Baptism in Water
March 22nd, 1987 @ 8:15 AM
BAPTISM IN WATER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-22-87 8:15 a.m.
We are in the Book of John and came to the fourth chapter of John, and as I began preaching through the fourth chapter of John, there was a verse in the third chapter, the preceding chapter, that just stayed in my heart. It is a little aside. So I just decided to go back and preach on that verse. It is the twenty-third verse of the third chapter.
Well, when I prepared the sermon, I could not begin to deliver it in the message of last Sunday, so this is the second part of this study on the baptism in water. The context, in John chapter 3:
After these things came Jesus and His disciples into the land of Judea; and there He tarried with them, and baptized.
And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.
And the little aside, the little incidental remark: John was baptizing in that place “because there was much water there” [John 3:23]—which sometimes, an incidental remark, kind of unthoughtedly said, will do more to confirm the truth of a thing than an exposition. “Because there was much water there”; it is evident that if you baptize, you have to have water; not a cupful or a little one-inch baptismal font-full or a little glassful, but much-full. “There was much water there.”
So we’re going to conclude this morning, the meaning of “baptism.” The verb baptizō, the Greek word baptizō, is used seventy-four times in the New Testament. And the substantive form of it, the noun form of it, baptisma, is used twenty-two times in the New Testament. Now, the best classical Greek lexicon, Liddell and Scott, defines baptizō, the verb, as “to dip in or under water.”
Now, the best New Testament Greek lexicon is by Thayer, and he defines baptizō, the verb, as “to dip, to immerse, to submerge.” The highest possible Roman Catholic authority, the Douay version—that’s like our King James Version for us in the Protestant tradition—the Douay version of the Catholic Church, whose notes are imprimatured by the pope, in the comment on Matthew 3:6, John’s baptism, says this:
Baptize, John baptized. The word “baptism” signifies immersion or dipping or plunging a thing under water which was formerly the ordinary way of administering the sacrament—
they called it a sacrament, Catholic tradition—
the sacrament of baptism.
If you have ever been in Pisa, that incomparably effective enclosure there, in the center will be the sanctuary, the bell tower is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the third one is the baptistery, a beautiful large baptistery. If you’ve ever been in Florence, Italy, the same trio of buildings will be there. In the center will be the Duomo, the great sanctuary where Savonarola preached, and then by the side will be the bell tower, the great spire. Then the third building will be the baptistery. Michelangelo said, “Those great bronze doors on the baptistery there in Florence were fit to be the doors of heaven itself.”
There are four basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s (where the Vatican is located), St. Mary’s, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul’s. In St. Paul’s basilica in Rome is the most beautiful baptistery I’ve ever seen in this world. It looks to me as though it would hold a hundred fifty people at one time.
Now the practice of the Roman Catholic Church, like the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church today, during the first Christian centuries, was to administer baptism by immersion. There was no other way. That is a part of—and I quote from the credentials of the Catholic religion: “The common method during the first twelve centuries was to baptize by immersion.” And again I quote:
Anciently those who were baptized were immersed and buried in water to represent their death to sin, and then did rise up out of the water to signify their entrance upon a new life. In baptism by a kind of analogy or resemblance, while our bodies are under the water, we may be said to be buried with Christ.
Now one of the most amazing things—and I have to decide how much time I could spend in these studies—John Wesley, the father of Methodism, in his explanatory notes in the New Testament, in the passage you just read, Romans 6:4, “We are buried with Him,” John Wesley says:
This alludes to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion. That is, Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father; so we also, by the same power, should rise again. As He lives a new life in heaven, so we should walk in newness of life. This, says the apostle, our very baptism represents to us—
And then again, John Wesley commenting on the passage in Colossians 2:12, “Buried with Him in baptism”:
The ancient manner of baptizing by immersion is manifestly alluded to here, by which you are also risen with Him from the death of sin to the life of holiness.
