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New Life Ways 2: Baptism

Two important dates in my life happened almost exactly 13 years apart. The first occurred when I was 13. The second took place when I was 26. The first was the most important decision I made. The second was the second most important decision I made.

The events? My baptism and my marriage. When I was thirteen years old I decided it was time to be baptized. I can remember others in my age range at church being baptized before me. For some reason, I could tell that if I were to ask to be baptized it was not for the right reasons. I would have just been going along with the crowd.

But on August 15, 1973, I was ready. I changed my clothes in a small dressing room, put on a weird white baptismal outfit, climbed a few stairs, and stepped down into a pool of water. Stan Harbour baptized me. I remember I asked him to baptize me because he was always smiling and if being committed to Jesus gave him that kind of joy maybe it would do the same for me.

Thirteen years later I made another commitment. On August 23, 1986 (I sure hope I got that right!), I walked up another set of stairs in the same church building, watched Karen walk down the aisle, exchanged some vows, and then we were pronounced married.

Thirteen years to make one life-long commitment. Another thirteen years to make the second. Baptism and marriage. I didn’t know much of what I was getting into in either of them.

I doubt those people on the Day of Pentecost did either. They had come from all over to participate in the Passover. Luke writes, “Now there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout people from every nation under heaven … Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts), Cretans and Arabs…” (Acts 2:6, 9-11).

Peter stands up and speaks out to them about Jesus:

Fellow Israelites, listen to these words: This Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through him, just as you yourselves know. Though he was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail him to a cross and kill him. God raised him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by death. Acts 2:22-25

There is something about proclaiming the gospel—the death, burial and resurrection of Christ—that elicits a response. Some may turn away and think it is a fable. Some may ponder it for a moment but move on to other pressing matters in their lives. But some hear what the message means and something happens. In this case the people were “pierced to the heart.”

Imagine something piercing you. Not long ago my doctor decided to pierce me. He wanted a bone marrow sample. My white blood cell count had been low for some time and he wanted to make sure everything was all right. He asked if I agreed and I said, “Sure, if you think we need to do that.” He said, “O.K. I have an opening right now because someone that was scheduled got a good report.” Within thirty minutes he was piercing into a piece of my hip bone. I felt it.

When we hear the gospel we feel it too. We see a sinless Savior and see our own sin. We feel the need for forgiveness. We feel the weight of the results of living life without God. Whatever we feel, it pierces us to the heart.

They felt that piercing at Pentecost. Then they asked, “What should we do?” That’s the response the crowd gave Peter that day. They didn’t know much. but they knew they were sinners and they knew they needed a Savior.

Notice what Peter does not say. He does not say, “There is nothing for you to do. Jesus has done it all.” Make no mistake, Jesus has done all that is necessary for our salvation. Paul will write, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Salvation is a gift. But there is a normative response to receiving the gift in scripture. So Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Here we find two words that will shape the church: “repentance” and “baptism.” “Repent” is the translation of the Greek word metanoeō. It means to “change one’s mind or direction.” “Repentance” may not be on your “To-Do” list each morning. But it is probably something you do every day. Any time you change your direction you repent.

For example, you start driving down your street out of habit to go to your office. But after a few blocks you remember you have an early dentist appointment. You don’t berate yourself. You merely put a turn signal on, maybe go around the block, and head in the direction of your dentist’s office. Whenever you change your direction you “repent.”

Or maybe you are like John’s parrot. John had received a parrot as a gift. The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity.

John tried and tried unsuccessfully to change the bird’s attitude. Finally, in desperation he grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then suddenly there was total quiet. Afraid he had hurt the parrot, John quickly opened the door to the freezer.

The parrot calmly stepped out onto John’s outstretched arms and said “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I’m sincerely remorseful and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.”

John was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued, “May I ask what the turkey did?”

The parrot repented. And so do we anytime we start thinking differently about something or change our behavior about something. In Acts 2, the people needed to change their thinking about Jesus from “he’s a mere man” to “he is the Son of God.” They needed to change their behavior from a life moving away from Jesus to a life that is moving towards Jesus.

Their first step in moving towards Jesus was baptism. The word means “to immerse.” It is a word used to describe how a garment was dyed its color. It would be “baptized” in the dye. And so on that day about 3,000 people were baptized. They were immersed in water as a way to say they had repented and were being immersed into the life of the Father, Son and Spirit.

