Baptizó (βαπτίζω) - Baptism of the Lord (A)

This week’s Bible word is the Greek verb baptizo. The word appears in the gospel of the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, year A (Mt 3:13-17). John the Baptist has been baptising people in the Jordan, and Jesus comes to be baptised Himself by John. The Greek verb baptizo is carried into English directly as the word “baptise”, along with the related words baptisma (baptism) and baptistes (Baptist, as in John the Baptist). The word baptizo is therefore a good example of the value of examining the original Greek, so that we can see how the Church’s teaching about baptism comes from the Scriptures.

Baptizo is related to the verb bapto: the latter means to dip, or to dye an object with a colour by dipping. Variants of the word bapto occur 4 times in the New Testament, including Lazarus being asked to dip his finger in water in Lk 16:24, and Jesus dipping a morsel and handing it to Judas at the Last Supper (Jn 13:26), and also in Revelation 19:13, which refers to a figure clothed in a garment dipped in blood.

The meaning of the word baptizo, in the secular literature of ancient Greek, intensifies the meaning of bapto. Baptizo carries the sense of immersion, and from that idea, the concepts of cleansing and bathing. In some uses, baptizo carries the metaphorical sense of “going under”, of submerging (for example, a ship or sailors) or of overwhelming. Jesus employs this metaphorical sense of baptizo in the gospels to refer to His passion – but more of that later.

The meaning of baptizo as cleansing and bathing, refers to a ceremonial use of water for purification, which was common in various pagan rites in the ancient world, both Greco-Roman (where it had the approval of Stoics and Pythagoreans), and in other Middle Eastern cultures. The Jewish law required bathing in water to remove impurities, and some of these ritual purifications involved immersion, as we see in Exodus 19:10, Leviticus 8:6 and 1 Kings 7:23, among many other examples. The community at Qumran, the location of the Dead Sea Scrolls, observed daily ritual bathing. The verb bapto occurs 19 times in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, referring to such ritual cleansing. But the emphasis of such washing was cultic purity more than moral transformation.

In the LXX, baptizo is used only 3 times:

  • 2 of the occurrences refer to bathing for apparent ritual cleansing or healing, as when the Syrian Naaman immerses himself 7 times in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:14), and when Judith bathes every night in the spring of water near the camp of Holofernes (Judith 12:7).

  • The other occurrence of baptizo, in Isaiah 21:4, uses the previously-mentioned metaphorical sense of being overwhelmed, when the prophet says that “fear overwhelms [him]”.

This use of baptizo to refer to purification required by the Jewish law, carries over into the New Testament in just 5 instances – all of which contrast the external observance of washing, with the more important demand for moral cleaning, for purity of heart.

  • In Luke 11:38, one of the Pharisees notices that Jesus had not ceremonially washed (baptizo) before dinner – which leads to Jesus criticising the Pharisees for cleaning the outside, but neglecting the “inside” of their hearts

  • Likewise, in Mark 7:4 and 8b, Jesus responds to Pharisaical challenge about Jesus’s disciples not observing the prescribed ritual washing (the Greek word is baptismous); Jesus instead points the Pharisees to the greater importance of the commandments of God.

So, we can already see a contrast between the secular and Jewish cultic traditions related to baptizo, focused mostly on external observance, and the more ambitious demand of Jesus, emphasising internal transformation.

In the New Testament, all but a few of the 102 occurrences of baptizo or related words refer to the act of baptism itself: either the baptism of John the Baptist, or to baptism performed by Jesus’s disciples. And the emphasis on internal transformation is unwavering:

  • John the Baptist (who accounts for nearly half – 46 – of the New Testament occurrences of baptizo) performs a baptism that already shows 2 key differences from the Jewish ritual purification practices: first, the cleansing is not self‑administered, but dispensed by another person; and second, John’s baptism has a greater focus on internal, moral reform: of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, in preparation for the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

  • But John makes clear that Jesus’s baptism will go beyond his; Jesus will baptise (baptisei) with the Holy Spirit. This distinction the baptism of Jesus and John occurs in all 4 gospels (Mt 3:11b, Lk 3:16b, Mk 1:8 and Jn 1:33b), and also in Acts 11:16b – which confirms the stress on the superiority of the baptism of Jesus, in the early Apostolic tradition. Baptism in Jesus confers an even further internal transformation, not just of repentance, but of prophetic empowerment. This is made explicit in Acts 19:2‑5: the Apostle Paul finds some disciples at Ephesus who have received only the baptism of John; Paul therefore baptises them in the name of the Lord Jesus, and they immediately receive the Holy Spirit and, as a result, they begin to speak in tongues and prophesy.

