also means ‘to overwhelm.’ (cf. Uncharted Waters.) Immersion wasn’t a new concept to first century Judaism, either. Priests would achieve ritual putity via total immersion in a bath known as a Mikvah.
What is really interesting was the discovery of the use of both words in a Greek recipe for making pickles, dating to about 200 BC. The text states, “that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptized’ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptizing the vegetable, produces a permanent change.” (Thayer, 1889)
This is fascinating! John’s baptism suggested a change of mind (repent) and a respective change in actions leading to fruit-bearing (see Matthew 3 and Luke 3). He also said that Jesus would essentially take it a step further, baptizing with the Holy Spirit. In explaining this, the Apostle Paul said “don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). If baptizo implies submersion or sunk to the bottom of the sea (overwhelmed), one can assume death occurs! I think that’s Paul’s point – baptism isn’t just a ‘ceremonial cleansing’ but rather death to the one being baptized, with reemergence analogous to resurrection and rebirth.
Paul uses “in Christ” language throughout his letters, reminding us “all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.” (Galatians 3:27) and in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Permanent change!
I am reminded of the process of galvanizing steel poles that I used to design. Here’s the galvanizing process in a nutshell: the steel pole is dipped (bapto?) into an acid bath for cleansing, then immersed and submerged into a vat of molten zinc (about 600 degrees). The pole remains submerged (baptizo?) until the steel reaches the same temperature as the zinc. At this point, the steel and zinc molecules fuse together and something new is created. When the pole is brought back up out of the vat, the molecular structure of the surface of the steel is permanently changed. *
Being baptized into Christ isn’t about cleaning up our act. It’s about dying to self and being galvanized to Jesus, the result being new creation. I like how the Amplified Bible treats 2 Corinthians 5:17:
Therefore if any person is [ingrafted] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!
* An additional, interesting thing about the galvanizing process: When the finished galvanized product is placed into the environment, the zinc actually sacrifices itself in protecting the steel. Hmmm.
Reference: Grimm, C. L. W., Thayer, J. H., & Wilke, C. G. (1889). Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Associated publishers and authors.