Imagine that scene! Around Jerusalem that day 3,000 people were walking around, soaking wet, water sloshing off of their clothes as they made their way through the city. People around them were asking them what was going on and they told them. They didn’t know much about what they were getting into. They just told them what Peter had told them: “That Jesus who we crucified here just fifty days ago…that Jesus is our Lord and Messiah!”

It sounds simple. But leave it to years of church history for us to make simple things complicated and create confusion about baptism. Two views dominate the landscape. One says baptism is important but not that necessary. The other says it is necessary because believing in Jesus is not enough. So why be baptized? A quick survey of Scripture can help.

To begin with, baptism itself was not new. There were other religious groups who baptized in the first and second century. Among them were the Jews who baptized for a number of ceremonial cleansing. Also, when someone outside of Judaism proselytized into Judaism, they were immersed in water.

John the Baptist got his nickname because he was baptizing. His baptism was different as it was a baptism of repentance and preparation for God’s end-time judgment and salvation. John baptized a lot of people, one of them being Jesus.

That Jesus was baptized is enough for us to be baptized as people who follow in his steps. Understand, Jesus had nothing to repent of. But he tells John the reason for his coming for baptism: “…because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus—and John—were being obedient to God’s will by baptizing Jesus.

And obedience pleases God. Matthew writes: “When Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice from heaven said: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17). Jesus’ baptism pleased God.

Jesus tells us to be baptized. At the end of his ministry he sends the disciples out to make disciples of every people group. How? “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

That should be enough for us. Jesus modeled baptism. He commands baptism for his disciples. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is enough to secure our salvation. No other work is needed. But we are called to believe in what Jesus did and confess—agree with God—that he is our Savior.

One way I have come to understand baptism is it is an expression of our faith, not an addition to our faith. When a person is immersed in front of a faith community, they are making a confession about who Jesus is and where their life is headed. They want to be immersed into the life of God.

The water does not wash our sin away. Peter would later write that “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not as the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21). “Corresponds to this” has to do with the story of Noah he just told. Noah and his family were inside the boat and the boat saved them. He is saying that baptism places us inside Christ who saves us. He is quick to clarify that it is not the water that washes away our sin (like removal of dirt from the body). It is that when we are baptized we can then have a good conscience before God. We know who he is and we know he has forgiven and saved us.

For the first two centuries of the church we know only of immersion as the form of baptism (except in instances where there was not enough water or someone was confined to a bed).[1] This knowledge often raises the question: What if I was sprinkled? We would say to you that what your parents did when you were an infant in pledging you to Jesus was not a bad thing. But there needs to come a time where you respond to what Jesus says. Baptism would be, for you, not a rejection of what your parents did but rather your public pledge to God and statement to others that his life is going to be your life.

Some people were baptized at one time, strayed from the faith, and on their return feel a need to be rebaptized. They were disobedient but want to turn back to God. To you I would say you don’t need to be baptized. You need to repent. If Karen and I were to get into a fight and separate, but then come back to each other, we would not need to be remarried. We would need to be reconciled.

And parents, when you wonder if your child is too young to be baptized but they are asking about it because they’ve seen someone be baptized, how do you know if they are old enough? The Bible does not give an age. It does say to “believe” (see Mark 16:16). A degree of faith has to be present to move someone towards baptism. Typically, children are 9, 10, 11 before they start to understand abstract ideas like sin, salvation, and commitment. A good discussion with them to see what they understand will help. And helping them understand that God loves them unconditionally is important.

Baptism isn’t valid because of how right we were or how much we understand. It is all about how right Jesus is and what he has done for us. Most of what is written about baptism in the New Testament is written to people who have already been baptized. We will spend our lives living into our baptism and understanding its significance.

You don’t have to have a seminary degree to be baptized. Those first Christians in Jerusalem did not. They did know that Jesus came, lived, died, was buried and raised for them. And they knew they wanted to be part of that story.

I didn’t know much in 1986 when I married Karen. I just knew I wanted to live my life with her. And I didn’t know much in 1973 when I was baptized. I just knew I wanted to live my life with Jesus.

If you believe in Jesus and your thinking has changed about him then your next response is to be baptized. If you know that much, today would be a nice day for your wedding.

[1] See for a discussion of Everett Ferguson’s book Baptism in the Early Church. Ferguson taught at my alma mater.