Using this text as our starting point, we are going to take a deep dive into the meaning and practice of baptism. Before we do, I want to make sure some things are very clear. For several centuries now, good and true Christians have disagreed about baptism – what exactly it is and what it means. It is not necessary, therefore, at New Joy Fellowship, or the Life Together Churches network, that everyone hold the same view about baptism. What is necessary with regard to this issue, is that we treat each other with respect, and allow the same differences of opinion that the Lord has allowed in his church for the past five centuries. Since so many great Christians of the past have disagreed about this issue, it would be a tragic mistake to let differences of opinion on baptism divide New Joy Fellowship.
However, let us also not let different opinions keep us from seeking what the Bible says about it. If we end up disagreeing, that’s OK. It won’t divide us. But we can still seek the best understanding possible about baptism. I think we can all agree that the goal is to search the scriptures with an open mind, and a desire to know what it really teaches.
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1 PETER #24. 1 PETER 3:18-22
Our focus this time is on verses 21-22. In verse 20, Peter uses the people who disobeyed during the time of Noah as an example of the types of people to whom Jesus proclaimed the gospel in hell. I think Peter uses Noah’s time particularly, because he wants to introduce the next thought, which is about baptism. In Noah’s time, the flood killed almost everyone by drowning. But the water also washed the earth clean of wickedness and filth, and it lifted up the ark and carried it, causing the people within it to be saved. Peter says “this corresponds to baptism.” Or, in other words, “it gives us a picture of baptism.” The water brought a special kind of cleansing. Before, Noah and his family lived in a horribly depraved, sinful world. Then, through water, and a special vehicle (the ark), they were brought into a world that had been renewed by God. How does this paint a picture of baptism? We live in a horribly depraved, sinful world. Through water, combined with a special vehicle (the promise of God) baptism cleanses us, lifts us from the dying, sinful world, into the Kingdom of God.
Using this text as our starting point, we are going to take a deep dive into the meaning and practice of baptism. Before we do, I want to make sure some things are very clear. For several centuries now, good and true Christians have disagreed about baptism – what exactly it is and what it means. Since it has not been necessary for about 500 years that Christians agree about this, it is not necessary, at New Joy Fellowship, or the Life Together Churches network, that everyone hold the same view about baptism. What is necessary with regard to this issue, is that we treat each other with respect, and allow the same differences of opinion that the Lord has allowed in his church for the past five centuries. Since so many great Christians of the past have disagreed about this issue, it would be a tragic mistake to let differences of opinion on baptism divide New Joy Fellowship.
Having said that, I will present my understanding of the Bible, and of history, with the same force and rigor that I try to use with every sermon. In my own mind, the most important things about baptism are quite clear from the scripture. Please understand, however, that if you disagree with me about baptism, it is not a problem. I have my opinions, but I recognize many of the great Christians of the past five hundred years have had different ones about this topic. Though I think I’m right, and I might come on strong, I’m telling you right now that I realize I could be wrong. So, let’s give each other grace here.
In the meantime, I want to teach clearly what I really think the Bible says about baptism, because it seems to me that these days, many things about baptism often get confused, and distorted. Sometimes, some of the most powerful scriptures about baptism are not even part of the conversation.
When it comes to baptism, I think there are three main issues: 1. What, exactly is baptism? What kind of meaning does the Bible attach to it? 2. Who should be baptized (for instance what about infants in believing families?) 3. How should we go about baptizing people?
The truth is, there is quite a bit of Biblical material about the first question. The biblical information about the second two questions is much more thin, and harder to process. Therefore, today, we’ll try to consider the first. What is baptism? What does the Bible say about it? I want to point out that today, what we cover should not be particularly controversial. We’ll simply be looking at the things the bible clearly teaches about the nature of baptism.
