Water has great symbolism
Baptism comes from a Greek word meaning ‘dunking’, and this is a helpful image to have in mind when you think about what baptism means!
Just as a biscuit is ‘dunked’ in a cup of tea and both changes and remains the same as it soaks the tea into itself, so to be a Christian is to be immersed in God, having him soak into every part of your life and change you from the inside into the person that you were always meant to be. Baptism is a special sign (sometimes called a sacrament) of this process of immersion.
Baptism has its roots in Judaism. Then, early in the first century, John the Baptist emerged. His role was to prepare the way for God’s promised ambassador, who we now know to be Jesus. John taught people that they needed to turn away from the things that they were doing which were offensive to God, and to ‘repent of their sins’. As a sign of this, he called them to be baptised, which he did by immersing them in the River Jordan. However, he always pointed people to Jesus—who, he said, would baptise people with the Holy Spirit and with fire, not simply with water.
Jesus himself came to John and was baptised, despite John’s humble protests. As he came up out of the water the heavens were parted, the Holy Spirit came like a dove and rested on him, and the Father spoke, saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” In this moment of baptism we glimpse God in all his trinitarian fullness.
We have records of Jesus’ followers, his disciples, baptising people during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and many accounts of people being baptised in the early church, so we are in no doubt that this is a practice that is at the very heart of the church. Jesus’ last recorded words, according to Matthew, were ‘Go and make disciples… baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’
There is debate in the church as to whether people should be baptised as children or as adult believers, and how much water should be used, but however and whenever it is done it is a sign of God cleansing, adopting and welcoming us. Specifically it signifies:
- Cleansing: you cannot be baptised without repenting of your sins. Baptism is a symbol of God washing you clean.
- Rescue: the waters of baptism signify the waters of the Red Sea through which the Jews were rescued from Egypt. Jesus saves us from a far greater captivity.
- New birth: the waters of baptism remind us of the waters of birth. We cannot come to God without being born afresh in Christ.
- New life: water is a clear enough sign of refreshing, but going down into the waters of baptism also represents our spiritual journey into the tomb with Jesus and those who die with him also share in his resurrection.
- Immersion and filling: on the day of Pentecost we saw the Holy Spirit poured out as Jesus promised, He really does ‘baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire’.
Read the testimony of someone who chose to be baptised
Look up Jesus’ baptism in the Bible, in Matthew (NT)
Watch a video clip about water and baptism
Look up baptism in Wikipedia
See the painting by Veronese, The Baptism of Christ
See the Burne-Jones window The Baptism of Christ (image top-right)
Visit the Church of England webpage on baptism and thanksgiving services
Read the book Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power by Michael Green
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