If the meaning of baptism could be boiled down to one word, that word would be identification. Baptism speaks primarily of a personal, public identification with Jesus Christ.
In Romans 6:3-4 the Apostle Paul puts the matter this way:
Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Notice the strength of the expressions—"baptized into Christ" and "baptized into his death" and "buried with him in baptism." Someone may suggest that the primary reference here is to Spirit baptism. That's true, but at the very least, water baptism is in the background of this passage.
How important is your baptism? It is your personal identification with the greatest act of human history—the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism doesn't save you—salvation comes by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Your guilt before God is removed the moment you trust in Christ. But baptism is your personal testimony to, and the inward assurance of, your passage from the old life to the new life....
What, then, does baptism mean?
1. It means we have turned from the old life of sin to a new life in Jesus Christ.
2. It means we are publicly identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
3. It means we are openly joining the ranks of those who believe in Christ.
When you are baptized, you are in fact visually preaching the gospel. As you stand in the water waiting to be baptized, A, you symbolize Jesus dying on the cross. As you are lowered into the water, B, you symbolize Jesus buried in the tomb. As you are raised from the water, C, you symbolize Jesus rising from the dead.
And since you personally are being baptized, you are also saying, "I died with Jesus Christ, I was buried with him and now I am raised with Christ to brand-new life."
In short, in your baptism you are preaching a sermon without using any words at all. And your sermon in your baptism will be more effective with your friends than any sermon the pastor preaches on Sunday morning—more effective because it comes directly from you.
The Greek word translated “baptize” is the verb baptizo. According to most contemporary lexicons, the primary meaning is “to dip, plunge, immerse.” The secondary meaning is to “bring under the influence.” Dr. Merrill Tenney notes that “after making allowances for certain occasional exceptions, such as passages where washing is implied, the etymological meaning indicates that baptism was originally by immersion. (Basic Christian Doctrine, p. 257)
A brief survey of baptism in the New Testament reveals the following interesting facts:
Baptism requires water. (Matthew 3:11)
Baptism required plenty of water. (John 3:30)
Baptism requires going down into the water. (Acts 8:30)
Baptism requires coming up out of the water. (Matthew 3:16, Acts 8:39)
Furthermore, the figures of speech used by the Apostle Paul accord well with immersion. Baptism is called a “burial” in Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. Baptism is “into his death” and involves being “raised to walk in newness of life.” It is difficult to see how sprinkling or pouring could convey these meanings.
Finally, the testimony of church history is that immersion was indeed the mode of baptism practiced in the early church.
Excerpted from "Taking the Plunge" from Keep Believing Ministries (used by permission).