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The verb Baptize in ambiguous contexts in the New Testament

Posted by on Jul 30, 2012 in ordinances/sacraments, scripture | 18 comments

This is the sixth and final post in a series on baptism. Primarily, my concern is to determine the various meanings of the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizo), and how those meanings may be used in the New Testament. So far, by examining the usage of the verb in the LXX, in Philo, and in Josephus, we’ve seen that βαπτίζω (baptizo) is very similar to the English verbs “immerse” and “plunge.” They can be used to mean “to submerge under water,” but they can also have other meanings. Thus, context becomes very important in understanding the meaning of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo).

In this post, I want to examine several passages in the New Testament that do not mention water as the medium of baptism in the context. In some cases, there is no medium mentioned at all. In other cases, the medium mentioned is not what we might expect. Thus, these passages are ambiguous – at best – in terms of the meaning of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo).

Now, before I start listing some of the passages, please note that I am not making a particular claim about these passages. I am merely recognizing that Scripture itself does specify water as the medium for baptism in some passages. And, since we have seen that the authors of the New Testament use the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) with meanings other than “to immerse in water,” we must at least acknowledge that the meaning of the verb in these passages is ambiguous.

Also, some of these passages are very popular, and some are used in doctrinal positions for certain groups of Christians. Again, I am not making a statement about the meaning of these passages. I am only suggesting that “to immerse in water” may or may not be the best way to think about the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) in these passages.

First, consider the “Great Commission” from Matthew 28:19-20:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

When Jesus instructs his followers to “baptize”, does he mean “immerse in water”? Perhaps. This is the traditional interpretation. However, water is not mentioned in this context at all. As we’ve seen before, when the meaning of “baptize” is “immerse in water”, we usually find water in the context. If the phrase “in the name of the Father…” was changed to “in the water…”, then we would immediately know how to interpret the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo).

Could it be, then, that instead of “immersing in water”, Jesus has something else in mind? Could it be that in order to “make disciples” (the command), we need to “immerse” people in the “name” (character, authority, etc.) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? This seems to fit better into the context, especially when “teaching” is considered along with “baptizing”.

Again, I’m not making a definite claim at this point. I’m only demonstrating that this use of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) is ambiguous – that is, unclear from the context.

Also, consider the following passage from the second chapter of Acts:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:37-41 ESV)

Again, the traditional interpretation of the two instances of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) in this passage is “immerse in water.” Thus, Peter was instructing the people to “repent and be immersed in water”, and three thousand people were “immersed in water”. However, again, notice that water is not indicated in this context either.

If we begin back at Acts 1:4, we read the following:

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5 ESV)

Jesus told his followers that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” soon, pointing to the day of Pentecost. Later, the Spirit did descend on his followers, just like Jesus promised. In fact, the purpose of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is to demonstrate that the coming of the Holy Spirit was predicted in Scripture, made possible because of Christ, and was available to everyone listening to his words. Re-read Acts 2:37-41 above. When people ask Peter, “What should we do?”, his response was to tell them that the Promise (the Holy Spirit) was available to them. Those who received his words were “baptized”… in water? … or in the Spirit?

These are only two passages where the meaning of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) is ambiguous, that is, the medium of immersion is not clear from the context. If you would like to consider other “ambiguous” passages, look at Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33, Acts 19:1-5, Romans 6:3, 1 Corinthians 12:13, and Galatians 3:27. If some or all of these passages are not specifically about “immersing in water,” then we should consider other possible meanings and mediums for the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) in these contexts.

Again, I still believe that John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Philip, and others in the New Testament practiced water baptism by immersion. I still believe that baptism in water is an important method of testifying to the work of Christ in a person’s life. However, this does not mean that every instance of the verb βαπτίζω (baptizo) means “immerse in water.”


Examining the Verb “Baptize” Series:

  1. The verb Baptize in the Old Testament (LXX)
  2. The verb Baptize in Philo’s writings
  3. The verb Baptize in Josephus’ writings
  4. The verb Baptize in a context with water in the New Testament
  5. The verb Baptize in a context WITHOUT water in the New Testament
  6. The verb Baptize in ambiguous contexts in the New Testament


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-30-2012

    Hi Alan, I am glad you have done this series. Thanks!

  2. 7-30-2012

    Indeed, nicely done, Alan.

    I keep it simple, though, and refer to the words of John the Baptist and Jesus Himself, in that it is He who baptizes with fire and blood, which is much better that water. This is not to cast dispersion upon your labor-intensive series, however! You did a bang-up job! Very meaty.

  3. 7-30-2012

    I think calling baptizw in Matt 28 ambiguous is a stretch. When John baptized Jesus it sets the stage for what the word will mean unless we have some specific contextual reason to think otherwise. We also find John being told that Jesus followers were baptizing more than he was. So, what is the end game for making Baptizw ambiguous? 🙂

  4. 7-30-2012

    This is fascinating, Alan, and I think you might be on to something. ‘Repent and be immersed’… in the Holy Spirit. ‘Be immersed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. It really seems to fit!

  5. 7-30-2012

    “we’ve seen that βαπτίζω (baptizo) is very similar to the English verbs ‘immerse’ and ‘plunge.'” “… ‘baptized’… in water? … or in the Spirit?”

    Holy [sacred] cow!

    I think some of the follow-on passages where baptism and water are not necessarily connected, are taken by many to mean baptism in (or by) the Spirit. But I’ve never heard this related to the passages you did display (especially Matt 28). Now I see why you took the time to deepen our understanding of how and where the word was used in various known contexts.

