Purification rituals involving water were common in ancient religious, so baptism would not have seemed like a practice that was peculiar to the early Christian church. For them, however, it was a once-for-all ritual washing rather than a repeated act. It is now a symbolic washing away sins upon conversion to faith in Christ. John the Baptist
called it a “baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4). It is an outward sign of an internal purification from sins, enacted when a person chooses to be a part of God’s kingdom. The sacredness of this transaction is intimated by the fact that we call baptism a sacrament, which means “holy action.”
First, baptism is a symbolic joining with Christ in his death and resurrection. When the action of baptism is explained, as it is in Romans 6, the sequence is set against Jesus’ death and resurrection: ” Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? When we were baptized into is death, we were placed into the tomb with him. As Christ was brought back from death to life by the glorious power of the Father, so we, too, should live a new kind of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Baptism is an identification with the crucifixion so that the believer can benefit from the redemption it brings. Baptism is also a symbol for the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:6). It represents a spiritual transaction that cannot be seen-the Holy Spirit’s baptism of a believer into the body of Christ upon conversion. Peter made the connection between baptism of the body and baptism by the Holy Spirit: “Peter answered them, ‘All of you must turn to God and change the way you think and act, and each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven. Then you will receive the Holy Spirit as a gift'” (Acts 2:38). He is not saying that the Holy Spirit’s is contingent on baptism but rather that both of those events are part of the process of coming to faith in Christ. In the church, the method of baptism has historically become a point of contention. When and how it is done is up for debate. But Paul makes a significant point when he writes in Ephesians 4:4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit. In the same way you were called to share one hope. There is one LORD, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over everything, through everything, and in everything” (italics added). Paul wasn’t speaking of a certain way of baptizing; he was speaking of the one spiritual transaction that baptism symbolizes-a person being in Christ and Christ’s Spirit being in a person. This is what unifies us as believers. The public profession of faith is also often associated with baptism. Conversion in the book of Acts is always followed by baptism (2:41; 8:12,13,16,26; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15; 33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16). In this case baptism becomes an outward and public sign of faith, similar to baptism’s precursor in the Jewish faith: circumcision. The physical mark of circumcision was a sign of faith in the Old Testament and identification with God’s covenant community, Israel. But in the New Testament, baptism is the outward sign of faith and identification with the Christian community (Rom 4:11; Col 2:11-12).
Apart from its spiritual symbolism, baptism is also used in Scripture to portray being overwhelmed by something. John the Baptist contrasted baptism of the Spirit with baptism of the fire of judgment (Matt 3:10;12, Luke 3:9, 16-17). Jesus himself compared the pain and anguish of his last days to a type of baptism (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). Even today we use the term “baptism by fire” to symbolize an experience that we are thrown into without being properly prepared, often referring to difficult circumstances or troubles. This symbolism for baptism in not very far removed from the baptism of new believers. When Christians are baptized, they are overwhelmed by the grace of God and the cleansing that he freely offers them, and often they are overwhelmed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their lives.