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Baptism, as taught in the Bible, is a ceremony in which a person is symbolically cleansed of sin through total immersion in water and given the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. A person becomes a Christian when the Spirit of God dwells in him or her. If this person remains faithful to God, he or she will become an immortal child of God when Jesus Christ returns.
On the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31, thousands of people, many from various foreign lands, filled the bustling city of Jerusalem to observe this annual festival. About 9 o’clock in the morning they heard an unusual noise and some of them went to investigate the cause. Finding Peter and others speaking in different languages, many dismissed them as being drunk. However, Peter denied their accusation and explained to them the reason for the commotion (Acts 2:1-15).
He then recounted an Old Testament prophecy from the book of Joel about the giving of the Holy Spirit and stated that it had been fulfilled that very day! He also showed that Jesus was the promised Messiah whom they had unjustly put to death (verses 16-36).
His words were so persuasive they asked him what they should do. “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (verse 38). And about 3,000 of them did.
What is baptism? To a Christian, it is more than a ritualistic ceremony. It is an outward acknowledgement of a person’s past sins and desire to change, to be cleansed from past guilt, and to become a disciple of Jesus Christ as a member of the Church of God.
The apostle Paul explained that the ancient nation of Israel went through a type of baptism when they crossed through the Red Sea while covered with a cloud (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
Throughout the first five books of the Old Testament, God educated the nation of Israel on the difference between clean and unclean people, animals and objects and explained that water is used as a purifying agent. Leviticus 15 is especially informative in this regard.
Leviticus 16:4 shows that in fulfilling their priestly duties, the Levites were sometimes commanded to bathe themselves completely before they entered the tabernacle (and later on, the temple); a great basin was erected for that purpose.
Moses declared that a “stranger” who wanted to join himself to Israel was to be subject to the same law: “One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Exodus 12:49). That law pertained not only to circumcision and the dietary laws, but also to the washings (see Leviticus 17:15).
The root word from which we get the words baptize, baptism and baptized carries the meaning of being covered wholly with a fluid. Recognizing this meaning, the Jewish New Testament identifies John the Baptist as “the Immerser” in Matthew 3:1 and states that he immersed those who came to him (verse 11).
The Scriptures instruct that people must repent—that is, be sorry for their sins, become totally committed in their hearts to stop sinning and start living in accordance with God’s instructions—prior to being baptized (Acts 2:38). Repentance is a two-step process that begins as a gift from God. He leads us to repentance by opening our eyes to our need to stop living in rebellion to His commands (Romans 2:4).
Once we humbly see our need to repent, we must then take the second step, which requires us to do our part in changing the way we had been living to the way God wants us to live. For a more detailed explanation, read our article on “What Is Repentance?”
In explaining what baptism is to the people gathered on Pentecost, Peter stated that people should repent and be baptized “for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Paul later added “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). Having God’s Spirit thus identifies us as Christians.
Having God’s Holy Spirit also allows us to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, which is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). As we continue to grow spiritually, Christ is formed in us—meaning we take on the same way of thinking and acting as Jesus (Galatians 4:19). Having God’s Holy Spirit is also our “guarantee” that we will be changed into immortal, spirit beings when Christ returns (2 Corinthians 5:4-5; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15:49-53).