Sermon from January 7, 2018
Years ago, I was talking to a person who had recently begun visiting the church I was serving and I asked him if he had any questions. The only question he had was why do we have a hot tub at church? At first I did not know what he was talking about then I realized that the baptistery, made out of fiberglass and filled with water, looks a lot like a hot tub.
We, especially those of us who grew up in the Christian Church, automatically know that this is not some kind of Jacuzzi for Sunday School parties but to someone who has never darkened the church door it is hard to figure out why we would have a tub of water sitting up here. The reality is there is much confusion even in the Christian world as to why we practice water immersion. That’s why today I am beginning a four week series of sermons looking at baptism. The word baptism or baptize is found at least 100 times in the New Testament therefore the confusion over the word and what it means is not due to the lack of Scripture about baptism but due to the preconceived ideas we have when we approach the subject.
This morning, I would like to read what is commonly called the Great Commission. Before Jesus left he gave instructions for his disciples, orders if you will, telling them what they needed to do. Follow along as I read Matthew 28:18-20. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
According to this Scripture the natural result of making disciples is they will be baptized. However, Christianity as a whole seems to be really confused about what baptism is and its role in our salvation and many have, I believe, caused massive harm by ignoring, denying or trying to change what baptism is all about. I want us to understand that in the Bible being baptized was the natural step after a person believed in Jesus.
Some of the changes in baptism over the centuries have occurred due to misunderstanding. Sometime in the second century, teachers began to teach that it was the water that saved you and not the faith that led you to the water. Called water regeneration this teaching naturally made it essential to baptize babies because in those days children often died within their first few years of life. However there is nothing magical about the water – the water here is just Sterling Park tap water – what is important is our attitude and the reasons why we go into the water.
Some of the changes in baptism have occurred over the centuries due to convenience. What would you do, for instance, if you were in a desert area and came to know Jesus as your Savior? The church around the third or fourth century began to allow a person to be sprinkled with whatever water was available like a little water from a canteen if you were in the desert. Of course, at first they suggested that as soon as possible you receive a complete immersion but that caveat did not last long because it became easier and much more convenient to just sprinkle everyone.
Some of the changes in baptism continue due to tradition. Customs such as sprinkling or faith-only teachings have gone on for so long now that they only seem natural. If you were sprinkled and your parents were sprinkled and your grandparents were sprinkled and so on, do we dare break that tradition? And although it was good when Martin Luther and the Protestant revolution reminded us that we are saved by faith and not by works some have since confused baptism with a work and therefore not essential to our salvation.
And some of the changes in baptism have occurred due to a watering down (excuse the pun) of the gospel. Not wanting to offend and wanting as many people as possible to join, we often downplay what might seem to be a stumbling block (submitting to the very humbling act of getting all wet in front of people). The problem is we can’t ignore baptism because the New Testament talks about it so often although among many good Christian people today baptism has become an option and more an act of obedience, if we choose it, than part of God’s plan for salvation. Now obviously, faith is what is most important – we are saved by faith – but what good is our faith, James asked in his letter, if it is not accompanied by action?
If I were to tell you that you could go to Giant today and get a week’s worth of groceries for free, how many of you would go? Now if I told you that in order to get those free groceries you had to bring a bulletin from church, would you do that? Or would you argue that bringing a bulletin or going specifically to Giant was not necessary? Would you claim bringing a bulletin or going to Giant is a work (after all, you have to come to church to get the bulletin and go to a specific store) so it would not make the groceries free? Or would you just hope that the groceries would somehow show up in your refrigerator because you believe they are free? In our text this morning, Jesus clearly says to baptize disciples. How then is baptism not a work? How important is it to our salvation? Is there any other way to be saved? And why do we have a hot tub at church? Matthew 28:18-20 teaches us at least three things about baptism that I hope will help us understand how important the ritual is. As we study together I pray that we can truly understand the meaning of baptism.
First there is...
