I have been working on this message for about two weeks, and this is the final draft to be presented at Bright Church of Christ today. An earlier draft was made available to trusted others for feedback, some of which has been factored in here.
Baptism, and for now I’m talking about adult believer’s baptism, has been a really important part of many people’s journey with God. Baptism, as we see in the Gospels and in Acts, is a strong biblical theme and practice. I sense though, that in this post-denominational time, and where church membership structures have become more open, and in places where there have been less new converts and more transfer growth – that baptism has drifted somewhat off the agenda. Yet baptism should be something that fuels a church’s energy levels, missional outlook, and public profile.
I remember my baptism in September 1979 very clearly. After all, it was in a Carlton premiership year! The pastor who baptised me, Rev Ross Prout, another ardent Carlton supporter, and I, attended that grand final together a short time after my baptism. This memory is not just about the Carlton win, but also the time investment that Ross had made in me leading up to that baptism. It is often a spiritual mentor that guides a less mature believer down the path of greater discipleship.
I have gone on to conduct many baptisms myself, mainly at beaches in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. They have all been memorable, for the cold water, and waves; but much more so for the very evident presence of the Holy Spirit hovering like a dove … blessing all those involved. They have also been notable for the many interested and questioning onlookers. Why baptism? And what did Jesus have in mind, when first he himself was baptised, and then when he called his disciples to be baptisers of others??
I need to acknowledge here, that there are many who have come out of different traditions, where baptism occurs as an infant, with possibly some form of confirmation to follow later; or indeed where baptism doesn’t occur at all. We seek to honour other traditions, but at the same time need to fairly share the scriptures, and rejoice in our own tradition of baptism … following in the way of John the Baptist and Jesus himself.
The Baptism by John the Baptist
After 400 years of prophetic silence in Israel, John the Baptist came onto the scene offering a baptism that was all about repentance (3:1-6). This was a dramatic moment in history! Here was an opportunity for people to confess their sinfulness and commit to change. This meant that people could draw a line in the sand between their old life being dominated by sin, and a new life where they would seek purity and faithful living.
As we see from those that John refused to baptise (3:7-10), baptism needs to be sincere, and not an act designed to fool or impress others. Nor can people rely on their religious lineage (or the faith of their forbears), but must produce their own good fruit. Nor can people rely on external ritual (like circumcision), but rather embrace character change from the inside out.
John the Baptist was offering baptism to people in the Jordan River … hoping that people would start to take their spiritual life entirely seriously, and then be in a better position to reform society more toward God’s ways of being. This thinking lies behind our ‘believer’s baptism’ today, yet there is still more to it. John the Baptist baptised people, knowing that he was preparing the way for an even greater movement in history … the coming of the ultimate source of salvation … WHO was soon to appear on the scene (3:11-12). It’s time to prepare for the Christ!
The baptism being performed by John the Baptist, was intended to alert people to the coming of the ‘Messiah’ – perhaps NOT the ‘Messiah’ they were wanting or expecting, but the true Messiah nonetheless. The person of Jesus would be the point of decision on which salvation depended. And, coming to know and follow the ‘Christ’, would not only bring ultimate forgiveness, but also the effectiveness of a Holy Spirit led life.
The Baptism of Jesus
When the ‘Messiah’ did come, he surprised everyone, including John the Baptist himself, by wanting to be baptised (3:13-15). Why would the presumably sinless Jesus feel the need to be baptised? What could be gained?
First, this was part of a thorough and complete incarnation, where Christ Jesus could be fully seen and appreciated as a human being (God … yet in complete human form on earth). In being baptised, Jesus would completely identify with the struggles of life on earth and the human need to respond to God’s will. This, for Jesus, would include the need to engage with God in prayer, to struggle with God’s will against more human inclinations, wrestling with being tormented and rejected, and then enduring the prospect of death itself. Jesus completely identified with human sin at his baptism, foreshadowing the carrying of all those sins at his crucifixion.
