Does the word baptism mean immersion or sprinkling?

by Matt Slick

No, the word "baptism" does not always mean immersion.  There are several New Testament usages that clearly have different meanings.  Let's take a look.

  • Trouble  
    • Mark 10:38, "But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
    • Mark 10:39, "And they said to Him, 'We are able.' And Jesus said to them, 'The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.'"
    •  Luke 12:50, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!"

These next verses speak of being baptized with the Spirit.  This isn't an immersion.  It is a pouring upon because the Holy Spirit is always poured upon a person.  If the Scriptures tell us that the Spirit is poured upon us and we are baptized with the Spirit, then it makes sense to say that baptism here means pouring upon.

  • Pour upon with the Holy Spirit
    • Isaiah 44:3, "I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants."
    • Joel 2:28, And it will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind . . . "
    • Joel 2:29 “And even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days."
    • Acts 2:17, "And it shall be in the last days," God says, "That I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind."
    • Acts 2:18, "Even upon My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy."
  • Baptized with the Holy Spirit
    • Matt. 3:11 “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
    • Mark 1:8, “I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
    • Luke 3:16, "John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
    • John 1:33, “And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’
    • Acts 1:5, "for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Washings and Sprinkling

If that isn't enough to show that the word baptize does not always mean immersion, there are derivations of the word that also show it can mean washing and sprinkling.  But first, let's take a very short look at the word "baptize" in the Greek.

In Greek, nouns change their spelling depending on their usage.  In English, for example, we have the word actor, actors, actresses, actresses. These words are "cognates"; that is, they are related to each other in form.  The word "actor" changes form and with it plurality and gender is expressed, but the root of the word is "act."  The same thing goes with baptismois, baptismon, baptismous, etc.  The root of the word is bapt, and the word as a whole changes form depending on usage.  Here are a few cognates.

  • βαπτίζω, baptidzo, baptize (Matt. 3:6; Mark 1:5; Luke 3:7; John 1:25; Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3)
  • βαπτιστής, baptistas, baptist (Matt. 3:1; 14:2; Luke 7:20; 9:19)
  • βάπτισμα, baptisma, baptism (Matt. 3:7; Mark 1:4; Luke 12:50; Acts 1:22; Eph. 4:5; Col. 2:12)
  • βαπτίζοντες, baptizontes, baptizing (Matt. 28:19; John 1:25; 3:22; 4:1; 10:40)
  • βαπτισμῶν, baptismon, washings (Heb. 6:2)
  • βαπτισμοῖς, baptismois, washings (Heb. 9:10)

So, that is how Greek works.  The one word has different forms, the same as English: baptize, baptizing, baptized, baptist, etc.  This is important because we find a baptism cognate in two particular verses that cannot mean immersion but instead means washings and/or sprinkling.

Hebrews 6:2, "of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment."

The word "washings" is baptismon in the Greek.  Here is another.

  • Heb. 9:7-13, "but into the second only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [baptismois], regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh,

If you read the context, you will see that the "washings" (baptisms) refer to the Old Testament rituals which included the sprinkling of blood (v. 13).  That is the context.  This makes sense since anointings and atonements were done by sprinkling--not by immersion.

So, automatically saying that baptism means immersion is wrong.  Words mean what they mean in context; and sometimes it means trouble, pour upon, or washings.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.