One of the strangest things I ever read in history was John Wesley was called before a court in Savanna, Georgia when he was over here. And he was dismissed from this country because he refused to sprinkle; he baptized, he immersed.
In the King James Version—that’s the Bible out of which I preach—in the King James Version, why is not baptizō translated? Well, by 1611, the Anglican Church sprinkled, and John Wesley never left the Anglican Church. So the translators of the King James Version, Anglicans, came to the king in perplexity about what to do. And they laid before the king the meaning of the word baptizō, and the meaning was plain. Finally, under the direction of the king, they decided to transliterate and not translate the word. So b-a-p-t-i-z-ō, the Greek word baptizō, was transliterated into the English word b-a-p-t-i-z-e, and it was never translated.
With this, this morning, in just the few minutes that we have, we’re going to look at the meaning of that word in Greek literature. Hippocrates is the father of medicine, and in his Epidemics, describing the respiration of a patient afflicted with inflammation of the throat, he says, “She breathed as persons breathe after having been baptized, and emitted a low sound from the chest”: somebody immersed.
Aristotle, the great philosopher, writing of what the Phoenicians’ colony had seen when sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, Aristotle says,
Sailing four days beyond the Pillars of Hercules, with an east wind, they came to a desert plain full of rushes and seaweed which, at low tide, are not baptized, but at flood tide are baptized—immersed.
Polybius, in his history, speaking of the passage of the Roman army under Consul Tiberius through the River Tibias, swollen by heavy rains, says, “They pass through with difficulty, the foot soldiers baptized up to the waist.”
Polybius, again, describing the manner of taking swordfish with an iron-headed spear used as a harpoon, throwing it—quote him:
And even if the spear falls into the sea, it is not lost, for it is compacted of both oak and pine, so that when the oaken part is baptized by the weight, the rest is buoyed up and is easily recovered.
Strabo, the great Greek geographer, speaking of the march of Alexandria’s army along a narrow beach flooded in stormy weather between the mountain climax and the Pamphylian Sea, says, quote:
Alexander happened to be there at the stormy season, and, accustomed to trust for the most part to fortune, set forward before the swell subsided, and they marched the whole day in water baptized as far as to the waist.
Diodorus, in his history, describing the effect of the rapid rise of the waters of the Nile during the annual inundation, says,
Most of the wild land animals are surrounded by the waters and perish, being baptized, but some escaping to the high grounds are saved.
The same Diodorus, in his account of Timoleon’s defeat of the Carthaginian army, speaking there at the river where they were defeated, says,
The river, rushing down with the current, increased in violence, baptized many, and destroyed them as they attempted to swim through the waters with their army.
Josephus, in describing Jonah’s flight, taking the Hebrew into Greek, says, “The ship, being about to be baptized,” being submerged, about to go under. Josephus also, describing the war between the Romans and the Jews that ended in the destruction of the nation of Israel, says,
And when the Jews ventured to come near the Romans, they suffered harm before they could afflict any, and they were baptized along with their vessels. And those of the baptized who raised their heads, either a missile reached or a vessel overtook them.
And Josephus, in one of the most dramatic stories that he writes, describes the death of a Simon who had been treacherous against his own people, and takes his life by his own hand. After he slays his father, his mother, his wife and children, then Josephus says about Simon, “And stretching out his right hand so as to be seen by all, he baptized his whole sword into his bowels.”
Plutarch, the great Greek biographer, on the skill of water and land animals, speaking of the bird called Halcyon and of her skill in constructing her nest which is shaped like a fisher’s boat so as to float safely over the water, says, quote, “That which is molded by her is constructed with the shipwright’s act, and of many forms of nests, it is the only one not liable to be overturned nor to be baptized.”
In Aesop’s fables, Plutarch says that a salt-bearing mule crossing a river accidentally slipped down, and when he did, and got under of the water, the salt dissolved. And the mule remembered that, and always, when passing through a river, he purposely lowered down and “baptized” his load.
