Historically, baptism has been used as a rite of initiation, showing the inductee’s entrance into a new belief or observance. Baptism in the church is also a token of the forgiveness of sins we experience at salvation—in much the same way that Pilate attempted to show his innocence by washing his hands with water (Matthew 27:24), Christians show they are cleansed by Christ when they are baptized by water.
Some Bible students have identified seven baptisms in Scripture. The seven baptisms are usually listed as being these:
1) The baptism of Moses (1 Corinthians 10:1–3) – when the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” That is, they were identified with Moses and his deliverance by passing through the Red Sea and following God’s presence in the cloud (Exodus 13:21). Paul uses this as a comparison to the way that Christians are identified with Christ and His salvation. Those who followed Moses passed through the water and were thus initiated into a new life of freedom and Law-keeping; those who follow Jesus Christ, who is greater than Moses, pass through the waters of baptism and are thus initiated to a new life of freedom and grace.
2) The baptism of John (Mark 1:4) – as John the Baptist preached repentance of sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, he baptized people in the Jordan. Those who were baptized by John were showing their faith in John’s message and their need to confess their sin. In Acts 18:24–25, a disciple of John’s named Apollos preaches in Ephesus; however, only knowing the baptism of John and the need for repentance, he needed to be further instructed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Later in the same city, Acts 19:1–7, Paul encounters some more followers of John. These disciples had been baptized for repentance, but they had not heard of the new birth or the Holy Spirit. Paul taught them the whole message of salvation in Christ, and they received the message and were subsequently baptized in Jesus’ name.
3) The baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13–17) – this was Jesus’ act of identifying with sinful humanity. Although Jesus did not need to repent of sin, He came to John to be baptized. John balked at performing the baptism, saying that Jesus should be the one baptizing him (Matthew 3:13–14). But Jesus told John to proceed with the baptism: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 15). In this baptism, Jesus put His stamp of approval on John’s ministry and also began His own. As Jesus came up from the water, the Father spoke from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form upon Jesus (verses 16–17).
4) The baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11–12) – John prophesied that Jesus would baptize men “with fire.” This speaks of Jesus’ judging the world for its sin (see John 5:22). Immediately after mentioning the baptism by fire, John describes Jesus as overseeing a harvest to come: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (verse 12; cf. Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43). Those who are judged by Christ in the last day will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).
5) The baptism of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14; 1 Corinthians 12:13) – John also predicted that Jesus would baptize men with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). This is a spiritual baptism, and it is the baptism that saves us. At salvation, we are “immersed” in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit covers us, indwells us, fills us, and makes us a part of the spiritual body of Christ. The baptism of the Spirit is what initiates us into new life in Christ. The first people to experience the baptism of the Spirit were the believers in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost. The spiritual entity known as the body of Christ is formed by this baptism: “We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
6) The baptism of the cross (Mark 10:35–39) – Jesus used the language of baptism to refer to His sufferings (and those of His disciples). James and John, the Boanerges, had come to Jesus asking for a place of honor in the kingdom. Jesus asked them, “Can you . . . be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38). They replied that they could, and Jesus confirmed it: “You will . . . be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with” (verse 39). The “baptism” Jesus speaks of here is the suffering He was to endure. James and John would suffer, as well.
7) The baptism of believers (Matthew 28:19) – this is a washing in water to symbolize the action of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s heart. Believer’s baptism is one of the two ordinances given to the church. Different churches practice different modes of baptism, but all who follow Christ should be baptized, since it is commanded by our Lord. Water baptism pictures some wonderful spiritual truths. When we are saved, we are “buried” with Christ and “rise” to newness of life; our sins are “washed away,” and we are cleansed. It is Spirit baptism that saves us, but water baptism is our outward expression of that event. “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death[.] We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3–4).
Of the seven baptisms found in Scripture, only two are of personal significance to the Christian today: the baptism of the Holy Spirit (that saves us) and believer’s water baptism (that identifies us with the church). The other baptisms were uniquely for other times, limited to certain people, or (in the case of the baptism of fire) still future.