John 3:23: “…Because Water Was Plentiful There…”

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John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there…

John 3:23

A reader of the column submitted a question about the piece I wrote last week on Jesus’ burial and its correlation to baptism.  Noticing that I had described baptism as “being submerged in water,” the reader asked about their own baptism from years ago in which a cup of water had been poured over their head and asked, “Does the Bible talk about anyone being baptized like that?”

This is a relevant question because the Bible makes it very clear that baptism is essential to obtain salvation and become a disciple of Christ (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Matthew 28:19-20; Galatians 3:26-27; 1 Peter 3:21).  Therefore, it is necessary for us to determine the proper mode of baptism, especially since varying religious bodies in Christendom define baptism in different ways.  Some pour or sprinkle water on people’s heads, as was done with the reader.  Others completely submerge them in water.  Which is correct?  Are both correct?  Does it really matter?

“Every word of God is tested…” (Proverbs 30:5), and we are not to add to nor take away from His Word (Proverbs 30:6; Deuteronomy 4:2; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Revelation 22:18-19).  Therefore, determining the proper definition of baptism is just as important as recognizing its scriptural necessity for salvation and forgiveness of sins.  After all, if the Lord had something specific in mind when He commanded us to be baptized and we do something different, we have not actually obeyed Him and thus our eternal salvation would be in jeopardy (Hebrews 5:9; Matthew 7:21-27).

When the New Testament was written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21; Ephesians 3:1-5; cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Corinthians 14:37), their words were written in Greek.  The Greek words they used which in English we read as “baptize” and “baptism” are “baptizo” and “baptisma.”  Note the similarities between these Greek terms and the English words “baptize” and “baptism.”  These similarities exist because “baptize” and “baptism” are not translations, but rather “transliterations” of these Greek terms (where Greek letters in a word are simply given their English equivalents).

To confirm the actual meanings of “baptizo” and “baptisma,” we must go to authorities on the Greek language.  All of the Greek lexicons I own define “baptize” (“baptizo”) and “baptism” (“baptisma”) as “to immerse, to plunge, to dip,” “…consisting of the processes of immersion, submersion and emergence.”  Not one standard Greek lexicon defines “baptizo” as “to sprinkle” or “to pour.”  In fact, there are completely different Greek words for pouring and sprinkling.

Thus, the proper definition of baptism is immersion or submersion.  Understanding this makes the biblical figures of speech used to describe baptism clearer.  When I cited the verse last week where Paul says that we are “buried” with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12), that imagery makes more sense when correlated with actually burying someone in water via immersion rather than sprinkling them with water.  None of us would sprinkle some dirt over someone’s coffin and conclude we given them a proper burial.

Understanding baptism to be immersion in water also gives logic to the actions of those who baptized others in Scripture.  John 3:23, cited above, shows John the Baptizer choosing to baptize in a certain place.  Why?  The verse specifically gives the reason:  “…because water was plentiful there…”  If baptism was sprinkling a few drops over someone’s head or pouring a small cup of water over them, why would John need to go where there was a lot of water?  A single glass of water would be sufficient to sprinkle at least one hundred people.  However, one would need a lot of water in order to submerge the bodies of hundreds of people.

Likewise, the Bible says that when the evangelist Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, “they both went down into the water…and…came up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39).  Why would both need to go into the water, or even one of them go into the water, if baptism was anything but immersion in water?  Jesus also, after being baptized by John, was said to come up out of the water (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:9-10).

Thus, baptism means nothing more or less than submersion in water.  I appreciate the question.  If you have a Bible question or topic you would like my column to address, e-mail me at calhounchurchofchrist@gmail.com.

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