Today is Baptism Sunday, and with that we’re taking a break between message series. Now, before we just jump right in with the message, though, let me say that what we’re going to talk about is a difficult topic, because baptism evokes a lot of emotion. Baptism is like church music in this way. If you grew up in church there are certain songs or hymns that mean a lot to you. So even to this day, if we sing one of those songs you grew up with, it will evoke certain memories and emotions. And for those who grew up in church, whatever kind of church that was, baptism was probably a part of that church experience. Whether you were sprinkled as a baby or you got baptized at a camp because the girl you liked got baptized, or whatever your experience has been with baptism, that experience has shaped your view of baptism. And so, even now, if you hear the word “baptism,” it conjures up certain memories and emotions. And then, on top of all that, for those who didn’t grow up in church, this whole baptism deal sounds just plain weird to begin with! I mean, think about it, you’re dunking someone in water, and it just seems weird!
So, as we get started, I want you to know that regardless of your background and what your experience has been with baptism, we’re not here to twist arms, point fingers or pass judgment. We’re here to discover truth with humility and grace. Regardless of your background and what your experience has been with baptism, my prayer is that all of us--all of us--will be open to simply asking, “What does the Bible teach us?” Then let’s follow that. It sounds simple, but sometimes I think we can let our traditions, pride, “what will my parents think,” or whatever other obstacles there are--we let those things keep us from the simple truth and just following it.
Alright, so let’s dive in. The reason Why baptism is such a big deal is because when you read through the NT, you discover that every single time someone has put his or her faith in Jesus they get baptized. That’s a pretty big deal! And if that weren’t enough, we have these words from Jesus Himself in Matthew 28, where Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit....” So Jesus commands us to baptize people who decide to become His followers. And for two millennia now, churches have been practicing, albeit in different ways, this command from Jesus. Well, then, how did all of these churches and denominations through the centuries come up with so many different understandings of baptism when it seems pretty clear that in the first century, when Jesus said to baptize people that those who heard Him understood what He was talking about?
Well, let’s do a little History Lesson, and I’ll try not to make this too boring. First of all, we need to understand that Jesus didn’t invent baptism; He gave it new meaning. Prior to the time of Jesus, Jews had already been practicing baptism. South of the Dead Sea in Israel are the caves of Qumran. Some of you may have heard of that--it’s where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. There was a Jewish sect that lived there back in the 2nd-1 cent. BC called the Essenes. The Essenes practiced baptism as a ceremonial or ritual washing. The washing was a symbol of cleansing. Now, they were Jews, but the Greek word that was used to describe these ceremonial washings was baptidzo which meant “to dip, plunge or immerse.”
Now, jump ahead a century or so to John the Baptist. John comes along and is a prophet in the likeness of the OT prophets. He’s an ascetic, he has disciples, and he rebukes religious leaders and others for having a form of godliness but who are actually far from God. People repent, and then what does John do? He baptizes those who repent. It wasn’t a foreign concept to them--in that day people knew it symbolized spiritual cleansing.
So then we come to Jesus in Matthew 3:13ff, and we see Jesus approaching John to be baptized by him. And John says, “Well, I need to be baptized by you! So why do you come to me?” And Jesus replies, ““Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”” (Matthew 3:15, ESV). Why would Jesus need to be baptized? He didn’t, if it’s a matter of His own sin, because He was without sin. But He did it to fulfill all righteousness—that all righteousness is fulfilled in Him. He is the ultimate picture of what baptism meant for centuries leading up to Christ. Baptism was a picture of spiritual cleansing--being made righteous--and Jesus is that. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV). So Jesus took this ancient ritual of spiritual cleansing and gave new meaning to it--that He, Jesus Christ, is the One who fulfills all righteousness. So if we want to be made righteous we have to identify with the Person, Jesus Christ, and through Him we become the righteousness of God. Baptism, then, takes on new meaning--not just spiritual cleansing, but identification with Jesus, His death, burial and resurrection.
