Written January/February 2007. Some links broken.

This is the third ‘Answering Aaron’ post.  The “figuratively and literally” in the title does not refer to my answering Aaron, but rather his discussion of the meaning of baptizo (and the noun baptismos).


We have already seen that baptizo was understood to mean “ceremonial washing” in the Septuagint (LXX) and later NT writings. Aaron agrees that baptizo was understood to include “non-immersion washings”, but sees no warrant for applying that wider meaning (wider than “immersions only”) to John the Baptiser’s and Christian water baptisms.

That confuses me.  Two out of the three literal uses of baptizo in the LXX refer to “non-immersion washings”, including one example that specifically speaks of ceremonial washing in the Law, thereby implying that all ceremonial washing (most, if not all, non-immersion) can be called “baptism”.  This is confirmed in the later NT where the writer of Hebrews does exactly that.

This indicates that within the Hebrew religious community baptizo took on the meaning “ceremonial washing”, quite apart from the word’s usage outside of that community.  Nor is this without precedence.  Think of the words, “elder” and “communinion”.  In the English speaking church today, both these words have specific meanings that do not exactly correspond with their usage outside of the Church.  Take the word, “elder”.  Outside the Church you would not often find someone referring to someone younger or less mature than themselves as their “elder”, yet inside the Church that is often exactly what happens – precisely because it has a different meaning within the Christian community.

So, when Aaron says there is no warrant to consider John’s or Christian baptism as “non-immersion washing” when 1) the recorded uses of baptizo in the Hebrew religious community and in the later NT Christian community refer to “non-immersion washing” more times than not, and 2) the context of each recorded baptism is able to be read as either immersion or non-immersion (my opinion being that non-immersion is more probable), I come away wondering whether he has really weighed up all the evidence as carefully as he could have.


When responding to my comments that the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is described as being done by pouring, Aaron asserts that it is a figurative phrase, as is “pouring out the Holy Spirit” and the two are not connected – the actual event in Acts 2:1-4 was not an actual baptism nor did it involve an actual pouring of the Spirit.  But while it may or may not have been an actual baptism or pouring, the use of language in and around that passage is consistent with the idea of pouring, and clearly seen to be connected to the idea of baptism.

What I mean is this: Both wind and fire are elements associated with the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture.  The sound of wind (representing the Spirit) came from heaven, i.e. down, in the same way pouring water comes down; fire-like tongues (representing the Spirit) rested on them, an interesting description if they were not above the disciples’ heads.  How else can you imagine the fire-like tongues resting on them?  And to finish it off, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, an description that ties in very well with the idea of pouring in order to fill a recepticle (note: this does not exclude the idea of saturation).

Look at the other descriptions of initial reception of the Holy Spirit – “fell on“, “poured out…on“, “fell on them just as on us at the beginning“, “came on them” are all consistent with the idea of coming from above, the very thing pouring involves.  Considering that Aaron agrees the word baptizo can refer to washing by sprinkling and pouring, why is the idea of “baptism in the Holy Spirit” being connected with “pouring out the Holy Spirit” not plausible to him?

The fact is, it is plausible and Acts 11:15-16 makes that very connection:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Peter, talking about the Spirit falling on the Gentiles, immediately relates it to Spirit baptism and even John’s baptism!  We should not be suprised, then, when he makes this comment in Acts 10:47, tying this to Christian water baptism:

“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Now, it is possible to illegitimately carry figurative meanings back into the literal meaning of a word or phrase as Aaron warns, but that is not being done here.  It is quite clear that, even if someone doesn’t agree water baptism is by pouring, we have seen that baptizo can be used of pouring and it is legitimate to see that connection in the descriptions of the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples.

Further figurative examples…

I’m not sure how right it is to call “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and “pouring out of the Holy Spirit” figurative – we don’t know how spiritual realities really work, and the visual, aural and linguistic representations God gives us in His Word are consistent enough to say that, as far as we are concerned, that is how the Spirit comes.

But Aaron brings more definite figurative uses of baptizo to bear, and I think it is possible to learn something from these and other figurative examples.

I have found lists of the occurance of baptizo in Greek literature in a Presbyterian article and a Baptist article.  It is unfortunate that baptizo and cognates are translated immersion in the second, and even submerge in the first (taken as it was from a Baptist book!) but they are useful nonetheless.

[Sadly, the Presbyterian article seems to have fallen off the edge of the internet.  Here is a different resource from Western Reformed Seminary.  I have left references and quotes from the original article I linked to, even though it is not possible to check them.  Laziness, I guess].

What the lists do show is that baptizo is used in a variety of ways, stemming, according to the Baptist article, from the meaning to cause to be immersed.  The Presbyterian article agrees: [Baptizo] refers to the accomplishment of immersion with no implicit indication in the word as to how this occurs. So, the variety of uses include: excessive drunkeness, overwhelmed by feeling/circumstances etc, deep in debt, plunging a sword into a man causing death, and so on.  What is noticeable is that the effect of baptism, whether literal or figurative, is total.  This, too, fits in with what we have seen of baptizo in the Hebrew religious writings and the NT – baptism, however it was performed, resulted in complete purification (see the link to purification in Malachi 3:1-4).

One telling figurative connection that can be seen is between excessive drunkeness and baptism in the Bible.  When we apply this to “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, we find accounts where being filled with the Spirit is mistaken for extreme drunkeness and compared and contrasted with drunkeness, i.e. both incorporate the idea of a person being totally affected/overwhelmed by some outside influence – one negatively, the other positively (which leads one to question how full of the Spirit we are most of the time!).

The other example Aaron includes in figurative uses of baptizo is Mark 10:38-39:

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…

Not only are the cup and baptism closely related in these verses, throughout Scripture there are recurring themes of the cup of God’s wrath and punishment, God pouring out His wrath, and drinking wrath and being overwhemed.  Taking these things into consideration – even without the extra-biblical examples of baptism referring to drunkeness – it is completely reasonable to understand the baptism Jesus is figuratively talking about coming from the cup of God’s wrath – either poured out or drunk (which in itself involves pouring liquid into the mouth…that is, if you have to get pouring in there – the Scriptures don’t seem to make much of a difference between the two in this context).  See also Isaiah 21:4 in the LXX for another figurative use of baptizo in the context of referring to God’s judgement.

With this in mind, then, it is totally feasible to understand water baptism as signifying Jesus’ death as spoken of in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12 without water baptism needing to be by immersion.  Am I reading back a figurative meaning into the word baptism here?  No, I am using one figurative use of baptism to demonstrate that baptism by pouring can be understood figuratively (and so theologically) to represent death – even in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12.  In fact, there are so many ways to maintain the theological ideas in the above two Scriptures without insisting on baptism by immersion (unity with Christ, washing away previous life) that to say that the theology present in those verses demand immersion indicates that there is no intention to seriously consider other explanations, but rather find support for your own position. (This is something we all easily slip into and need to watch out for in our arguments).  Baptism involves a totality of result but does not necessarily need total immersion to get there.

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