In the fable of the ape and the dolphin, a dolphin bearing a shipwrecked ape to shore—and goes ahead with the story—and made the dolphin angry, so the dolphin, angry at the ape, “baptized” him and drowned him.
In the battle of Actium, Dio Cassius, in his Roman history, speaking of the sea battle between Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony, Mark Antony in his address to his soldiers before the sea fight, boasting of his superior strength, saying that the enemy would not venture near, said, “And even if anyone came near, how could he escape being baptized by the multitude of our oars?” And describing the efforts of the soldiers of Mark Antony to escape—as you know, he lost the battle and lost the empire—from the flaming of his burning vessel, says, “And others, leaping into the sea, were struck down by the enemy, were baptized.”
Porphyry, the great Alexandrian theologian, describing the lake of probation in India, and the use made of it by the Brahmans for testing the guilt or innocence of those accused of crime, says:
When the accused come to the water, he is guiltless if he goes through without fear, the water rising as far as the knees. But if he is guilty, after proceeding a little way, he is baptized unto the head.
Julian, the poet, has one of the cutest little things you ever read in your life:
As I was once intertwining a garland, I found Cupid in the roses. And holding him by the wings, I baptized him into wine and took and drank him, and now within my members he tickles with his wings.
Isn’t that a thought for you?
In 2 Kings, the Septuagint says that Naaman went down and baptized himself seven times in the Jordan [2 Kings 5:14].
The great, tremendous theologian Athanasius says, “Oh, enlightened in these benefits, thou wast baptized, thou has the baptism as a surety of heaven.” Gregory of Nazianzus, marvelous theologian: “Let us therefore be buried with Christ by baptism, that we may rise with Him. Let us go down with Him that we may be exalted with Him.” There’s no exception.
I have covered a thousand years in these few quotations here; never an exception to it. Baptism has one simple meaning, and that is we are buried with our Lord, and we are raised with our Lord [Romans 6:3-5]. There is no other meaning.
I want to expatiate in this closing moment that I have, I want to expatiate upon that thing of “rising to walk in newness of life” [Romans 6:4]. I want to say a word about its dedication, about its commitment, about what it means in our lives.
As you know, if you’ve been here in the church a long time, I started being a pastor and a preacher when I was seventeen years of age. And for four years through the university and six years through the seminary, I pastored rural churches and little village churches.
In those days, not having a baptistery such as we have here in our dear church, in the hot summertime, when we would have our revival meetings, mostly under tabernacles or under brush arbors, we would all go down to the river. And on a Sunday afternoon, I would stand in the middle of the river, about waist deep, and I would preach to the throngs on either bank, and then walk up to the bank and make an appeal for Christ. I would do that in the Leon River in Coryell County, where Gatesville is the county seat. I would do it in Grand River in Milam County, where Cameron is the county seat. I would do it in the Barren River in Warren County, where Bowling Green, Kentucky is the county seat. They were tremendous events for me, standing waist deep in the middle of the river, preaching the gospel of Christ, and then making an appeal for our Lord.
Upon one of those July hot Sunday afternoons, standing in the middle of the Leon River in Coryell County, just trying my best to the throngs on either bank to exalt our Lord and to make an appeal “to give your heart and life to Him,” when I got through, I walked up as I always did to the brink of the river, the shoreline of the river, and stand there with my hands outstretched; “Give your heart to the Lord.”
In that community where I was pastor, there was a big section of the county called Burt Hollow, up there. That’s where Will Burt and his wife and his large family of children and all the Burts lived. That was Burt Hollow. When I got through preaching in the middle of the river and walked to the bank, why, down came to me Will Burt and his wife and all of his children and the whole hollow, all of them, coming down there to me on the bank of the Leon River.
And Will Burt, as spokesman and patriarch for the tribe, said, “Today, this day, right now, we’re accepting the Lord as our Savior, and we’re giving our lives to Him, and we want to be baptized.” I said to Will Burt, “But, sir, you’re not prepared to be baptized. You haven’t come with clothes to change.” He said to me, “No matter. No matter. We’ll be baptized, and we’ll go home in our clothes wet.” So I baptized; when I got through with all the rest that God had given us in that revival, I baptized Will Burt and his wife and his children and the whole hollow, baptized the whole throng of them.
