The history and development of baptism

Where did baptism come from?  Who was the first to practice it?  The answer to this question is a bit elusive.  It’s likely that many ancient religions practiced something like baptism, though it wouldn’t be until the days of the early church that we see the word “baptism” emerge as a uniquely Christian practice.  So what are its origins?  How did it develop?


While other ancient cultures had their own ceremonial rites, Israel’s worship was unique in every way.  You might already remember that Israel’s religion was expressed in a series of laws governing the categories of “clean” and “unclean,” symbolically reflecting the purity of God’s character.  Something of this might be in view when Ezekiel describes the formation of God’s relationship with Israel:

8 “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. 9 Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. (Ezekiel 16:8-9)

Some point to various sorts of “precursors” to baptism in the Old Testament—even the apostle Peter would draw some loose connection between baptism and Noah’s flood.  In another setting, Elisha instructs a leper to wash himself by dipping his body into the Jordan river seven times—purifying him of this disease (2 Kings 5:1-14).  So we might find some “hints” of what baptism might look like in the future.

But the clearest examples of regular purification rituals comes from the system of Levite priests.  The book of Leviticus even specifies purification routines centered around the great “Day of Atonement:”

He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. (Leviticus 16:4)

23 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. (Leviticus 16:23-24)

Priests were often “sequestered” for a week prior to this event in order to minimize the risk of any sort of contamination.


Jesus was famously baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist:

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

What’s going on here?  John the Baptist was a born a preacher’s kid, but it’s speculated that when his father passed away John would end up spending his time with a group of desert people called the “Essenes.”  These folks were the hippies of the ancient world, dwelling in caves in the wilderness as a form of separation from the Roman establishment.  Yet when John returns from the wilderness, he doesn’t seem to have adopted their practices as much as reinvented them.  So John is introducing a new form of baptism, which in some way involves a new form of repentance.  Given John’s role as the “forerunner” for Jesus, it’s as if his baptism is a way of saying, “Come and be baptized as we enter into the age of the Messiah.”  So it seems as if John’s baptism had a lot more to do with identification with Jesus’ initial movement.  And we should notice that John would say that his baptism was very different from the actual ministry of Jesus, saying:

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

John seems to have envisioned Jesus as having a unique ministry in the future, and it’s this ministry that helps us clarify baptism today.


After the resurrection, Jesus gathered his closest followers to issue the “marching orders” of the Church.  The purpose of all God’s people is worship, but the Church is now commanded to gather others together that we might all worship God in spirit and in truth.  So when Jesus tells his followers to share the good news, he includes instructions to perform baptisms:

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Baptism is not optional.  This practice is commanded by Jesus himself.  In the pages of the book of Acts, we find Jesus’ followers obeying this command.  We can draw three conclusions based on their practice:

  • Baptism symbolizes salvation

Whenever we see baptism performed, we see it performed as a symbol of a declaration of faith.  To be clear, baptism is never described apart from a personal, faith commitment.  Salvation therefore doesn’t come from baptism, but baptism is a sign of obedience.  But what we also see in the New Testament is that baptism immediately followed conversion.  For example, in Acts 2 Peter’s sermon brought thousands to Christ:

41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

Some English translations say “those who believed.”  Baptism comes only after a faith commitment.  Likewise, in Philip’s ministry:

12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.  (Acts 8:12)

Again, baptism comes only after a faith commitment.  And in the most famous of Philip’s stories, he shares the good news with a spiritual outsider.  A high-ranking eunuch is riding a chariot and reading a portion of the Bible.  Now, in those days people would often read out loud, so Philip—having been guided by the Lord—overheard him.  After a brief conversation, it became clear that the eunuch was spiritually curious, but didn’t understand that the scriptures he was reading were about Jesus:

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”  38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.  (Acts 8:35-36, 38)

Once more, it’s hard to imagine this scene as anything other than a public profession of personal faith.  And apparently the early church agreed, because some later manuscripts would include the addition: “And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (included in some Bibles as Acts 8:37).  Granted, this verses is an addition, and not original to the Bible, but it shows that many in the early church did agree that baptism was merely an outward symbol.

  • Baptism is therefore reserved for believers

This conclusion follows from the previous principle.  If baptism symbolizes salvation, then of course the only ones being baptized would be believers.

But this wouldn’t necessarily only be adult believers.  While we can find no explicit reference to a child being baptized, we do find the Bible describing baptism applied to whole households:

30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (Acts 16:30-34)

Admittedly this seems confusing to us since we see faith as something so deeply personal.  What should probably see here is that the entire household placed their faith in Jesus, and the whole household was baptized as a way of expressing that.  This, I think, helps us make sense of this passage in light of the others.  What I don’t think we should see, however, is evidence suggesting infant baptism.  So while children may believe in the gospel, baptism might not be for the very young.  The normative expression in the New Testament seems to be the baptism of believers.

  • Baptism is usually performed by immersion

Even the Greek verb baptizo means “to immerse” or “to submerge” or even “to drown.”  In the New Testament baptism was performed by being placed under the water.  It wasn’t until later when the early church put together a collection of documents known as the Didache, or the “Teaching(s).”  This resource clarified that if water was scarce, it was acceptable to pour water on the convert’s head and this would be sufficient for baptism.  Again, baptism usually came so quickly after conversion that they just wouldn’t wait until they found a body of water.

I know many conservative folks who would object to this, since baptism is meant to be immersion.  I don’t know that I’d join them in their objection.  If baptism is a symbol, then I’d say that while immersion would be the ideal, if someone came up on Sunday morning and wanted to be baptized right there on the spot, that a Styrofoam cup full of water would be insufficient to make that happen.  It sounds silly, but the public declaration is what matters more than the ritual itself.

But this also highlights the deeper meaning behind baptism, which we will return to tomorrow.  For now, I’d simply challenge those of you who claim to follow Christ yet haven’t been baptized to think about what it is you’re waiting for.  This isn’t a salvation issue, but it is a matter of obedience.  If you want to sign up for baptism, contact myself or one of us on the Church staff, and we’d love to be a part of that declaration of faith.


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