BAPTISM: Invitation Love (pp. 121-129)

Having been set free, we acknowledge the rule of God in our lives through baptism. In this act we are received into the new community and the trinitarian fellowship of God. Baptism is the sign of our initiation and welcome into God's family. It publicly signifies that God accepts us, though we are sinners, and has incorporated us into the body of Christ. By baptism we enter a circle of communal life for nourishment and sustenance. We reenact the saving event of cross and resurrection, celebrating the love of God for all humanity. We also make common cause with all around the world who share the sacrament and become part of God's mission for discipling of the nations.

Baptism was grounded in Jesus' own submission to baptism under John. By this act he entered into solidarity with lost humanity as its representative and began to live a life of costly service that would lead to his sacrificial death. Just as John enrolled disciples by baptism, Jesus also baptized large numbers of disciples (John 4:1). In baptism we too begin a journey of faith with Christ in the direction of hope and redemption of the world.

Sacrament of New Life

Baptism has many connotations and a rich set of meanings. No mere symbol, it is a sacrament of grace, and associated with it are many blessings. Baptism is the sign of reconciliation. Jesus died and rose to bring sinners to God, and in baptism he applies the fruit of his saving work to us. Those who were alienated from God are restored to communion. They are plunged into the loving grace of God, which pardons and cleanses. In baptism the old person dies and rises with Christ, and is renewed daily as we take fresh plunges into the life, death and resurrection of Christ and are converted anew.

God wants to deal with us in baptism as we repent and put our trust in him. We enter into the new age of salvation and meet God as the Spirit descends on us (Acts 2:38). Baptism depicts sacramentally a dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6:3-4) as well as cleansing and the forgiveness of sins (Acts 22:16). Baptized into Christ, we put on Christ as a garment (Galatians 3:27). By this circumcision made without hands, we put off the body of flesh (Colossians 2:11), are baptized into the body by the Spirit and drink of life-giving water (1 Corinthians 12:13). It is spoken of as the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Spirit (Titus 3:5). Peter says that we were saved through baptism -"not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21).

Baptism marks entry into the church. It is the decision to follow Jesus as disciple and the determination to walk in newness of life. The New Testament offers a variety of statements and images of baptism, and these have given rise to differing interpretations and emphases in the churches. Baptism is a purification, an incorporation, a new birth, an illumination, a consecration and a seal. Like Christ himself, the believer is anointed by the Spirit in baptism to share in the offices of prophet, priest and king. From baptism we go to proclaim the praises of God, offer up spiritual sacrifices and share in Christ's reign. [George R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1963).]

Baptism and Discipleship

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says to his followers, "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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). In this text, baptism (in addition to its other meanings) is seen as enrollment in the school of Christ. It makes people disciples of Christ and signals a commitment to live for him in the power of the Spirit.

This brings out the meaning of baptism as a moral act, as commitment to discipleship. (The Anabaptists have always seen baptism especially in these terms.) In baptism the decision is registered to submit to the way of Jesus Christ. After the first large group of believers were baptized, Scripture says, they "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Paul picks the theme up in his Epistle to the Romans, where after speaking about baptism he says, "Thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted" (Romans 6:17). There does not seem to have been a long period of instruction before baptism - rather, baptism came first and led to teaching and discipling. After being baptized, then, we are expected and enabled to walk in the new path.

Baptism marks the beginning of a new form of existence. Baptism not only declares that guilt has been removed but also speaks of our being released from the power of sin and death. To the question "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Paul answers, "Thanks be to God!...The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 7:24-25, 8:2).

The Christian life is a baptized life, the outworking of the redemption achieved in Christ. From that point we carry through the death and resurrection of Jesus in our lives. We have died, and our life is hid with Christ in God. Therefore we put to death what is earthly in us, put away foul practices and put on compassion and kindness. In baptism we appropriate new life and commit ourselves to actions that reflect newness (Colossians 3:1-11). Baptism and discipleship go together.

Baptism and the Gentiles

Jesus' promise to the nations is a theme in Matthew. While Jesus limited his ministry to Israel and forbade his disciples to preach to the Gentiles during his lifetime, he knew that Gentiles would share in the salvation of the last days. He and John the Baptist both warned fellow Jews that their own place in the kingdom might be taken by non-Jews.

Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor"; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (Matthew 3:9).

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. (Matthew 8:11-12)

Jesus knew the oracles of the prophets that announced an eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Jerusalem, and he spoke of this ingathering of Gentiles after the resurrection.

Jesus' refusal of a Gentile mission in his lifetime and his proclaiming of it after his resurrection are not contradictory. There is a proper order to these things, as Paul says: "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). Jesus also went first to Israel, and after that an incorporation of the nations would ensue. After the blood of the new covenant was shed and a ransom was paid for the world, the kingdom of God in all its universality could come into play.

