Scripture unmistakably declares the essentiality of baptism. It is necessary to “be saved” (Mark 16:16), to “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), to “wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16), and to be “raised by faith in the powerful working of God” (Rom. 6:3 – 6; Col 2:12). There is no one written in the Lamb’s Book of Life who will refuse baptism. Likewise, there will be no one present at the rapture who refused to be baptized. Jesus also taught baptism is the only way one may enter his kingdom (Jn. 3:5).
Baptism is a physical event as well as a spiritual one. The person who is baptized in water, in the name of the Lord Jesus, is also baptized into the Holy Spirit of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13; Tit. 3:5). In other words, everyone obedient to the Lord by placing absolute faith in him for the forgiveness of sins, will receive the Holy Spirit at baptism (Acts 5:32). This happens after trusting in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, at the very moment of baptism, and not one second earlier (Eph. 1:13; 1 Peter 3:21). Though many refuse to accept this fact, baptism “of water and Spirit” is absolutely essential to salvation and kingdom entry.
Repentance and faith must always precede baptism, and it must always be an immersion (dipping) in water. We know this is the case because of the etymology of the word itself (Greek: baptidzo). Baptism means, “to submerge or whelm completely”. It is not a sprinkling of water upon infants. Believers God has predestined for eternal life will place their penitent trust in Jesus, and they will be fully immersed for the remission of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit – in that order (cf. Acts 2:38; 8:34 – 38; 13:46, 48; 16:30 – 33). Baptism is not a human work performed by man to receive salvation, it is an act of God upon the body and heart of the believer receiving it. Whereas faith is an active movement of man’s heart, baptism is always passive.
Baptism instantaneously places the believer into the Body of Christ (the church). Furthermore, it indicates the name of the believer is enrolled in the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem above (Heb. 12:22 – 24). As we have already demonstrated (See our June issue, The Kingdom Did Not Come on Pentecost), the church is not the kingdom, but everyone baptized into the church is “transferred” from darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son (Col. 1:13).
Therefore, our registration is in the heavenly kingdom, where our blessed citizenship now belongs (Phil. 3:20). Baptism makes the New Jerusalem our mother above (Gal. 4:26), even though we have not yet personally entered that place (2 Tim. 4:18). After baptism occurs, “salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11).
As we consider the context of Jesus’ illuminating dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:1 – 21), it is clear that Jesus was not discussing the church. No church had ever existed up to that point, and no church would come into existence until Pentecost, c. A.D. 33. Even though every saved person under the Christian dispensation has, indeed, been baptized into the church (cf. Acts 2:47; Eph. 5:25, 26), Jesus is here discussing future entry into his coming kingdom.
The church is not introduced until later, when Jesus promises to build it as his new institution of salvation (Matt. 16:18). In that context, he goes on to explain that the church would have a heavenly counterpart in realms above – “the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19). This kingdom will, in fact, see its future establishment on the earth in the last days.
Somehow, many Bible expositors and preachers have failed to grasp the thrust of Jesus’ words in John 3:5. They impulsively assume he is talking about baptism as the means of church membership. This is an especially prevalent view within our fellowship (Churches of Christ), but it is an undeserved assumption and ignores the context entirely.
First of all, Jesus plainly stated the new birth of water and the Spirit produces kingdom entry. He is silent concerning his Body in this entire exchange with Nicodemus. He is talking exclusively about the kingdom. Let us allow the Bible to speak rather than super-imposing our presuppositions upon the text.
Secondly, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about something he should have already been aware of. He follows up his remarks on the kingdom by asking, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (v. 10). This question would make no sense at all, had Jesus been discussing the method of entry into the church. How could Nicodemus have known anything regarding the church, even being a well-versed scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures? God’s plan to establish the church was “kept secret” throughout the ages, never to be revealed until the advent of Jesus Christ in the later days (Rom. 16:25, 26; Eph. 3:8 – 11).
Thirdly, in context, Jesus makes clear that his prophetic words contain a “heavenly” meaning (John 3:12). What institution could possibly be more heavenly than the kingdom of heaven? This kingdom will come with the Lord Jesus at his return (Matt. 16:28; 2 Tim. 4:1), it will descend out of the heavenly places and rest upon the earth (Rev. 21:2, 10). Those belonging to that kingdom will “reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10). The church fulfills none of this.
This is the kingdom Nicodemus should have been able to recall from his familiarity with the Books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel (and other Old Testament prophetic works). These writings, well known to any studious Israelite, vividly declare the promise of a coming kingdom to be set up over all the earth. However, one must first “enter” that kingdom in order to “possess” and “inherit” that kingdom (cf. Dan. 7:18; 1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:21; Jas. 2:5). In this text in question, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that the only way one may be qualified to enter the coming kingdom is by baptism “of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). There is no alternative.
It is strange that so many in our fellowship correctly stress the terms of entry but, sadly, they deny the object of entry – Christ’s millennial kingdom. By overstating the church’s place in God’s scheme of redemption, they “miss the forest for the trees”. In short, they believe the church, not the kingdom, is the target.
The church is not a heavenly institution, nor is it an eternal one (though they treat it as such). The church, founded on the earth, is Christ’s Bride, and her membership will ultimately become, “the Wife of the Lamb”, upon spiritual consummation of their union in realms above (cf. Rev. 19:7; 21:9). The church begins on the earth and goes to heaven. The kingdom comes down from heaven to the earth. While properly understanding the essentiality of baptism, many confused brethren still disregard this prophetic outcome of receiving baptism.
It is equally strange that so many outside of our fellowship correctly understand the proper object of salvation – the divinely granted right to “live and reign with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4) – but they refuse to acknowledge the Biblical terms of kingdom entry. Seeking to affirm salvation’s freeness, “by faith alone”, they dismiss the importance of the new birth (baptism) in God’s scheme of redemption. How tragic!
The Savior’s Application
Those who believe what Jesus taught concerning baptism must declare it as God’s instrument of salvation and eternal glory. For without baptism, there will be no access granted to the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ, nor can there be any earthly inheritance and heavenly authority to reign with him in the age to come. Authority is reserved only for the obedient overcomer (cf. Psalm 37:9, 11, 18, 27, 29; Matt. 5:5; Rom. 8:17; Rev. 2:26 – 28).
Jesus, during his final remarks before ascending into heaven, stated, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Both elements of the new birth are cited in this prophetic utterance of our Lord. He made this application while “speaking about the kingdom of God” (v. 3).
His followers’ minds had already been opened to grasp the nature of the kingdom (cf. Luke 24:45). They knew his coming would produce the arrival of the millennial reign declared in ancient prophecy. Knowing what Jesus taught about “water and the Spirit”, his disciples instantly made connection to the kingdom subject to restoration at his second coming. They knew the new birth will assuredly lead to kingdom entry. Therefore, Jesus’ parting words on baptism prompted them to ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
It behooves godly men to stress the essential elements of the new birth, along with the royal rights and privileges promised to those who are born again, including inheritance in the millennial kingdom of Christ. Jesus is certainly pleased as we speak this “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Thankfully, his counsel is clear, and we need not speculate:
“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” – MAH