The word “baptize” is a Greek word which has been adopted into the English language as part of our Christian vocabulary. The root word baptō means “to dip” or “dip into dye.” Baptizō is an intensive form of baptō and means “to dip” or “to immerse.” This word is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to describe Naaman’s sevenfold immersion in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:14).
The baptizō word was especially prominent in the dye trade. Cloth would be dipped or immersed into a vat of dye. The material was “baptized” in dye. When the cloth was removed from the vat of dye, it had a distinct and new appearance. It was identified in a new way. Red cloth would come out of a vat of red dye. Blue cloth would come out of a vat of blue dye. The cloth was identified by its new color.
There are two key things we learn from a study of the word baptizō: First, the word means “to immerse.” A ship sprinkled with water would not sink. Cloth sprinkled with dye would not change color. Because of debates in the church concerning the mode of baptism, translators have avoided translating it. Instead they have just given us the Greek word and left it to theologians and pastors to sort out the meaning. It might be better if we would simply use the word “immerse” rather than the Greek word “baptize,” for that is what “baptism” means.
Second, the word “baptize” signifies an “identification.” Newly dyed cloth is identified by its color. Christians who are “baptized” or immersed become identified with Jesus Christ and his followers. This is evident by the formula Jesus gave His disciples: “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
In ancient times a person’s name was associated with their attributes and character. To be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, means to become identified with the triune God who has revealed Himself by His Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ.
While I believe that the intended meaning of baptizō is “to immerse,” I wonder if we have made more of the mode than the meaning of this Christian ordinance. If a new believer has been sprinkled as the means of their identification with Christ and His church, has the true meaning been accomplished by this mode?
I recall one of my seminary professors instructing us that if the one being baptized came up out of the water with the top of their head dry, the proper thing was to dunk them again! Would the officiant have failed to administer the ordinance if the head of the “baptizee” was still dry?
A member of my Baptist congregation was disabled and could not go under water. After much discussion and reflection the elders arranged for him to be lifted into a hot tub where the baptism was administered by pouring water over his head. If the intent was to baptize, did the mode of pouring fail to accomplish the goal?
With deep respect for my own Baptist tradition and an appreciation of the biblical basis for baptism by immersion, I believe that we Baptists have often given too much attention to the mode and failed to appreciate the actual meaning of the word–which is identification with Christ and His church. While continuing to practice baptism by immersion, I have come to respect other traditions as equally valid in reflecting the true meaning of the ordinance.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).