Jesusâ€™ great commission is to make disciples and the first step is to baptize them. When I read Peterâ€™s statement of the gospel in Acts 2, he moves from Revelation, what God has done (Jesus is Emanuel, died, rose, exalted, poured out the Spirit) to Response, what we do (repent and believe expressed in baptism) to Results, what we get (forgiveness, new life of the Spirit, new community, new mission and new hope). The command to be baptized is right there with repent and believe. But whenever I teach it, the immediate response is â€œBut you donâ€™t have to be baptized to be saved.â€ When I ask what verse 38 means, there is just a refusal to follow what the text says.
So how do we understand baptism?
My current thinking is that conversion to baptism is like wedding to marriage.
We correctly require that a couple do a wedding, the public commitment of a man and a woman to life long marriage. The ceremony culminates a time of acquaintance, getting to know each other, romance, counseling, and engagement. We refuse to accept it if they just move in together, claiming they are married in their hearts or in the eyes of God. Many contemporary folk point out that marriage is not just a piece of paper or words said in a ceremony. That is certainly true. So the point is to make the ceremony expression of truth in commitment. Wikipedia notes that most wedding ceremonies involve an exchange of wedding vows by the couple, presentation of a gift (offering, ring(s), symbolic item, flowers, money), and a public proclamation of marriage by an authority figure or leader. Special wedding garments are often worn, and the ceremony is followed by a wedding reception. Music, poetry, prayers or readings from Scripture or literature also may be incorporated into the ceremony. The ceremony is very meaningful when it expresses the reality of the loving commitment of the couple. A wedding could be an empty ritual, but it seldom is â€“ other than in a Las Vegas quickie! The wedding ceremony is not sufficient for a marriage, but it is essential.
In a similar way one comes to Jesus in a similar way to getting to marriage. You get to know Jesus, check things out, get some counseling and then decide to connect. Taht culminates in baptism, beginning the new life of being a Jesus follower. Baptism is the public expression of a personâ€™s commitment to Jesus, a confession of their repentance (change of mind or values, allegiance to a different God â€“ or as I say it, changing my mind about who is God around here) and faith (trusting that what God says is really true). There is a vow given, a pubic proclamation by an authority (I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). Just as a wedding seals the intent to marry, the baptism seals the intent to join with Jesus and His body.
Weddings and baptisms are more than a ceremony. Something actually happens in the performance. When a couple exchange vows and rings and I pronounce them husband and wife, they become something they were not before. Similarly, if baptisms were done right, the ceremony would be the seal and beginning of something that had never been there before.
I can no more imagine baptizing babies than doing a wedding for babies. What is more common in my sphere of influence is delaying the ceremony for years after conversion. When I ask why the delay, the answer is some variation of â€œwe need to be sure itâ€™s real.â€ That seems a little like a man and a woman moving in together â€œto be sure we really love each other!â€ The biblical pattern is that when people make the commitment to Jesus, they are baptized immediately to express that commitment. Baptism could be an empty ceremony, but it far less likely when it is tied immediately to the commitment of Jesus.
I recently saw pictures of a father baptizing his daughter, of a woman baptizing a woman she helped become a disciple of Christ. Those were full of wonderful to see. I baptized a young woman who was out of a very abusive background who had found forgiveness and cleansing in Jesus. As we prayed in the big baptismal pool at Living Hope Church on Easter, the truth of what Jesus meant in her live went deep. I would give anything for a video of her face as she came out of the water.
Letâ€™s make baptism a celebration, a commitment, a rich ceremony of the beginning of new life!