What is Baptism?

Chris Hutchison on June 3, 2018
June 3, 2018

What is Baptism?

Message By:
Passage: Matthew 28:18-21, Romans 6:3-4

This has been a rich morning so far. We’ve sung together, celebrated the Lord’s table together, and then soon, we’re going to watch 5 people get baptized.

I thought that given the big part that baptism will play in our service today, it would be a good opportunity for us this morning to pause our series in 1 John and focus in on baptism. And the question we really want to answer is, “what is baptism?” Maybe you understand that Jesus tells his disciples to be baptized, just like we read in our one passage today, but you’ve always had questions. Why do we do this thing with all this water? What’s going on here? Why baptism? What is baptism?

So our message this morning really comes in two parts. For the first half we’re going to talk about the big picture of what baptism is, where it came from, and what it means today. Then, for the second half, we’re going to witness 5 baptisms, hearing their testimonies and seeing them follow Jesus in this way.

So let’s start by looking at some big-picture ideas of what baptism is.

Covenants and Signs

The first and most important thing for us to understand about baptism is how it fits firmly in place with the way God has related with His people for thousands of years.

If you look throughout the history recorded in Scripture, you’ll see that God has a pattern of making covenants with his people. A covenant is a special relationship built upon a set of commitments and promises. When you look through the Scriptures you see a series of covenants God makes with His people- with Noah and Abraham and Israel and David and then with us through Jesus Christ.

Ans what we’re going to explore in our sermon series this fall is how these covenants really form the backbone of the unfolding story of Scripture.

What I want us to think about today is the way in which for almost every covenant that God makes, He gives a physical sign to His people as a sign and a seal of the covenant.

So for example, God’s covenant with Noah, the sign of the covenant was the rainbow. That rainbow represented His covenant, is was a reminder of the covenant, and it sealed it- it sealed the deal, making it official.

In God’s covenant with Abraham, the sign of the covenant was circumcision. It represented God’s promise to make Abraham a people and to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring.

In God’s covenant with the nation of Israel, made through Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the sign of the covenant was actually the Sabbath. We see this in Exodus 31:13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.”

And we can see that other places as well (Ezekiel 20:12). The Sabbath was the covenant sign of the Mosaic covenant.

An Example from Marriage

Now this idea of covenants and signs might sound strange to you, but it’s really a lot more familiar than you think. All of us have very likely more than once witnessed a modern-day covenant ceremony known as a wedding.

In a wedding ceremony, a couple enters into a covenant with each other: a special relationship bound by commitment and promise.

And in that ceremony, once their covenant vows have been made, they exchange a public, physical sign of their covenant: a wedding ring. That wedding ring is a covenant sign which symbolizes the commitment and serves as a reminder of it.

But it does more than merely symbolize the covenant, it also seals the covenant, making it official. “With this ring, I thee wed.”

Now when we here those words, we understand that there’s nothing magical about the ring in and of itself. A ring by itself without a wedding ceremony and the exchange of vows doesn’t mean anything.

But when a ceremony and vows have taken place, the act of putting the covenant sign of the ring on their finger seals and completes our covenant with our marriage partner.

So this is how we should understand baptism in the flow of the Scriptures. When we understand that Jesus has brought about the New Covenant, and hear Jesus tell His apostles to make disciples and then baptize them, we should get what’s going on. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being invited into the New Covenant in his blood. And we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a sign and a seal of that covenant, Baptism, to go along with that.

Why Water?

So now we can ask a second question. Why water? The word “baptism” really just means to dip or immerse, and it’s in water obviously. Why did Jesus choose this sign to be a sign of the covenant?

Well, just like all the other covenant signs that God has used in the past, there is a connection between the sign and the covenant. Baptism has several layers of meaning in connection with the New Covenant.

One of those big layers of meaning has to do with the way in which water has been featured in the history of redemption. The idea of being saved from God’s judgement by passing through water features in the events of Noah and the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus, and even Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the fish.

The second layer of meaning has to do with the idea of water cleaning us from our sin. The Old Testament had several important rituals where water was used as a way to ritually cleanse someone from defilement so they could enter God’s presence.

In fact, if you visited a Jewish synagogue in the time of Jesus you’d be forgiven for thinking they had a baptismal tank in there. It was called a mikveh, and it was a ritual bath where someone would be cleansed according to the law of Moses. And again, the focus in that bath wasn’t so much on practically scrubbing away dirt as it was the ceremony of becoming clean before God’s presence.

So when John the Baptist showed up and began baptizing people, this is likely the background of thought they had for this. By being baptized they were demonstrating their need to cleansed from their in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah.

In 1 Peter chapter 3, the Apostle Peter talks about baptism, and listen how he connects these two big ideas together. He starts by talking about “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, 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 3:20–21)

Some people trip up on this passage because Peter seems to be saying that baptism saves us. But he follows that statement up by clarifying that he’s not talking about the removal of dirt from the body, but the inner “appeal to God.” In other words, it’s not the physical act of baptism that saves us, but the faith which baptism is acting out.

This is one of the passages that points us towards our understanding that baptism is for believers only, because only a true believer in Jesus Christ can make an appeal to God for a clean conscience, which Peter says baptism is all about.

But notice the big idea here: baptism corresponds to the flood. We could say that baptism reenacts the way that God saves His people from judgement. And baptism is a symbolic act of cleansing, reenacting the way that God has cleansed us from our sin.

Now there’s a third big aspect to baptism, and that’s the way that it reenacts the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And we heard this in the second passage which was read earlier for us, Romans 6:3-4:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

In our series through Philippians, we talked a lot about the idea of being in Christ, of being united to Jesus. When Jesus died, He died for us, in our place, and another way of saying that is that we died with Him. And baptism acts this out. As we go under the water, we are reenacting the way that we’ve been united with Jesus in His death.

And as we come up out of the water we reenact the way that we’ve raised with Jesus, born again to the New Creation life in Him.

All of this- all three of these aspects- are going on when we are baptized. We are acting out in miniature the whole drama of redemption.

We reenact the way that we’ve been saved from the judgement of God just like Noah and the children of Israel, who passed safely through the waters of God’s judgement. We reenact the way that we’ve been cleansed and washed from our sin by the Holy Spirit.

And we reenact our union with Jesus. We have been united with him in His death and life. He died and rose again for us, which means that in a real way we died and rose again with Him. And baptism reenacts that reality.

And just like a wedding ring, baptism is the sign and seal of our covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. Baptism makes our faith in Christ and inclusion in His church official, public, and permanent.

So that’s what it means for each of these people today. Today they are sealing and signifying their salvation by the official act of baptism. They are making it public and clear that they have been united to Christ through faith and are a part of the body of Christ.

What does this mean for the rest of us?

For starters, let’s celebrate! Let’s praise God for the gift of baptism, which gives us such a physical and tangible representation of the grace He’s extended to us in Jesus. Let’s celebrate these 5 individuals. This is a big moment for them in their life. Be encouraged yourself by their stories and their courage, and please pass on that encouragement to them afterwards.

Second, let’s recognize that if you are a baptized member of the body of Christ, you have a special responsibility to these people. They are making their faith public. They are going on the line with their commitment to obey Jesus.