Secondly, in his baptism, Jesus would set a pattern of obedience. We see that stated, in verse 15, in terms of “fulfilling all righteousness” i.e. doing the right thing. Jesus was setting a pattern of expressing faithfulness and a commitment to God’s will and purposes. This act of baptism would acknowledge that Jesus had a commission on earth and a ministry to undertake (as we do ourselves).
This was all confirmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit at this scene, signifying that this ministry of Jesus would be enabled and empowered well beyond the normal limits of humanity (3:16). The “heavens” being opened, suggests the breaking of the Divine God into human affairs … not seen since life was first breathed into men and women. Here was a bridge connecting God’s love with human need.
And the picture of a “dove” again recalls the first creation, and thus signifies the season of ‘new creation’. Here God is reclaiming creation for its original purpose – an environment in which eternal and intimate relationships, between Creator and created, would be established and grown. So, here are the three persons of the ‘Divine Trinity’ acting together in perfect harmony – and it’s awesome.
The Commission to Baptise
The new Christian movement would adopt this practice of baptism, except now it would be focussed on a commitment to following Jesus through the journey of life. To acknowledge that they were accepting, believing in and following Jesus, new disciples would be baptised. As Jesus was wholly faithful to God, and also to us, we would become obedient to Jesus. Jesus gave this commission following his resurrection (Matthew 28:18-20):
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
We would have to note (in this text) that becoming a disciple, i.e. determining to live under the discipline, teaching and training of Jesus, comes first, and then baptism follows.
The Greek word translated baptise or baptism, means to dip or immerse or wash (in water). In secular literature the same word is used to mean plunge, drench or overwhelm. So we see the close connection with dealing with sin. To go under the water signifies … a dying to self, and a leaving behind of sin, and receiving the forgiveness that originated at the cross of Christ. To come up out of the water signifies … a new life being born – no longer centred on self, or dominated by sin, but given over to the purposes of God. [For Paul’s take on this – Romans 6:1-11.]
This new life centres on the resurrected Jesus and his victory over death, meaning that we have begun what is an eternal journey. This doesn’t of course mean we are sinless, but rather we are on a new path, and we will be quick to deal with any occurrences of wrongdoing, wastefulness or hurtful behaviour that occur. And just as Jesus knew (at his baptism) that he would be accompanied by the Holy Spirit, we can know that for sure as well.
Baptism, Salvation & the Holy Spirit
Baptism is somewhat symbolic; although we know of cases where this act of obedience has been exceedingly significant. I believe that we gain the benefits of salvation, including the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, from the moment we accept Jesus into our lives, and believe on his name, and identify with his death and resurrection as being for us, and begin to follow him. But sometimes we do lack that public ‘line-in-the-sand’ moment … where we publicly and conclusively witness to the reality of this (our) commitment. A concrete statement of faith, such that baptism makes, can really advance our discipleship – because this says we are definitively on board with Jesus for life!
Conversely, avoiding public statements of faith (like baptism), can be symptomatic of sort of holding back a bit, ‘fence-sitting’, or having a few dollars each-way, seeing how things might turn out for me. This attitude can actually be self-defeating, meaning we can easily drift away. Avoidance can also lead to a lack of joy and peace … that only comes when we throw ourselves wholly into the experience of salvation.
Avoidance can also mean that we don’t yet experience the Holy Spirit as fully as we could and should, because we are sort of holding ourselves back a bit. Which is why we sometimes see later experiences of the Holy Spirit, when people fully open their lives to new possibilities (including all sorts of giftedness). [And heaven knows … we need the full capacities of the Holy Spirit to deal with all the complications and difficulties of life – just like Jesus did! If Jesus needed the Holy Spirit to stay on track with God, then so do we!]
Thus, ‘believer’s baptism’ is largely a public witness to what is already real and happening – a daily walk with Jesus. And so, when Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to make other disciples, part of this commission was to baptise them. I don’t have any doubt myself, that Jesus meant for all ‘believers’ to be baptised in water to signify their new life in him. But we know that baptism has been interpreted and practiced differently over the centuries.