Jesus Himself clearly regarded baptism as important:

  • His own baptism, at the hands of John the Baptist, is described in Mt 3:13-17; in Mk 1:9-11; and in Lk 3:21‑22. Jesus submits to John’s baptism of repentance, in order that He can, as He says in Mt 3:15, “fulfil all that righteousness demands”. The Church Fathers (for example, Gregory of Nyssa) recognised in Jesus’s baptism, His choosing to associate Himself with sinful man, despite Himself being sinless. Jesus’s baptism precedes His temptation in the desert, and the start of His public ministry in Matthew chapter 4. Therefore, even for Jesus, His baptism has a preparatory, initiatory character, that we recognise in today’s sacrament of baptism.

  • Jesus also gives, at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Mt 28:19), the “Great Commission” to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them (baptizontes) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. And so, the Apostles go out and baptise both Jews and Gentiles, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, which accounts for the greatest number of NT occurrences of the word baptizo: 27 times (over 20% of the total). There are 14 episodes involving baptism, including such memorable baptisms as on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), the baptism of the Ethiopian by Philip (Acts 8:38), and the baptism of Saul (Acts 9:18). (The full list of occurrences of baptizo in Acts, for reference, is: Acts 1:5; 1:22; 2:38, 2:41; 8:12, 13, 16; 8:36 & 38; 9:18; 10:37, 10:47 & 48; 11:16; 13:24; 16:15; 16:33; 18:8; 18:25; 19:3-5; 22:16.)

Earlier, I said “nearly all” of the New Testament occurrences of the word baptizo refer to the act of baptism as a physical, external ritual – but not all of them. On 2 occasions, Jesus uses the word baptizo more metaphorically, taking one of the meanings of baptizo I mentioned earlier, about being submerged or overwhelmed. And this metaphor seems to allude to His passion and death:

  • In Lk 12:50, Jesus says “I have a baptism to be baptised with”;

  • In Mt 20:22-23 (the Marcan parallel passage is Mk 10:38-39), Jesus responds to James and John, who have been asking to sit either side of Him in His kingdom. He asks the brothers whether they are able “to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised”.

This association with Jesus in His death and resurrection is foremost in the way the Apostle Paul uses the word baptizo.

  • In the letter to the Romans (Rom 6:3a & b and Rom 6:4), Paul says that we have been baptised into Jesus’s death, in order to rise with Him. Paul uses the same image in Colossians 2:12, saying that we have been “buried with [Jesus] in baptism” and also “raised with Him through faith”. Note how Paul’s teaching is in the light of the resurrection, and therefore Paul can say that baptism unites us to Christ not only in His death, but in His resurrection, through faith in Christ.

  • Such unity with Christ is so intense that Paul speaks of being baptised “into Christ” in Galatians 3:27, and therefore having “put on Christ”. In 1 Corinthians 1:13-16, Paul alludes to his converts having been baptised not in the name of Paul, but in the name of Christ. This recalls the phrase used on several occasions in Acts, “in the name of Jesus”. In the Greek of the time, the phrase “in the name of” carried an implication of ownership or possession - or, in a commercial context, something being charged “to the account of” the named person. The image points to the saving power of the name of Jesus, through faith in Him.

  • Being baptised “in Christ” therefore becomes the source of unity for all who are baptized into Him. And so, the Apostle can speak of having been “baptised into one body” in 1 Cor 12:13, and there being “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” in Eph 4:5. In this way, baptism becomes not only a confession of sins but also a confession of faith.

So, we have seen how the various scriptural uses of the word baptizo provide the basis for most of the key aspects of our rite of baptism: being claimed for Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the confession of faith, the immersion in water, the identification with Christ in His death and resurrection, and joining the community of the Church.

So, what does all of this mean for us?

1. First, do we appreciate the full significance of baptism? When we are invited to attend a baptism, do we regard it just as a social “rite of passage”, no more than a naming ceremony, or just a celebration of a child’s birth? Or do we encourage others to understand its true significance, of being united to Jesus Christ?

2. Second, do we recall and celebrate the date of our own baptism? Pope John Paul II was once asked by a reporter what was the most important day of his life. The saint answered: not the day he was elected Pope, nor the day he was ordained as priest or bishop, but the day of his baptism. He said that “we should celebrate the day of our Baptism as we do our birthday!” (Angelus message, 12 January 1997)

3. Finally, do we live our lives like people who, through baptism, have been incorporated into Christ, into His death and Resurrection? Do we identify with Jesus sufficiently to be ready to accept suffering as He did? Do we live with the boldness of those disciples in the Acts of the Apostles, who received the Holy Spirit? Are we doing what we can to obey the “Great Commission” to make disciples and baptize them?

I hope this survey of the use of the Greek word baptizo in the Scriptures, will encourage us all to see our own baptism, not as a historic event, many years ago, but a source of power each day, through faith in Christ, Who has saved us and unites us to Him – so that we can indeed be, in the words of Pope Francis, “baptised and sent” (Message for World Mission Day 2019).

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