Jesus: Baptism Is Death

In Luke 12:50, as part of a wide-ranging discourse with strong eschatological overtones, our Lord Jesus characterizes his coming death in a striking way. He said, “But I have a baptism with which to be baptized and how I constrained until it has been finished” (βάπτισμα δὲ ἔχω βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ πῶς συνέχομαι ἕως ὅτου τελεσθῇ). He was speaking figuratively of his coming suffering and death. What is particularly notable here is that he chose the imagery of baptism with which to characterize his approaching suffering and death.

Why would he do this? What is there about baptism that lends it to being used as a figure for death? First, we should see that this is part of an ancient pattern. Baptism is the New Testament sign and seal of initiation into the visible covenant community. It’s precursor was circumcision, which was a bloody initiation into the visible people. It was a ritual death. When Abraham was circumcised as an old man, he was as good as dead. When his sons and those males in his household were circumcised they were “cut off” from their old life and into the covenant people outwardly. In Abraham’s case, we know that he believed before he was circumcised. Genesis 15:6 says that “Abraham believed God and it credited to him for righteousness.” Paul appeals to this very text to ground his doctrine in Romans 4 that Abraham is the Father of all the Gentiles, i.e., the uncircumcised, who believe (because Abraham was a Gentile when he believed) and all the Jews, i.e., the circumcised, who believe in Jesus. It is the ground of his doctrine that acceptance with God (justification) is by grace alone (sola fide), through faith alone (sola gratia) and not by works or even by cooperation with grace.

Circumcision was an illustration of our inability to save ourselves. We need God to save us. We need bloodshed to save us. We need a new (circumcised) heart. We need a new life. Only God gives new life, true faith, the Savior, and salvation.

Baptism illustrates those very same truths. We do not baptize ourselves. It is done to us. We do not want to press the grammar of Luke 12:50 too far but it is worth noting that Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which I am to be baptized…”. The verb “to be baptized” is in the passive voice. It is something to be done to him. John the Baptist baptized him and inaugurated his 3 years of ministry. That ministry will end with a baptism. The former in water, the latter in blood, on the cross. Both are deaths. The first baptism was an identification with the death to come. The last is the reality, the death itself, which must be completed to the end.

We know that baptism is a ritual death and our baptism is an outward identification with Christ’s death because the Apostle Paul says so in Colossians 2:11–12. Paul wrote to the Colossians about the nature of sanctification, the first part of which is mortification or dying to sin:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (ESV).

Notice that to illustrate the figurative death we must undergo (how often did Jesus say, “take up your cross…” or call us to follow him by dying?) daily Paul turns to circumcision to illustrate it. He did so because he knew that the Colossians and we would understand. Then he turns to baptism because it too is a ritual death, and outward identity with Christ’s death. “Having been buried with him in baptism.” Buried is a verb to do with the dead, not the living. The living are not raised but the dead are.

This is Paul’s express teaching in Romans 6:3–4:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Let us be clear. Circumcision does not work new life or death. Baptism does not work death or new life. They are sacraments, signs and seals of the reality but they do not work the reality. If they worked the reality then they would not be signs any more.

Baptism did not unite us to Christ. Baptism is a sacrament of our union with Christ. The Spirit unites believers to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. baptism is not faith, it is a sacrament of what the Spirit does through faith. What we need to see here is that when Paul wants to explain mortification, dying to sin out of gratitude for our redemption, he chooses baptism to illustrate the reality. Baptism tell believers that they have died to sin. It’s reigning power has been broken. We who believe have been raised. Our faith is evidence that we have been given new life. Our new life should be marked by a new pattern of living, not by the old pattern.

We should say to ourselves, “we are baptized people.” That’s Pauline shorthand for, “we have been given new life by grace, we have united to Christ in his death and in his life, through faith alone, and now we ought to live in that grace and power to his glory.”

Christ had a baptism with which to be baptized and that baptism was for us. We who believe were united to it by God’s grace and now we are united to his life and he to ours. Baptism death but that death is good news indeed.

