Topical Scripture: Matthew 28:18-20
A couple of weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News carried one of the strangest stories I’ve seen in a while. It seems that Beverly Mitchell of Douglasville, Georgia came home from 2½ weeks in Greece to find a stranger living in her house. Beverly Valentine broke in with a shovel, ripped up the carpet, took down the owner’s pictures and replaced them with her own. She had the electricity switched over to her name, and moved in a washer, a dryer, and a dog. She was even found wearing some of Ms. Mitchell’s clothes when she was apprehended. Just because someone is living in a house doesn’t make it theirs.
Just because you and I are in church today doesn’t mean we’re in Christ. We can be faithful attenders; we can serve on committees and sing in the choir; we can give through our various missions offerings, teach Bible studies and preach sermons, but still be lost spiritually. And we can be baptized and just get wet.
The most misleading and misunderstood symbol of salvation in a Baptist church is baptism. Many people think that baptism makes them a Christian. Many of our guests don’t understand why we baptize the way we do. Many of our members don’t really know what baptism means, either. And many of us can miss the present-tense relevance of an act we experienced years ago.
So let’s discuss baptism today: who, why, and so what? What does the subject have to do with the unified missions emphasis we have just concluded? With our church and her ministries? And with your life and faith today?
What does the Bible teach?
Here are some important biblical passages on our subject:
The risen Christ said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Peter exhorted the Pentecost crowd, “Repent and be baptized, every one 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). With this result: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (v. 41).
When the Ethiopian met Philip, “The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?’ And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:34-38).
When Peter met the Gentile Cornelius and his family, “Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:46-48).
When Lydia became the first European convert, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home” (Acts 16:14-15).
After God sent an earthquake to free Paul and Silas from their Philippian jail, “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.’ Then they spoke the word of God to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds, then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family” (Acts 16:29-34).
In Corinth, “Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
Paul wrote to the Romans, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).
He instructed the Colossians, “In Christ you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).
What does the biblical data tell us?
Fact one: baptism follows faith.
In the Great Commission, “make disciples” precedes “baptizing them.”
At Pentecost, “those who accepted his message were baptized.”
The Ethiopian heard the gospel before he was baptized by Philip.
Cornelius received the Spirit before he was baptized; Lydia responded to the gospel before she was baptized; the Philippian jailer responded to the gospel before he was baptized.
We do not find a single person in the Bible who was baptized before he or she came to personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Fact two: baptism is for anyone who comes to Christ.
Children can be baptized, if they have trusted in Christ. With the Philippian jailer, after Paul and Silas “spoke the word of God to him and to all the others in his house,” they baptized them (Acts 16:32). Crispus “and his entire household believed in the Lord” before they were baptized (Acts 18:8).
Anyone who is old enough to be a “disciple” (Matthew 28:19), who has chosen to follow and obey Jesus as their Lord, is old enough to be baptized. But he or she must come to Christ first.
No other requirements exist. No denominational affiliation is necessary; no feelings or actions must be demonstrated first.
Fact three: baptism is by immersion.
“Baptize” comes from the Greek word baptidzo, which means “to dip.” It is found in ancient literature to describe the act of dipping a cup under water, or washing clothes. It simply means to “immerse.”
After Jesus was baptized, he “went up out of the water” (Matthew 3:16). At the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:38-39).
According to Paul, baptism pictures the fact that we are “buried with him through baptism into death” and raised with him to new life (Romans 6:4). We have been “buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God” (Colossians 2:12).
What does our church believe?
What does all this mean to us today? Baptism is not only the most confusing thing Baptists do—it can be my most dangerous occupational hazard.
In our first church, for instance, I was baptizing one Sunday night. The water heater broke, and the baptism water was freezing. The tallest man I’ve ever baptized was scheduled for that night, and insisted on going forward. He was OK until I got his face under water. Then he started flailing around; he reached up, grabbed me by the neck, and dragged me completely under water with him. That was memorable.
In Midland I jokingly told the congregation one morning that if anyone ever got mad at me, they should poke holes in my waders. That night, they leaked. But I maintain it was a coincidence. A staff member thought it would be funny to pour a cup of cold water in my waders one Sunday. And on it goes.
There was a small boy who was baptized in a glass baptistery. He mistakenly went out the ladies’ side. As the pastor baptized the next person, he swam around him while everyone watched. Baptism is a hazardous activity.
And a confusing one as well. The Catholic tradition has historically viewed baptism as the removal of inherited original sin. Other traditions baptize infants as a way of dedicating them to the Lord.
Baptists see baptism as an act of obedience, following Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit.” And we see baptism as an act of proclamation, making public our faith so that others can follow our example in trusting Christ as their Lord. As Jesus was baptized publicly, so we baptize publicly. The first Christians immersed in lakes and rivers. Now that we have church buildings, we use them for the same purpose.
If someone wishes to join our church from a different baptism tradition, we welcome them with joy.
We do not suggest that believers’ baptism by immersion is necessary for their salvation. But we do believe that it is the New Testament model and method. And so we ask those from other traditions to make public their faith in this way. Not to be Baptist but to be biblical.
Not as “hazing to join the fraternity,” or because we believe our denomination is better than others. Believers baptized by immersion in other denominations are welcome to join us without being baptized again.
Not because what was done to dedicate a child to God through baptism was a bad thing. We believe in parental dedications, and celebrate them often. We simply believe that baptism is not the best biblical method of doing this. If you have been baptized as an infant, know that your immersion as a believer in no way invalidates the faith your parents demonstrated when they dedicated you to God. Rather, it completes their dedication as you make their faith your own public commitment.
Baptism is a way of affirming the faith which led to your infant baptism, and making it personal and public yourself.
Now, what is God’s word to those of us who have been baptized as believers by immersion? The Lord wants you to understand why you did what you did. He wants you to know that your baptism did not save your soul—it just got you wet. If you have not asked Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and become your Savior, you need to make that crucial decision today. Baptism tells people you are a Christian—it does not make you one.
And the Father wants you to know that he expects you to live your faith as publicly as when you announced it through baptism. Every day is a baptistery; every person you meet is sitting in the congregation watching to see if you’ll enter the waters of faith. Who is the last lost person for whom you prayed? When last did you speak a spiritual word to someone? Invite someone to church? Invite someone to Christ? Who has been baptized because of you? Who will be in heaven because of you?
It took very little courage for me to be baptized on a Sunday while in high school. It took a great deal of courage for me to make public my faith in high school on Monday. It still does.
I think of Marilyn Davis, the stroke victim who came to Christ and was baptized in our church a few months ago. She covered her tracheotomy when I poured water over her head, because if water got in her lungs she could have died. I think of Sue White, the emphysema patient who was baptized in our church a few years ago. She wore her oxygen down the steps into the baptistery, took it off, was baptized, and put it back on.
I remember a woman I baptized in Cuba. Her husband carried her into the lake, so I assumed she could not swim. After I baptized her I handed her back to him. He picked her up out of the water. And then I saw that she had only one leg.
I think of a teenage girl I saw baptized in Malaysia. Her father told her if she was ever baptized as a Christian, she could never go home again. So she brought her luggage to her baptism.
When last did it cost you something to make your Sunday baptism public on Monday? There is no greater privilege, responsibility, or joy.