The English word baptism comes directly from the Greek word in the Bible. We don’t really have a good single English word for all the Biblical meanings. In general, it means “a ceremonial, or religious washing with water.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says this:
The Greek words from which our English “baptism” has been formed are used by Greek writers, in classical antiquity, in the LXX and in the NT, with a great latitude of meaning. It is not possible to exhaust their meaning by any single English term. The action which the Greek words express may be performed by plunging, drenching, staining, dipping, sprinkling.(International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article on Baptism)
“The LXX” means: “the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament.” So, even before the time of Jesus, Greek-speaking Jews used the words baptize/baptism to mean a wide variety of things, but the common idea was some kind of ceremonial, or ritual, washing with water. The Easton’s Bible Dictionary agrees, saying:
Baptists say that it means “to dip,” and nothing else. That is an incorrect view of the meaning of the word. It means both (1) to dip a thing into an element or liquid, and (2) to put an element or liquid over or on it. Nothing therefore as to the mode of baptism can be concluded from the mere word used. The word has a wide latitude of meaning, not only in the New Testament, but also in the LXX Version of the Old Testament, where it is used of the ablutions and baptisms required by the Mosaic law. These were effected by immersion, and by affusion and sprinkling; and the same word, “washings” (Heb. 9:10, 13, 19, 21) or “baptisms,” designates them all.(Easton’s Bible Dictionary, article on Baptism)
So, we don’t get a ton of help from the word itself. As the two quotes above point out, in the Greek version of the Old Testament (which was probably used by most of the early Christians) the word generally used for rituals involving cleansing with water was “baptism.” Again, it can mean immersion, dipping, pouring or sprinkling.
John the Baptist used baptism in his ministry. For those who received it, it meant that they were repenting of their old way of life, receiving forgiveness of sins, and entering into a new mode of living. Baptism was a kind of “initiation” into that new way of life.
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:4-8, ESV)
This concept of initiation into a new way of life seems to be a key factor with regard to baptism. Also, put a little mental note on the part where John says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Mark records these words of Jesus:
28 I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!”(Luke 7:28-30, NLT)
29 When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that God’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism.
The people, by being baptized, had aligned themselves with John, they were, in a sense, one with him. By refusing baptism, the religious leaders made it clear that they were not aligned with him. They did not want to be part of him or his movement. So baptism initiates you into something, aligns you with it. Christian baptism means you have been joined with Jesus Christ, and with his people. Galatians makes the same sort of argument about Christian baptism. We weren’t just “baptized” in some vague, general way. We were baptized into Christ.
26 It is through faith that all of you are God’s children in union with Christ Jesus. 27 You were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself. 28 So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are the descendants of Abraham and will receive what God has promised.(Galatians 3:26-29, GNT)
So, being baptized into Christ means that you become “part of Christ,” in some way – you were baptized into union with Christ. You are initiated into him. Paul uses this same concept of being brought into union with someone or something in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. He affirms this again in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.(1 Corinthians 12:12-13, ESV)
We were all baptized into something. We are brought into union with Christ, and brought into the body of Christ (that is, true spiritual fellowship with everyone who trusts Jesus). In Romans, Paul says that part of the meaning of baptism is that we were united with Christ specifically in his death and resurrection.
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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)
He says something similar in Colossians:
11 In him you were also circumcised. It was not a circumcision performed by human hands. But it was a removal of the corrupt nature in the circumcision performed by Christ. 12 This happened when you were placed in the tomb with Christ through baptism. In baptism you were also brought back to life with Christ through faith in the power of God, who brought him back to life.(Colossians 2:11-12, God’s Word version, bold formatting added by me)
So baptism unites us with Christ in a general way. It also, in a special way, applies his crucifixion and resurrection to us, or unites us with them. God does something in us when we are baptized. This leads to another thought. No one baptizes themselves. Baptism is something that is done to us, and for us.
I want to pause and point out a few things. Some people view baptism as a kind of testimony – something we do for God to show that we do indeed have faith. That could be a part of it. But clearly, in the New Testament, baptism is also much more than our testimony of faith and obedience. In fact, it is portrayed mainly as something that God does for us.
Baptism brings you into union with Christ. It identifies you with the death and resurrection of Christ. It initiates you into the body of Christ. All that should be plain from a straightforward reading of the texts above.