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  1. Baptism identifies us as those who have the mark of Christ’s circumcision, His being cut off, and cast off as the penalty for our sin. The mark is the sign of PROMISE, a visible form of the gospel which must be believed in order for it to be effective for salvation. Since by nature we are spiritually
    dead in sin, we must be regenerated, we must be born again by the Spirit before we can see the kingdom of God. If that is true of us, we will believe the gospel and because we are regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit we will want to please God. It is really so simple that I wonder how some have a problem with assurance. Baptism of infants is the sign that God holds out this promise to me from my infant helplessness, when I could do nothing to deserve it, and when I believe and want to please God, I know that He has sealed it by the Holy Spirit. It is all of God’s grace alone, and nothing of what I have done. Infant baptism is such a great assurance, that it is really meant for me in spite of my helplessness, and when I believe, so my heart is circumcised, I love God and live show to it by my striving to obey Him, I can be sure that I belong to Him. That is what baptism represents, the circumcision of Christ, so that by faith in Him our hearts would be circumcised by love for Him. Col. 2: 9-15

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Would it be correct to say that the spiritual reality water baptism is modeled after (in its mode) is the out-pouring of the Spirit (Acts 11.16)? Would it also be plausible to say that God’s out-pouring of wrath (ex: Rev. 16) is a baptism, especially pointing to Luke 3:16-17? This passage seems to indicate there is a Spirit-baptism for believers and a wrath-baptism for unbelievers.

    With this established, I have a hard time interpretating Mark 10:38-39, because it seems consistent that Jesus’ baptism He is referring to is the wrath of God to be poured on Him, which His disciples wouldn’t have to face.

    • LC,

      Baptism is a sign and a seal. It is not the thing it signifies.

      The point here is that Jesus identified baptism with death. When we combine this passage with Colossians 2 and Romans 6 we have a very strong reason to think that is the dominant image. We should start with the clear teaching of Scripture and use that to interpret the narratives (e.g., Acts) and especially more difficult places like the Revelation. This is the solution to your problem.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    What do you think is the preferred mode of baptism? How does Luke 12 tie into that?

    • LC,

      I believe in and practice effusion (sprinkling). I think there is a case for it from Scripture. Formally, however, the Presbyterian and Reformed churches are indifferent about mode. Personally, I would be hard-pressed to immerse someone. The only unequivocal immersions in Scripture were in the Noahic flood and the Red Sea and I don’t see why we would want to identity with everyone but Noah’s family and Pharaoh’s host.

    • Dr. Clark,

      I thought affusion was pouring and sprinkling was aspersion. Am I confused on that?

      I’m still convinced on the preferred mode being at least partial immersion (going down into the water, at least up to the feet). Still, it seems to me pouring has a much better NT case than sprinkling, and I would have difficulty choosing sprinkling for my children–even though I would still consider it a valid baptism.

      • Andrew,

        Pouring and sprinkling are forms of effusion.

        There is little archeological support for immersion as the ancient Christian practice. According to Warfield, the original Baptists did not immerse.

        As to sprinkling and pouring, there’s a good bit of support for it in Scripture. The priests sprinkled blood (Lev 4:6 et passim; Heb 9:13; ); A hyssop branch was dipped in blood and painted on the door posts (Ex 12; Heb 11:28); Moses sprinkled Israel with blood (Ex 24; Heb 9:19). Our hearts are “sprinkled clean” (Heb 10:22).

        Water was sprinkled to purify: “Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there and on whoever touched the bone, or the slain or the dead or the grave. And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean (Nu 19:18-19; ESV). See also Nu 19:21. Isa says that Jesus shall “sprinkle” many nations (Isa 52:12); “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezek 36:25). Believers are sprinkled with his blood (1 Pet 1:2).

        Sprinkling and pouring is the imagery of ritual cleansing in Scripture. We cannot simply assume that John the Baptist was immersing people. We do not actually know that. There is a case to be made that people came to the water and stood in the water and were sprinkled. Don’t rule it out of hand simply out of prejudice. The early church built wide baptismals in order to allow the candidates for baptism to stand in them so that they could be sprinkled. That’s how they understood Jesus’ baptism.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    In Luke 3:16-17, in your opinion, what does it
    mean to be baptized with fire?

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