Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Power and Meaning of Baptism

Today I resume posting from the series, "The Seven Basic Commands of Jesus." This is the third installment, on baptism.

Original date: January 20, 2008
Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-4

I turned 14 that year. I put my trust in Jesus in May of that year, and was baptized that August. But I think the church there didn’t know just what to do with me. They were used to kids around 10 or so getting baptized as a kind of growing up rite of passage, but when you got to be a teen, that was a little rarer. I guess they were used to more of a Baptist Bar-Mitzvah—church kids that grow up and get baptized just because they were the age to get baptized.

So they put me in a class, me 14 and the rest of them, six or seven, all about 10 or 11 years old. Now when you’re 14, you don’t think of ten-year-olds as being four years younger than you. You think of them as being babies, and you think of yourself as being practically an adult. But there I was with the babies going to a baptism class. You know what’s ironic? The class was taught by my future father-in-law. I think he felt for my unease but didn’t know quite what to do about it. So we both kind of endured it.

The weeks went by and the evening came for baptisms. Yes, they always did baptisms in an evening service. I was a giant among ants, those little kids getting baptized.

But I wasn’t thinking about those kids. I knew I was crossing a divide. Although I’d believed since spring, baptism was a marker. It was a sign that said, “No turning back here.” I remember a combination of joy as well as a little fear as I went up to be baptized. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I always try to talk to people about their fears when they come to get baptized, always try to be light and affirming just before baptism.

Pastor Hayden was his name; he asked me if I believed and I said that I did; he asked me if I pledged to follow Christ my whole life and again I said I would. I can still remember the feeling of permanence and determination I had as I was getting baptized. It was a great feeling. This was the final step in entering into a new life. Down I went, a moment of immersion, and then up again—death, burial, resurrection.

That’s my story. The Bible tells many stories about baptism. It says that John came baptizing, and Jesus picked that right up and made it a part of the life of obeying Him. He explicitly told us to baptize new disciples, and we see commands to be baptized in the New Testament, and we see many examples of people being baptized in the Book of Acts, the story of the beginning of the church.

His command is the second of seven basic commands of Jesus:

1. Repent and believe: Mark 1:15
2. Be baptized (and continue in the new life it initiates): Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-11
3. Love God and neighbor in a practical way: Matthew 22:37-40
4. Celebrate the Lord’s Supper: Luke 22:17-20
5. Pray: Matthew 6:5-15
6. Give: Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 6:38
7. Disciple others: Matthew 28:18-20

That’s the outline we’re following as we focus on obeying Jesus’ commands. The first one is
Repent and believe—Mark 1:15

The second is
Be baptized—and continue in the new life—Matthew 28:18-20

We’re trying to memorize this list, one at a time each week. So let’s repeat that word for word:

Number One: Repent and believe—Mark 1:15
Number Two: Be Baptized, and Continue in the New Life—Matthew 28:18-20

Baptism is all about newness—God’s fresh start in Jesus. Let’s go back to the story of the Bible and see how baptism fits in, and then work it from there.

Long ago, God judged the world with water. A few passed through, in the great Ark built by Noah and his family, and were saved.

Then the time came when God brought His people Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and again, the passed through the parted waters of the Red Sea to safety.

Once again God parted the water for Israel, this time the Jordan River, so they could cross over into their land of promise.

Now, 1,300 years later a man appears preaching that the people should once again pass through water to get ready for the new thing God was doing. He was John the Baptist—that title could be translated as “John the Baptizer.” And he picked a strategic location for his baptisms. It was a place called Bethany beyond Jordan—not the Bethany near Jerusalem, but near Jericho, on the far side, the eastern side of the river. It was the same place that the people of Israel cross the Jordan on dry ground: it was the door to their promised land.

By picking this place, John is saying, “We’re coming into a whole new era of God’s dealings, just like when our ancestors came into this land. Messiah is coming, and we need to get ready. We need to reboot spiritually, and this is the place to do it.”

John was also building on the fact that passing through water as a symbol of cleansing was very much a part of Jewish culture, and had been for hundreds of years.

They called it passing through the mikvah. Immersion in water for ritual purification was part of being restored to "ritual purity." (For example, you passed through the mikvah before offering a sacrifice.) It was also used for new converts to Judaism. Immersion represented purification and restoration, and qualification for full participation in the life of the community. There’s one big difference between the Jewish mikvah and baptism: you pass through the mikvah repeatedly, unlike baptism, which is a one-time experience.

So John’s out there on the Jordan River doing the Messiah mikvah when his distant relative Jesus of Nazareth comes along. He tells John that He wants to be baptized, to which John replies, “Of all the people on earth, you’re the only one who doesn’t need to get baptized.” But Jesus insisted because He was identifying with this new phase of what God was doing—the age of the Messiah had come, and Jesus is that Messiah.

