Updated: May 15, 2019
The “One Baptism” according to Ephesians
A brief study by Peter McArthur
(Ephesians 4:4-6) “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
Our most common understanding of "baptism" is that involving water. Others also see a "baptism in the Spirit" as a valid spiritual experience; some might even say "a necessity".
Let's declare right from the beginning that even when we talk about "water baptism" we should not infer that there is some sort of "regeneration" or magic of salvation associated with it. Some denominations like the Catholic Church see water baptism as an instrument whereby a person (usually a baby) becomes spiritually regenerated, and thereby acceptable to God. This is to make baptism a doorway into heaven - which of course is absolutely incorrect.
It is repentance toward God, and faith in Jesus Christ, that is the way to eternal life, not a baptismal rite and ceremony.
"For you are all God's sons by faith in Christ Jesus". Gal. 3: 26
In Ephesians chapter 4 verse 5, when Paul refers to "one baptism" what "baptism" is he referring to: water baptism, spirit baptism, baptism in fire, etc?
A close look in true Berean style will unpack the fundamental meaning of the word "baptism" and begin to clear the muddy waters. To help grasp what "baptism" actually means, let's look at both the Biblical use and the non-Biblical use of this word as found in Scripture and general Greek literature. The family of words associated with "baptism" will prove enlightening.
Bapto (a verb meaning "to dip") commonly associated with water and consisting of the process of immersion, submersion and emergence, and is used in Scripture the following way:
it is associated with the meaning of both John's baptism and "Christian" baptism
of the overwhelming afflictions and judgments to which the Lord voluntarily submitted on the Cross
of the sufferings Jesus' followers would experience not of a vicarious character, but in fellowship with the sufferings of their Lord.
Baptizo (a verb meaning "to baptise") this word is primarily a form of bapto, "to dip," and was used among the Greeks in classical literature to signify:
the dyeing of a garment by immersion
the drawing of water out by the dipping of one vessel into another
of the drawing of wine out by dipping the cup into a bowl
used metaphorically, of being overwhelmed with questions
to be overwhelmed with financial debt
to be overtaken by some kind of tragedy or death.
Let's take a further look at how these words were used in ordinary Greek literature, for that will form a foundation for understanding just what "baptism" in Scripture actually stands for.
In the Greek classic literature of Alcibiades ("The Epigram on the Comic Poet Eupolis") we find this phrase illustrating the use of the verb bapto:
"You dipped (bapto) me in plays;
but I, in waves of the sea, baptising,
will destroy you with streams more bitter."
The meaning is actually quite straight forward; the author is saying "you made a fool of me but I will in turn kill you by drowning you in streams of bitterness."
In this example we see how he uses various words associated with water ("dipped", "waves of the sea" and "streams") as a kind of pun. As well we can see that "dipping" (bapto) here is associated with a baptism resulting in death, which is part of its root meaning.
Similarly in Homer's "Odyssey" bapto is applied to mean a dipping of something into an element, such as cold water. In other classical Greek writings the word baptizo means a complete or great tragedy. Some instances show the calamity involved water, while others show it refers to destruction, suicide, debt and even drunkenness. When we take all these considerations together it's easy to see that "baptism" is concerned with some form of decay, destruction, overthrow, etc.
It clearly highlights the fact that "baptism" had a very wide range of meaning, and wasn't always connected to "water" at all.
"Our ship, having been baptised (i.e. sunk) in the Adriatic sea, caused our number of men, about 600, to swim through the whole night." [The Life of Josephus" section 3]
"And many struggling against the strong swell toward the open sea, the billows rising high above us, baptised (i.e. drowned) them all." [War of the Jews" by Josephus, book 3, chapter 9:3]
"And he was loaded (baptizo) with a debt of five million drachmas" [Plutarch's Lives" volume 4]
"Stretching out his right hand, unseen by no one, he baptised the sword into his neck" [War of the Jews" by Josephus, book 2, chapter 18]
"These men, besides the seditions they raised, were the cause of the whole city's destruction (i.e. baptism)." [War of the Jews" by Josephus, book 4, chapter 3:3]
"I beseech you, before you are fully baptised by drunkenness, to return to soberness". [Saint Chrysostom's plea to Theodorus]
"The soldiers filled the marshes with blood and the lake with dead bodies, so that even now many bows, helmets and pieces of breastplates, together with swords, can be found baptised in the pools of the lake". [The Life of Sylla" by Plutarch, chapter 21]
All the above examples show the clear association of the object being baptised and the element in which it is baptised. This is the point of our study; to see the correlation between the Baptiser, the Baptised, the Element used, and the Result of that baptism.
In the cases we've just seen, the point is that someone (or group) did the baptising; someone underwent a baptism; there was some form of baptismal element involved, and there was a completely perfect result.