Four Kinds of Baptism in the Bible: Which baptisms are for Christians today?

Written by Paul J. Bucknell on February, 16, 2022

Four Kinds of Baptism in the Bible: Which baptisms are for Christians today? w/Study Questions

“Sir, please could you help me understand better what the four types of baptism are?”

1. The Baptism of John

2. Baptism by Fire

3. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit

4. Water Baptism

It is helpful to display the different kinds of baptisms next to each other to understand better and see how they relate to each other. Let’s examine each one and see how they relate to our Christian lives today. Study questions included.

1. The Baptism of John

3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.’” 4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:3-5).

Isaiah 40 identifies John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah. “A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness”” (Isaiah 40:3).

Though his baptism is not mentioned in the prophetic Isaiah 40 passage, the synoptic Gospels do.

“I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

“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” (Mat 3:11).

The synoptic Gospel writers (Mat 3:1-3; Mark 1:3-5; Luke 3:3; John 3:22-36) and Jesus Himself identify John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. His baptism displays the purification attached to his ministry; thus, his name is John the Baptist.

The baptism of John prepared people for the Messiah. He called people to repent and anticipate the Messiah’s (Christ’s) coming. This was fulfilled in Jesus’ coming and ministry.

Interestingly, the Book of Acts points out some disciples who were only baptized with John’s baptism—not Jesus’ or His disciples. The Bible describes Apollos as “being acquainted only with the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25).

4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:4-5).

Jesus’ coming rendered the baptism of John obsolete; it remains irrelevant today since John the Baptist, and his disciples are no longer alive (however, Jesus does live today and remains relevant).

More importantly, John pointed people to Jesus, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John the Baptist’s ministry decreased as the Messiah’s ministry increased. Jesus’ ministry continues to unfold today through the church around the globe.

Summary

The Baptism of John served as preparatory work for the Messiah’s first coming. We no longer need to be concerned with John the Baptist’s baptism since Jesus comes with His dynamic baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire.

2. Baptism by Fire

John first mentioned baptism by fire, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mat 3:11 and Luke 3:16). However, the Holy Spirit is always linked with fire, “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Mark 1:8 interestingly doesn’t connect fire with the baptism of the coming One. Perhaps we can gain from this that it’s the Holy Spirit’s ministry that is integral to the Christian life, while the fire is only descriptive of the Holy Spirit’s transformative power.

“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” (Luke 3:16).

Baptism by fire is not identifiable in the Bible, for it’s always connected to the Holy Spirit. John, too, says the Messiah, Christ Jesus, would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. So what added meaning does the usage of fire bring?

Fire and its destructive symbolism represents the purging of the sinful self.

Fire provides a powerful image, different from dipping into the water. It’s essential to see how fire and its engulfing flames bring transformation to a person’s life. We know this truth happens from a person’s belief in Christ. Again, fire baptism is associated with the Holy Spirit’s powerful work in a person’s inner life, purifying from sin.

Repentance characterizes the baptism of John, not salvation. John points to the coming One that brings that thorough transformation/salvation.

Jesus describes it, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Though Jesus did not mention fire, a flame of fire did come to rest on the disciples at Pentecost.

2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4).

It’s fair to link the “tongues as of fire” resting on each one as a picture of the Holy Spirit’s initial coming to the church.

I know of no Christian church or cult, however, that believes that the “tongues of fire” resting on people’s heads is a vital sign or privilege for Christians today. The flames of fire in Acts 2, never again seen, declared the Holy Spirit’s particular ongoing involvement in God’s people. This event marks the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s new ministry, operating in the framework of the New Covenant.

Later on the disciples referred to this Pentecostal incident as a significant one-time event, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (Acts 10:47)

“The word “fire” associated with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:3,19, was not used in Acts later on because that one baptism with the “Holy Spirit and fire” at Pentecost stands as a special and unique event. Every believer, however, still needs that spiritual surgical act by the Spirit upon their lives, to bring them to repentance and to usher in new life, which acts as a promise to continue to care for the new lives of God’s children” (Life in the Spirit by Paul Bucknell, p. 77).

Summary

The Acts 2 Pentecost Day filling, with flames of fire hovering above the believers’ heads, happened only once. Nevertheless, it conveys the powerful symbolic significance of the Holy Spirit’s dynamic, ongoing purifying work, and causes us to come alive as God’s new creation in Christ.

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

3. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit

From our above discussion on fire baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit represents the Spirit’s anointing at the time of salvation. John the Baptist repeatedly stated that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Sprit’s anointing of Jesus was seen in the form of a dove.

It’s best understood that the Father in heaven took over from John and completed John’s baptism with the Spirit’s anointing. “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know” (1 John 2:20; 2:27).

John predicted that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit but first, He needed to receive the Holy Spirit. He must receive before He can give (by baptizing). “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).

John spoke of the first instance where the Spirit began His ministry in Jesus’ disciples (John 1:33), but this ministry would continue even in the church, but note a slight change.

Peter writes of receiving the Holy Spirit rather than being baptized with the Holy Spirit. But we should understand it is the same.

“Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

They still needed to repent and be water baptized, but the Holy Spirit would surely come upon them (i.e., baptized by).

It looks like the Holy Spirit’s influence starts after repentance and baptism, but the “gift” refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit rather than His initial work on our hearts. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is associated with repentance, genuine belief in Christ, and salvation (see the last point-spiritual baptism from Romans 6). Baptism assumes all this. Like in the Old Testament tabernacle, the Living God would indwell in each believer, continuing to work in their lives.

