Water baptism has something to do with water, right? Some believe water baptism is just getting wet (“sprinkling”) while other Christians insist one isn’t baptized unless the individual is completely submerged in water. In fact, Dictionary.com defines it as, “a ceremonial immersion in water, or application of water, as an initiatory rite or sacrament of the Christian church” while Thesaurus.com includes both immersion and sprinkling in a list of the most relevant synonyms. Can it be both?

Without getting into deeper questions about baptism’s purpose or its connection to the forgiveness of sins, let’s see what can we learn from God’s inspired Word about what water baptism is by the way Scripture talks about it.

How Scripture answers "What is water baptism?"

Water1,2,4,8,9 baptism is a burial in water1,2,4,5,6,9 that comes in response to hearing the word of God preached1,3,4,9. It’s required for entrance into the kingdom of God2 by granting the individual two things: forgiveness of sins and the promised gift of the Holy Spirit3. The metaphors used describing water baptism2,5,7 throughout the New Testament consistently and perfectly align with submersion.

Have you been born again2 and buried with Christ5,6? It’s the only thing that cleanses you of your sins3 and makes you holy3,8 for entrance into the kingdom of God2!

Answer built on scripture-blocks below

They asked him, Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? John answered them, I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.
They [sent by Pharisees] asked him [John the Baptist] why he was baptizing if we wasn’t the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet.  He told them that he baptized with water, but that there was among them that they didn’t know, coming after him and whose sandal strap he was not even worthy to untie.
A delegation from the Pharisees was sent to inquire of John and his purpose. He answers by contrasting himself to the Christ, the one who John was sent as a forerunner.

Scripture-block application to this question

The Jewish custom of baptism was with water that was “plentiful”.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

The baptism of John [the Baptist] is introduced by John [the apostle] back in 2:25ff where we learn that he “came baptizing with water, that he [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel.” (vs 31)

Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said to him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus answered him [Nicodemus] with a truism in stating that one must be born again to see the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus didn’t understand and asked how someone who is old could be born again as he couldn’t enter back into his mother’s womb.  Jesus answered by expounding on the same truth adding that unless one is born of water and the Spirit [born again] he cannot enter [see] the kingdom of God.
Jesus is approached at night (in secret) by Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “ruler of the Jews” (vs 1).
Scripture-block application to this question

Jesus tells Nicodemus there is a time that’s coming when one must be “born of water and the [Holy] Spirit”. Unless one is “born again” he will not be able to enter God’s kingdom.

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brothers, what shall we do? And Peter said to them, 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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

When they heard the preaching of Peter and the rest of the apostles, they were convicted by them and asked what they should do [to be saved].  Peter told them that they each should repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that they could receive the remission of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This “gift” was the promise made for all Jews, but also all Gentiles — everyone whom God calls to himself.

Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost where he recalled several prophetic statements from Joel and David (vss 16-36). By divine inspiration, Peter interpreted these statements to apply their fulfillment to Jesus and the ushering in of the “last days”.

He also specifically refers to the “promise of the Holy Spirit” earlier – given by the Father to the Son (vs 33). More were continuing to be saved and they began meeting together as the Lord’s church (vss 41-47).

Scripture-block application to this question

Responding to the people about what they must “do” to be saved, Peter tells them to be baptized in order that they will be forgiven of their sins (e.g. cleansed, washed) and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (e.g. made holy).

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 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? And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Philip begins with a Scripture [Isaiah] and shares the good news of Jesus.  As they were traveling along the road, the eunuch sees water and wants to be baptized, so together they go “down into” the water where Phillip baptizes the eunuch.  When they “came up out of” the water, the Spirit took Philip away.  The eunuch joyously returns home to Ethiopia and never sees Philip again.

Phillip is sent by the Spirit of God to teach the eunuch who is reading Isaiah while he’s traveling back from home from visiting Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. When they see water, they stop in order for the eunuch to be baptized.  We hear no more about Ethiopia in the Bible, but history records it to have a great Christian history.

