One of the last instructions Jesus gave his disciples before returning to his Father, was that they should go to all nations and people groups with the good news of God’s kingdom. Those who believed were to mark the start of their commitment to Jesus by being baptized (Mt. 28:19). As the disciples began to preach the gospel, starting in Jerusalem and then further afield, they did what Jesus told them to do. New believers were baptized almost immediately in what was a public step of radical commitment to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Properly understood baptism is so much more than simply a step of obedience to a command; it is a statement about our past, about who we now are in Christ and about what, by His grace, we want to be. So, what is baptism? What is its significance for us? Who should be baptized? For reliable answers to such questions we have to turn to the scriptures and this is what we will now seek to do.
1. What does the word ’baptism’ refer to?
a) The word ‘baptism’ means ’immersion’ Baptism is an anglicized Greek word which means to cause to be ‘immersed’ or ‘submerged’. It simply refers to an act in which a person or a thing is totally immersed. In baptism a person is, in effect, momentarily being ‘buried’ in water. b) Baptism require a lot of water This is why rivers, lakes and pools were used: • John the Baptist baptized at Aenon on the river Jordan because there was ‘plenty of water’ (John 3:23). • Jesus came up ‘out of the water’ after his baptism in the Jordan (Mark 1:9,10). • The Ethiopian eunuch went ‘into the water’ and then came up ‘out of the water’ after being baptized by Philip (Acts 8:38,39) In many countries baptisms are till conducted outdoors, though here at New Life we are thankful to have a large ‘tank’ we can fill with warm water for the occasion! c) ‘Christening’ is not baptism A common perception is that baptism involves the sprinkling of babies with water, along with naming the child in a church ceremony often referred to as ‘Christening’. This ceremony is carried out in many churches who regard ‘infant baptism’ as ‘proper’ baptism. Although widespread, this practice cannot be justified on the basis of any clear and obvious Bible teaching or example. (In our fellowship we follow the practice of Jesus who simply blessed the little children brought to him (Mark 10:13-16), recognizing that as they grow up they will be able to put their trust in Jesus for themselves.)
2. Jesus and baptism
Jesus not only taught his disciples to baptize but he himself was also baptized. Thus he ‘fulfilled all righteousness’, that is, he did his Father’s will.
a) Jesus himself was baptized (Matt. 3:13-15) The sinless Son of God did not need a baptism of repentance for himself, but in his baptism Jesus identified with us in a prophetic enactment of his own burial. In the same way when he died on the cross he did not die for his sin (for he was without sin) but, identifying with us, he bore our sin, did and was of course buried. When Jesus came up out of the water he was prophetically enacting his resurrection.
b) Jesus taught his disciples to baptize new believers (Matt. 28:19) When a person becomes a Christian they pass from death to life (John 5:24). Baptism, as a burial, illustrates the radical nature of the change that has taken place in their lives. In non-Christian cultures the significance of baptism is well understood. Commitment to Christ means ‘burying’ the past and now living under his lordship. It is at this point that a person is marked out by others as a ‘real’ Christian. In baptism we: • Proclaim the work of the whole Godhead in our salvation: ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19). • Identify with Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection on our behalf (1 Cor. 15:4). • Submit to his lordship in being obedient to his word (John 14:23). • Follow his example (Matt. 3:15). • Prophetically enact our own resurrection (John 11:25; Matt. 24:30,31; 1 Cor. 15:51,52).
3. Baptism is a burial which celebrates our death and resurrection in Jesus
Baptism is more than a mere ‘outward physical sign of an inward spiritual reality’! Baptism will be a real means of grace to us if, by faith, we understand and accept the reality of what we are doing (Col. 2:12). In baptism I celebrate: a) My death (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:6-8) The Bible teaches that, as far as the Christian is concerned, the old sinful nature died with Jesus on the cross. The old self was crucified with Christ. At our conversion we put off the ‘body of sin’ (Rom. 6:6; Col. 2:11; 3:9) and old things passed away. I, the old ‘me’, died. b) My burial (Rom. 6:1-4) Dead bodies should be buried. You don’t bury a person in order to kill them, you bury them because they are already dead! In the same way people are not baptized in order to make them Christians but because they have already passed from death to life! Baptism represents the burial of the old self and the old self and the public end of my former life without Christ. c) My resurrection (Rom. 6:4) As we come up out of the water we are enacting the resurrection to newness of life which we already have through faith in Christ (Eph, 2:4-9). We are, in effect saying: ‘The old life has not claims on me any longer, from now on I’m going to live for Jesus and for him alone’ (Rom. 6:7-11; 7:4-6). Daily we need to reckon with the truth that we are dead to sin and alive to God!
4. What if I’m a believer but haven’t yet been baptized
You do not have to be baptized in order to have your sins forgiven and become a new person in Christ. Salvation comes to us through faith in him alone (Acts 10:43; Eph, 2:8,9). Nevertheless, the concept of a believer in Christ who had not been baptized did not exist in New Testament times. In fact the preaching of the gospel always included the call to believe and be baptized (e.g. Acts 2:38; 8:38). So, seen from a biblical standpoint, baptism is the first public act which confirms our commitment to Christ, much as circumcision was for Abraham after he believer God (Rom. 4:11,12). Sadly though, there are many believers today who, for various reasons (often to do with the teaching and practice of their churches), have not been baptized according to the New Testament pattern. If you find yourself in this situation, decide to let God’s word along determine what you believe and do. Get baptized and get blessed! How will we be blessed? a) Baptism gives us the pledge of a good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21,22) This comes from knowing we have done the right thing, i.e., been obedient to Jesus as an expression of our love for him (John 14:23). b) It helps us burn our bridges behind us (Acts 2:40,41) Baptism publicly marks the end of our old life, with his old sinful attractions and loyalties. It is a declaration of ‘no turning back’! It helps us demonstrably put distance between ourselves and the ungodly society we still live in (it ‘saves us from this corrupt generation’). We’ve made our choice (1 Pet. 4:3,4) and stick to it!
5. Who should be baptized?
Christian baptism (by total immersion) is for all who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. On the day of Pentecost Peter called on his hearers to repent and then be baptized (Acts 2:38). On his travels Paul found some disciples in Ephesus who had received John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance with a view to believing on Christ later. After they believed on Jesus, Paul rebaptized them (Acts 19:1-6). Although no upper or lower age limit is ever mentioned, it is clear, even in the case of family and household baptisms (e.g. Acts 16:31-34), that all the individuals made a personal commitment to Christ first. Certainly there is no evidence that babies were baptized! So, if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ and have not been baptized since your commitment to him, then you should ask to be baptized.
6. What to do next
At New Life we regularly have baptismal services. These are arranged by Dave Bryars who will be pleased to tell you about practical details and answer any questions you might have about baptism. If you would like to be baptised, please fill in the form below and we will be in contact with you.