Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Importance of Baptism

Baptism is one of those tricky subjects that can gender more heat than light. I want to explore the NT teaching on this subject. My conviction is that it has real spiritual benefits for those who embrace this practice.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with John the Baptist announcing the good news of the Kingdom and baptising people in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins, Matt 3.3-6. It ends with Jesus commanding His followers to make disciples of all nations, “baptising them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, Matt 28.19.

The New Testament translators decided to transliterate this word rather than translate it. (A transliteration is where English letters are substituted for the Greek letters. Thus we are no wiser as to the meaning of the word. It is not translated). Given the practice of the church at the time of the King James translation it is perhaps understandable. For once we see what the word means and how it was used it is hard to escape the conclusion that full immersion was the normal practice of the early church.

Baptizo means to dip, to immerse, to dunk or to put into. It was used of the tanners who died skins or the merchants, like Lydia in Acts 16, who died cloth. John the Baptist was thus John the Dipper. Like the word Christian in Acts 11.26, it was a name given him by the people, because of what he did. It was not the honoured title we often think of. It was more likely a mocking title, but like the believers in Antioch who were called Christians, John was happy to take this label as a badge of honour.

John called people to repent, to have a change of thinking. As a sign of this new way of living they were baptised or put into water. But John said that this water pointed to a greater reality and a great person. One who, when He came on the scene, would baptise them with the Holy Spirit or literally, put them into the Holy Spirit, Matt 3.5-12. He was of course talking about Jesus.

Even Jesus submitted to water baptism, despite John’s protest, Matt 3.13-17. It was part of His total identification with the human condition – the spotless Lamb who had come to take on Himself the sin of the world, John 1.29-31. It was at His baptism that John had this revelation of Jesus. Paul gives us more insight into the nature of baptism. In Rom 6.1-7 we read that baptism places us into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. There is a past, present and future component to baptism. To use different language, there is a historic, a contemporary and a prophetic component to the nature of baptism. Let’s look deeper at these.

The Historic reality is that every believer can confidently claim, “I have been crucified with Christ...”, Gal 2.20. God has not just done a patch up job with us. In Christ we are part of the “New Creation”, 2Cor 5.17. How has this come about? Through baptism. To use Paul’s language in Rom 6.3, “Or do you not know that as many of you as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death?” Water baptism points to this unique historic union. It points back to the day we identified with Jesus as Lord and Saviour. I have known many believers who cannot recall the exact day they came to faith but can always recall the day they were baptised.

The future reality is that just as we have shared in His death, so we shall share in His resurrection. Baptism is therefore prophetic. It points forward to our own bodily resurrection; “For if we have been united together with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection”, Rom 5.5. Notice how carefully Paul phrases this; “we also shall be...” – it is future. It hasn’t happened yet. We live with a tension; the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom. Baptism is a prophetic sign that we believe we will be raised just as He was raised. It is a living hope for us. Death is not the end; for in Christ we have already died.

The contemporary reality is that the resurrection has begun its work in me. To be born again is to have ones spirit renewed. Paul says we can now “walk in newness of life”, Rom 5.4b. The Spirit of God now lives in us, producing the fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5.22-24, the very character of Jesus. Notice that Paul talks of the fruit of the Spirit in the context of crucifixion – the heart of baptism. So the contemporary reality is that baptism is like a bath; a place where our sins are washed away. This is exactly the language of Ananias to Paul as his conversion. “And now, why are you waiting? Arise and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on the Name of the Lord”, Acts 22.16.

In summary baptism is a burial – the historic truth. It is the death and burial or putting away of our old life; it’s a bath – the contemporary truth; where our sins are washed away through the work of Jesus on the cross so that we can now be free to live for Him. Finally it points to our resurrection at the return of Jesus – the prophetic truth; the day when we too receive our glorified resurrection bodies, Rom 8.23; 1Cor15.20-23; Phil 3.20-21.

But if we accept that water baptism points to Spirit baptism, as John said, why do we still baptise people now that the Spirit has come? I believe there are two important reasons. The first has to do with the nature of John’s baptism. It was a baptism of repentance, pointing forward to Jesus. People who received this baptism where getting ready to believe on Jesus when He came. Paul had to deal with a group of disciples in Ephesus who only knew this baptism, Acts 19.1-7. They had not heard of the Holy Spirit. They were re-baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus and then received the Spirit. John’s baptism pointed to Jesus, who would baptise with the Spirit.

Secondly when Jesus was about to leave His disciples and ascend into Heaven He gave a specific command for them to continue baptising new believers. But the focus is now different to John’s baptism. The baptism commanded by Jesus and practiced by the apostles was a baptism of forgiveness. It was the guarantee of receiving the Spirit, not just the promise that it would come. As Peter said in Acts 2.38 “....and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. One event naturally follows on from the other.

