I strongly suspect that we tend to fall well short in our understanding of the ordinances of baptism by immersion and the gift of the Holy Ghost. I also suspect that how well or deeply we understand these things has very little to do with their efficacy in our lives and on our path toward God. Nevertheless, here are a handful of observations, some pretty straightforward and non-controversial, some slightly more speculative. None of this is meant as a resolution to the problem or a grand unified theory—I’m not really even making an argument. These observations are more like the reason why I suspect that we’re missing something.
- Baptism is described, first by the Apostle Paul, and often in LDS doctrine (including the way we teach it in the missionary discussions), as a re-enactment or recapitulation of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The earliest gospel (Mark) creates the association on the narrative/textual level by opening and closing the account, respectively, with Jesus’ baptism and death/resurrection (and the top-to-bottom rending of the cosmos—the heavens by the descent of the dove, and the veil in the temple by the force of Jesus death). And Paul’s description of baptism as ritual re-enactment predates all the gospel accounts. NT scholars for decades have debated the historical plausibility or reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ dead body being placed in the tomb of a wealthy patron. It’s overwhelmingly improbable that anyone executed by Rome could have undergone anything except burial in a common grave, likely after having his or her corpse mutilated by wild animals—regardless of who had what connections. The arguments about why this is unlikely and the possible reasons early traditions emerged placing Jesus’ body in a tomb (traditions which were fixed in writing by the gosplers) are complicated. Baptism is a powerful rite because it identifies Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection with cleansing and spiritual renewal. But note that we do not ritually cleanse ourselves in the process of entering a space representing a tomb and re-emerging afterward. We are ritually buried, in the ground. We are emphatic about the burial component in our fastidiousness about complete submersion, and in our insistence that baptismal fonts be built below ground level. It’s far from a definitive case (especially given the canonical status of all four versions of the tomb story), but the early and persistent practice (and we believe that this practice was restored in its fullness and purity precisely as an act of burial/immersion) of re-enacting the burial of Christ through baptism would surly count as evidence for Jesus’ actual burial in the ground.
- Baptism is something that always happens in Jesus’ absence. Although he is himself baptized, there are no accounts of him baptizing during his ministry, and he doesn’t baptize when he ministers to the Nephites. Rather, he confers authority to baptize on disciples, who engage in the practice only when he is gone. This is similar to the way the Holy Ghost is described in the NT. Its role is for after Jesus leaves.
- In the Book of Mormon, the only baptism mentioned before Alma starts baptizing people is Nephi’s vision of the future baptism of Jesus.
- The Holy Ghost is a non-presence—never mentioned once—in the endowment.
- There are only two moments when a particular being is given and received in a priesthood ordinance: the giving/receiving of the Holy Ghost, and the sealing ceremony. In both cases, an existing relationship is ritually transformed into something more constant, enduring, deeper, more meaningful, and more fruitful.
- Unlike the Father and Christ, the Holy Ghost is a Godhead member that we are never taught to try to emulate or be like.
- Baptism is ministered by the Aaronic Priesthood. The gift of the Holy Ghost, by the Melchizedek Priesthood. The passage from one to the other is described as a gate, a way, a path, a point of entry, a threshold. It marks entrance into the Kingdom, the sovereign jurisdiction of God, membership and full fellowship in the Church. This Aaronic > Melchizedek passage is recapitulated in our entering of the temple. Two interviews, one with the presiding priest (the Bishop, AP office, in contrast to baptism which can be administered by any priest), one with the presiding elder (the SP, MP office, in contrast with the GotHG which can be administered by any elder). One passes from what is preeminently the jurisdiction of the Aaronic Priesthood (the Church with all its outward administration, the protective hedge around the temple, guardian of access to it) into the realm of the Melchizedek Priesthood (the temple itself). The passage from AP to MP, first enacted in baptism and the GotHG, then in the dual interviews, is re-enacted inside the temple (where you are prepared for a final interview to enter the presence and sovereign protection of God).
- The sealing ceremony is the only place in the temple where the Holy Ghost is mentioned (aside from proxy conferrals of the GotHG). Only baptism (the first saving ordinance) and the sealing (the culminating, exalting ordinance) are performed in the name of all three Godhead members.