I felt urged of the Lord to write on the subject of water baptism. Unfortunately, there are many who treat this ordinance of the Church rather lightly, as though it didn't really matter whether you were baptized or not.
Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize converts in water. He said,
"Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mk. 16:16). "Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19).
During Jesus' ministry, His disciples baptized many of those who chose to follow Him (Jn. 1:1,2). Water baptism itself does not save people, nor does it perform a miraculous sacramental benefit. Baptism in Jesus' day was a public witness of the candidate's faith in the teachings of Jesus, and his determination to leave the old sinful life behind and follow in the steps of the Lord.
For centuries, even before Christ, the Jews practiced water baptism when they received a Gentile convert to Judaism. By Jewish standards Gentiles were considered dirty, sinful, unclean, therefore water baptism for them was a must because it symbolized their cleansing. When John the Baptist came preaching repentance and water baptism for the Jews, this raised the eyebrows of many including the Pharisees, and no doubt caused some harsh criticism.
But this was a message to the people of Israel, that they were no better spiritually than the Gentiles. John preached repentance and urged the people to leave their sinful practices. As a testimony of their godly decision a number of them accepted John's baptism, and by this declared their intention to live for God.
You can imagine John's amazement when Jesus came to him for baptism. John knew this was the "Lamb of God" -- who needed no washing or cleansing. But Jesus calmed John's frustration by telling him, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt. 3:15). By this act Jesus humbled Himself and identified Himself with sinful mankind as its Representative and Deliverer.
Some pagan religions also practice a form of water baptism in their religious ceremonies, but none of these baptismal traditions come close to Christian baptism as was ordained by the Lord. It has taken on a much greater and more powerful meaning than just washing, cleansing, or becoming an initiation rite into Christianity.
For the new Christian water baptism is a bold testimony of identity with Jesus Christ
It is a powerful symbol of the death and resurrection of the Lord. The word baptism comes from the Greek "baptizo," and it means to immerse, to dip, to plunge under. By being immersed in water, the new believer, in obedience to the Lord's command identifies himself with Christ's death and burial to sin. When he is brought up out of the water, it is a dramatic testimony that he has been spiritually resurrected to a newness of life through Jesus Christ.
Paul describes water baptism as a death, a burial, and a resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5)
The Scriptural mode of baptism is by immersion. This clearly portrays our identification with Christ's death and burial when we are immersed into the water. It also speaks of our being resurrected with Christ into a new dimension of living when we are lifted up out of the water. It is interesting to note that John baptized in Aenon because there was plenty of water there (Jn. 3:23). At Jesus' baptism, He came "up out of the water" (Mk. 1:10). Philip and the eunuch both went "down into" and came "up out of" the water (Acts 8:38,39). All this points to baptism by immersion.
Water baptism does not save the sinner nor does it wash away his sin
But it is a public testimony that he has been saved: that he first believed in Jesus, that he repented and was forgiven of his sins, and is now determined to follow Christ. All of this must transpire before anyone can be baptized. Water baptism is an outward sign of an inward work done by God, and is preceded by faith in Christ. "What must I do to be saved? They replied, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:30, 31-NIV).
Specific instructions were given as to whom to baptize, and what is required of the candidate.. Peter told his hearers, "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). Philip replied to the eunuch, "If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest" (Acts 8:37). The injunction to believe and repent does not endorse infant baptism. An infant can neither believe not repent of sins it hasn't yet committed. If a child dies before reaching the age of accountability, it is saved by the redemptive work of Christ who died for the whole world - including innocent infants.
Some teach that at baptism one needs to be immersed three times; each time in the name of a Person of the Trinity. Scripturally, water baptism is a type of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He died and rose from the dead -- once!
There are those who do not believe in readily baptizing new converts
They must be watched and put on probation to make sure they are saved, at times waiting up to a year. Of course we need to be sure that a new convert is truly born again. But this should not be difficult to ascertain if a true work of grace has been done, and the person wants to fulfill the Lord's command. The Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, and the Philippian jailer were baptized the same day they believed. The Scriptures do not set a lengthy time of probation for new believers. Actually, baptism is a great encouragement to them because they are made aware that Christ's command was obeyed. It is also an incentive to publicly follow Christ and live up to the requirements for believers.
We dare not treat water baptism lightly, or ignore it's importance. It is a command of the Lord. We need to teach our people and new believers coming in to our church, to obey the Lord.