Crowd at lake shore for baptism

Baptism: Meaning and Mode

The word “baptize” is a Greek word which has been adopted into the English language as part of our Christian vocabulary. The root word baptō means “to dip” or “dip into dye.” Baptizō is an intensive form of baptō and means “to dip” or “to immerse.” This word is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to describe Naaman’s sevenfold immersion in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:14).

Baptizō is also used in ancient writings of vessels which are cleansed by immersing them in water. The word is used of ships that sink and of people who drown.Baptism ceremony

The baptizō word was especially prominent in the dye trade. Cloth would be dipped or immersed into a vat of dye. The material was “baptized” in dye.  When the cloth was removed from the vat of dye, it had a distinct and new appearance.  It was identified in a new way. Red cloth would come out of a vat of red dye. Blue cloth would come out of a vat of blue dye. The cloth was identified by its new color.

There are two key things we learn from a study of the word baptizōFirst, the word means “to immerse.”  A ship sprinkled with water would not sink. Cloth sprinkled with dye would not change color. Because of debates in the church concerning the mode of baptism, translators have avoided translating it. Instead they have just given us the Greek word and left it to theologians and pastors to sort out the meaning. It might be better if we would simply use the word “immerse” rather than the Greek word “baptize,” for that is what “baptism” means.

Second, the word “baptize” signifies an “identification.” Newly dyed cloth is identified by its color. Christians who are “baptized” or immersed become identified with Jesus Christ and his followers. This is evident by the formula Jesus gave His disciples: “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

In ancient times a person’s name was associated with their attributes and character. To be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, means to become identified with the triune God who has revealed Himself by His Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ.

While I believe that the intended meaning of baptizō is “to immerse,” I wonder if we have made more of the mode than the meaning of this Christian ordinance. If a new believer has been sprinkled as the means of their identification with Christ and His church, has the true meaning been accomplished by this mode?

I recall one of my seminary professors instructing us that if the one being baptized came up out of the water with the top of their head dry, the proper thing was to dunk them again! Would the officiant have failed to administer the ordinance if the head of the “baptizee” was still dry?

A member of my Baptist congregation was disabled and could not go under water. After much discussion and reflection the elders arranged for him to be lifted into a hot tub where the baptism was administered by pouring water over his head. If the intent was to baptize, did the mode of pouring fail to accomplish the goal?

With deep respect for my own Baptist tradition and an appreciation of the biblical basis for baptism by immersion, I believe that we Baptists have often given too much attention to the mode and failed to appreciate the actual meaning of the word–which is identification with Christ and His church. While continuing to practice baptism by immersion, I have come to respect other traditions as equally valid in reflecting the true meaning of the ordinance.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).

9 thoughts on “Baptism: Meaning and Mode

  1. Dr. Laney, If a man owned a business dying cloth (like you referred to) and he told his worker “to dip” the cloth in the dye and the worker turns around and “sprinkles” the dye on the cloth would that be “equally valid” obedience in the owners eyes? No.

    In the same way it can’t be right for God to say “dip or immerse” my disciples and then we say its “equally valid” to sprinkle or pour them.

    Michael Rains.

    1. In order for a cloth to be fully dyed it would take more than just a simple dip the way we interpret “dip”. It would have to be held under for a period of time.
      Pickling process in these times uses the same word.
      I am sure we do not intend to pickle our new Christian brothers and sisters.
      Another use of the word baptizo was used for soldiers going into battle.
      They were baptized with waters and sometimes with sand when water was not available.
      Not buried then un-buried, but rather sand poured over their heads.
      Words do have more than one single working definition.
      Even when taken literally.

      1. John,

        Sure, it is possible in working with dying cloth that it may require the cloth, at times, to be dipped under for a longer period of time.

        The point is not how long something has to be submerged in a liquid for “dip” or “immerse” to mean “dip” or “immerse.” Again, if the boss said “dip the cloth” or “immerse the cloth” he doesn’t mean pour dye on it or sprinkle dye on it.

        I realize words can have variations of meaning but I have never read that the primary understanding or nuance of “baptizo” is pouring or sprinkling. Dr. Laney rightly pointed that out in his article.

        Look throughout the NT. There are Greek words that convey the idea of pouring and sprinkling much better than “baptizo”. It is interesting that God didn’t use those.