Philip quotes from Isaiah 53

Scripture-block application to this question

First, Philip tells him “the good news about Jesus” which results in the eunuch understanding there is a need for him to be baptized (and immediately). Baptism is the eunuch’s response to hearing about Jesus. Second, a large enough body of water1 (e.g. river, lake) is what he sees since they both went “down into” and “came up out of” the water. (footnote: it’s not very conceivable the eunuch embarks on this journey without water to drink)

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
What’s the conclusion then?  We should never continue in sin just so that God’s grace will be magnified. We can’t continue to live in sin after dying to it.  It was our baptism into Christ Jesus that united us in His death.  Our baptism was a death burial together with Him so that just as He was raised to glory by the Father, we too will be raised to have a new life.

Paul is making the broader point of the richness and fullness of God’s grace toward sinful man (chap 5) before turning to man’s response (and responsibility) for salvation. Through the beginning verses of chapter 6, Paul correlates Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection to the Christian’s “death, burial, and resurrection” to a new [spiritual] life.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul’s metaphor is consistent with submersion (and doesn’t work with sprinkling).

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

In Christ, you were circumcised by being buried with him in baptism.  This wasn’t a literal circumcision done with hands, but a removal and burial of your carnal intents. And you were raised with him out of baptism through faith in the powerful working of God, who also raised him from the dead.

Paul is writing the church in Colossae to encourage them and resist the false teaching, specifically “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” or anything that is not according to Christ (vs 8).  He continues by specifically calling out the Mosaic Law (“a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees”) – the law that Christ replaced.  Under the same theme of not falling away, he tells them not to allow others to judge them against things pertaining to the Mosaic Law such as food, drink, feasts, Sabbath days (vs 16).   In Christ, they are not obligated to observe those things.

Scripture-block application to this question

Baptism is a burial, from which one is “raised”. Significantly, it is a burial with Christ.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
Don’t forget, brethren, that our forefathers were all under the cloud, and all of them passed through the sea, being baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and they all consumed the same spiritual food and drink.  They drank from the same spiritual Rock that followed them, which was Christ.
Paul, in a letter to the young church in Corinth addressing divisions and several serious matters including sin and arrogance, reminds them about those that came before and the unity they have in Christ.  He goes on to share the mostly negative example of those that came before, that “God was not pleased” (vs 5) with them, and implores them to “not desire evil as they did” (vs 6).

Paul’s reference here is going back specifically to the children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, when Moses led them in a “pillar of cloud” by day and fire by night and through the Red Sea  (Exodus 13-14).

Scripture-block application to this question

Even before Christ, God’s people were “baptized” in cloud and water, partaking in Christ.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Therefore, brethren, we can confidently enter the holy place because of the blood of Jesus and the new and living way that was opened through the offering of Himself. He’s our great high priest over the church of God.  Because of these things, we should singlemindedly draw near in full assurance of our faith having entered into His covenant with hearts/minds given a clear conscience and bodies cleansed with water.

This letter to Jewish Christians that were now scattered throughout the region contrasts their Old Covenant worship practices (e.g. sacrifices, High Priest, etc.) with the New Covenant under Jesus Christ.  Specifically here, the writer is calling to mind several Old Covenant practices that he has been contrasting to this point, including the “sprinkling” of the blood that was required for the forgiveness of sins (9:19-22).

Scripture-block application to this question

Using Jewish imagery much like Paul did with circumcision6, this writer uses sprinkling of blood, an image recalled from Exodus 24:3-8 when Moses sprinkled blood on the people – the very point at which they entered into the [old] covenant. It’s the word “sprinkling” that looks back to the image, not forward to a practice (and obviously, hearts cannot be literally sprinkled). Therefore, it would be inappropriate to use this passage as a justification for baptism by sprinkling. Furthermore, lest there be any doubt, he couples the “sprinkled hearts” with “washed bodies” done by water (and not blood).

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
During this time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. When Jesus came up out of the water, He saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove while a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”

The early days of John the Baptist’s ministry to prepare the way for his cousin, Jesus. He was known for “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance” (vs 4).

Parallel accounts of this appear in Matthew 3:16-17, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:32-34.

Scripture-block application to this question

When Jesus was baptized, He “came up out of the water”4– the very large Jordan River.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

Any who were baptized by John “were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan” (vs 5).

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