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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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A conviction of the holiness of God excites in man the notion that he cannot possibly come into any amicable relation with him before he is cleansed of sin, which separates him from God. This sentiment found a very widely extended symbolic expression in the lustrations which formed an essential part of the ceremonial creeds of the ancient nations. In the language of the prophets, cleansing with water is used as an emblem of the purification of the heart, which in the Messianic age is to glorify the soul in her innermost recesses, and to embrace the whole of the theocratic nation (Ezekiel 36:25, sq.; Zechariah 13:1). Such declarations gave rise to or nourished the expectation that the advent of the Messiah would manifest itself by a preparatory lustration, by which Elijah or some other great prophet would pave the way for him. This supposition lies evidently at the bottom of the questions which the Jews put to John the Baptist (John 1:25, comp. Matthew 3:7 and Luke 3:7), whether he was the Messiah, or Elijah, or some other prophet? and if not, why he undertook to baptize? Thus we can completely clear up the historical derivation of the rite, as used by John and Christ, from the general and natural symbol of baptism, from the Jewish custom in particular, and from the expectation of a Messianic consecration. Dans, Ziegler, and others have, nevertheless, supposed it to be derived from the Jewish ceremonial of baptizing proselytes; and Wetstein has traced that rite up to a date earlier than Christianity. But this opinion is not at all tenable: for, as an act which strictly gives validity to the admission of a proselyte, and is no mere accompaniment to his admission, baptism certainly is not alluded to in the New Testament; while, as to the passages quoted in proof from the classical (profane) writers of that period, they are all open to the most fundamental objections. Nor is the utter silence of Josephus and Philo on the subject, notwithstanding their various opportunities of touching on it, a less weighty argument against this view. It is true that mention is made in the Talmud of that regulation as already existing in the first century A.D.; but such statements belong only to the traditions of the Gemara, and require careful investigation before they can serve as proper authority. This Jewish rite was probably originally only a purifying ceremony; and it was raised to the character of an initiating and indispensable rite coordinate with that of sacrifice and circumcision, only after the destruction of the Temple, when sacrifices had ceased, and the circumcision of proselytes had, by reason of public edicts, become more and more impracticable.

Baptism of John

It was the principal object of John the Baptist to combat the prevailing opinion, that the performance of external ceremonies was sufficient to secure participation in the kingdom of God and his promises; he required repentance, therefore, as a preparation for the approaching kingdom of the Messiah. That he may possibly have baptized heathens also, seems to follow from his censuring the Pharisees for confiding in their descent from Abraham, while they had no share in his spirit: yet it should not be overlooked that this remark was drawn from him by the course of the argument (Matthew 3:8-9; Luke 3:7-8). We must, on the whole, assume that John considered the existing Judaism as a stepping-stone by which the Gentiles were to arrive at the kingdom of God in its Messianic form. The general point of view from which John contemplated the Messiah and his kingdom was that of the Old Testament, though closely bordering on Christianity. He regards, it is true, an alteration in the mind and spirit as an indispensable condition for partaking in the kingdom of the Messiah; still he looked for its establishment by means of conflict and external force, with which the Messiah was to be endowed; and he expected in him a Judge and Avenger, who was to set up outward and visible distinctions. It is, therefore, by no means a matter of indifference whether baptism be administered, in the name of that Christ who floated before the mind of John, or of the suffering and glorified One, such as the apostles knew him; and whether it was considered a preparation for a political, or a consecration into a spiritual theocracy. John was so far from this latter view, so far from contemplating a purely spiritual development of the kingdom of God, that he even began subsequently to entertain doubts concerning Christ (Matthew 11:2). John's baptism had not the character of an immediate, but merely of a preparatory, consecration for the glorified theocracy (John 1:31). The Apostles, therefore, found it necessary to re-baptize the disciples of John, who had still adhered to the notions of their master on that head (Acts 19). To this apostolic judgment Tertullian appeals, and in his opinion coincide the most eminent teachers of the ancient church, both of the East and the West.

