Cuma is a fascinating place. Located about 20 kilometres west of Naples on the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is part of the Mediterranean, it was a Greek settlement from around the 7th century BC. It became a Roman province around 340 BC. It is most famous for the Dromos—a trapezoidal cave some 130 metres long that led to the Grotto of the Sibilla—or where the “Sibyl,” shown in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, was alleged to have passed supernatural messages on to the senators of Rome.1 The practice is a replica of that practised in Greece, by the oracle at Delphi.
Climbing the hill above the Dromos, one comes first upon the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, then, on the crest of the hill, the ruins of a Christian church dating to the fourth or fifth century AD. In these ruins is a rather prominent feature, a circular baptismal font situated right where the altar would normally be located.
Obviously the practice in this Christian church was baptism by immersion. This site is not unique, as visits to the large baptistery at Pisa or so many other sites of early Christian churches reveal, from the Bible lands of the Middle East to historical locations all over Europe.
Christian history attests that the church practised the rite of baptism by immersion for more than 1000 years before it fell out of favour, replaced with the more familiar forms of today. Then the rite of baptism of infants took the place of a “believers” baptism from Scripture.2
Baptism by immersion was rediscovered by people around Zurich following the study of Scripture and the great belief that we are made right with God by faith in Christ and His death, rediscovered by Martin Luther and taken up by Ulrich Zwingli. Some there continued their search of Scripture, finding that such a form of baptism is sanctioned by Jesus Himself, and that the mode of baptism is vitally important. These people who insisted on a “believer’s baptism” became known as the Anabaptists, meaning “re-baptisers.” Many died for their faith—often after torture.3 They were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants, Luther and Zwingli alike.
why be baptised?
There are three major aspects to biblical baptism. First, what is the meaning behind baptism? Second, why should I be baptised today? And, third, how should baptism be administered? Let us look at these areas.
The Bible is explicit and clear regarding the meaning of baptism. The apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome, saying, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life... . For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”4
And reiterating this, he writes to the church at Colossae: “Having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”5
Scripture makes it clear that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the meaning in Christian baptism. Just as Jesus Christ died for us, and was placed in the tomb and rose that Sunday morning, so baptism signifies that we believe in this great event of salvation—His death, His burial, and His glorious resurrection. How significant then is baptism by immersion, when a person who chooses to accept Jesus Christ signifies an end to a life of wilful sin, is lowered below the water as Jesus was laid in the tomb, then is raised up out of the water to a new life.
what baptism means
When the meaning behind baptism is understood from Scripture—and it coincides with the meaning of the word baptism itself, which means to dip or to immerse completely—then the method of baptism becomes clear. Only baptism by immersion carries with it the scriptural meaning of this Christian rite.
Thus Christian churches built for the first thousand years after Jesus’ baptism mostly provided a font where those professing Christianity were immersed. Pouring or sprinkling as a form of baptism came about for convenience and do not carry the great depth of meaning of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
Perhaps the greatest question that comes to us regarding baptism is—why is this Christian rite significant for us today in the 21st century? Why do I have to go through with this rite? Isn’t belief sufficient?
To better understand, look at the example of Jesus and His legacy. The whole scriptural record is very clear that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life. This is the pre-requisite for a sacrifice that covers the sin of the whole of humanity. Yet Jesus Himself came to John the Baptist and sought baptism. Though he was sinless, He left an example for everyone who would follow Him. He did not need to be baptised, yet for us He went through this rite, of which the Father in heaven said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”6
What Jesus thought is revealed in His words as recorded in Mark’s Gospel: “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”7
In His last words to His disciples, Jesus, looking down through time into the future, gave instruction to His disciples as follows: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”8
So why should I be baptised 2000 years after Jesus lived?
When a person realises that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the only way to eternal life, then the words of Jesus become supremely important in the life. His example and His instructions to His disciples to the end of time become the guiding star even in these days.
There is no question that for the Ana-baptists of the 16th century a “believer’s baptism” was the only rite that carried the full meaning of Jesus’ great sacrifice and example. They suffered torture and even death for holding to it. Although they were called Anabaptists as a term of derision, their belief of Scripture and faith in their Lord led them to participate in this Christian rite.
The decision to be baptised by immersion is taken by millions around the world every year. It is an act rich in meaning, which brings joy and a sense of closeness to the One who left us an example.
Baptism is a sign of following Jesus’ example—we are baptised into Christ. The Bible says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”9 However, it also makes it perfectly clear that there is cohesion between believers—a common purpose—a working together for those who are. The church is called the “body,” and Jesus Christ is called the “head.” It is not logical that a person be baptised into “the head” and not into “the body.” Even for the early Christian church immediately after Pentecost, the believers were numbered together as a body, or church!10
So baptism as Scripture presents it is a wonderful act full of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and becomes the entry point to full membership with the body of believers committed to live for their Lord.
1. Virgil in the Aeneid mentions this.
2. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
4. Romans 6:4, 6.
5. Colossians 2:12.
6. Mark 1:11.
7. Mark 16:16.
8. Matthew 28:18-20.
9. Galatians 3:26, 27.
10. Acts 2:47.