Now I’m speaking of that commitment that automatically and inadvertently accompanies what it is to be baptized. When that man brought his family and his tribe to the Lord, he went all out for Jesus.
We elected him superintendant of our Sunday school. He was the leader of our congregation. We met in a two-room schoolhouse. We didn’t have a church house in which to meet. And I said to him one time as I met him taking a team of mules back to the barn, I said to him, “Will Burt, if I just had somebody to stand back of me and help me, I would build a church house here. We ought to do it.” He said, “I’ll be that man.”
We went into Gatesville to the lumber yard. I drew what I felt would be a beautiful church, built it in the form of a cross, standing in the pulpit with a little wing there and a little wing there, and then the nave out in front of me. I drew it and we went through all of how much the nails would cost and the windows would cost and the beams would cost and the floor would cost, and added it up.
Then Will said to me, he said, “Now you call all the men of our church to a special meeting on Sunday afternoon in the schoolhouse, and you tell them you’ll build a church house, and you want this much money for these many things.”
So I called all of the people together, the men together, and we met in the middle of the afternoon in the schoolhouse. I stood up there and I started out on why we needed a church house and how much it would cost to buy these things and we’d build it ourselves. It was in the beginning of the Depression, and cotton was selling for five cents a pound, and they had no money. And if they gave anything, they had to go to the bank and borrow it and mortgage their farms to do it. They were hard, hard times.
And as I stood there making an appeal for the church to build us a church house, I could easily sense and just feel and see on their faces, the rejection on the part of all of those men, all of them. And as you know me after being here forty-three years, I just dissolve in tears so many times; can’t help it. I’ve fought against that and have striven against it; there’s no need to try. I just weep. I just do. That’s my response to life.
Well, in the midst of making my appeal and seeing the hardened response on the part of all of those men, I just sat down on the front desk there in the little school house and wept, just couldn’t help it. It was such a dream of my heart that we build a house of worship, and to fail in the appeal, I just cried.
Will Burt stood up. He pointed to me, he said, “Young pastor, get on your feet. Get on your feet. Take that piece of paper in your hand and that pencil, and you start writing.” He walked over to Pete Martin and said, “Pete, tell him how much you’ll give. Tell him!” He walked over to J. R. Martin, his brother, and said, “J. R., tell him how much you’ll give.” He walked over to Alec Davidson and said, “Alec, tell him how much you’ll give.” He walked over to Claude Shepherd and said, “Tell him how much you’ll give.” He went around to every one of those men: “You tell him how much you’ll give,” and I wrote it down. It was a great sacrifice on the part of those men. It meant to go to the bank, mortgage the farm and make the gift. When I added it up, we had enough for the building of the church house. We built it. It’s there today. They’ve used it now for sixty years. And when I left to go away to the seminary, I left the church in the hands of that wonderful man, Burt, Will Burt. And he remained faithful in building the house of the Lord until he died, all through the years of his life.
That is what that means. We are baptized and raised to walk in a new dedication, and a new life, and a new hope, and a new vision, and a new prayer, and a new commitment with our blessed Lord Jesus [Romans 6:3-4]—and what a precious thing to do.
Lord, this is what You did as an example for us [Matthew 3:13-17]. And this is what the apostles did in obedience to Thy great command [Matthew 28:19]. And this is what we’re doing today, making an appeal for Jesus, asking to follow Him through the waters of the Jordan and into the new and beautiful life that is at the gates of heaven.
And that’s our appeal this morning to you: giving your heart to the Lord [Romans 10:9-10], following Him in baptism [Matthew 3:13-17], becoming a part of the household of God’s people, and joining us in the pilgrimage to the world to come, welcome, welcome. While we stand and while we sing: “This is God’s day for me, preacher, and I’m on the way.” Welcome.