What Do the Symbols of Baptism Mean?

The word baptize means to “immerse.” Baptism by immersion in water represents the death and burial of the old man of sin, and a type of resurrection to walk in newness of life. We are “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God” (Colossians 2:12).

The apostle Paul wrote that Israel was “baptized” in the Red Sea: “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).

What did their baptism picture? What does baptism symbolize for us today?

What does baptism mean?

An important fact to understand is that the word baptize means to “immerse.” It comes from the Greek baptizo and means “dip, immerse … wash” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 1952, p. 131).

John 3:23 discusses that the place where John baptized was near much water: “Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized” (emphasis added throughout).

Baptism by immersion symbolizes the washing away of our sins, among other things. David, in his psalm of repentance, calls out to God: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2). How do we know that this is applicable to baptism? Acts 22:16: “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

Three important symbols of baptism: death, burial and resurrection

Three important symbols can be found in baptism. First, we are given the command in the book of Acts to “repent and be baptized for the remission of sin” (Acts 2:38). Baptism follows repentance of sin. Knowing that one has repented of sin, Paul then emphasizes the three symbols of baptism in Romans 6:1-4:

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

The first symbol of baptism is “death”

How does baptism picture death? To come to see ourselves as we really are and go through the process of repentance can be an excruciating process. Paul continues in Romans 6:6: “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.”

Paul compares the process of repentance with being crucified and putting the old man to death with Christ.

This process is emphasized later by Paul. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Putting to death the old man is the first symbol of baptism. It is a process that begins in the mind before going under the water.

The second symbol of baptism is “burial”

It is understood that through baptism (being fully covered by water), we would physically die, if we did not come back up out of the water. “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). Full immersion shows a complete burial, just as Christ was crucified and buried in the heart of the earth.

Burial shows that the “old man” and the “old way of life” are symbolically put to death, buried and put behind us.Burial shows that the “old man” and the “old way of life” are symbolically put to death, buried and put behind us.

The third symbol of baptism, as explained by Paul, is the “resurrection”

“For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5).

God expects us, through the covenant made in baptism, to walk in newness of life. After having put the old man to death, we can now walk as if we are a completely different person. No longer are we carrying the burden of broken law and the penalty of death associated with it, but now we have the opportunity to become a new person.

Colossians 2:12-13 tells us that we are “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.”

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Following Christ’s example

Israel passed through the Red Sea with the water on both sides and the cloud above, symbolizing their baptism. They had come out of sin (Egypt), and all “Egypt” was to be buried in the sea. They came up out of the sea to walk in newness of life in the Promised Land. However, Israel did not live in newness of life. They continually wanted to go back to Egypt.

We are to follow the example Jesus Christ set. He was crucified and put to death, buried in the heart of the earth, and resurrected by God. We, too, through the symbols of baptism, go through a death, burial and resurrection to walk in newness of life, awaiting our eventual resurrection to spirit life at the return of Christ to this earth.

We must not do as ancient Israel did and go back to sinning, but we must leave the old man buried and now walk in the newness of life. Then the symbols of baptism will have full expression in our changed lives.

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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