For the New Testament church, God did give a couple of ceremonial laws, one of which was the sign of baptism. During the Church Age, the elders and church authorities, the pastor, would administer baptism to individuals in the congregation and to their children. It was very Biblical to baptize a child, as God commands this in His Word—so children were also baptized. But never in the history of the church did water baptism ever save even one individual. It never saved anyone. It was only a sign signaling what God’s Word would do in the life of one of His people. Not necessarily everyone who was baptized with water would become saved, so that sign had no affect upon them whatsoever. Even upon a child of God, one of God’s elect, the “sign” of baptism accomplished nothing. It was never a means of grace. It never imparted any grace. It never did anything except that it was done in obedience to the Law of God—just as the Jews did many things in the Old Testament out of faithfulness to God’s command, such as offering sacrifices or circumcising their children. None of that ever saved any Jew, either, but in keeping the Old Testament ceremonial laws, they were painting pictures—God had them illustrating the Gospel through obedience to these commands. So it was with water baptism—water baptism pointed to the washing away of sin. There are several verses that indicate this.
But the baptism that is absolutely necessary for entering into the kingdom of heaven is not water baptism; but it is the baptism accomplished by the Spirit of God in salvation. For instance in Matthew 3, we read in verse 11, where John the Baptist is speaking, and he says under the inspiration of God:
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
Now, that is a different sort of baptism altogether—it is a spiritual baptism. It is a baptism that is completely and totally wrapped up in salvation. When the Lord Jesus would come and save His people, when the Gospel would go forth and seek out God’s lost sheep, when God would apply His Word to their hearts and they would become born again, immediately upon that moment of salvation, they were baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire.
In Mark 10, James and John came to Jesus asking if they could sit with Him, one on the right and one on the left, in His glory. Jesus responded in Mark 10:38:
Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?
Jesus is referring to the cup of God’s wrath—that cup that was poured out to Him in the garden of Gethsemane as He went and fell down and prayed, “May this cup pass from Me, Father. Yet, not My will but Thine be done.” During those agonizing hours in the garden, He had begun to suffer the equivalent of an eternity in Hell for the sins of His people. Jesus was drinking the cup dry of the wrath of God as God was punishing Him, afflicting Him, and smiting Him for all those whom He came to save. He was paying the penalty that the Law demanded of hellfire. In doing that, Jesus was being baptized by the fires of Hell, and sin was being purged—it was being washing away by fire. That is what John the Baptist had in view when he said, “You shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”
True baptism has to do with sins being cleansed and washed completely away where not one remains, so that we may be spotless and pure and holy in God’s sight. Therefore, true baptism can only be accomplished in Christ, as Christ must be the One who takes our sin and pays for those sins so that they can be removed and we can be made clean. That is why Jesus is saying to James and John, “Shall you be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” The answer is, “Yes, they shall.” They shall, because they were believers and their sins were placed upon the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s take a look at one other very important verse that will help us understand what the Bible has in view by “baptism by the Holy Ghost”. In Romans 6:3, it says:
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
Again, God is not focusing on the physical death but the second death of eternal damnation. That is the death that Christ died for the elect of God, for each one of His people. We were baptized into that particular death. Then, in verse 4:
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
This is referring to the time when the sinner experiences the grace of God and is born again. Once God has applied His Word to the sinner’s heart and they have become a new Creature in Christ, that person then has been washed—no not with physical water; but the spiritual water of the gospel. At this point the sinner is born from above, and has a new heart and a new Spirit. This is the extremely important baptism. The baptism that we must have if we are to enter into the Kingdom of God.
There will be multitudes who have experienced water baptism. Church after church baptizes their congregation with water, and yet there are vast numbers, there are many who will say on that Day, “Lord, did we not do many things in Your Name?”Certainly many of them will have in mind that they were even baptized with water; and they will think that water baptism washed them from sin. However, Jesus will say, “Depart from Me, ye workers of iniquity. I never knew you.” Your sin remains. You are filthy still. You are impure, unclean. Your transgressions and iniquities are like a pollution that stains you, so you must pay the penalty for your sin.” This is because, even though they experienced the “sign” of water baptism, they never experienced what that sign pointed to: the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
So, we can see that it is much better, it is far greater to be spiritually baptized. To be— washed, truly, spiritually, by the Holy Ghost, by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus—than to have a little water sprinkled on your head that never saved anyone. We are greatly blessed because God has given us the Gospel where true baptism can still take place even in this present time of Great Tribulation.