Though predominantly a Christian sacrament, practices similar to baptism predated Christianity in the form of Jewish and pagan cleansing rituals. Within Christianity, however, baptism took on a much greater meaning, illustrating the very heart of the Christian faith.
In the New Testament, baptism first appeared with the public ministry of John the Baptist, who baptized people as a statement of their repentance. Jesus Himself was baptized by John, and later gave instruction for all converts to Christianity to be baptized. Thus, baptism became a custom within the early Christian Church. Since that time—nearly 2000 years ago—baptism has been observed by billions of Christians worldwide.
What, then, is the significance of a believer’s baptism? Why is it important, and why do Christian churches put so much emphasis on it? Because while baptism is a physical act, it is also packed full of meaning and symbolism for the Christian.
Baptism is a means of identifying with the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Particularly in the case of full immersion, baptism symbolizes death when the participant goes under the water and resurrection when emerging.
Baptism represents new life and a fresh start for the believer. As explained by the apostle Paul, “For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives” (Romans 6:4, New Living Translation).
Baptism is symbolic of a cleansing. It represents the washing away of sinfulness through the forgiveness offered by Jesus. All sin is symbolically washed away and the believer is purified in the eyes of God.
Baptism is viewed as an initiation rite. According to the Bible, all new believers are expected to be baptized as an expression of their newfound faith. It proclaims that the participants are no longer just investigating the Christian faith; they have accepted the faith as their own.
Baptism is a public statement. It demonstrates to any onlookers that the candidate is serious about his or her decision to become a Christ-follower. Simultaneously, it announces an intention to follow Jesus throughout the remainder of life.
In keeping with Scripture, every believer is expected to be baptized. Consequently, baptism places all Christians on equal standing. Christians from all ethnicities and all walks of life—rich and poor, male and female, old and young—are to join together in baptism. There are no exceptions.
As a cherished tradition, baptism has united believers around the world and throughout the centuries. Whether baptisms occur within church buildings, rivers, lakes, swimming pools, or even bathtubs, the practice continues to carry profound meaning for every Christian and marks a pivotal moment in their lives.