The meaning of Christian baptism

1) In submitting to baptism, we identify ourselves with Christ (Romans 6:1-11; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12), and specifically with His death, burial and resurrection. It is a profound act of submission, and of personal commitment.

Just as Jesus died just once for all the sins of mankind, whether committed before His death or afterwards (Hebrews 9:27,28), so we are baptised just once for cleansing from all our sins (whether committed before or after our baptism).

2) It is our first lesson in obedience to our new Lord, and the first step of our walk of discipleship (Matthew 28:19). It is very, very simple (anyone can do it), but also very humbling. Genuine faith, as James reminds us (James 2:14), is always accompanied by actions. In the course of our Christian lives, we will serve our Lord in many and various ways; but we must all begin at the same place, where Jesus began His ministry – by going through the waters of baptism.

3) Baptism is the outward sign of incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church (Galatians 3:27). This is why it must be administered by a church – it is not an act of independence! In being baptised, we publicly declare that we wish to be counted among the people of God, and we swear allegiance to the One in whose name we are baptised (i.e. to Christ). Thereafter, we belong to Him – for baptism puts God’s Name on us (Matthew 28:19) – and we can be formally recognised as members of His church.

What baptism symbolises

There are many other possible ways in which we could express our commitment to Jesus. Why baptism? Immersion in water is symbolic of several things, and it helps us to understand what happens when someone becomes a Christian:

1) We are cleansed (I Corinthians 6:11).

After Paul had been converted, Ananias said to him, “Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away.” (Acts 22:16) Of course, it is not the baptismal water that removes sin (I Peter 3:21) but the blood of Christ (Revelation 7:14). But in submitting to baptism, Paul was putting his faith in Christ as his Redeemer, and rejecting his previous reliance on legalism. When baptism is performed at the time of conversion, it is truly “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) made visible.

2) We die and are raised to life (Colossians 2:12).

This is portrayed most clearly when baptism is by immersion. As we go under the water, we ‘die’. But we don’t stay dead; we are immediately ‘resurrected’ to new life. Thus baptism demonstrates the reality of what it means to be born again (John 3:5). After baptism, we begin a new life – a life of holiness (Romans 6:3,4), empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Peter compares baptism to the experience of Noah during the Flood (I Peter 3:20,21). Noah and his family passed through the waters of judgement safely because they trusted God and obeyed His instructions. Then they stepped out of the ark into what was effectively a new world, cleansed from the sins of the past. By obeying Christ’s command to be baptised, the believer acts this out: It is a way of saying to God with our whole body, ‘I trust you to take me into Christ like Noah was taken into the ark, and to make Jesus the substitute for my sins and to bring me through these waters of death and judgment into new and everlasting life through the resurrection of Jesus my Lord.’” (J Piper)

3) We cross over into God’s Kingdom (Hebrews 11:29).

Some people know exactly where and when they entered the Kingdom of God; others ‘drift’ in. But either way, at some point there must be a conscious realisation that we have ‘crossed over’ from death to life (John 5:24). For the Israelites, this happened at the Red Sea: after they had passed through the water (which Paul describes as a form of baptism – I Corinthians 10:2), they were safe from Pharaoh and no longer under his jurisdiction.

Baptism makes it clear where you stand. Many Jewish and Muslim converts have experienced relatively little family opposition while investigating Christianity, or even when attending Christian worship; but baptism is universally recognised as the moment of commitment, the declaration that they have changed their religion. It is at that point that their families reject them.

4) We become priests.

Christians are a ‘royal priesthood’ (I Peter 2:9), and washing was part of the consecration ceremony for priests (Exodus 29:4). This was probably the main reason for the baptism of Jesus, our High Priest (Matthew 3:13-15).

So what happens in baptism is a dialogue in ‘sign language’ between us and God, in front of an ‘audience’ of witnesses (ideally both believers and unbelievers). By being baptised, the candidate is saying: “I belong to Christ, I allow Him to cleanse me from my sins, and I commit myself to following Him.” And God replies, saying: “You are now born again of My Spirit, you are now clean, you are now holy, you are now a citizen of My Kingdom and one of My priests.” It is indeed a defining moment – the beginning of a new life.

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