Without going into a lot of history, what has happened over the centuries is that people have wanted to claim faith on behalf of their children and have them baptised into the church. I’m not here to denigrate this – different denominations and faith traditions have formed differing views on all this. I just point you to the Bible, and its pattern of calling people to respond themselves to the Gospel in repentance, and for you to draw your own conclusions.
Many people have taken their infant baptism very seriously, and been through some form of confirmation, and lived a life of discipleship, and conclusively and effectively followed Jesus their whole lives. Others, though, have seen their infant baptism differently, and been baptised later as ‘believers’.
Sadly, many baptised infants have never regularly been seen in the church again after childhood. And it’s sad (from my theological perspective) that baptism has been (by the church) unnecessarily (and perhaps damagingly) tied to escaping judgment, when we would consider that all infants and children are safe under the grace of God – and that there should not be this religious threat hanging over the very special family blessing of a new birth. Enough said! We, in our tradition, offer child (& parent) dedication, which basically acknowledges God’s great gift of life, and a parent’s commitment to properly nurture their children spiritually. Then these children will hopefully make their own commitment to Jesus in the fullness of time.
It is also very sad, when sometimes an adult believer is baptised, and then later walks away from the church, and perhaps God as well. Sometimes this is because baptism has been made a requirement for church membership, and thus there has been either leadership or peer pressure applied. Baptism should be free of these pressures, and simply return to being a joyous celebration of deciding for Jesus!
We have to acknowledge that baptism is a pathway, not a guarantee! This is why churches often require preparation classes to be undertaken prior to baptism (something I support in certain cases). It’s important that those publicly embracing Jesus, understand what Jesus’ teaching is all about, and have the chance to move towards greater maturity. For instance, does the person being baptised embrace Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ including its most radical teaching on forgiveness and loving one’s enemies?! And can the person “walk the talk” in their lifestyle, and keep growing??
As we have said, believer’s baptism is about making a choice to publicly identify oneself with Jesus. [My baptism in 1979 was within the four walls of Armadale Baptist Church, in one of those designer baptistries where you heated the water from the previous night. The church gathered; but, for me, there is something wrong with this picture. The lack of community presence restricted the possible witness of the event, but also, for me, the personal impact of making this commitment before the whole world.]
In our church’s statements of belief we read:
That the two ongoing ordinances for the Church are baptism in water and the Lord's Supper. We celebrate the Lord's Supper regularly. Baptism is by immersion of people old enough to express their own faith (Acts 2:38). [We practice the dedication and blessing of children and their parents as requested.]
So, when should a person be baptised? My answer is ... when they can genuinely say that they will now follow Jesus, serve others, love God and neighbour ... for the whole of the rest of their lives, but nothing. Or, at least, this is the journey that they are sincerely starting out on, with the Holy Spirit’s help.
For some, this will take not much more than five minutes of consideration, for they have intuitively understood the demands and blessings of following Jesus. For others, and there is absolutely no judgment to be made here, there will need to be that time of preparation involving prayer (maybe fasting) and bible study, leading to the depth of understanding, faith and commitment, required to last (and thrive in) the journey.
Baptism into the Church
Baptism signals that we are now living in forgiveness and freedom as a disciple of Jesus. Baptism signals that we are living under the teaching of Jesus, becoming more like him, and that we are also accountable to him for each of our words and actions. However, baptism is NOT just an individual event, but rather also signifies that we are a member of his ‘body’ together with all other members of his ‘body’. This means we are an active member of a local congregation, sharing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the common good. From there, baptism means that we will engage, as part of God’s church, in redeeming the community around us … being part of God’s mission to a lost world.
Today there is an invitation to baptism; or at least into a conversation about baptism. You may never have been baptised in any form. You may have been baptised as a child and be wondering what this means for you. You may have this urge to be baptised, but also may have some second-thoughts going on. You may just want to be baptised as soon as possible. Please come to me, or one of the elders, for a conversation.
You may have already been baptised as a believer, but you are struggling. Please come for prayer. You may have already been baptised as a believer, and you would love to witness some baptisms here in this local community. Please pray for the Spirit of God to move amongst us, that there might be such a glorious witness to his love and redemption. Amen.