Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself. - Irenaeus

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Water Baptism

by Dale Brown

Some of the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples after the resurrection had to do with water baptism. What has become known as His great commission reads, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age"(Matt. 28:18-20).
The first sermon preached after the feast of Pentecost by Peter included the message of water baptism and the first sermon preached to a group of Gentiles included a message regarding baptism yet despite the abundant material in the Biblical text on the subject there remains a broad range of conviction as to how it is to be interpreted.

One of the largest stumbling-blocks to understanding the doctrine of baptism in our time (as it was in Jesus’) has to do with a thousand or so years of religious tradition. He said, "Neglecting the commandment of God you hold to the tradition of men"(Mark 7:8). Another problem has to do simply with the pride of man. He is often not willing to lay aside his dignity and submit to a public act of submission.

A good Old Testament illustration of man’s pride is the story of the leper captain who balked at the instruction of God’s prophet which would cure him of his leprosy if he would only obey those simple words. The prophet did not even come out of his dwelling to greet the great captain but sent his servant out with orders for him to go dip seven times in the Jordan river "and you shall be clean." The dignified leper who was use to much pomp and ceremony was furious at being treated with such disrespect. "Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in rage"(2 Kings 5:12). Fortunately for Naaman he was eventually convinced by his servants that it might be in his best interest to humble himself and be rid of his miserable leprosy.
Many look at New Testament baptism which symbolizes washing away of our leprosy of sin the same way. They would much rather do it privately, or better yet get it over with while they are an infant so they are not intellectually conscious of the degrading act. Or even better, indorse a theological position that does away with it in it’s entirety. Yet, it is as important as the principle of public confession of which Jesus said, "Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will confess him before My Father who is in heaven."


The first thing Jesus our Lord did at the beginning of His ministry was to be baptized. He said to John, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." We, on the other hand, often launch out in effort to understand college-level theology while we have yet to understand and obey what the author of the book of Hebrews calls the "elementary teaching about the Christ." "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food." Jesus was teaching not a law but a principle which he was not willing to impose on anyone else until he had carried it out himself, thus identifying with our human weakness.

Of all the scripture about baptism there is no record of an infant being baptized. At the day of Pentecost, Peter said, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit"(Acts 2:38). Later, when the Ethiopian eunuch was pondering the words of Isaiah the prophet while sitting on his chariot, a man named Philip began explaining the message of the gospel. The eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may"(Acts 8:36&37). They stopped the chariot and went down into the water and Philip baptized him. An infant cannot believe nor can he repent.

The early church believed baptism to be so important that there is record of Paul baptizing a Roman jailer in the middle of the night. It was practiced by both Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament. The Greek words for baptism (Baptisma & Baptizo) were words used to describe the process of immersion, the dyeing of a garment or of washing. It is used metaphorically in the spiritual sense, (i.e. to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire) and literally to dip as in the case of those who went down into the river to be baptized by John the Baptist. It symbolized the death, burial and resurrection of new life, thus the life of Christ. It was not meant to be a means of designating church membership, rather it is a means of identifying with the life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ and being a member of His body. "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life"(Rom. 6:3-5).
Though it is true one is saved not by the "works" of baptism but by grace through faith, the act of baptism is as important as the ordinance of communion, or the Lord’s supper. Baptism, however, without faith and repentance is nothing more than a bath as is illustrated by the story about Simon the magician. He was baptized by Philip and the scripture says he believed but when Peter came later it was clear something was not on the up and up. Peter was not about to lay his hands on him that he could receive the Holy Spirit because his heart was not right before God. Rather than giving him a blessing Peter rebuked him harshly because he supposed that he could buy the Holy Spirit. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses both perform baptism but it is not being identified with the Biblical Christ or the true message of the gospel.

Paul wrote, "For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea"(1 Cor. 10:1-2). The implication here is of a spiritual baptism and a water baptism, both of which are taught in the New Testament. Both are equally important.

There are obviously times when baptism is not able to be practiced such as in the case of the thief on the cross next to Jesus, winter climate where water is frozen or as in the case of prison inmates etc. When it is possible however most believers want to be obedient to the Lord’s commands. We are under the "law of liberty" [or principle] as James put it.

"By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome"(1 John 5:2&3).

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