Once Jesus had preached to Israel and shed his blood, a new and inclusive people of God could be gathered, including men and women of every nation. Easter and Pentecost heralded the dawn of a new age in which the ingathering of the Gentiles is the central divine activity. The Gentile mission is part of the fulfillment of God's purposes, being the firstfruits of a new humanity. In mission we cooperate with God and anticipate a redemption in which all nations are welcomed at God's table, the veil is removed and death is abolished forever (Isaiah 25:6-8). [Joachim Jeremias, Jesus'Promise to the Nations (London: SCM Press, 1958).]

God said he would bless all the families of earth in Abraham (Genesis 12:3). This blessing can now go forward to all nations because of Christ's ministry. The covenant with Abraham, given Israel's rejection of Jesus, will be fulfilled by the church as it goes into the world making disciples and baptizing. New converts can be incorporated into God's priestly people and, in turn, go forth to mediate the grace of God to the world (Exodus 19:4-6; 1 Peter 2:9).

In Jesus' day teaching and discipling was the work of rabbis. Besides their public teaching, rabbis would gather a smaller number of disciples, and learning would occur within the relationship of teacher and follower. In ancient Greek cities one could study with a Stoic or Epicurean teacher. To this day in India gurus are surrounded by groups of devotees. And Jesus also called people to be his disciples. The choice did not indicate an attainment on their part - they were simply enrolled and began a process of learning. The term disciple actually became a name for the early Christians: "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called 'Christians'" (Acts 11:26). The church then consisted or ordinary people who had started to learn about the love of God revealed in Jesus.

This sheds light on the Great Commission to baptize and make disciples. The mention of the triune name in this commission is significant. New learners would be taught about the love of the Father, the grace of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit. The trinitarian formula provided a kind of syllabus of the main areas of teaching that were needed. Since all baptisms recorded in the New Testament were immediate, without a delay for instruction, the baptized would not be expected to know a great deal before starting out. Having begun with faith, they could have their faith filled out and gain a fuller grasp of the truth afterward.

The Baptisms of John and Jesus

Baptism was the act by which John the Baptizer and Jesus enrolled their disciples. Water was an important symbol for them. There had been washings in the Old Testament which the prophets saw as symbolizing a clean heart. Jesus made the same point, that washing the outside of a cup is fine as long as the inside is washed too (Matthew 23:25-26). Ezekiel hoped for the day when God would sprinkle people with clean water and put a new heart in them (Ezekiel 36:25), and Isaiah gave this oracle:

I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring. (Is 44:3).

It was expected that there would be a cleansing bath in the coming age of salvation. John the Baptizer picked up on this eschatological orientation when he called for repentance and baptism to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. He thought baptism would prepare them for entrance into the messianic order when it dawned. Before Jesus came, John's disciples would have purified themselves by baptism to get ready for the Coming One. After baptism they would have been taught the lifestyle required by John.

People wonder why Jesus submitted to John's baptism of repentance. The answer must be that he came to his baptism, among those responding to John's message, to begin his messianic task as he understood it from the Scriptures. Jesus underwent his baptism not as a solitary individual but as one who was called to be Messiah and a representative for all humanity. So he undertook baptism on behalf of the world, just as later he would die and rise on its behalf. In baptism he took his place alongside sinners, as he would do later during his ministry. This act was the first step on the path of suffering destined for the Servant of the Lord. Through baptism he could declare solidarity with people in their need of deliverance and present himself to God for his task.

In his baptism Jesus received the Spirit and divine approval (Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:10-11). Empowered by the Spirit, he was led forth to do battle with the powers of evil and to overcome them. By the finger of God he would cast out demons and perform signs of the kingdom of God.

Like John, Jesus enrolled disciples during his ministry. Although in the Synoptic Gospels nothing is said of his baptizing them, it is clear in John's Gospel that he did so (John 3:22; 4:1-2). Jesus began his messianic work in baptism and had people baptized with a view to their entering the kingdom. This picture coheres with his call for baptism in the Great Commission. Had he not made use of baptism before, the Lord would have been calling for a new method of enrolling disciples, which seems unlikely. The book of Acts also shows Peter enrolling disciples by baptism without a hint that it was a new practice. So it is best to assume that Jesus enrolled disciples by baptism during his ministry and continued it after the Day of Pentecost.

Issues Surrounding Baptism in the New Testament

The parable of the sower explains why some of those baptized do not go on as disciples, why though they have been baptized they do not continue in the teaching. Jesus describes some who begin with enthusiasm and quickly lose interest. There are others who are double-minded and have anxieties that choke the process of commitment. There are good and bad disciples, promising and unpromising ones (Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23, Mark 4:3-20).

