What Significance has Baptism in a New Testament Church?

Baptism and the New Testament Church

© 2021 by C. O. Bishop (Revised August 2023)

What do we actually know about the New Testament Church?

There are many books written on this subject. I don’t propose to rewrite them. I do think it is good to summarize. The following seven points are normal to the New Testament Church:

The New Testament Church was:

  1. Indigenous.
    In no case was an outside person, thing, or material necessary to the function of the local church. (Titus and Timothy were sent to help, later, but they were commanded to get the job done, and get out. 2 Tim 4:9, 21; Titus 1:5; 3:12)
    a. Self-governing. No Church was subject to a distant board of overseers, or any kind of hierarchic structure. (Acts 15 was a request by an apostle for confirmation, from other apostles. It was not a board of cardinals, [or other “birds”] stepping in to correct a local church which was in need of correction.)
    b. Self-supporting. No Church was to depend upon another for its sustenance, but every church was concerned about the others, and stood ready to help in time of need. (2 Corinthians 9)
    c. Self-Propagating. No Church depended upon professional or foreign evangelists to “bring in souls,” or to carry out the work of the ministry. Leaders were raised up from within the congregation, and every member was expected to function in the ministry. (Ephesians 4:11-16) This is critical to the health of the church.
  2. Under the headship of Christ, with a plurality of human “under-shepherds.”
    a. There is no scriptural example of a singular leader in a church, except possibly Diotrephes, in 3rd John 9, 10 (which was a bad example!)
    b. Every example, either by anecdote or command, is “elders” (plural) of the “church” (singular).
    c. The headship of Christ is constantly underscored throughout the epistles.
  3. Free to fit the culture in which it has been planted.
    a. This, of course, is not a license to sin, but a recognition that the style of music, worship, and preaching will vary with the culture, and be used by God accordingly.
    b. If the church is unnatural to its environment, it becomes questionable what makes the people different—is it the indwelling presence of the person of Christ, transforming their life, and making them holy, saying “Come out from among them and be ye holy!”? Or, is it only the abiding presence of an outside influence that tells them “Live according to this creed, and God will be pleased?” One is the voice of the Liberator, while the other is the voice of the Legalizer. One sets them free; the other enslaves them. We need to avoid error in this matter.
  4. Committed to the study and preaching and teaching of the Word of God.
    a. This one is obvious all throughout the epistles.
    b. The leadership gifts of the local assembly are all to bring about the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry. (Ephesians 4:12)
  5. Committed to obedience to the Written Word, administered by the Living Word.
    a. This one is harder to achieve, but we have to prayerfully, respectfully pursue it with our whole heart. This is where we live or die. It is the foundation to everything else.
    b. Those who desire genuine submission to Christ will continue to purify their own lives, and keep going back to the Word, for the purpose of transformation. And God honors this desire, and gives them an even stronger desire to draw near to Him and walk with Him.
  6. Devoted to the Love of, Worship of, and Obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ; and the Love of, Care of, and mutual commitment to one another.
    This is the Agapé Love. It is the heart of what makes genuine Christianity work. If you don’t love the Brethren, you don’t love the Lord. And the reverse is true as well. If Christ is the center (imagine a spoked wheel) and we (“the spokes”) desire to draw near to Him, we can’t help desiring to draw near to one another as well.
  7. Devoted to fulfilling the Great Commission.
    This is not a grievous task, but the natural outworking of a spiritual “chain-reaction” which has begun in the life of every believer. If we are doing what the Lord wants us to do, we will have opportunity to share our faith, and we will desire to do so. (1 Corinthians 15:34; Romans 15:20)

What about Today?

We need to make it our constant aim to make a clean start, unfettered by tradition, whether recent or ancient, except where those traditions either are plainly in obedience to Scripture, or where they are completely harmless, and in a matter where we have freedom to choose, anyway. (Church potlucks, Bible Studies, etc.)

We should also try to not carry “baggage” from our former churches, but rather, focus on “What does God’s Word actually say?” and “How can I rightly apply it to my life?” We need to step away from our old baggage and move forward, not constantly looking back.

What did Paul do?

When Paul went into a new area, he went to the local gathering-places (the marketplace, the waterhole or well, the synagogue, etc.), and he preached. When some responded positively, he spent more time with them, and taught them, confirming them in their new faith.

