Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Need for Christian Baptism


*I have been away from the writing keyboard for a while…time to get back into the saddle with a really important topic.

One of the points of discussion that arose with the 5th grade class that I taught this past Wednesday at camp was, why did Jesus need to be baptized by John the Baptist?  I believe that there are some important reasons for this, one -- Jesus' baptism by John was the beginning of Jesus' ministry.  Mark 1:1 starts out: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" and then Mark starts telling us about Jesus' baptism by John. Obviously, for some reason, Jesus' ministry began with His baptism.  Here are some things to note -- at this point in Jewish history, water baptism served one of three purposes. First, there was the baptism of repentance. This was what John the Baptist was preaching.  Of course Jesus didn't need to repent, because He hadn't sinned.  The second kind of baptism was for people who desired to convert to Judaism.  It was a baptism of conversion.  If you were a Gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism, they baptized you in water. Once again, Jesus had no need to convert to Judaism. He already was one. He had been born a Jew.  So baptism in those days could be for repentance or conversion... and Jesus did not need to be baptized for those reasons. So, for what other reason would a person be baptized in water back then?  The only other people who experienced baptism - in the Jewish faith in that day were priests. The Law dictated that especially the High Priest was to "be washed with water." And the Temple had pools set aside for just that purpose. Jesus did fulfill this role, as He is our Great High Priest.  But, there are other important reasons for Jesus’ baptism – one, it sets a good example for those who were going to follow Him.  He had no sin, but his disciples did, and we do, as well.  And as one friend has pointed out, “it fulfills all righteousness.”  We need to see in Jesus’ action, an example of obedience. Likewise, we need to be obedient to the Father, a response in faith. Finally, after His baptism, the Father anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit as it descended on Him in form of a dove. And the Father put His mark of approval on Jesus by loudly declaring: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17)  This signifies something for us as well, as we will discuss…the Holy Spirit comes upon us at our baptism and He helps us in our spiritual walk, ministry.

Jesus’ experience helps us to understand what Paul has to say as it relates to baptism with a certain group of disciples.  In Acts 19:1-7, Paul providentially connects with several disciples at the city of Ephesus. Just as Priscilla and Aquila apparently had discussed Christian baptism with Apollos (Acts 18:24-26), so Paul does here with these men. He asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed, that is, were converted, baptized. Paul apparently already expects them to have the Spirit...and would this not be consistent with Acts 2:38-39 and every other Christian baptism in Acts?  But, these believers have received the baptism of John only, and as we discussed, this was “for repentance.” The message concerning baptism is clear here and Paul baptizes them; they receive Christian baptism -- a water and Spirit birth (see Jesus and Nicodemus, John 3:1-8). Paul goes on to give these disciples a special, exceptional dispensation of power from the Spirit for this time. But, the point is this -- these disciples still had the same conversion experience that every Christian has in coming to the Lord. (See 1 Corinthians 12:13).

It is interesting that the baptism of John was not sufficient for them, but why would it be? It was administered by John the Baptist under the Old Law. Christian baptism involves not only repentance, as did John's baptism, but also the receiving of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is primarily what separates the two baptisms. It is awfully difficult to live according to the fruit of the Spirit or experience the gifts of the Spirit if we don't really acknowledge, understand, or trust the source.  I have known many Christians who talk about Acts 2:38, as Peter says "...be baptized for the remission of your sins..." and this is it. But, is it? Is the part concerning the Holy Spirit just an oversight? Is it assumed? Or, is it intentionally omitted? (Is it really even understood?)  Some believers may have received the baptism of John -- at least in language, hopefully not intent. Why take the chance? Is the power of Christian baptism not sufficient for us? It should be so. We need to consider it as Peter shares it right from the text -- there is nothing to lose, but everything to understand and gain as it relates to the Christian walk. I will say this, I wouldn't have an opportunity to walk upright, blameless or spiritually for the Lord without the help of His Spirit to guide me along the way. He is our guide -- not in an arbitrary, controlling sense -- but quietly, indirectly.  We are not robots, but free moral agents with freedom of choice. The Spirit uses the Word to teach us and help us (Ephesians 6:17), and helps us in our prayers (Romans 8:27). He also is our seal so that when the Lord comes again, He will identify those who are His by whether they have His Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14, etc.). There certainly had to be a wonderful transformation for Apollos and the Ephesian disciples as they would continue to grow in knowledge, wisdom and experience with and in the Lord…as it should be for all of us.

As I continue in my own study of this important subject, questions arise. This is a subject where it is easy to propagate answers, but I think we are better off not to be dogmatic (and I certainly used to be)…rather, we should be students, learners. There are indeed so many things that happen when we come to the point of baptism -- many that we do not have the maturity to understand at that point, (including "forgiveness of sins" and "receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit" -- both part of the "formula" described in Acts 2:38-39...and this, not to mention "repentance" and "confession"). At times, some have treated baptism as some sort of “an end of the road” after a disciple has been "taught" everything that he should know. For these, baptism has been a law to fulfill the requirements of certain passages...which is not much different than what we see regarding Old Testament theology and practice. There must be more to it than this. We need to consider Apollos. As much as he already knew about "the Scriptures" and about God, he was surely in for a spiritual rebirth and for a totally new experience when he received Christian baptism (cf. Acts 18).

I believe baptism is much closer to the beginning of our journey. It is truly a spiritual event in every way. La Gard Smith calls it "the believers wedding ceremony" -- a fitting description, I believe. How much can we know at baptism? (How much does a baby know at birth?) We barely understand the elementary things, but certainly not the deep things of God; these are revealed over time by the Holy Spirit. And how do we qualify or quantify His work? We cannot...it is discerned and appropriated by faith. This is a significant part of what comprises the heart of the new covenant. We do grow in our understanding of critical principles as we walk with the Lord. Consider the disciples as they became the apostles sent out with the mission of Jesus (Acts 1-2). The Spirit came and illuminated their minds and their eyes were opened to the experiences they had had with Jesus. He does the same for us as our Helper (John 14-16), if we are open and willing to study as we walk with Christ over the course of our lives.

In many circles of the fellowship I belong to, baptism has been one of the "most legalized" events, experiences, etc. in modern Christian practice.  It is easy to see why it is such, given a lot of people’s propensity to need book, chapter, and verse to explain everything about our faith and practices.  But, if the Holy Spirit is involved in it...then it is a spiritual event...and it no longer becomes something that we can “pigeon hole” as "this is precisely how it is supposed to be,” or “this is exactly what happens every single time." It certainly wasn't that way in the early church, as we discern from Paul's experiences in Acts 8, Acts 10. I respect that there are certain elements involved in it, and a number of Scriptures (some that we have discussed) that indicate what these are...but, at the end of the day, the most important "element" is what the Holy Spirit is doing through the blood of Jesus in the life of believer...however that is to be for each individual.  God’s blessings be with you as you continue on your journey of understanding the Lord’s will and this important subject.

Blessings, Don