Somewhere along the line baptism has changed. Today, many Christians have an understanding of baptism that borders on the mystical. We somehow see it as a spiritual event that becomes the foundation for our relationship with Christ instead of the public profession of our relationship with Him.
For the early Christians the steps went like this; a person accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, then baptism was administered as a public confession of the inward change of heart followed by the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. In other words, baptism was not the rite that brought transformation to the heart but the outward testimony of the transformation.
In Romans 6-8 Paul connects the idea of “putting on Christ,” with that “of dying and rising with Christ,” both of which are connected to his view of baptism. In Romans 13:11-14 he admonishes Christians to putt of the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light and Ephesians 6:11-14 calls upon believers to “put on” the armor of Christ.
Paul’s call to put on Christ would ring a bell for new converts in a time that Rome ruled much of the Mediterranean world. In numerous Hellenistic mystery religions ritual washings were common. After being baptised into the name of the cult’s god the convert would put on new clothing that identified the person as a follower of that particular religion. Also, everyone would have been familiar with the ritual of Roman youth, as they came to the end of adolescence, who would strip off the garments of childhood and put on the toga representing manhood.
However, for Christian’s Paul admonition to “put on Christ,” would be closely associated with the Christian form of baptism where the stripping off of the old clothes and putting on the new was part of the rite. Because baptism was by immersion in the early church the necessity for changing clothes was part of the event. The use of baptismal robes in many Churches is still a nod to the original changing of clothes associated with the early church.
Also, Timothy George, points out that baptism may have been adapted and adopted from Jewish proselyte baptism. G.R. Beasley-Murray quoted by George has this interesting insight into proselyte baptism. “When women were baptised the rabbis turned their backs on them while the women entered the water to their necks, and the latter were questioned and gave answers; they had to have their hair loose to insure, that no part of their bodies was untouched by the water. Cyril of Jerusalem later remarked that it was appropriate for Christians to be baptized in the nude since their Savior had been crucified in this condition.” George, Galatians, p. 280.
George goes on to point out that by the late second century the stripping off of clothes prior to baptism had been incorporated into an elaborate ritual that revolved around ten steps.
- The process developed to such an extent that some new believers were instructed up to two years before being allowed to be baptized. This was quite a change from the book of Acts where people like the Philippian jailor, Ethiopian Eunuch and Lydia were baptized within hours of their hearing and accepting Jesus as their person Savior.
- Most baptisms were performed on Easter eve and the person preparing for baptism was expected to fast, pray, study the Scriptures, and confess for the forty days prior to Easter in order to further prepare their hearts for baptism. It was from this practice that the idea of Lent developed within the church.
- When the day of baptism arrived the candidate was called upon to denounce the devil. This was done by facing westward and crying out, ‘I denounce you, O Satan, and all your works,” then the candidate would spit three times in the direction of darkness (westward because that is where the son went down) denouncing Satan’s former claims on his/her life.
- The baptismal candidate would then turn towards the rising son and cry out, “I embrace thee, O Lord Jesus Christ.” This would be followed by questioning of the individual by church leaders. The Apostle’s Creed was developed from these early baptismal catechisms.
- The next step was for the individual to disrobe and enter the water.
- Immersion of the person was usually done three times, once each for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Women were assisted by deaconesses or widows and the men by deacons.
- Upon getting out of the water the baptized would be given an new white robe indicating newness in Christ.
- Once all the candidates were baptized they would be anointed with oil to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It is sad that this practice is not carried out any longer in most traditions.
- The laying on of hands came next which represented both a sealing and a blessing upon the individual. This was considered a form of commission, as well, with the understanding that every new believer was called upon to share their faith and seek others for Christ through the ministry, strength and leading of the Holy Spirit.
- The church then would celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. This would be their “first communion.” This usually took place at the Easter sunrise service.
Baptism for the early Christians was much more that something tagged on at the end of the church service. To be a follower of Christ was risky business and could easily end up costing the new believer’s life. Today, we have lost most of the concept of what it means to “put on Christ,” in baptism. It is easy to see how the early church evolved from the spontaneous baptism associated with new believers in Acts to long drawn out years of instruction by the 2nd Century. This was necessary not only for the church but the individual needed to make sure they knew what they were doing because of the danger.
Unfortunately in many traditions we have lost the wonder of new birth associated with baptism and Easter sunrise. The Lord’s Supper is either offered so often it losses meaning or so seldom that it has no real power within the life of the congregation. I think that it is sad that the idea of laying on of hands, anointing, celebration, and even spitting at the devil have all passed away from baptism. Instead we have endowed it with a magical formula that equates to “becoming a Christian,” as if there is power in the rite of baptism and we have forgotten the wonder of the service that says, “this person is professing the faith they already have in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Looking back on your own baptism, what was it like? Were there special aspects of it that have meant a great deal to you over the years? Is it still real or has it faded into the deep past? Did you experience peace and the presence of the Spirit? I only ask, because I’ve been thinking about my own baptism lately and how it relates to me as the Christian I now am.