Clean Before God

Pete Kersker - Jun 08, 2023

The meaning of baptism has been a point of contention starting in the 16th century, as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the significance of water baptism was always the same:

Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38a NIV).

...this water [through which Noah and his family were saved] 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... (1 Peter 3:21 NIV).

A long discussion about Church history would be needed to understand how we ended up with disagreements over this. Today, though, since we are turning to the Scriptures rather than history for our edification, I will point out that Scripture can also be confusing on the subject. That's because we find six different meanings of baptism in the Bible. We will briefly review them here.

1) Priests' cleaning before approaching God (Exodus 30:18-21; Leviticus 16:3-4; Hebrews 9:10). The priests had cleaning rites they would do as a part of performing the animal sacrifices at the tabernacle (and then the temple). The High Priest, especially, would take a bath before putting on special garments once a year, on the day of atonement, to enter the Most Holy Place where God would meet with him. They needed to be clean before entering into the presence of God.

2) John the baptist: forgiveness for a repentant sinner (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). John practiced a baptism (immersion in water) for God's forgiveness of anyone who repented  of (turned away from) their sin and returned to God.

3) Jesus' baptism: fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:13-15). Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5), so he did not need to repent or be forgiven. Jesus asked to be baptized by John anyway "to fulfill all righteousness." When he did what the Father told him to do the heavens opened up, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and the Father declared that Jesus is His Son.

4) Jesus' disciples: repentance, forgiveness, following Jesus (John 3:22, 4:1-2). Jesus' disciples baptized people in water just like John the Baptist, apparently for the same reasons (forgiveness of a repentant sinner). The interplay described by John, however, indicates that they thought there was another meeting to these baptisms in addition to the one John had said: baptism in a teacher's name identified them as disciples (students) of that teacher. When Jesus' disciples baptized people, they were forgiven by God and became disciples of Jesus.

5) Holy Spirit baptism: God is offering salvation to all nations, in fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew 3:11;Acts 1:4-5, 2:1-4,16-21). This one can be confusing when we remember that the word "baptism" simply means "immerse." Still, John the Baptist and Jesus spoke of a Holy Spirit baptism. Jesus told his closest disciples when it would happen and it occurred just as Jesus described on that following Pentecost. This "pouring out" of the Holy Spirit fulfilled Joel's prophecy (Joel 2:28-32) about the starting point of the "last days."

6) Baptism for us:
    a) Declaring our faith that Jesus is the Christ.
    b) Making Jesus our Lord (as his disciple).
    c) Showing repentance for sin to receive forgiveness from God.
    d) Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
    (These gifts are offered and promised by God.)

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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:38-39 NIV).

It's easy to see why different meanings may be taught today, but the meaning of baptism that was consistently taught and practiced for the first 1500+ years of Christianity is still encapsulated in the passage above. That's because the meaning of baptism changed on that day and became a part of God's promise to all people across all nations from that day forward.

And now what are you waiting for?
Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away,
calling on his name (Acts 22:16 NIV).

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