Jesus’ final command to His disciples was to baptise new believers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Let me try to paraphrase these words so we catch their impact. “I want you to make disciples of all ethnic groups in all places and as you do, submerge them into the life of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Make sure they are totally immersed in God; then you can teach all that I commanded you. I will be with you in this process, working right alongside you, even to the end”.

Throughout the book of Acts we see that practice of the early church. It took place with large crowds as in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost; smaller groups like Cornelius in Acts 10.44-48; but also with individuals like the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8.36-37 or Saul of Tarsus in Acts 22.16. From these accounts we also learn the following:

1. Baptism was for believers. The Ethiopian asked Philip a simple question; “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptised?” Acts 8.36. Philip’s answer is instructive: “If you believe with all your heart, you may”. The issue was faith in Jesus. When the Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius while Peter was preaching, everyone present was shocked. These Gentiles had now received the same gift of the Holy Spirit as the Jews. They too spoke with other tongues. Peter then declared; “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptised who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit just as we have”, Acts 10.47.

2. Baptism was by full immersion, in water. This is seen in both the meaning of the word when it is translated, but also in the practice of the apostolic witness. We’ve already explored its meaning so let’s focus on the apostolic practice. Acts 8.38, “And both Philip and the Eunuch went down into the water and he baptised him”. Notice they went down into the water; both men. Together! And they both “came up out of the water”, Acts 8.39. This is a very compelling account of complete immersion. Almost all the accounts of baptism take place near rivers; Matt 3.5-6; John 3.22-23; 4.1-2. Consider this; God does not want us to be sprinkled with a bit of His life, He wants us immersed in it.

3. Baptism involved confession. The Eunuch confessed; “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”, Acts 8.37. Notice how the Eunuch’s confession of faith was the prerequisite to Philip agreeing to baptise him. Paul was told to, “Call on the name of the Lord” as he was baptised, Acts 22.16. Rom 10.9-10 tells us that salvation is a question of believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth. We need both and baptism is the perfect time to make a public declaration of our faith in Jesus.

4. Baptism was always public. John baptised in the Jordan River. Philip did it along the highway to Ethiopia. Baptism made a public statement about a person’s life and loyalty. It said something to the community that they were part of. Instead of confessing ‘Caesar is Lord’ the new believers confessed ‘Jesus is Lord’. So all could expect them to be different, for baptism aligned them with a new King and a new Kingdom.

5. Water baptism is a picture of Spirit baptism. Jesus has come to baptise His church in the Holy Spirit. This is the source of all life and effectiveness in ministry. He spoke to the disciples, “....for John truly baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”, Acts 1.5. Further, to be baptised in the Spirit means we are also baptised into the Body of Christ, 1Cor 12.13. Water baptism points to this spiritual reality. My experience leads me to believe this is more than symbolic. For at some baptisms I have seen people spontaneously filled with the Spirit, delivered from demonic power and even healed. Clearly more than symbolism is going on at such an event.

Finally let me list five benefits that come to those who get baptised:

1. It paves the way for a clear conscience from past sins and failures in life. Peter speaks of this in 1Pet 3.21. He calls baptism the ‘answer of a good conscience towards God’. For if baptism is like a bath then we come up clean. The past no longer has a hold on us and the devil cannot use the past to keep accusing us. We are washed and clean, 1Cor 6.11.

2. It creates a landmark moment in life. This is important because under pressure we need a point of reference. Something we can look back to that reminds us why we are doing what we are doing. Paul did this with Timothy. He reminded him of the landmark moment when the elders laid hands on him and he received his gifting for ministry, 1Tim 4.14. He reminded him of his good confession in the presence of many witnesses – which is most likely a reference to his own baptism, 1Tim 6.12.

3. It is the first step of obedience required of a new believer that sets the right pattern for all future obedience. Rom 6.17 says that the Roman believers obeyed from the heart. When we take this simple step, because of a heart conviction, we set in motion a pattern of obedience for our new life in God. I find people who don’t do this always struggle with obeying God. The only way to break this pattern is to takes Paul’s advice. Revenge all disobedience through obedience, 2Cor 10.6

4. It is a testimony to the communities of heaven and earth of your faith. We’ve already spoken of the public nature of our witness to the communities we live in. But Eph 3.10 speaks of the church making know to the heavenly realms the manifold wisdom of God. Part of God’s wisdom is baptism – a prophetic act that points to our union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. Demons tremble at this truth.

5. Water baptism prepares the way for Spirit baptism. This was the normal pattern in Acts with the exception of Cornelius and his household; (mainly because of the Jewish prejudice against Gentiles). Once we say yes to water baptism we are saying yes to all it points to – which is to be filled with the Holy Spirit; to be immersed fully into the life and ministry of the Godhead; to be a functioning member within His church.

Let me encourage you to take this step in obedience to the one who has gone before us and given us the pattern of obedience that we are to follow.