I. THE UNIQUE NATURE OF BAPTISM
Allow me to begin with a very quick word study. The word baptize comes from the Greek word, baptizo which means to immerse or dip. It is a common word used to describe what you do, for instance, when you wash your dishes: you dip or immerse them in water. That’s what the first century Greeks would have understood if you said you baptized your dishes. The early English translators of the Bible decided, instead of translating baptizo to immerse or dip, to transliterate the word. By that I mean they made the Greek word into a new English word. Now there is nothing sinister about that: it happens all the time in language although some claim that maybe in this case it was done to avoid controversy over whether a person is baptized by immersion or sprinkling because both practices were common in that day. But let’s give the translators the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they just wanted to treat the act with respect so instead of saying the common word “dip” they used a unique new word, “baptize,” that became primarily religious in nature.
However, the act of baptism as part of a religious ceremony was fairly well known in first century Judea so the act itself was not unique. It was accepted as a cleansing or to make pure, and some Jewish groups practiced baptism on a daily basis. So when John came baptizing the act was nothing new or unique, others who taught repentance often had their followers go into the water to be made clean as well. However Christian baptism has a unique and different nature to it.
In fact, the baptism that Jesus commanded pops out in our text as being very different and unique in nature. In Matthew 28 Jesus took a well known religious exercise, baptism, and gave it a new, unique and different meaning. Often baptism is classified as an act of righteousness but notice in the text I read how Jesus sets baptism apart from obedience. Doing good things is actually the act of sanctification or of being set apart to behaving differently because we are Christian not to become a Christian. Notice in Matthew 28 baptism is mentioned before he tells us to obey his commands – it is listed as the thing we do if we want to be a disciple of Jesus.
There is something unique about the nature of Christian baptism. It is more than just getting wet although that is what happens to you; it is more than an act of obedience although by submitting to baptism we are obeying; and it is more than a work because a work suggests it is something we do when in reality we do nothing when we are baptized except submit and as I mentioned earlier the water is just water. The unique nature of baptism has to do with what the act represents and what God does, not what we do, when we are baptized.
More than just a washing, Christian baptism represents the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. When we go down into the water we are dying to all our sin. Under the water, we are dead and buried. Coming up out of the water, we profess the resurrection of Christ and claim the salvation we have with him. And just like Christ died for all our sins of the past and present and future, our baptism signifies the washing away, once and for all time, of all our sin as well.
But the most unique nature of baptism is what God does when we are baptized. God has made some promises when we are baptized. First, God has promised to save us when we are baptized (Acts 2:38 tells us that). Now people always ask, can’t God save us anyway he wants? And the answer is yes, of course he can. And God can make exceptions and he will judge each person individually. But the promise in Scripture is that when we are baptized we will be saved – no wondering if we have been redeemed; no doubting if God still loves us; no question about our salvation. All other methods of salvation are purely speculative and based more on a vague hope we have than on any promise from God.
God has also promised, when we are baptized, to be with us to the end of the age. In other words, he won’t leave us. The reality is after we are baptized we will still sin. I always tell young people when I baptize them that when they get a little older they will discover sinful things they are not tempted by now and they will probably do things they do not think they will ever do. But God has promised to be with us and that means he will still be faithful even if we are not and he will still save us even if we sin because baptism has become a seal which has bonded us with God. Now that doesn’t mean we cannot lose our salvation, we can walk away whenever we want, but it does mean God will not change his mind about saving us. We need to repent when we sin but after we are baptized the promise is that God will still be here and he will forgive us. We should all shout “amen” at that!
The promise also is that when we are baptized we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit acts as our comforter, our guide, our intercessor and our helper. Many will tell you today that you receive the Holy Spirit by someone laying their hands on you, or by your earnest prayers for the gift, or by it just happening (and indeed the Bible gives examples of the gift being received in all those ways) but the only time the Holy Spirit is promised to us is when we are baptized. So what that means is that all of us who have been baptized have the Holy Spirit – maybe we don’t know what that means exactly or how that helps us but we do have the Holy Spirit. There is something very unique about the nature of baptism, isn’t there?
But we also can see...