Baptism of Jesus

The Baptism of Jesus by John (Matthew 3:13, sq.; Mark 1:9, sq.; Luke 3:21, sq.; comp. John 1:19, sq.; the latter passage refers to a time after the baptism, and describes, John 1:32, the incidental facts attending it).—The baptism of Jesus, as the first act of his public career, is one of the most important events recorded in evangelical history: great difficulty is also involved in reconciling the various accounts given by the Evangelists of that transaction, and the several points connected with it. To question the fact itself, not even the negative criticism of Dr. Strauss has dared. This is, however, all that has been conceded by that criticism, viz., the mere and bare fact 'that Christ was baptized by John,' while all the circumstances of the event are placed in the region of mythology or fiction. Critical inquiry suggests the following questions:—

In what relation did Jesus stand to John before the baptism?

What object did Jesus intend to obtain by that baptism?

In what sense are we to take the miraculous incidents attending that act?

With regard to the first point, we might be apt to infer, from Luke and Matthew, that there had been an acquaintance between Christ and John even prior to the baptism; and that hence John declines (Matthew 3:14) to baptize Jesus, arguing that he needed to be baptized by Him. This, however, seems to be at variance with John 1:31; John 1:33. Lücke (Comment, i. p. 416, sq. 3rd edit.) takes the words 'I knew him not' in their strict and exclusive sense. John, he says, could not have spoken in this manner if he had at all known Jesus; and had he known Him, he could not, as a prophet, have failed to discover, even at an earlier period, the but too evident 'glory' of the Messiah. In fact, the narrative of the first three Gospels presupposes the same, since, as the herald of the Messiah, he could give that refusal (Matthew 3:14) to the Messiah alone.

With regard to the second point at issue, as to the object of Christ in undergoing baptism, we find, in the first instance, that he ranked this action among those of his Messianic calling. This object is still more defined by John the Baptist (John 1:31), which Lücke interprets in the following words: 'Only by entering into that community which was to be introductory to the Messianic, by attaching Himself to the Baptist like any other man, was it possible for Christ to reveal Himself to the Baptist, and through Him to others.' Christ, with His never-failing reliance on God, never for a moment could doubt of His own mission, or of the right period when His character was to be made manifest by God; but John needed to receive that assurance, in order to be the herald of the Messiah who was actually come. For all others whom John baptized, either before or after Christ, this act was a mere preparatory consecration to the kingdom of the Messiah; while for Jesus it was a direct and immediate consecration, by means of which He manifested the commencement of His career as the founder of the new theocracy, which began at the very moment of His baptism, the initiatory character of which constituted its general principle and tendency.

With respect to the miraculous incidents which accompanied the baptism of Jesus, if we take for our starting-point the narration of the three first Gospels, that the Holy Spirit really and visibly descended in the form of a dove, and proclaimed Jesus, in an audible voice, to be the Son of God, there can be no difficulty in bringing it to harmonize with the statement in the Gospel of John. This literal sense of the text has, indeed, for a long time been the prevailing interpretation, though many doubts respecting it had very early forced themselves on the minds of sober inquirers, traces of which are to be found in Origen, and which Strauss has more elaborately renewed. To the natural explanations belong that of Paulus, that the dove was a real one, which had by chance flown near the spot at that moment; that of Meyer, that it was the figure of a meteor which was just then visible in the sky; and that of Kuinoel (ad Matthew 3), who considers the dove as a figure for lightning, and the voice for that of thunder, which the eyewitnesses, in their ecstatic feelings, considered as a divine voice, such as the Jews called a Bath-kol(Meyer). Such interpretations are not only irreconcilable with the evangelical text, but even presuppose a violation of the common order of nature, in favor of adherence to which these interpretations are advanced.

A more close investigation of the subject, however, induces us to take as a starting-point the account of the Apostle St. John. It is John the Baptist himself who speaks. He was an eyewitness, nay, to judge from Matthew and John, the only one present with Jesus, and is consequently the only source—with or without Christ—of information. Indeed, if there were more people present, as we are almost inclined to infer from Luke, they cannot have perceived the miracles attending the baptism of Jesus, or John and Christ would no doubt have appealed to their testimony in verification of them.

