Baptism is for believers, not for babies
Moreover, if we look at what actually happened in the first century, from the early years of the Church, through to the end of the book of Acts, we can see that baptism was solely for believers who could decide for themselves. It was not for babies.
Likewise earlier, the baptism that John the Baptist gave was usually in a river. People would go into the river Jordan and they would bend down into the water by themselves and become completely submerged. John the Baptist did not do it for them. They baptized themselves, though John was present, as were the crowds as well. It was not done to infants.
Also, within Judaism, long before John the Baptist, great importance was placed on ritual washing. That involved going into a large bath called a ‘mikhvah’ in which you submerged yourself to indicate your repentance and to symbolize your cleansing from sin. Likewise, this ritual washing was not done to babies, but only by those old enough to decide for themselves.
That is the background concerning Jewish ritual baptism and the baptism of John. We should keep that background in mind when considering how Christian baptism in water was later practised during the period of the book of Acts. These earlier Jewish forms of baptism and the baptism of John the Baptist were never done to babies. It was always by full immersion under the water and only for believers. Therefore that was the model for Christian baptism in water.
I must emphasise however, that when the New Testament speaks about baptism in water it is speaking about being baptized in, or into, the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is not the same as the earlier baptism of John the Baptist, which was purely a baptism of repentance from sin. John's baptism was given as a preparation for the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, whose ministry was shortly due to begin. Neither is John's baptism the same thing as the long established practice of baptism in a mikhvah bath that was widely practiced within Judaism for ritual cleansing purposes.
To be baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit means to be openly identified with the Lord Jesus, as His disciple. That, of course, involves repenting towards God the Father and believing in the Lord Jesus too. It is also about openly and publicly declaring that you are now His follower, as a prelude to receiving the Holy Spirit. That usually occurred immediately after baptism in water.
Christian baptism in water is also a symbolic act. It means that we identify with Jesus' death as we go down into the water:
3Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We 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. Romans 6:3-4 (NIV)
Baptism in water also visually demonstrates our repentance and signifies the washing away of our sins through publicly putting our trust in Jesus Christ and identifying ourselves with His sacrificial death on our behalf:
having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.Colossians 2:12 (NASB)
1Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:1-3 (NASB)
Baptism therefore symbolizes a number of things, all of which are important. One of its most important meanings is that the "old self" or the carnal, fleshly, sinful, self-centred person you have always been up to this point, is symbolically put to death and "buried":
12having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.Colossians 2:12-14 (NIV)
Apostle Paul goes further in his letter to the Romans and refers to this concept of the old self or the old man being "crucified" with Christ:
knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; Romans 6:6 (NASB)
Therefore, when we are baptised in water we are symbolically identifying ourselves with Jesus in His death. It is as if our old self, the sinful person we have been, is put on a cross alongside Jesus to be identified with Him, even in His crucifixion. The symbolism involved in the act of being baptised in water is very important. Our baptism is meant to be a crucial turning point in our lives. It produces big changes and cuts us off from our rebellious, sinful, unbelieving, non-Christian past.
Paul is speaking of this in Colossians 2 and Romans 6 above. So, as we go down under the water in Christian baptism, we are to ask God to cut us off from the "old man" or "old self", i.e. our sinful, carnal nature which has been used to keep us in bondage to sin for so many years. We are also to ask God to give us a fresh start as a new person or a "new creation" in Christ:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)
We are also described by Paul in Galatians 3 as having "put on Christ". It is as if He was a garment that we could wear:
26For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:26-27 (NASB)
Though the symbolism in baptism is important, it is far more than just symbolic. God will truly cut you off from, and set you free from, a lot of bad things from your past as your old self symbolically "dies" in the water of baptism. Many of the problems, sins, addictions and hang-ups that Christians are plagued by could be avoided, or reduced, if they were properly baptised.
Look how strongly apostle Peter puts it when he refers to baptism in this next passage. He says ".... baptism now saves you.... "
20who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 1 Peter 3:20-21 (NASB)Peter is using the word 'baptism' as a collective word to embody and represent all the steps that are needed in order to be saved. It must be so, because he would otherwise be saying that baptism alone is what saves us and that is clearly not true. The same happens elsewhere in the Bible where the single word 'repent' or 'believe' is, likewise, used as a form of shorthand to stand for all the steps combined.
However, even though Peter is obviously using the word 'baptism' to stand for and to include within it all the other steps, i.e. repentance and faith, that come before baptism, it still has to be faced that he is including baptism within the whole process of being saved. We certainly can't say that Peter is minimising the significance or importance of baptism.
Neither can these verses be safely ignored by those who want to argue that baptism is a non-essential detail that comes after we are saved. We need to raise the status of baptism and see it as a key part of the whole process of being saved.
Baptism in water is in the Bible, and it is emphasised, for a reason. It is meant to benefit us and to have a real and lasting impact. We cannot safely leave it out of Christianity or change it to become, instead, something which we do to babies.