He spent further time, training up leaders, and ordaining them to the work of shepherding the local flock. He gave them two ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Table), and adequate instruction, and then he left, and he began again elsewhere. Later, he sent men to further encourage, instruct, and train the new believers. But the fledgling churches were largely left in God’s hands, and, (amazingly!) they mostly flourished!

Can we do it today?

Is there any real reason the above principles cannot be applied in North America, in the 21st century? I can’t see any. The only thing that limits the abilityof the Holy Spirit is the availability of Man.

When we don’t do what God says, usually it is because we don’t choose to, not because we “don’t understand.” The door to the truth is the will, not the intellect. It is important that we feed the understanding, and we seek to do just that, here at True Hope: but we must also appeal to the will of every believer, to make a decision to walk with Jesus; to attempt obedience to the instructions in the epistles.

When we share the Gospel of Christ with people, we give them information sufficient to make a decision to receive Jesus as their Savior. But we also appeal to the will, persuading them, on the basis of evidence, to believe.

Again, the door to the truth is the will, not the intellect. When Noah was building the Ark, he was a Preacher of Righteousness according to 2nd Peter 2:5. Everyone around him knew what he was building, and why he was building it. But the only ones who were persuaded to believe were his own family, who obeyed by faith, and entered that Ark.

We obey the Gospel by faith, placing our trust in the Blood of Jesus at the Cross, as complete payment for our sins, believing in Him, as our only hope for eternal salvation.

Two Ordinances

As believers, we see that two “ordinances” have been given: Water Baptism, and The Lord’s Table. We explain the nature of the Lord’s Table every month when we take communion, (as we will today.) But we haven’t talked much about baptism. Both are an outward testimony of something that has already occurred inwardly, and a physical, visible demonstration of a spiritual, invisible reality.

Communion testifies through the symbols of the bread and the cup that “Jesus died for me: His body was torn and broken for me, and His Blood was shed for me!” As believers we take part in the Lord’s Table to testify of His sacrificial death, until He comes: which means we also express our confident assurance that He is indeed returning!

When we partake in the Lord’s Table, we testify that Jesus’s blood was the full payment for our sins. (The people who placed themselves under the blood of the Passover Lamb for protection against the Wrath of God, did not just “stand there and watch:” They each ate of that lamb!)

We eat (as we were told to do) as a commemoration of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, 2000 years ago, for the sins of the whole world. By faith we have laid our hands upon that sacrifice, and claimed it as the substitute for our own lives. When we partake in  communion, we honor Jesus before the world, proclaiming His death until He comes.

But, What about Baptism?

There are two types of baptisms taught in the New Testament: one of them is absolutely necessary for salvation, but it has nothing to do with water. The other does involve water, and is in no way required for salvation. But it does stand as a matter of obedience, and a testimony, even if we don’t fully understand it.

Baptism by the Holy Spirit

Turn to 1st Corinthians 12:13. This entire chapter is about the gifts of the Spirit, and how He, the Holy Spirit, builds the church by giving appropriate gifts to each believer. He makes the choice as to who has what gift. Individual cells in a physical body are not given a choice of their individual tasks or locations in the body. Believers are given their assignments by God, the Holy Spirit.

This verse, in the midst of the larger passage, tells us a key point: every single believer has been “Baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ.” That fact is what makes you a “Member” of the Body of Christ at large.

Regarding “Church Membership:” this is the only kind of membership God addresses in the New Testament. Every member of the Body of Christ is expected to find a local assembly of like-minded believers and attach themselves to that assembly. And then we are to serve there, as a functioning part of the Body of Christ. Every member is to function.

Biblical Membership

Some churches have a “membership roll,” as if they are a country club, or something. No such idea is suggested in scripture. Some sects require that you be water-baptized (again) into that church, to gain membership. This is also unbiblical.

Some require that you be “vetted” by a governing board, and deemed “worthy” to be a part of their organization. That is especially repugnant. If Jesus’s Blood at the Cross, which made me clean enough to stand before a Holy God, and address Him as Father, fails to make me “worthy” to be in some human organization, then I don’t belong there! (Is there such a thing as “church discipline” in the Bible? Yes, but it has nothing to do with “membership.” We will discuss that at another time.)