Several times in the Book of Acts the order is switched. They first received (i.e., baptized) the Holy Spirit and then were baptized. This was extraordinary, for the incidences served as proof that the Samaritans and Gentiles were genuine believers and that God had joined these non-Jews to the church (then Jews). “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (Acts 10:47; Acts 11:16)

It’s proper and necessary for the church to understand that salvation is a package deal, beginning with bringing repentance and faith and later coming to live in the believer, equipping him/her with one’s spiritual gifts.

“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

It’s good that the Charismatic movement looks for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work to affirm true salvation. Many churches baptize without any evidence of genuine salvation.

Unfortunately, the proof that charismatics look for is the signs given in Acts, such as speaking in other languages. This further confuses the issue, as these were only present at the initial giving of the Holy Spirit to a people group. Jesus didn’t speak in other languages or fall on the ground to confirm the filling of the Holy Spirit; nor did His disciples. But there are signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence such as repentance and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).

Do we need the baptism/indwelling of the Holy Spirit today? Surely! The Holy Spirit causes us to repent and believe (John 16:7-11); we have holy interests because the Spirit is genuinely working within us (Rom 8:9-11). When we become Christians, each of us repents and puts our faith in Christ and receives the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. The Holy Spirit baptizes us at the time of salvation (i.e., we receive Him).

One question comes up: if Holy Spirit baptizes us, is water baptism still needed? As we look at the ongoing ceremony of water baptism in the church, we must answer, “Yes!”

4. Water Baptism

The Scriptures commonly refer to water baptism. John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostles and on through the establishment of the church into the present church experience we read of baptism. When the term baptism is used, it refers to the rite administered by water, however not always (e.g., Roman 6). To be sure, water baptism does not exclude the Holy Spirit’s baptism but supposes it. This is made clear from an earlier discussion. Water baptism should not be used on unbelievers, even if the child’s parents are believers. Baptism is connected with genuine salvation and the Holy Spirit’s anointing.

John the Baptist’s description of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ own baptism, and the early church’s identification with the Holy Spirit depict a connection with water baptism. This anointing rarely happens at water baptism since water baptism only affirms the Spirit’s work, through repentance and faith, already taking place in the Christian’s life.

Jesus’ disciples, like John, conducted water baptism. And so, the early baptisms have become an ongoing example for those today who put their faith in Christ. Water baptism has become an expected rite for Christian believers.

From the early church onward, baptism follows belief.

“Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized” (Acts 18:8).

“He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

“But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike” (Acts 8:12).

Each time, baptism follows belief in Christ.

Believers should be water baptized soon after they believe in Christ. One’s salvation faith should not be separated from baptism by much time; the symbolism is more powerful when water baptism soon follows belief.

Moreover, we need to observe a deeply spiritual work in the life of the baptized. The Holy Spirit has begun a new life and continues to grow it (Phil 1:6).

If we only offer water baptism, it is inadequate. The custom of baptizing infants counters this teaching requiring belief to precede before baptism. If we only offer water baptism, it’s insufficient like John’s baptism. Water baptism represents repentance, but we need the new life from the Holy Spirit for genuine faith in Christ. Let’s not add to the confusion in the church.

Romans 6’s baptism might be unclear so I add this following and final section.

The Meaning of Baptism (Rom 6:3-5)

The Bible uses the word ‘baptism’ in various ways. Some verses, like Romans 6:3-5, might not fit neatly into our categories. I remember as a young Christian being puzzled by the baptism in Romans 6. What category of baptism does Romans 6 fit into? Or is it a unique usage?

3Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:3-5).

This is not another kind of baptism, but it describes very well what happens spiritually when the Holy Spirit baptizes us. Water baptism is an outward ritual, but it has a larger meaning as Paul describes.

“Baptized into His death” refers to repentance; we died to ourselves when we became Christians, symbolized by being immersed underwater. He was buried, and so when we are under the water, we are buried. Coming up out of the water symbolizes coming alive to new life in Christ.

It’s all a picture of salvation. That is, we are spiritually dead to our old man. He is old because he no longer controls us. (These are essential truths that Paul later develops.) Paul continues.

Romans 6:5 completes the picture. “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” The going down into the water, the death, precedes the rising with Him. “Newness of life” (4) necessarily follows death. This is the miraculous aspect of salvation. Just as the Lord brought Christ alive from the dead, so He spiritually gives us new life, imparting Christ’s life within us and lives through us. One day, the bodily resurrection follows; our full redemption is yet complete, but it’s sure to happen since Christ lives in our lives.

A Final Summary

Fire is associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and was used as a symbolic picture of the powerful, though invisible, anointing work of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of John depicted only repentance and so lacked the Holy Spirit’s work. John’s baptism prepared the Israelites for Jesus’ ministry. Water baptism follows a genuine expression of belief in Christ, but it represents the Holy Spirit’s deep spiritual work in the believer’s life (Rom 6).

Baptisms from around the world

Discussion Questions on Four Baptisms



1) What first comes to your mind when you hear the word baptism?

2) What four kinds of baptisms does the article describe?

3) What do you find most interesting about the baptism of John?

4) What followed Jesus’ baptism? What is its significance?

5) Where does the notion of fire baptism come from?

6) What does fire do to objects? What does it mean spiritually?

7) Should “fire baptism” be a category with the other three kinds? Explain.

8) What does it mean to be baptized by the Holy Spirit?

9) Describe your water baptism. What did it mean to you at the time?

10) What is the meaning behind water baptism?

11) Why is receiving the Holy Spirit linked to baptism?

12) Should infants be baptized? Why or why not?

13) Why is the order of “believe and be baptized” important (Acts 18:8; Acts 8:12; Mark 16:16)?

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