II. THE UNIQUE IMPORTANCE OF BAPTISM
Matthew 28:19 told us that we are baptized “into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That is more important than we might realize. If we are goofing off at the pool and dunk someone under water we may be literally baptizing them but that baptism has no meaning or importance to it except in getting the other person wet and winning the playful fight you are having. Likewise it does not really matter where you are baptized: here in our baptistery, in a pool, or down by the river. It also doesn’t matter if I do the baptizing or your parent or a friend has the honor – what is important is why you are doing it and what you are claiming when you are baptized.
The phrase, “into the name” was actually a technical term in the Greek world of business and it was used to indicate the entry of a sum of money or a piece of property into an account. And once that happened, the owner of the account then possessed the item. The unique importance of baptism into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is we have transferred the ownership of our lives to God. We are now his, we belong to him.
Baptism’s unique nature is that it seals the promise that we belong to God. It becomes our contract with God. One of the worse innovations of the church, which thankfully is not used much anymore, is what is called “The Mourners Bench.” The church would encourage people to go to this bench to sit and pray until you received some kind of sign from God. This sign would then be your proof that you were one of the elect; one of God’s chosen people, that you were saved. The sign could be a variety of things: maybe a vision from God, maybe speaking in tongues, maybe some kind of miraculous happening, maybe some kind of supernatural experience.
The problem was often good people would sit for hours at this bench and nothing would happen. Can you imagine the frustration seeing people around you jumping up and down in spiritual ecstasy while you feel nothing? Can you imagine the guilt and fear that would fill your heart because if you did not have an experience you were probably not saved and God did not like you? Many people would pretend to have some kind of spiritual awakening so their friends would not think they were unsaved but imagine the deep shame and guilt they bore knowing they were dead inside?
May I suggest that even though we do not have mourner benches much anymore we are often left to our own devises when it comes to our salvation? We are encouraged to say a prayer and we look and look for a sign and maybe we feel a little better and maybe something wonderful does happen but how can we be sure what we feel is not just our emotion or that we are only reflecting our deepest desires or that what we experience is not simply indigestion? I’m not demeaning those who have had a spiritual awakening, often those who have had something like that have a very deep faith, but not everyone experiences a supernatural event. And more importantly, what we experience is unique to us – how do we know it is really from God or just what we want from God? This is where baptism comes in and gives it a unique importance.
Being baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is a visible sign we can point to and say: God has saved me. Like I said earlier, God can save us in any way he chooses but the only way the New Testament teaches that we can be sure of our salvation is through baptism. Baptism has a unique importance assuring us that we belong to God.
Finally, we can see...
III. THE UNIQUE PURPOSE OF BAPTISM
Why isn’t faith alone enough to save us? After all, all the great men and women of the Old Testament were saved because of their faith in God. In fact, Hebrews 11 lists the great roll call of faith. Now faith is still extremely important – and I cannot say enough about how we need to strengthen our faith every day – but we live in a new era. We now live under the shadow of the cross and the conditions of our salvation changed when Jesus shed his blood.
Don’t misunderstand me: salvation is by grace (there is nothing we have done to deserve this gift from God) and salvation is through faith (without believing in something we cannot see we are not truly Christian) however salvation is also in baptism. Being dunked in the water is more than just washing away the dirt on the outside of our body – it is also the pledge of our lives to him and the accepting of the blood of Christ as our salvation.
The forgiveness of our sins is now possible because of the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. That’s why Romans 3:25 talks about having faith in the blood. Eternal life is only possible because of the resurrection of Jesus. Romans 10:9 tells us to believe in our heart that God raised Jesus from the dead because if God raised Jesus he can also raise us. And we have been promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the unique condition God has added in this new era by which all those things: the forgiveness of our sins, the promise of eternal life, and the gift of the Holy Spirit are given to us.
What I am suggesting is this: over the centuries many have forgotten the unique purpose of baptism. In the New Testament, it is clearly tied very closely to our salvation.
So from Matthew 28:18-20 we can see that baptism was something that was taught before conversion in order to become a disciple. All our good words and deeds and Christian attitude follows our conversion. By mixing the order up we lose the unique purpose of baptism as taught in the New Testament. This “hot tub” up front should always remind us of the nature, importance and purpose of baptism.