In thus taking the statement in St. John for the authentic basis of the whole history, a few slight hints in it may afford us the means of solving the difficulties attending the literal conception of the text. John the Baptist knows nothing of an external and audible voice, and when he assures us (John 1:33) that he had in the Spirit received the promise, that the Messiah would be made manifest by the Spirit descending upon Him, and remaining—be it upon or in Him—there; this very remaining assuredly precludes any material appearance in the shape of a bird. The internal probability of the text, therefore, speaks in favor of a spiritual vision in the mind of the Baptist; this view is still more strengthened by the fact, that Luke supposes there were many more present, who notwithstanding perceived nothing at all of the miraculous incidents. The reason that the Spirit in the vision assumed the figure of a dove, we would rather seek in the peculiar flight and movement of that bird, than in its form and shape. This interpretation moreover has the advantage of exhibiting the philosophic connection of the incidents, since the Baptist appears more conspicuously as the immediate end of the divine dispensation. Christ had thus the intention of being introduced by him into the Messianic sphere of operation, while the Baptist recognizes this to be his own peculiar calling: the signs by which he was to know the Messiah had been intimated to him, and now that they had come to pass, the prophecy and his mission were fulfilled.

None of the Evangelists give any authority for the common tradition that the descent of the Spirit upon Christ was sensibly witnessed by the multitude. Matthew simply states that the vision appeared to Christ; Mark adds that the Spirit appeared to him 'as a dove descending upon Him;' Luke, more generally, states only the fact of the Spirit's descent in a sensible form; and John informs us that besides Christ this vision was witnessed also by the Baptist.

Christian Baptism

Jesus, having undergone baptism as the founder of the new kingdom, ordained it as a legal act by which individuals were to obtain the rights of citizens therein. Though He caused many to be baptized by His disciples (John 4:1-2), yet all were not baptized who were converted to Him; neither was it even necessary after they had obtained participation in Him by his personal choice and forgiving of sin. But when He could no longer personally and immediately choose and receive members of His kingdom, when at the same time all had been accomplished which the founder thought necessary for its completion, He gave power to the spiritual community to receive, in His stead, members by baptism (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16). Baptism essentially denotes the regenerating of him who receives it, his participation both in the divine life of Christ and the promises rested on it, as well as his reception as a member of the Christian community.

Each of these momentous points implies all the rest; and the germ of all is contained in the words of Christ (Matthew 28:19). The details are variously digested by the Apostles according to their peculiar modes of thinking. John dwells—in like manner as he does on the holy communion—almost exclusively on the internal nature of baptism, the immediate mystical union of the Spirit with Christ; baptism is with him equivalent to 'being born again' (John 3:5; John 3:7). Paul gives more explicitly and completely the other points also. He understands by it not only the union of the individual with the Head, by the giving one's self up to the Redeemer and the receiving of His life (Galatians 3:27), but also the union with the other members (Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:5; Ephesians 5:26). He expresses a spiritual purport by saying that it intimates on the part of those who have received it, their being joined with Christ in His death and raised with Him in His resurrection.

As regards the design of Christian Baptism, different views have been adopted by different parties. The principal are the following:—

That it is a direct instrument of grace; the application of water to the person by a properly qualified functionary being regarded as the appointed vehicle by which God bestows regenerating grace upon men. This is the Romanist and Anglo-Catholic view.

That though not an instrument it is a seal of grace; divine blessings being thereby confirmed and obsignated to the individual. This is the doctrine of the Confessions of the majority of the Reformed Churches.

That it is neither an instrument nor a seal of grace, but simply a ceremony of initiation into Church membership. This is the Socinian view of the ordinance.

That it is a token of regeneration; to be received only by those who give evidence of being really regenerated. This is the view adopted by the Baptists.

That it is a symbol of purification; the use of which simply announces that the religion of Christ is a purifying religion, and intimates that the party receiving the rite assumes the profession, and is to be instructed in the principles, of that religion. This opinion is extensively entertained amongst the Congregationalists of England.

