I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do [ you ] suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.
There can really be no argument that the first century church, the church in transition, if you will, taught and practiced water baptism. The phrase, 'for the remission of sins' ( Matthew 26:28, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:38 ), I don't need to tell you, in other words, anyway, comes straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures. Like all the symbolic acts under the Old Covenant, of course, this outward physical sign only pointed to the Reality, which, until the latter days of the Old Covenant regime, or era, had not yet been fully revealed. For whatever reason, the practice of water baptism has been carried on by the Church ( or is that 'church' ) up to this day. Even though the orthodox Church has carried on this tradition, there have been naysayers throughout the centuries who have dared to question 'the traditions of the fathers'!
Much discussion has been taking place recently ( mainly on Facebook ) on this most controversial of subjects. One comment that was made recently was along the lines that when baptism is mentioned in Scripture, it is not always referring to water baptism. No argument there, I should think! However, there are certain places that are pretty obviously referring to baptism by water. Interestingly enough, one of the most-used texts referring to water baptism does not appear ( in those words ) in the most ancient manuscripts. This is not to say that water baptism was not in practice in the 1st century, or even that Philip, in the passage in question ( Acts 8:26-40 ) did not confer water baptism on the Ethiopian eunuch; there can be no doubt that this man was overwhelmed ( with water )! Jesus was certainly symbolically washed in water by John, before entering into His earthly ministry ( officially speaking, that is )! He even told John why He, the Son of God Himself, must be baptized; 'for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness'. Note that the term 'fulfill' does NOT mean in itself that water baptism must necessarily cease after the Christ's baptism, though this could no doubt be argued, and well, at that!!
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.
As THE Federal Husband, Jesus shed His own blood for His Bride, something that not a lot of husbands would do for their wives; that much is abundantly clear! It is when we come to the next notable phrase 'the washing of water by the word' that things might seem to cloud up a bit. Why or how, would Jesus purify and perfect His Bride for Himself with 'the washing of water by the word'? It just doesn't seem to make much sense, does it?! Ritual cleansing was commonly practiced under the Old Covenant, for this was a covenant of shadows, shadows which, as we've seen, pointed to the Reality which came in the Christ.
There is also an anti-type which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I Peter 3:21
Something we might note, before launching into discussion here, is that this passage, as Paul's words earlier, from his letter to the Ephesians, is in direct conjunction with the suffering of the Christ for His Bride. While this passage is most often read as referring to water baptism, it it quite a bit less than clear that the referent is water baptism; much the opposite, in fact, unless one is stymied by presuppositional 'wranglings'. My father often said, in other words maybe, and in defense of sprinkling or pouring, rather than immersion/submersion, that the ones who died in the Crossing of the Red Sea ( or Sea of Reeds ), were immersed/submersed ( -merged ) in the water, while those who were only sprinkled, while passing through on dry ground, were the ones who were saved. Speculation at best, maybe, but it is not hard to imagine that those towering walls of water would have sprinkled the children of Israel just a bit. In fact, Paul even wrote along these lines, saying, '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, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.' ( I Corinthians 10:1-4 ) In Peter's word above, one may, with a certain bias, assume that the baptism spoken of is water baptism, but that is by no means clear, and is certainly not as evident as some would have you believe!
Prior to the verse in question; Peter recounts the days of Noah in which just a few were 'saved through water'. Note that while 'they' were saved, quite literally, in the Ark ( typical of the Christ ) through the waters of baptism ( there again, sprinkling, not immersion/submersion ), it was by the 'anti-type' that God's people ( New Covenant ) were truly and really saved, and by which they were cleansed in their 'heart of hearts' ( somewhere water would never, could never reach ); the baptism of the Holy Spirit of God Himself ( Ezekiel 36:25-27 )!
Getting back to 'the washing of water by the word'; it is plainly, abundantly clear that Paul's referent in his letter to the Ephesians is the ritual cleansing, both of priests and sacrifices, practiced religiously under the Old Covenant. What may not be so clear, is that Paul's phraseology was also inextricably linked to the early Christian practice of water baptism! These Christians, most fresh from the chains of Judaism, and thus quite familiar with the concept of ritual and symbolic cleansing in water ( always running, as in poured, never immersed/dipped ), must have necessarily realized what these symbolic acts were significant of!
As with Jesus' baptism, these ritual washings continued for a time, throughout the transition period between the Cross and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, to comfort them until the Revelation of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, who came in the clouds of judgment on His Old Covenant people who had apostatized.
It was through the very Word of God that salvation came to His people, and though Paul stated that it was through 'the washing of water by the word', it must be clearly understood, and should be plain that, although he was referring back to the rituals practiced under the Old Covenant, he was, in all reality, speaking of the incarnate Word to which those 'baptisms' pointed.
It was by the baptism of the Spirit, the Spirit which was 'poured out.............on the house of Israel' ( Ezekiel 39:29 ) in the last days ( Joel 2:28 ), that the people of God throughout the ages received the greatest Gift ever given, the restoration to blessed communion with their Creator and Father!
In Jesus' name, Amen!
Charles Haddon Shank