What Is Baptism?

What does the Bible say about baptism? What is the purpose and meaning of baptism according to the Bible? If you are a believer, should you seek to be baptized?

What is baptism according to the Bible?

The Bible teaches that baptism is a ceremony every truly repentant person must go through to have his or her sins forgiven and to start living the converted way of life. The repentant person is baptized by being fully immersed, from head to toe, in water.

Baptism is a common practice in many churches. However, there’s much disagreement about what it means and how it’s practiced. Some churches don’t literally baptize at all, others fully immerse people in water, and some just use a little water and pour or sprinkle it. Some churches baptize infants or children, and others baptize only adults.

Considering all these different ideas and practices, we must ask: What does the Bible actually say about baptism? 

What is the purpose and meaning of baptism?

According to the Bible, baptism is a ceremony in which a person is symbolically cleansed of sin by being totally immersed in water. It is followed by the laying on of hands, which is how a Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. A person becomes begotten of God when the Spirit of God dwells in him or her. If this person remains faithful, he or she will become an immortal child of God when Jesus Christ returns.

The basic purpose of baptism is an outward ceremony representing spiritual changes in a person’s life.

What does the word baptize mean?

The Greek word translated “baptize” in English Bibles is baptizō. According to Greek scholar Spiros Zodhiates, this Greek word means “to immerse, submerge for a religious purpose” (The Complete Word Study New Testament, p. 895). Thayer’s Greek Lexicon explains its meaning similarly: “to dip repeatedly, to immerge, submerge.” In ancient times, the word was used to describe the sinking of a ship.

To a Christian, baptism is more than a ritualistic ceremony. It is an outward acknowledgment 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.So the basic meaning of the word baptize is to completely immerse or submerge in water. This, itself, gives strong support for immersion being the biblical mode of baptism. 

Recognizing the meaning of the word, 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).

What mode of baptism is biblical?

In addition to the very meaning of the word baptism being to immerse, the Bible provides additional evidence that the biblical mode of baptism is total immersion.

  • “Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized” (John 3:23).
  • “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water” (Matthew 3:16).
  • “And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:38-39).

These scriptures show us three important facts about biblical baptism: baptism requires water, and a baptized person goes down into the water and then comes up out of the water. These descriptions perfectly match the meaning of the word baptize and describe baptism by full immersion.

To be baptized in the biblical manner, a person must be fully immersed in water, from head to toe.

To a Christian, baptism is more than a ritualistic ceremony. It is an outward acknowledgment 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.

What are the symbols of baptism?

The basic meanings of the symbols of baptism are as follows:

  • Water. The use of water symbolizes the washing away of our sins and the purification of our life. The old sins are symbolically washed away and cleansed from our record (Acts 22:16).
  • Going down into the water and being fully immersed. This symbolizes the death and burial of our “old man” (our old sinful nature and character) in the watery grave of baptism. We are “buried with Him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:4).
  • Coming up out of the water. This symbolizes our being raised to a new life (Romans 6:4). We are “made alive together with Him” and are “forgiven” our sins (Colossians 2:12-13).

To explore the meaning of the symbols of baptism in greater depth, read “What Do the Symbols of Baptism Mean?

Baptism and the beginning of the Church

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. At about 9 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.

It is clear that the early New Testament Church practiced baptism.

To learn more about true Christian repentance, read about “Repentance.”

Origin of water baptism

The New Testament traces the idea of water baptism all the way back to the Exodus from Egypt. The apostle Paul explained that the ancient Israelites went through a type of baptism when they crossed through the Red Sea while under the cloud (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).

They were, in a sense, immersed in water—with water on both sides. This Red Sea baptism marked their transition from slavery to freedom. When a Christian is baptized today, it marks his or her transition from slavery of sin to true freedom (Romans 6:6).

Though many churches practice baptism in some form, very few practice the ceremony of the laying on of hands.In the ceremonial system God set up for ancient Israel, water was often used to represent spiritual cleanliness and purity. 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. This was how God taught them the importance of spiritual purity.

Baptism requirements

The Bible’s most basic requirement for baptism is that people must repent—that is, be sorry for their sins, desire forgiveness of those sins, become totally committed in their hearts to stop sinning and start living in accordance with God’s instructions. A person should come to this point prior to being baptized (Acts 2:38).

Repentance is a two-step process that begins as a gift from God (Romans 2:4). He leads us to repentance by opening our eyes to our need to stop living in rebellion to His commands.

Once we humbly see our need to repent, we must then take the second step, which requires us to do our part in changing from the way we had been living to the way God wants us to live.

For a more detailed explanation, read our articles “What Is Repentance?” and “What Is Conversion?

Looking for the church behind Life, Hope & Truth? See our “Who We Are” page.

What happens after baptism?

After a person is baptized, there is another important ceremony that usually occurs immediately after someone has emerged from the water. The minister baptizing him or her will lay his hands on the person and pray to God, asking Him to give the person the Holy Spirit. This is called the “laying on of hands” (Hebrews 6:2).

It is through this ceremony that God gives a person the gift of His Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). Though many churches practice baptism in some form, very few practice the ceremony of the laying on of hands.

To learn more about this important aspect of true Christian baptism, read about the “Laying On of Hands.”

Why is receiving the Holy Spirit so important?

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 that “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).

To learn more about the importance of God’s Holy Spirit, read our articles on the “Holy Spirit.”

Learn more by downloading our free booklet Change Your Life!

About the Author

Charles Haughee
Erik Jones

Get the Latest


Get the latest blog posts from Life, Hope & Truth straight to your inbox.


Never miss a post! Sign up to receive the week's latest articles, blog posts and updates.


Ask a Question

Discern is published every two months and is available in digital and print versions. Choose your preferred format to start your subscription.

Print subscriptions available in U.S., Canada and Europe


Please choose your region: