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How far back does Christian baptism go?

Marshall Greene (center) is baptized during the Annual Inlet Baptism in Murrells Inlet off the Belin Memorial United Methodist Church's seawall. Holding him is (left) Austin Bond, director of youth ministries and (right) Walter Cantwell, associate pastor. Photo by Benjamin Coy.
Marshall Greene (center) is baptized during the Annual Inlet Baptism in Murrells Inlet off the Belin Memorial United Methodist Church's seawall. Holding him is (left) Austin Bond, director of youth ministries and (right) Walter Cantwell, associate pastor. Photo by Benjamin Coy.

Nearly every religion in the world has some sort of rite involving water. Often, as in Christian baptism, water is used both for ritual cleansing and some kind of rebirth. Judaism, for example, requires its converts to “wash away” their non-Jewish identity and prepare to take on a Jewish identity. 

Christian baptism goes back to the beginning of the church itself. The Pentecost celebration, 50 days after the resurrection and ten days after the ascension of Jesus, is often called "the birthday of the church." Acts 2:41 records that over 3000 people were baptized and added to the church that day. 

But Christians were not the only ones baptizing at that time. 

Jesus was baptized with the baptism of a Jewish prophet named John, nicknamed "The Baptizer." But this was not seen by Christians as Christian baptism. As the gospels record it, Christians understood John's baptism to be "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4, NRSV). While the baptism of John and Christian baptism both involved water, John himself is quoted to say that the baptism Jesus would inaugurate would be "with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8, NRSV). 

We see early Christians making a distinction between the baptism of John and Christian baptism in the story of the founding of the Christian community at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-5). When Paul arrived in Ephesus, he found a community of people who had received the baptism of John through one of John's disciples. The story tells us they had never heard of the Holy Spirit, much less received the Holy Spirit. Paul offered them Christian baptism in the name of Jesus, and immediately they received the Holy Spirit.

United Methodists, together with the vast majority of Christians in the world, understand Christian baptism to be baptism "by water and the Spirit." Based on the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, we continue to offer Christian baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Learn More:

Renewing waters: How United Methodists understand baptism

What do I need to know about baptism in The United Methodist Church?

The Meaning of Baptism in The United Methodist Church  

By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism

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This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.