Paul compares baptism to Israel's experience in the wilderness when they were "baptized into Moses" when they crossed the Red Sea. Though they ate the food and drink God gave them, many did not please God and were overthrown in the desert (1 Corinthians 10:5). Paul warns us not to be idolaters as some of them were. His point is that one may begin down the road of discipleship and not finish the course. John speaks of some attrition among the baptized, saying that many of them drew back and no longer walked with Jesus (John 6:66). Similarly, in his speech to the Ephesian elders Paul warns that some of the disciples will abandon their faith before long (Acts 20:28-31). [I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God: A Study of Perseverance and Falling Away (London: Epworth Press, 1969).]

As a leading rabbi, Nicodemus doubtless had disciples himself. When he sensed that Jesus was imparting something important, he was told that the way to learn would be to be baptized and then to learn more. A new birth would lead to a new process of learning. When Nicodemus objected that he was too old to start learning again like a young student in a school of discipleship, Jesus explained that he would need to be taught by the Spirit if he was to share in what God was doing (John 3:1-10).

We gain insight into how Jesus and his apostles may have viewed the effectiveness of the rite of baptism from a note in the Fourth Gospel. John tells us that after the first few disciples were enrolled, baptism was performed by the disciples, not by Jesus (John 4:2). Similarly, Paul says that he rarely baptized people himself but left it to others (1 Cor 1:14-17). This could have been owing to more pressing duties but may have been to avoid creating the impression that the baptizer or the baptism itself was the important thing, rather than the new life that was beginning and the new process of learning.

Baptism seems to have been performed rather quickly after conversion. There was not an extensive examination of candidates or a long probation. When the jailer repented in the middle of the night, Paul baptized him along with his family at once (Acts 16:33). The order was baptism, then instruction. This does not mean that baptisms were indiscriminate - repentance and faith were prerequisite. It simply underlines the point that those who were baptized were still only beginners.

Eligibility for Baptism

Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners into his circle. He was not picky about whom he accepted. The church too should be viewed more like an evening class for part-timers than a graduate school. In a night school one can easily enroll without any fuss, but there are numerous complicated preconditions if you seek to begin graduate school. The church is a school open to all and sundry. It offers instruction in what is involved in following Jesus.

The essential thing is not to check exhaustively the suitability and maturity of those who want baptism, but to make sure that they can be incorporated into the life and teaching of the congregation. Before we are taught, who among us is suitable? What is needed is faith in Jesus -the rest can come afterward.

This principle of baptizing converts immediately and leaving the Spirit to do the teaching after baptism is important. We should not require a high level of understanding and character before we enroll people by baptism. Maturity comes later, after baptism into the community. The second-century practice of examining candidates thoroughly and requiring extensive probation before baptism is something of a deviation. Surely the church is a school for disciples and baptism the way of enrolling the new learners.

What About Infant Baptism?

Brow, an Anglican, thinks children should be enrolled by baptism early in life so they can begin learning as soon as possible. Pinnock, a Baptist, believes in dedicating babies and letting them make their own mature commitment when they are older.

Supporters of infant baptism appeal to texts that speak of household baptisms, although they do not specifically mention babies. The decision may be a practical one, the question of how best to enroll learners. Why not baptize them and get them started right away? They can always decide later whether to continue. Alternatively, one could dedicate babies to this kind of life, bring them up in a Christian family and let them choose baptism when they are ready.

Baptists worry that baptizing infants is not really baptizing them. If baptism signifies dying and rising with Christ, washing away the stains of sin, being born again through the Spirit, incorporation into the body of Christ and the like, how can infant baptism be real baptism? If baptism means all this, what sense can it make to baptize infants?

We believe that the two forms of baptism together express a fuller meaning of baptism and that the best policy may be to practice them both. Like the Waldensians and certain Reformed churches, why not strike a compromise like the one in Acts 15? That story leaves no doubt that God is at work on both sides of the divide. On the one side, children are dedicated and brought up in the community; on the other side, children are pointed in baptism toward confirmation and a personal owning of faith at a suitable time. The goal of both practices is to enroll Christians as disciples, and this is what really counts. Why not respect one another's convictions and not require the rebaptism of anyone?

The idea of baptism as enrollment is not meant to remove the mystery of the sacrament. It would do so if it were the only point of significance, but it is not. Commitment to being a disciple of Jesus is only one of the meanings of baptism.

Simple Yet Profound

Significant events can be very ordinary at first. Decisions to be married, to settle a large contract or to emigrate to another country - these are simple actions with enormous consequence. Such decisions reveal their significance over time. Baptism too is a simple act and may seem rather prosaic. We may hardly remember the circumstances of our baptism. But it has placed us in the church of Jesus Christ.

As we take our place there, we have the assurance that our sins are behind us and that failures will not exclude us in the future. The Spirit is eager to teach and help us to enter the mysteries of the kingdom. Wherever we go in the world, we have a ready place at God's family table. We also become priests in the ministry of a local church community (1 Peter 2:9). Within the body (1 Corinthians 12:13) we are given gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11), and share experiences of joy, love, healing and worship as a foretaste of glory through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Chapter 12 .....