At the end of the His mission on earth, after the cross and after the resurrection, Jesus tells His disciples to keep on baptizing. We’ve already seen the command in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, but Jesus repeats or implies it in several other passages.

On the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover on which Jesus died as God’s lamb, God sent the Holy Spirit, the church was born, and Peter preached the first Christian sermon. When he tells them that the Jesus which they, the people of Jerusalem had a part in the murder of the Messiah, they were very upset. Look at Acts 2:37-38:

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38 Peter replied, "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.”

When you encounter Jesus, there’s an inner action to take—repent. And as we saw last week, repenting and believing always walk hand in hand. But there’s some out actions to take as well: “be baptized.”

That’s a big clue as to what baptism is all about: it’s the outer mark, the outer sign that you have identified with Jesus. Our faith is always located on public property. So many people say, “Well my faith is a very private thing to me.” Well, that’s not the New Testament way. When you follow Jesus, you go public.

That’s one of the reasons Jesus commands us to be baptized. Whether you get baptized at one of the busiest spots in Jerusalem (like the pool of Siloam, where the crowds on the day of Pentecost were probably baptized) in the middle of the day, or like the Ethiopian eunuch, out in the middle of nowhere, or like the Philippian jailor, in the middle of the night, the thing that moved you from an enquirer to a convert was how you answered this question: “Have you been baptized?”

Baptism points forward as well. Again, think of Noah’s Ark, crossing the Red Sea, and crossing the Jordan. All those passed through water with the intent of bringing you to a place of New Life. You are getting out of Nowhere and going to Somewhere. You are getting out of destruction and bondage and danger to a new beginning, to freedom and to a new life. That’s the way it is with baptism too. It marks leaving the realm of darkness and entering into the realm of God’s light.

That’s why it was so closely tied to when a person believed. We really don’t want there to be a long time between when a person puts their trust in Jesus and when they are baptized.

If you think back to where we started, with the list of the seven basic commands of Jesus, I think George Patterson, the missionary who came up with this list was right on when he phrased it this way:

Be baptized (and continue in the new life it initiates)

Baptism is supposed to be the beginning of something, not the end. If baptism is about the coming of the Messiah, a new life, passing from danger to safety, cleansing, from Satan’s kingdom to the Kingdom of God, then it means that I’m going from one way of living to another.

God intends for us to live Jesus-filled, Spirit infused, lives. Paul says as much in Romans 6:3-4:

3 Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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.

So there’s a straight line from the meaning of baptism to the lives we live and the deeds we do for the name of Jesus. We get baptized because we heard the message of Jesus, and after baptism, we follow the mission of Jesus.

Galatians 2:20 is one of my favorite passages…there’s hardly day when I don’t recite this verse:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Christ has come to live within me. My life is no longer all about me. In a sense, it’s not my life at all anymore. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

You see, in baptism, I drowned. I died. I was buried. Then I came up with a new life, a resurrection life. Just as Jesus came out of that tomb on that first Easter, baptism symbolizes that new life I’ve come into.

That new life is filled with a transformed character and transformed deeds. A baptized Jesus-follower says by his baptism, “I’ve turned my back on the past, I’ve turned my back on ways that don’t please God, and now I’m following Jesus. I won’t be perfect (like Jesus) but my intention is to rely on God’s Spirit to allow Jesus to live His life through me and to touch all of my life and to bring His loving presence to the world I live in.”

Do remember last week when we said that the single biggest marker of life outside of Jesus is a lack of love? It’s no surprise then that when the apostle Paul described the character of a mature follower of Jesus that love goes first. This is also from Galatians, 5:22-23:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

This is continuing in the new life that baptism celebrates. When a husband treats his wife and kids with care and compassion, that’s continuing in the new life. When a student won’t join in the clique that teases and makes life miserable for another kid, that’s continuing in the new life. When you say no to gossip and yes to prayer, when you volunteer with youth or to teach English or to take an older adult to the doctor, that’s continuing in the new life. That’s saying that you meant that business about believing in and following Him the day you were baptized.

A word to the unbaptized

I want to finish this message by offering a word of encouragement to the unbaptized among us. For one reason or another, you’re here today and you haven’t been baptized.

First, let’s be clear about what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that you can’t know God or go to heaven unless you’ve been baptized. Baptism doesn’t save anybody. Only Jesus can do that.

Second, let me encourage you to follow Jesus’ example and be baptized. Jesus did it, He commanded it, and obedience to His commands always leads to God’s blessings.

Take action today. Either speak to me, a parent, a friend here, or one of the other pastors. Or you can mark it down on your communication card and we’ll be in touch with you this week. Do it soon. And continue living in the new life it celebrates—as a genuine follower of Jesus.

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