Differences of opinion have also been introduced respecting the proper mode of baptism. Some contend that it should be by immersion alone; others, that it should be only by affusion or sprinkling; and others, that it matters not in which way it is done, the only thing required being the ritual application of water to the person. The first class appeal to the use of baptizo by the classical authors, with whom they affirm it is always used in the sense of dipping or immersing; and to such expressions as 'being buried with Christ in baptism,' etc. where they understand an allusion to a typical burial, by submersion in water. The second class rely upon the usage of baptizo by the sacred writers, who, they allege, employ it frequently where immersion is not to be supposed, as when they speak of 'baptism with fire,' and 'baptism with the Spirit;' upon the alleged impossibility of immersing such multitudes as we learn were baptized at once in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost; upon the supposed improbability of an Eastern female like Lydia allowing herself to be publicly immersed by a man whom she had never seen before; upon the language used by Paul at Philippi, when he commanded water to be brought into the room, that he might baptize the jailor and his family, language which, it is said, cannot be understood of such a quantity of water as would be required to immerse in succession a whole household; and upon the use of the term baptism, to designate what is elsewhere spoken of as the outpouring of the Spirit. The third class maintain, that according to universal usage baptizo signifies simply to wet, and that the following preposition determines whether it is to be taken in the sense of wetting by immersion or not; they urge especially that the word as used in the New Testament possesses so much of a technical character, that it is not possible from it to deduce any correct inference as to the mode of baptizing; and they adduce historical evidence to show that baptism was performed indifferently by immersion or affusion as convenience dictated.

In fine, differences of opinion have arisen respecting the proper subjects of baptism. Here also we have three classes.

1. Those who maintain that baptism is to be administered only to those who believe and give evidence of being regenerated. This opinion is grounded chiefly upon the positions that, Repentance and Faith are distinctly prescribed in the New Testament as conditions of baptism, and the alleged fact that the Apostles did not baptize any, until satisfied that they sincerely believed. It is urged also by the advocates of this opinion, against the practice of infant baptism, that not only are infants excluded from baptism by their inability to comply with the required terms, but that they are virtually excluded by their baptism not being expressly enjoined in the New Testament. It is also alleged that infant baptism was unknown to the Early Church, and was a corrupt invention of the patristic age.

2. Those who contend that baptism is to be administered not only to believers who have not been before baptized, but to the infant offspring of believers. This opinion is chiefly based on the covenant established by God with Abraham. This covenant it is maintained was the everlasting covenant, the covenant of grace; under it a connection of a spiritual kind was recognized as existing between parents and their children; in virtue of this the latter received the sign of the covenanted blessings; no evidence can be adduced that this divinely-appointed connection has been abrogated, though the sign of the covenant has been changed; on the contrary, there is abundant evidence to show that the Apostles administered to the children of converts to Christianity the same rite, that of baptism, which they administered to the converts themselves. It is also affirmed by this party that the requiring of faith and repentance as a condition of baptism in the case of adults cannot be fairly held as including children, inasmuch as by the same reasoning children dying in infancy would be excluded from salvation. It is denied that the absence of any express injunction to baptize children virtually prohibits their baptism; and the assertion that infant baptism was unknown in the primitive age is rebutted by historical evidence.

3. Those who assert that baptism is to be administered to all who either will place themselves under Christian instruction, such as adults who have grownup as heathens, Jews, or infidels; or who may be thus placed by their parents or guardians, such as infants. In support of this view, stress is laid upon our Lord's words when He commanded His Apostles to go and teach and baptize all nations; the 'baptizing' being regarded as associated with the 'teaching' and commensurate with it, while what is said about 'believing' is regarded as relating to something which may or may not follow the teaching and baptizing, but which is declared to be essential to salvation. It is argued that the Apostolic practice was altogether in accordance with this view of our Lord's commission, inasmuch as the multitudes frequently baptized by the Apostles were such, that to obtain satisfactory evidence of the knowledge and piety of each individual was impossible in the time which elapsed between the Apostles' preaching and the baptizing to which it led; while such cases as those of Simon Magus and the Philippian Jailor show that even very ignorant men, and men who could not possibly give what any person would receive as credible evidence of piety, were at once baptized. The practice of the Apostles also in baptizing whole households, including children and servants, without asking any questions as to their knowledge and belief, is urged in favor of this opinion, as well as the corresponding practice of the Church.

Baptism for the Dead

Paul (1 Corinthians 15:29) uses this phrase. Few passages have undergone more numerous and arbitrary emendations than this text. We shall examine first—

A. Those interpretations which take it to be some particular application of baptism.

1. Some imagine that Paul speaks of a baptism which a living man receives in the place of a dead one.

Various passages have been quoted from the fathers in support of this opinion; but all we can infer from their statements is, that baptism by substitution had taken place among the Marcionites, and perhaps also among the Cerinthians and other smaller sects towards the end of the fourth century; but that it existed between that period and the time when Paul wrote the above passage is wholly unsubstantiated. The idea, then, that such a superstitious custom existed in the Corinthian community is devoid of all historical evidence.

