There are two types of baptism, physical and spiritual.
A person is physically baptized with water. Water baptism is a symbolic ritual and neither saves or redeems a person. A person may be water baptized a number of times in a number of different ways, and never realize a genuine change of heart.
A person is spiritually baptized by the Spirit of Holiness. Spiritual baptism is the result of a genuine change of heart and a surrendered life to God, through faith in Christ.
Water baptism is a Jewish ritual based on the Torah (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament), which requires one to be ritually pure before entering the Tabernacle or Temple.
In his book, the Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern writes;
“Ritual purity could be lost in many ways; the preeminent means of restoring it was through washing. A quick review of Leviticus shows how frequently the matter is mentioned…”
To become ritually pure, one must immerse the entire body in water. The Greek word for immersion (to immerse) is “baptizo” and is generally transliterated as “baptized.”
“The root meaning of the word ‘baptizo’ is ‘dip, soak, immerse’ into a liquid so that what is dipped takes on qualities of what it has been dipped in – for example, cloth in dye or leather in tanning solution. A person who immerses himself participates in an obvious yet living metaphor of purification, with water, as it were, washing away the impurity.”
In the beginning of Matthew, chapter 3 John the Baptist proclaims a new context for the old practice of immersion, cleansing from a lifestyle of sin, not ritual purity. Ritual purity, while commanded of God, is an external, religious practice, which – as noted in Colossians 2:17 and Hebrews 10:1 – were a shadow of things to come. They could never bring into perfection, the person who practiced them. Thus, the rituals were repeated endlessly.
As David Stern pointed out above, ritual purity could be lost in many ways. Moreover, as the above passages in Colossians and Hebrews clearly state,
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:1-4 (NIV)
“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Colossians 2:17 (NIV)
Thus, place was given for the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation in the New Covenant, established through the life, death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua; or in the Greek, Iesou (Jesus) Xristos (Christ).
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am-it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God.'” Psalm 40:6-8 (See Septuagint)
“First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Hebrews 10:5-10 (NIV)
Why then, did Jesus come to John to be baptized in the Jordan? According to Scripture, Jesus led a sinless life (cf. Hebrews 4:15) and had no need to be baptized “for the remission of sins” or to become ritually clean. Why then, did he seek to be baptized?
Remember that Jesus was brought up in the Jewish faith (Judaism), and he observed all the rites and traditions faithfully. His baptism served both a physical and a spiritual purpose. Physically, it honored a Jewish tradition based on Torah. Then, as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Christ had to be baptized, just as he had to be crucified. The baptism of Jesus is the first ‘public’ display of Christ’s purpose on earth as the Lamb of God.
What else happened when Jesus was baptized (immersed) in the Jordan? Look at Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17 and Luke 3:21-23 and you will see that,
“Immediately upon coming up out of the water, he saw heaven torn open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove” (Mark 1:10, Jewish New Testament).
Jesus was baptized (immersed) into the Spirit of Holiness (spiritual baptism). This new spiritual baptism is immersion into the Spirit of God. This new spiritual baptism marks us forever as “property of God.” Note that Jesus had already immersed himself in the things of God a long time ago (cf. Luke 2:41-50).
Jesus was baptized (immersed) in both water and Spirit. But is water baptism what Jesus was referring to when he told Nicodemus,
“The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” John 3:5 (NLT)
If that were the only reference Christ made to water, then it would be reasonable to conclude that he was talking about water baptism. Such would not seem to be the case, however, when considering the following passages;
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Matthew 5:6 (RSV)
There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:7-14 (RSV)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” John 6:35 (RSV)
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:37-39 (RSV)
“But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” John 19:34 (RSV)
“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'” Revelation 7:13-17 (RSV)
From these and many other passages, we begin to understand that we are to be baptized (immersed) into God.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing [immersing] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (RSV)