Is Baptism Figurative?


When looking at Galatians 3:27 or the Romans passages, doesn't it make better sense to understand the word immerse or immersion literally? I am immersed into Christ, immersed into death in spiritual realms. I am clothed with Christ in a spiritual realm, not putting on holy vestments. I am arguing that to say that when the apostle says the Israelites were immersed into Moses, for example, that he is using the word 'immerse' literally but applying it in a spiritual way. I would understand the idea that when someone says we are immersed into Christ by being immersed into water that the person is 'confusing' the real (spiritual immersion into Christ in heavenly realms) with the symbolic -- water immersion.


When discussing baptism, it is important to understand that two things are occurring simultaneously. Baptism, as noted in the question, means an immersion. All immersions occur in some medium. At the same time, the baptism is not done simply to get someone immersed. Its purpose is to cause a change in the person's condition or his relationship. Difficulty occurs when a person mixes the medium with the change of condition.

In Galatians 3:26-29 we find three simple, but significant phrases being used, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." The phrases are "in Christ Jesus", "into Christ", and "have put on Christ."

In Christ

This simple two word phrase occurs about 85 times in the New Testament. It is used to refer to a state in which a person finds himself, as illustrated by Peter's benediction, "Peace to you all who are in Christ Jesus" (I Peter 5:14). Some people are in Christ and others are not in Christ. Those who are in Christ enter at some point in time, as shown by Paul noting that two were in Christ before he himself was in Christ (Romans 16:7). Those who are in Christ are able to remain in that state even after death (I Thessalonians 4:16).

So who are in Christ? Paul tells us that Christians are in Christ. "To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse" (Colossians 1:2). This was Paul's point in Galatians 3:28-29, all who are in Christ are united together without distinction (see also Romans 12:5). The same point is made in Ephesians 2:11-13, "Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh--who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands-- that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." In Christ is where we find salvation (Romans 3:24; I Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 4:32; Romans 8:1-2).

Notice the contrast made between being in Christ and being in the flesh or in the world. We all live in the world; that is, we have our physical being here. Some have given their lives over to this physical plane. Christian, however, have left the world behind. "For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death" (Romans 7:5). Or, "Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God" (I Peter 4:1-2). Being in a state of mind where the world is most important prevents us from pleasing God. "So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His" (Romans 8:8-9). By being in Christ, Christians have separated themselves from the world. "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world--the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (I John 2:15-17).

Into Christ

With such blessings to be found in Christ, it then is important for us to learn how to enter into this state. Galatians 3:27 tells us that we enter through baptism, as Romans 6:3 also states, "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?" "Into Christ" is not the medium in which the person was baptized, but the state into which the person was placed by baptism.

How can I state this with certainty? Because when a person is immersed, they both go into some medium and come up out of it. You can see this clearly in Romans 6:3-7. "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin." Baptism represents both a burial and a resurrection. It represents both a death and a rebirth to a new life. If the medium in which we were baptized was Jesus himself, then we would have raised from Jesus to enter the new life. Such isn't sensible.

Let us look at two other examples. In I Corinthians 10:1-2 we read, "Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea." Moses was not the medium in what the Israelites were baptized, for verse 2 clearly states that they were baptized in the cloud and in the sea. While the Israelites were not literally immersed in the Red Sea, they did enter down into the sea and came up out of the sea. By doing so, Paul argues they enter into a new relationship with Moses and the covenant that Moses represented. Or consider I Corinthians 12:13, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free--and have all been made to drink into one Spirit." The phrasing remains the same. Christians are not baptized in the medium of something called the church, but rather baptism places Christians into a relationship with the church, making them a part of the church.

Ephesians 4:5 tells us that just as there is only one faith, there is only one baptism. Now people believe in a wide variety of things, but there is only one faith by which a person may be saved. There are a variety of acts which are described as baptism, but there is only one which places a person into Christ. The baptisms which put people into Christ were baptisms in the medium of water. Every reference to baptism does not mention the element, but sufficent exist for us to the see the consistent pattern.

  • John 3:5, "Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."
  • John 3:22-23; 4:1,"After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. ... Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John."
  • Acts 8:35-39, "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" Then Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing." (Acts 8:35-39).
  • Acts 10:46-48, "Then Peter answered, "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord."
  • Ephesians 5:25-27, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish."
  • Hebrews 10:22-23, "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water."

If the one baptism mentioned in Ephesians 4:5 was not a baptism in water, then someone needs to explain why all those listed above bothered to be immersed in water.

Have Put on Christ

This phrase literally means to clothe yourself with Christ, which sounds a bit strange to Americans. The commentator, Albert Barnes, explains it thus: "The phrase to put on a person, which seems a harsh expression in our language, was one not unfrequently used by Greek writers; and means, to imbibe his principles, to imitate his example, to copy his spirit, to become like him. Thus in Dionysius Halicarnassus the expression occurs, "having put on or clothed themselves with Tarquin;" i.e. they imitated the example and morals of Tarquin. So Lucian says, "having put on Pythagoras;" having received him as a teacher and guide. So the Greek writers speak of putting on Plato, Socrates, etc., meaning to take them as instructers, to follow them as disciples. (See Schleusner.) Thus, to put on the Lord Jesus means, to take him as a pattern and guide, to imitate his example, to obey his precepts, to become like him, etc."

This meaning of becoming a disciple of Christ is clearly seen in Romans 13:11-14, "And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts." By putting on Christ, by becoming his disciple, the person changes his life and his behavior.

Or take a look at Ephesians 4:20-24, "But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness." Once again there is the idea of discarding the old and corrupt to be replaced with the new and holy. Even the word "created" used in this verse indicates changed man or a man reborn by God.

In Colossians 3:1-13 we read, "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do." (Colossians 3:1-13). Notice the change wrought by being raised with Christ. How is that done? "Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). That baptism innitiates a change in behavior. "Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin" (Romans 6:6-7). The old, sinful self is killed so that a new life might rise up to replace it (Romans 6:4).

This is exactly what Paul said in Galatians 3:27. The transformation of the Christian's life, the putting on of Christ, the becoming a disciple of Christ, is innitiated in baptism. It is also seen in Colossians 2:10-13, " and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses." We were dead but now we have been made alive when we were buried with Christ in baptism (the same point made in Romans 6:3-7). Please note that we were not buried in the medium of Christ, but buried with Christ jointly. We were not raised from Christ, but raised with him from death.

Who, Then, is Transformed?

  • Romans 6:3, "do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus"
  • I Corinthians 12:13, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body"
  • Galatians 3:26-28, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Can anyone claim that baptism is optional when every Christian entered into a relationship with Christ and changed their lives by baptism? Obviously, baptism holds importance since all participated; an importance expressed by Peter, "Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 3:21).

December 7, 2007