What was the original and historic Christian mode?
What follows is in no sense intended to pass judgment on the baptism of others. God is well able to accept – in them as in us – what may not be strictly according to the regular pattern, but is done in faith and with a sincere heart (2 Chron. 30:18-20). Nor is it to enter here into the separate question of believers vs infant baptism. This is simply a birdseye view of baptism’s historical MODE, or FORM, with a view to our own practice being made more conformable to that original “gold standard”.
According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, the average depth of more than 400 Christian baptisteries found from early Christian times is “just under one metre”. From the Bible’s own summary of an actual baptism, we are left in no doubt as to why so much water – around waist-deep – was required across the board for ancient Christian baptism. In Acts 8:38-39 we have a snapshot of how Philip baptized the treasurer of Ethiopia:
“And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him … [Then] they came up out of the water”.
It is difficult to view this as anything other than an immersion (“both … went down into the water … [and] came up out of the water”), consistent with the Greek meaning of baptizo as “immerse, submerge” in any number of reputable Greek lexicons. That this was indeed the baptismal mode administered by the apostles is suggested by Paul’s twofold description of baptism. It is, he says, a burial (“buried with Him through baptism”, Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12), and a bath from sin (“be baptized, and wash – Greek, louo, “bathe” – away your sins”, Acts 22:16). Both descriptions, burial and bath, point to a submerging (though momentary) of the person being baptized in water.
Thus the one whose very title was “the Baptist”, and to whom Jesus Himself went to be baptized purely as our Example, was “baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there” (John 3:23). The explanation, “because there was much water there”, is meaningless unless immersion was being practised, since a few jars or water bottles would have sufficed for baptizing thousands of people if only sprinkling were involved. Even in Mark 7:14, where baptizo is used in some Bible margins of “tables” and “beds”, we know that Jewish ceremonial washing at the time required that all objects be immersed, even to the extent of dismantling in order to submerge each item in water. Hence John the Baptist’s name, to this day, of “John the Immerser” in modern Hebrew.