Now, I know we’re getting a little deep here, but we’re making progress. History Lesson--Jesus didn’t invent baptism, but He gave it new meaning. The rest of the New Testament identifies baptism with a commitment to follow Jesus. It connects baptism with what Jesus has done for us by dying for our sins, his burial, and then being raised to life on the third day. Look at what the Scripture teaches us: “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12, ESV).
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27, ESV).
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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 6:3-4, ESV).
You see, these verses show that Baptism is taken out of the realm of ritual and put into the realm of relationship. It’s not just about a ritual of spiritual cleansing; it’s about the Person who cleanses us. We are symbolizing our identification with Jesus Christ. We’re identifying with Him--not church membership, not the removal of dirt from the body as Peter writes in 1 Pe. 3:21.
Let me ask you something: If I said, “Who wants to be baptized to participate in a church ritual that has been happening for thousands of years?” That doesn’t sound all that appealing, does it? Or if I said, “Who wants to celebrate new life in Jesus Christ?” that sounds like something I want to do! And that perspective is what we see in the New Testament! Baptism is about our relationship with Jesus--our personal relationship with Jesus--not a tradition, not membership in some organization, not a ritual; it’s about a relationship!
Well, if that’s the case, then what happened, throughout history, where things changed so dramatically? You see, it wasn’t until AD 753 that sprinkling was even allowed in cases of necessity under the direction of Pope Stephen II. It wasn’t until AD 1311 that a council declared immersion and sprinkling to be indifferent.
But while this was true, notice that the founders of denominations that even sprinkle infants or adults taught that immersion of believers in Jesus Christ was the NT norm and practice. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, wrote, “The word `baptize’ signifies to immerse. It is certain that immersion was the practice of the primitive church” (John Calvin). Martin Luther, the father of the Lutheran denomination, wrote, “`Baptism’ is a Greek word, and should be translated `immerse.’ I would have those who are baptized to be altogether dipped” (Martin Luther). And John Wesley, the father of the Methodist denomination, wrote, “`Buried with Him by baptism’--alluding to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion” (John Wesley).
Now, it’s not my intent to quarrel with my brothers and sisters from different traditions and denominations. There are many here today who are from various backgrounds. And I’m also not here to say, “You should believe what I say, because I’m always right.” My goal is to say, “Let’s go back to the Bible and practice what it says.” This is what Calvin and Luther and Wesley did--they based their convictions of baptism on the study of God’s word.
When I served a church back in KS, I met with an older couple who had been attending our church for a number of years. They were both Lutherans and had not been immersed. They wanted to become members of the church, and we required that people be immersed into Christ, just like we do here. Why? Because that’s what we see in the Bible! So I set up an appt. to meet with them, and they came in to my office “armed” and ready to go to battle on this issue of baptism. The woman brought her copy of the Lutheran Catechism, and she wanted to read to me the sections on baptism. And I said, “Alright, go right ahead.” And when she began to read, all the catechism was doing was quoting Scripture! The same Scriptures we looked at this morning! She would read a passage from her catechism book, and I’d say, “Well, isn’t that interesting? That’s a direct quote from Ro. 6:3-4. Well, how about that. That comes from Gal. 3:27.” And once she saw that I wasn’t trying to force her and her husband to do something, they both understood that baptism by immersion as an identification of our lives to the Person of Jesus Christ--and with celebration--then they both said, “Yes,” and they were baptized into Christ.
For some of you, it’s time. You believe in Jesus Christ--and you have for years--but you’ve never taken this step--identifying yourself with Jesus by being baptized into Him. For some of you, you may have been sprinkled as a baby, and I always tell people that I’m not here to judge you or your parents in that. But here’s the point: You didn’t have anything to do with that decision--it was your parents’ decision. But now you can make this YOUR decision. It’s not about a ritual; it’s about a relationship. Some of you may have been baptized as a child, because you saw other children doing it. Or maybe you got baptized to impress some cute girl. But maybe today, you see that no one’s trying to make you do this. This can be a decision YOU make to express your faith in Jesus Christ. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re actually going to share in a time of baptism. I am challenging you, even right now, to experience the joy of baptism