For centuries, the practice of baptism has taken place in the Church. From baptismal pools, to oceans, to rivers, to the sprinkling of water, countless believers have made a public declaration of their devotion to Christ by participating in the same act Jesus did (Matthew 3:1-17). It is commonly known that being baptized is symbolic of one’s sins being washed away and the emergence of a new person whose life is now in Christ. However, the disciples of the early church, in keeping with the traditions as taught by Jesus and the Apostles, had a deeper understanding of baptism, seeing its spiritual significance. For the first few hundred years of the Church, the likes of Justin Martyr, Cyprian, and Irenaeus, etc, were unanimous in their understanding of spiritual baptism, being that we are washed in the spirit (revelation) of the Word (not just physical water), cleansed of our earthly (sinful) nature, and therefore raised to life (born again in Christ’s nature).
First, we must understand what the term spiritual means, according to the early church (prior to 325 AD). Origen, a second-third century theologian who composed roughly 2,000 treatises on multiple topics, including spirituality, explains that spirituality pertains to the way we understand scripture. In his writing On the First Principles (De Principiis), Origen states:
It is the custom of sacred Scripture, when it wishes to designate anything opposed to this gross and solid body, to call it spirit, as in the expression, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” (2Co_3:6) where there can be no doubt that by “letter” are meant bodily things, and by “spirit” intellectual things, which we also term “spiritual.” The apostle, moreover, says, “Even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart: nevertheless, when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2Co_3:15, 16) For so long as any one is not converted to a spiritual understanding, a veil is placed over his heart, with which veil, i.e., a gross understanding, Scripture itself is said or thought to be covered: and this is the meaning of the statement that a veil was placed over the countenance of Moses when he spoke to the people, i.e., when the law was publicly read aloud. But if we turn to the Lord, where also is the word of God, and where the Holy Spirit reveals spiritual knowledge, then the veil is taken away, and with unveiled face we shall behold the glory of the Lord in the holy Scriptures. (1)
Origen explains that according to the Apostle Paul the body of scripture is the “letter”, meaning its literal or historical context, whereas the spirit of scripture is what is seen beyond the letter. He refers to the spirit of the Word as intellectual things, which must not be mistaken to mean man’s intellect, because man’s wisdom is coming to nothing (1 Corinthians 2:6) and is foolishness compared to the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 3:19). Rather, this intellect is spiritual knowledge, which can only be obtained by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:11), for the Holy Spirit is our teacher and comforter (John 14:26) who reveals knowledge, as the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things (mysteries) of God (1 Corinthians 2:10) (2). Furthermore, Origen points out that there must be a conversion process, to understand the Word of God spiritually (being unveiled), and that those who do not have spiritual knowledge remain ignorant (they are still veiled) (cf. Matthew 13:10-15).
Now that we have established that spiritual means to understand God’s revealed Word, let us explore how this is relevant to baptism. The Apostle Paul likens water to the Word of God when he states, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:26-27, emphasis added). Here we see that it is the Word of God that washes us, not just literal water. This is why Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for only being focused on their outer cleanliness but not cleansing their conscience (cf. Hebrews 10:22). He stated:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. (Matthew 23:25-26)
The scribes and Pharisees were well versed in the law, but only its literal interpretation, and therefore they were fixated on achieving the law literally. However, the veil (flesh) still lay upon their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:15), and thus their inner man was not cleansed. Jesus came to teach the law correctly (Matthew 5:17) by unveiling its deeper (spiritual) meaning. Hence, He reveals that the true washing is of the inner self (the soul). Regarding inner baptism, Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist of the second century, dialogues with a Jew named Trypho. Trypho followed the letter (literal interpretation) of the law, and here Justin explains that there is a deeper meaning to the custom of baptism.
“By reason, therefore, of this laver of repentance and knowledge of God, which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people, as Isaiah cries, we have believed, and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life. But the cisterns which you have dug for yourselves are broken and profitless to you. For what is the use of that baptism which cleanses the flesh and body alone? Baptize the soul from wrath and from covetousness, from envy, and from hatred; and, lo! the body is pure. (3)
Notice Justin terms the laver (where baptism took place) as the laver of repentance and knowledge of God. In this place, he does not refer to a literal body of water. In the Hebraic way of thought, repentance or to repent means to return or turn back (4), and in the Book of Joel the Lord says to “turn (return, repent) to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” (Joel 2:12). If someone returns to a location, it means they were once there, but left. So, repentance refers to those who have left the truth (the Lord; cf. John 14:6; Revelation 2:5) and are now returning through a process of washing in the laver of the Word. Hence, Peter declared, “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38). The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to teach us knowledge (cf. 1 John 2:20), and then, in turn, our conscience is cleansed, so that we no longer struggle with matters like envy or hatred (and so on).
To overcome the issues we are struggling with, whatever they may be (you fill in the blank), means our old nature, or old man, has been crucified, and we have obtained a new nature- that of Christ’s (cf. Romans 6:6; Ephesians 4:21-23). This exchange is a true spiritual baptism, because our fleshly nature has now been converted to God’s spiritual nature (Christ’s virtues, or fruit). Concerning this, early church father of the third century, Cyprian, writes:
All indeed who attain to the divine gift and inheritance by the sanctification of baptism, therein put off the old man by the grace of the saving laver, and, renewed by the Holy Spirit from the filth of the old contagion, are purged by a second nativity. But the greater holiness and truth of that repeated birth belongs to you, who have no longer any desires of the flesh and of the body. Only the things which belong to virtue and the Spirit have remained in you to glory. (5)
Cyprian touches on what it truly means to be spiritually born again through the washing (baptismal) process. In like manner to the Apostle Paul, he explains that the old man is put off through baptism, and thus we can overcome the desires of the flesh, obtaining God’s virtue. This reiterates that baptism must be understood spiritually, as there is no way that being physically immersed in water can change a person’s character.
In the gospel of John, Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit, in order to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:4, 5). We may have understood this to be referring to physical baptism, however as we have dug through the wells of scripture and some early church writings, we now can see the deeper, spiritual meaning to Jesus’ statement.
Second century church father Irenaeus comments on this:
For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Joh_3:5) (6)
Here we see Irenaeus explain similarly to Justin Martyr, that the washing of baptism is really about our spiritual regeneration, being that our old nature is washed away, and we are in turn newly born (into God’s nature). In the words of Justin Martyr, this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings (7), and in the wise words of Solomon, understanding is a wellspring of life to him who has it (Proverbs 16:22). So, without understanding the revelation of God’s Word, the spiritual interpretation, we cannot truly be washed. What benefits us from a physical washing if we remain in ignorance of God’s divine nature?
We have taken a significant glimpse into the spiritual baptism, and pray you now have a greater understanding of what it truly means to be inwardly cleansed. It is by spiritually understanding God’s revealed Word, that we are washed from our former conduct, and thus renewed to life in Christ. For more resources go to voh.church/resources to continue to be washed by the water of the word!
- Origen, De Principiis, Bk. 1, Chap. I. (Emphasis added)
- Strong’s Hebrew and Greek dictionaries: ‘Deep things’ (G899)
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, Chap. XIV. – “Righteousness Is Not Placed in Jewish Rites, but in the Conversion of the Heart Given in Baptism by Christ.” (Emphasis added)
- Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew definitions: ‘Repent’ (H7725)
- Cyprian, Treatise II, Section 23. (Emphasis added)
- Irenaeus, Fragments From the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, Chap. XXXIV. (Emphasis added)
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap. LXI. – Christian Baptism. (Emphasis added)
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.