Monday, February 13, 2017

The Sign of Baptism

Baptism is a sign. It communicates something, similar to the way a red octagon at the corner of an intersection communicates something.  If that red octagon were to show up in a medieval  European village a thousand years ago, the villagers would quite likely wonder what it was there fore. Today, that red octagon has been vested with meaning through civic authority, social convention, and common usage. We all universally recognize it.  Whether or not it has the words written across it, we know what it means.

Baptism has also been vested with meaning through the Word of God. Without that God-given meaning it is nothing more than a cleaning process, like taking a shower or bath. However, when we see it in church, it communicates something. It preaches.

What does it preach?

Before I answer, let me ask another question:  Where did baptism come from?  Do you have an answer for that? How do we explain that it just kind of showed up out of nowhere in the New Testament filled with all kinds of meaning. John the Baptist did lots of baptizing, and while people thought John was strange, they did not necessarily question his act of baptizing.  It's almost as if baptism itself was no surprise. Now, if he had showed up smearing locust guts mixed with wild honey on people, that would have created some quizzical conversations.  But he baptized, and no one thought that strange. Why is that?

Some have no explanation for its sudden, unexplained appearance. Or if they do, they say it was a divine adoption of that newfangled, intertestamental, Jewish conversion ceremony. Interesting theory. God saw what they were doing and I guess kind of liked it.  God's version of "plundering the Egyptians." Apparently.

I think it is better to say that it was not the least bit a surprise. It did not show up out of nowhere. At least not if you don't presuppose that the only way to baptize is to dunk someone under water. If you look carefully, and free yourself up from such exclusive modal expectations, you will see that God used baptism frequently in the Old Testament.  Ceremonial cleansings and washings and anointings with blood, oil, or water were common and commanded depending on the situation.  These were all baptisms.  By the time John the Baptist came baptizing, the Jewish people had been versed in baptism for millenia.

So what then does baptism preach?

At the heart of it, it represents washing.  No surprise there--applying water to the physical body is washing. Common sense. But as a holy sacrament, the material act of washing the body preaches about spiritual washing. It speaks about the cleansing of the inner man. It preaches about the great before and after of the soul. The crossing of the divide from lost to saved.  We have some words we apply to this before and after of the soul: Regeneration (Titus 3:5,6), Getting Saved, Being Born Again (John 3:1-3), and Conversion.

The Bible uses several beautiful word-pictures for this list of words, all of which are also associated with the idea of baptism. Notice their before-and-after-ness:
  • Filthiness/Cleansing
  • Stone Heart/Flesh Heart
  • Old Man/New Man
  • Birth/Rebirth
  • Death/Resurrection
These are all descriptions of what baptism signifies. This before and after of the soul is why, for instance, you see the word baptism in the context of dying with Christ and being raised with Christ in Romans 6. Baptism is a commonly used picture of the Gospel work of changing the heart from what it once was in Adam to what it now is in Christ.  This is of course solely the work of Holy Spirit poured out by God to effect this change, which makes the visual image of the pouring of water an especially beautiful representation . Ezekiel used that image in chapter 36: 
[25] I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. [26] And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (ESV)
Beautiful, isn't it?

Someone will say, "But you can't give that sign to infants."

What do you think the sign of circumcision preached?  

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