But wait! There’s more! In the New Testament, baptism is often also connected to forgiveness of sins:
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “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. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”(Acts 2:37-39, ESV)
16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’(Acts 22:16, ESV)
The early church took this very seriously. Sometimes too seriously, in fact, or at least, too literally. The only arguments critical of infant baptism during the first 1,500 years of the church were about this. Some few people thought that since baptism washes away sins, it was a waste to baptize infants, since they were certainly going to sin again as they got older. Instead, these folks argued, baptism should be delayed as long as possible, so that the baptized person had a chance of dying before they sinned again.
Finally, there are many promises connecting the Holy Spirit to baptism. Acts 2:37-39, already quoted above, seems to say that the Holy Spirit is connected in some way to baptism. Mark 1:4-8 (return to the mental note I told you to make) supports this. Jesus himself had a special encounter with the Spirit at his baptism, and he involves the Holy Spirit in his command to baptize:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:19-20, ESV)
Paul found some people who were baptized with John the Baptist’s baptism. He demonstrated that they needed to be baptized into Jesus, after which they received the Holy Spirit:
1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.(Acts 19:1-6, ESV)
The apostle Peter preached to some Gentiles. The people heard and believed, and it became clear to Peter that they had been given the Holy Spirit, so he ordered them to be baptized. Later, he explained this to the Jewish church:
15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”(Acts 11:15-17, ESV)
To reiterate what we’ve learned so far. Baptism is an initiation into Jesus. It unites us with his death, his resurrection, and his life. It unites us to other Christians. It is connected in some way to the forgiveness of sins, and to the Holy Spirit.
I also want to make it clear that these verses, along with many others, show that baptism is a part of the salvation process. If you are a follower of Jesus, you should be baptized. It’s part of the deal. Jesus commanded us to baptize as part of the process of making disciples (Matthew 28:1-20, quoted above).
Also, much like with salvation in general, we cannot receive any of the gifts given to us by baptism unless we repent of our sins and put our trust in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for all people, whether or not they repent and trust him. If someone does not repent, and does not trust, she will not receive any benefit from the death of Jesus. The benefit is there. But without faith, it is not applied to a person. The person cannot “take hold of” salvation, except through faith. So, in a similar way, when we are baptized, all of the benefits of baptism are made available to us. But they do us no good unless we receive them in repentance and faith.
We’ll talk more about infant baptism next time, but there is an important point here. Those who support infant baptism do so with the understanding that the baby will be brought up to, and taught, a life of repentance and faith, so that the child can take hold of the wonderful promises given to him at his baptism. No real Christians believe that baptism works like magic. Those who baptize infants simply believe that faith can begin very early.
In brief then, we can see that baptism is a ritual that involves water connected to the promises of God. Water, combined with the Ark was, in a sense, a gateway from the old world to the new for Noah’s family. In the same way, water, combined with the promises of God (that is, baptism) is a kind of gateway from our old life, a life that was oriented on our sinful flesh into our new life – into the life of Jesus himself, who lives in and through us. Peter is saying that, combined with faith, this baptism is part of the process God uses to save us, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One useful way to think about baptism is to compare it to a passport given to a child that was born outside of his home country. As a citizen of his own country, but living elsewhere, that child needs a passport. He doesn’t earn it for himself – it is given to him as part of his citizenship. It allows him to go back to his country of citizenship when the time comes. The passport means he belongs to his home country. The passport enables him to live where he is, but it gives him all the rights and privileges of his home country.
In the same way, we are children born again as citizens of heaven. We don’t yet live in our real country, our true home. But baptism marks us as belonging to God through Jesus Christ. Baptism grants us the rights and privileges of the children of God, even while we live this mortal life.
A couple of possibilities for application: first, if you are a follower of Jesus and have not been baptized, I strongly encourage you to be baptized soon. Second, for those of us who have been baptized, let’s learn to appreciate and understand all that God has given us through baptism and faith. He has dealt with the problem of our sinful flesh, by crucifying it with Jesus in baptism. He lives his new life in us by the Holy Spirit, through baptism. We have been initiated into Christ – we belong in the kingdom of God. Baptism is our passport, our certificate of birth and citizenship. Take hold of these things by thanking God for them!