The difficulties will still more increase, if we were to admit, with Olhausen, Rückert, and De Wette, that the Apostle approved of the absurd practice in question, since he would thus be brought into contradiction with his own principles on the importance of faith and external works, which he develops in his Epistle to the Galatians. In the words of Paul we discover no opinion of his own concerning the justice or injustice of the rite; it is merely brought in as an argumentum ex concesso in favor of the object which he pursues through the whole chapter (comp. 1 Corinthians 2:5). However much may be objected against this interpretation, it is by far more reasonable than the explanations given by other critics. The Corinthian community was certainly of a mixed character, consisting of individuals of various views, ways of thinking, and different stages of education: so that there might still have existed a small number among them capable of such absurdities. We are not sufficiently acquainted with all the particulars of the case to maintain the contrary, while the simple grammatical sense of the passage is decidedly in favor of the proposed interpretation.

2. Origen, Luther, Chemnitz, and Joh. Gerhard, interpret the words as relating to baptism over the graves of the members of the community, a favorite rendezvous of the early Christians. Luther says that in order to strengthen their faith in the resurrection, the Christians baptized over the tombs of the dead. But the custom alluded to dates from a much later period.

3. Epiphanius mentions also a view, according to which the word rendered 'dead' is to be translated mortally ill persons whose baptism was expedited by sprinkling water upon them on their death-bed, instead of immersing them in the usual way; the rite is known under the name of baptismus clinicus, lectualis. But few of the modern theologians (among whom, however, are Calvin and Estius) advocate this view, which transgresses not less against the words of the text than against all historical knowledge of the subject.

B. The interpretations which suppose that the text speaks of general church baptism. To these belongs the oldest opinion we know of, given in Tertullian, according to which the Greek word rendered 'for' is here taken in the sense of on account of, and the word rendered 'the dead' in that of dead bodies, they themselves, the baptized, as dead persons. The notion which lies at the bottom of this version is, that the body possesses a guarantee for resurrection in the act of baptism, in which it also shares. The sinking under and rising up is with them a symbol of burying and resurrection.

2. A later view, expressed by Chrysostom, adopts the same meaning as regards 'the dead,' but construes the whole clause 'in behalf of the dead,' to signify 'in the belief of the resurrection of the dead.' This ungrammatical version is adopted by Theophylact: 'Why are men baptized at all in behalf of resurrection, that is, in expectation of resurrection, if the dead rise not?'

3. Pelagius, Olearius, Fabricius, are of opinion that the phrase 'on account of the dead,' or 'of those who are dead,' although strictly plural, here alludes to an individual, namely, to Christ, 'on account of whom' we are baptized, alluding to Romans 6:3.

4. Among the best interpretations is that of Spanheim and Joh. Christ. Wolf. They consider 'the dead' to be martyrs and other believers, who, by firmness and cheerful hope of resurrection, have given in death a worthy example, by which others were also animated to receive baptism. Still this meaning would be almost too briefly and enigmatically expressed, when no particular reason for it is known, while also the allusion to the exemplary death of many Christians could chiefly apply to the martyrs alone, of whom there were as yet none at Corinth.

5. Olhausen's interpretation is of a rather doubtful character. The meaning of the passage he takes to be, that 'all who are converted to the church are baptized—for the good of the dead, as it requires a certain number (Romans 11:12-25), a “fullness” of believers, before the resurrection can take place. Every one therefore who is baptized is so for the good of believers collectively, and of those who have already died in the Lord.' Olhausen is himself aware that the Apostle could not have expected that such a difficult and remote idea, which he himself calls 'a mystery,' would be understood by his readers without a further explanation and development of his doctrine. He therefore proposes an explanation, in which it is argued that the miseries and hardships Christians have to struggle against in this life can only be compensated by resurrection. Death causes, as it were, vacancies in the full ranks of the believers, which are again filled up by other individuals. 'What would it profit those who are baptized in the place of the dead (to fill up their place in the community) if there be no resurrection?'





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Baptism'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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