    2. Michael, thanks so much for your comment. Although the word “baptism” means immersion, I think that you have pressed the illustration from the dye trade too far. I believe that the prophets would agree that intentionality trumps ritual.

    1. I baptised my mother a handful of weeks before she passed away having prayed with me prior to that time to accept the Lord as her personal Savior. Mom was bedridden so could not be moved to be immersed and I used a little cup of water and sprinkled it on her head explaining to her that this was her “identification with Christ” and the fellowship of other believers. The commandment was to be baptised and she knew in her heart that this was what she was undertaking to do. I agree with Ken regarding his “grace-centered leadership” and agree with you, Carl, that “identification with Christ” is the basic issue. I hardly believe that Mom was taken to task in Heaven for not having been “immersed” here on earth.

  2. Question: Don’t we need to go back to the OT to qualify the meaning of what baptism is in the NT? Doesn’t baptism replace circumcision as the sign of the covenant between God and his people? What then is the sign of the new covenant? It is baptism. All who are baptized are now bearing witness to the promise fulfilled in Christ and to the faith in Christ of God’s covenant people. Baptism, like circumcision bears testimony, first, to the promise made, and, second, to the faith that believes.

    And just as circumcision was applied to the parents and offspring of Israelites (Gen. 17:12), shouldn’t baptism also be applied to the offspring of Christian parents? [Otherwise, as the argument goes, we are treating our own children as if we are considering them to be *outside* of God’s covenant]. If baptism can be summed up as faith in the saving work of Christ expressed in the gospel, how then should we apply a strict *mode* of baptism (like immersion) to our infants — in light of the fact that God included infants in circumcision?

  3. I echo Ken’s gratitude for the “grace-centered leadership” of this article. I, too, hold the conviction that baptism means immersion and that immersion is the proper mode of baptizing. Just as firm—if not more so—is my conviction that baptism does not convey salvation.

    God, in his grace, has also placed in my path a number of godly men and women who know a whole lot more than me and who hold other convictions and who challenge me to consider mine. On the whole, the challenge results in a firmer hold, not looser.

    I certainly do not want to partially obey God by only sprinkling or pouring when immersion is called for—and I might have a different view if salvation were at stake—but I agree with Dr. Laney’s emphasis on the identification over the immersion. Indeed, I would greatly prefer to sprinkle someone who clearly identifies with Christ’s death and resurrection than dunk someone who does not. (Sometimes I wonder if we too readily baptize; sometimes I lament our hesitation.)

    A year ago, at the end of a message on the sacraments (Lord’s Supper and Baptism—just to be clear!), and having already dunked a few people, I invited an immediate response from the congregation. As I closed in prayer, I peeked to see if any would come and, to my surprise, a friend was pushing his elderly neighbor forward in her wheelchair. I’d visited her in the hospital a few months earlier and knew my friend’s family had been loving her and ministering to her for a few years. My friend whispered to me that “Miss J” had accepted Jesus that morning and wanted to be baptized. There was no way we were going to get the portly, old, wheelchair-bound woman into our portable baptistry, so I did what I’m guessing had never been done in the history of this 60-year-old Baptist church: I dipped (“baptized”?) my hand in the baptistry and sprinkled Miss J’s head in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how long it will be before God invites Miss J to walk over the threshold of her new home in heaven, but I’m confident he will celebrate her homecoming as much as we did her baptism.

    I’ve often wondered if Jesus’ words to Peter in John 13:10 might have some bearing on these situations: “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.”

  4. It seems that it is important to also recognize Baptism as a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Going down into the water pictures His death, under the water His burial and coming up out of the water His resurrection. In addition, when the believer is baptized, it is also a picture of his identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Paul says we are dead, buried and risen with Christ (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). I realize that this is a positional standing, and I realize that there is not a specific Scriptural reference to prove it, but non-the-less it is an awesome picture of an awesome truth. I believe that is one of the reasons God used baptism as the way of our identification. On the other hand, I believe the Lord was very serious on not being legalistic in certain matters that would hinder a person whose heart is right and wanted to follow Him. While I believe strongly in baptism by immersion, I agree with Carl that it should not distract from the main issue of identification with and following Christ. If a person could not be immersed for some valid reason, why should he be hindered from identifying himself and giving himself to Christ? I believe this should only be an exception if it is impossible for the believer to be immersed. Every example in the New Testament is of immersion.

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