Be baptized, every one of you
What is baptism? By all appearances it looks like we are simply dunking someone in water. Someone could walk by a baptism service and not understand anything of the spiritual meaning of this sacrament. And Christians too can use some help understanding this. We know that Christian's get baptized, but do we know why? Do we know what is it that we are doing when we baptize?
The New Testament gospels begin with baptisms. The enigmatic John the Baptist, we read of him in each gospel, he comes on the scene baptizing. Mark begins in his fourth verse – "John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." (Mark 1:4-5).
Even Jesus himself was baptized by John in this way. Though he had no sins to confess he was baptized as our great example and in doing so was fulfilling all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). This baptism of John was something more basic than the Christian baptism we know and practice today. After the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ things have been different. Jesus, before he left earth for his throne, commanded us to baptize.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20).
This baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit is both an initiatory practice for the new Christian as they join the people of God, and it is a symbolic act depicting that spiritual reality of entering the New Covenant. In the first instance it is something that is commanded, it is ordained by our Lord. Peter follows this instruction, and he tells those who are cut to the heart by that first sermon to repent and be baptized. Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). While we are saved by faith not by baptism – there is no need to devalue the importance of baptism. For the early church it was a given. So much so that Peter puts the believer's conversion and baptism in the same sentence. If someone has come to saving faith in Christ – they need to be baptized, it is simply what you do as a tangible expression of your faith and repentance.
But baptism is not just an ordinance, a practice ordained by our Lord, it is a sacrament. The word sacrament simply refers to the symbolic and mysterious nature of what we are doing here in baptism. Much like with the Lord's Supper we are doing something very basic and physical – immersing in water, drinking wine, eating bread – but something profound is being symbolized and experienced by the believer.
Baptism vividly portrays the gospel of Jesus Christ and our participation in that good news. Paul writes in Romans 6 - 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-5).
Here we see a powerful picture of the gospel – the believer goes under the water identifying with the death of the Lord. And the believer comes up out of those waters that symbolize death, and is raised to live a new life in the power of Jesus' resurrection. Baptism doesn't accomplish this reality – but it pictures this spiritual reality. The reality has been accomplished by the Holy Spirit, in the work of regeneration, but baptism displays it for our good.
Interestingly, baptism carries with it some additional meanings that fill in the picture of our redemption. One other meaning of baptism is our cleansing from sin. The Lord connected the ideas of baptism and washing away our sins when he saved Paul. The Lord said to Paul, "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name." (Acts 22:16). Peter refers to escape from divine judgment as another meaning of baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21). And lastly, we can see from theological consideration that it is the sign of being incorporated into the New Covenant people of God.
So, what are we doing when we baptize a new believer? A lot! What a gift from our God to be given this ordinance, indeed this sacrament, to strengthen our faith and proclaim the gospel not only in word but in deed. Many of you have been baptized a long time ago. I would encourage you to reflect again on what your baptism means. You have signed on the dotted line, you have publicly announced your position, you stand with and in Christ. He is your Lord and Saviour. He is your Redeemer – the one who has purchased you by His blood and has washed you in the waters. You have died in him and have come up out of the grave with a new life. And therefore, you can say with Paul - I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20).
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