    The alternative you present, at first thought, is awesome, even staggering. Then, it becomes lovely and a state/process much to be desired. To be immersed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. To be about the work of doing this, is such a fresh look at the great commission.

    The more I consider that passage in the light of what you’ve shared, the more amazed I am about what God is saying here, what He is inviting us to participate in.

  6. 7-30-2012

    Good observations, Alan. Thanks!

    A helpful related piece:

  7. 7-30-2012


    I didn’t say this earlier, but this is actually a re-publication of an older series. The Greek fonts were messed up by a database upgrade. I’ve been waiting for a while to update the series, and I finally decided to do it.


    Yeah, that “baptism” distinction is a huge one, and it sets the stage for the verb “baptize” in the New Testament.


    The meaning/medium of the verb “baptize” is ambiguous in Matt 28:19-20 because water is not mentioned in the context. In all of the passages in the LXX, Philo, and Josephus, water was mentioned in the context when that was part of the meaning/medium. By the way, I think that the phrase contrasting John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism sets the stage for the verb “baptize” in the New Testament. That phrase is found at the beginning of all four Gospels and at the beginning of Acts. However, water baptism is still important and prevalent in the New Testament.


    I’m not ready to take a firm position on this yet, but both “mediums” of baptism seem important in the New Testament.


    I still think that water baptism is prevalent and important in the New Testament. I’m not removing that importance, but I am trying to take a different look at the verb “baptize.”


    Thanks for the link. It’s a crazy busy day today, but I’ll try to check it out.


  8. 7-30-2012

    Alan, Yes, I don’t hear you dismissing water baptism. But I did hear a profound insight about the great commission…

  9. 7-30-2012


    Exactly. Thanks again!


  10. 7-30-2012

    I may have missed it, but what is your take on the “one baptism” in Ephesians 4:5? George Fox reasoned that if there were only one, then it had to be the Holy Spirit.

  11. 7-31-2012


    From what I can tell in Scripture, the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 would refer to the immersion in / indwelling of the Holy Spirit that happens at the point of salvation. I hope that answers your question.


  12. 7-31-2012

    We dont baptize people in the Holy Spirit do we? I mean the Holy Spirit does that at the time of Salvation. If that is so then the Baptism Jesus refers to in Matt 28 and tells us to do, would have to be by water. Concerning Ephesians 4:1 see I Cor 1:14-18. Paul here uses the baptize to mean water baptism. I would not quickly say that Ephesians 4:1 is obviously speaking of Holy Spirit baptism as Paul does not exactly say that he means that. See Acts 10:44to 48. Peter preaches people are saved, the Holy Spirit fell on them and I assume that most would say that is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and then Peter say who can refuse water for these people to be baptised who have received the Holy Spirit as we did. I would say that if the New Testament has a fairly well understood meaning for the word Baptizw unless the context specifically says otherwise.
    It’s a lot like epithumia, In Phil 1:23 and in James 1:14-15. Meaning is determined in part by the context.

  13. 7-31-2012


    We don’t baptize people in the Holy Spirit, and we don’t make them disciples of Jesus, and we don’t make them obey Jesus, but these are all aspects of Jesus’ commission in Matthew 28:19-20. Interestingly, even in the NT times, apparently some people did think that Jesus’ followers had the ability to baptize people in the Holy Spirit and had to be corrected. (Acts 8:18-19) Like you said, we see both baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

    You said, “I would say that if the New Testament has a fairly well understood meaning for the word Baptizw unless the context specifically says otherwise.” That’s the point of this series, and that’s why I called some of these examples “ambiguous.” However, you’ve shown at least one example in your comment in which there is no specified medium (i.e., water) in the context, but you assume it is not water. (for example, Ephesians 4:5).

    Again, I’m not suggesting that the followers of Jesus did not perform water baptism. I believe they did, and I think it is important even today. However, I do not think that every use of the term “baptize” in the NT refers to water baptism. And, some of the uses of the term “baptize” are ambiguous, meaning they could point to water baptism or Spirit baptism.


  14. 7-31-2012

    “We don’t baptize people in the Holy Spirit, and we don’t make them disciples of Jesus, and we don’t make them obey Jesus, but these are all aspects of Jesus’ commission in Matthew 28:19-20.”

    Alan, as a covenant son who rest firmly in the Fatherhood and Soveriegnty of God, I wholeheartedly agree with those statements. We “do nothing for Jesus”, but we do everything because of Jesus. Big difference. And I think you get that.

  15. 8-5-2012

    Alan,any comment on the formula used in water baptism? In Matt:28, it’s obvious Peter, as well as the other apostles, were present for the instructions… just wondering if you consider the “in the name of Jesus,”a valid mandate to follow, revealed in the book of Acts? Answer at your convenience.

  16. 8-5-2012


    I’m not convinced that those are baptism formulae, either one of them. Is there anything in the text that indicates that either of those phrases are to be spoken while the person is baptized in water?


  17. 8-6-2012

    Alan, excellent thought. Any insight on the origins of the traditional use of the formulas ? Church history,etc.

  18. 8-6-2012


    I’ve never studied the history of the traditional formulas. I glanced at the Didache earlier this morning, and I noticed that the author seems to suggest reading chapters 1-6 at baptism, and separates that “speaking” from baptizing “into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” However, the author does interpret this kind of baptizing specifically as baptizing in water. (Didache 7)