What Is Baptism?

The words, baptize and baptism, are transliterated not translated. That means translators have simply given English letters for Greek letters. Translation would give us an English meaning. Transliteration leaves it in Greek, so the reader is left to find the meaning of the word.

A visit to an English dictionary will give the following: “to immerse (an individual) in water, or pour or sprinkle water over (the individual), as a symbol of admission into Christianity or a specific Christian church” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). But today’s English dictionary only reflects current word usage. Words can change meaning over time. The real question is what did the word mean in the first century A.D. Even an English dictionary may be helpful with this, because many dictionaries give an etymology or word history. In this case the etymology says, “< Gr (i.e., from Greek) baptizein, to immerse, baptize, substituted for earlier baptein, to dip”. This at least suggests the original meaning of the word is “immerse”.

When we turn to Greek dictionaries, Liddel and Scott define baptism (baptismos) as “dipping in water, immersion”.1 The standard dictionary for the Greek New Testament is by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. It states, “In G[ree]k. lit[erature]. gener[ally]. to put or go under water.”2 G.R. Beasley-Murray in The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology writes, “Despite assertions to the contrary, it seems that baptizo, both in Jewish and Christian contexts, normally meant ‘immerse’, and that even when it became a technical term for baptism, the thought of immersion remains.”3

We can also examine the text of the New Testament to discover the meaning of the word. Take Mark 1:9, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (ESV). Reread the verse substituting immerse, sprinkle, and pour. Which one makes sense? Baptized describes the action performed on the person not on the water.

In John 3:23, we are told that John the Baptist chose the location for baptizing because water was plentiful. In Acts 8:36-39, Philip and the eunuch both go down into the water and come up out of the water. This is obviously needless unless baptism is immersion. Paul links baptism with burial in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death…” (Romans 6:4, ESV). The analogy only makes sense if baptism is immersion.

The evidence from dictionaries and our examination of the text points to baptize/baptism meaning immerse/immersion. Can you be spiritually safe if you haven’t done what Jesus, Peter, and Paul said to do?

1Liddell and Scott, A Greek English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), pp. 305-306.

2A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd Edition. (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 164.

3G.R. Beasley-Murray, “Bapto” The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1975), I:144.

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