1st Corinthians 12:13 told us about Baptism by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ. That is the only kind of baptism that is necessary for salvation. It occurred the moment you placed your faith in Jesus as your Savior, even if you were unaware that it was happening. The Holy Spirit placed you into the Body of Christ, according to His will.

So, let’s talk about the other kind of baptism:

Water Baptism

First, what is the actual meaning of the word, “baptize?”

Oddly enough, the Greek word for “baptize” is pretty much just “baptize.” The problem was that when the first English Bibles were being published (particularly the King James Version which was “authorized” by King James, the then monarch of England, and the head of the Anglican Church)… they had to not contradict the Church of England. The translators could not write in the actual meaning of the Greek word for baptism. The Church of England (scarcely removed from Catholicism,) was practicing baptism by sprinkling, while the actual meaning of the word is “To Dip!” The Greek word “baptizō”means “immersion!” The intensive verb “baptizō” is most frequent derivative of the root “baptō,” which is translated, and is always translated “Dip.”

In the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, by Lawrence O. Richards (pp. 100-101,) under Baptizō, it says: Baptō is the basic verb. It means ‘to dip in’ or ‘to dip under.’ It is often used of dipping fabric in a dye. Baptizō is an intensive form of baptō. From early times it was used in the sense of immersing.”

So… had they consistently translated the word to what it actually means, John the Baptist would have been John the Dipper! But when Jesus “dipped” the sop in the cup, and passed it to Judas, the word “baptōwas actually translated: and no one called that a baptism!

But what does the Immersion accomplish?

We can see, then, that the concept involved immersion, and that the result of that immersion is to fully identify the thing being dipped, with the substance in which it was dipped. The sop Jesus handed to Judas was soaked in whatever was in the cup.

Cloth that has been dipped in a certain pot of dye is permanently identified with that specific pot of dye. In fact, all the cloth that came through that specific pot is together identified as a specific “dye-lot.” If you have been born again through faith in the Blood of Jesus, then The Holy Spirit has immersed you into the Body of Christ, according to 1st Corinthians 12:13, and you are permanently identified with Him in every way.

Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized to be identified with the message of John: John preached the Gospel of the coming Kingdom—the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the 1000-year reign of Jesus on earth. Jesus is the promised King! So He had to be identified with the Promised Kingdom.

Where is the command?

We practice water Baptism for the same reason as we practice Communion: We were told to do so! (See Matthew 28:18-20)

Baptism commemorates in the life of each believer the fact that the Holy Spirit has already placed us into the Body of Christ. He has immersed us into Jesus, so that we are fully identified with Him, forever, in every way. We do this once, as a believer, to testify of our new position in Christ. It is not how we “join a church,” or “repent of our sins” or any other such thing. This is a believer’s baptism.

What happens if you don’t get baptized? Nothing, as far as I can see: But Jesus commanded the eleven to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

Do you see it? There is a spiritual “chain reaction,” there, which dictates that this command, called the “Great Commission” is our marching order, just as it was for the eleven. And that includes believer’s baptism. So, even though we may not really be sure how it works as a testimony, we do practice water baptism by immersion. We do not require it of anyone, and only offer it as it is requested.

How important is Water Baptism?

It is interesting to read in 1st Corinthians 1:10-17, where we can see how the Apostle Paul felt about Baptism. He saw that it had already fostered some divisions among the brethren: (“Paul baptized me!” “Well, Apollos baptized me!” …etc.)

Paul said he was thankful he had only baptized a handful of them, and he concluded that “Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the Gospel.” Paul did practice water baptism, but it did not have a very high priority in his mind. The reality (being baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ”) came about through the preaching of the Gospel. “Water baptism” is just a picture of the real thing.

What is Required?

Water baptism requires no special clothing or ritual, no“oath-taking,” or any other such thing. Upon public confession of faith in Jesus and His finished Work at the Cross, any believer is qualified for water baptism, as a simple step of obedience and as a testimony of the new birth.

One person in our fellowship, who is already a believer, has requested water baptism, so, next week we plan to fulfill that ordinance for that person! If anyone else desires also to be baptized, please let one of us know. We extend the offer to all believers. Next week, Barak Lundberg and I will serve together to carry out the baptisms.

Lord Jesus, please help us to focus our attention on You, and not the “outward things” that so easily attract our eyes and our minds. Let us learn to walk with You in obedience.