Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Baptism in the New Testament

The Bible mentions the word baptism numerous times in the New Testament, and depending upon context, it can have a variety of meanings. Therefore, it is important for the believer to understand what we mean by the term baptism. Usually, when we speak of baptism today in the church, we refer mainly to “water baptism” that takes place after someone has made a profession of faith in Christ (see picture at right). However, it is important to note that in other places in Scripture there may be something else being referred to other than what we normally understand. Let’s start this blog series by looking at three understandings of baptism that we don’t normally think of.

1) John’s Baptism [John the Baptist] Matthew 3:1-11; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-18; John 1:19-28.

John’s ministry was primarily two-fold. First, his role in redemption history is that of a messenger, where he prophetically announced to all Israel the arrival of their long awaited Messiah (see especially, John 1:31). Second, John’s ministry also included what was known as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4). This baptism was provided so that Israel might prepare themselves spiritually for the new work of God that was to be seen in the ministry of Jesus. The baptism was performed after repentance and confession, and the baptism served as a symbolic proclamation of spiritual cleansing and setting oneself apart (consecration) for God. (cf. Ex. 19:10-11) It was a call to holiness, righteousness, and repentance, whereby many responded.

Further, the baptism that John performed was a one-time event in Israel’s history in preparation for the Messiah. However, the message and principle of repentance is still an essential element of saving faith and should be an ongoing expression of the Christian life where one seeks to set oneself apart from sin. For even today as Christians, though we are forgiven and are ongoing recipients of God’s grace, we still struggle with the flesh, and God’s call for us to embrace holiness ought to be a daily pursuit. Dr. Wayne Grudem helps us understand the nature of repentance in his helpful definition: “Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 713.

2) The Baptism of Jesus – The announcement from both heaven and earth of the Messianic mission and an example for us to follow. – Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34.

Jesus’ baptism was not a baptism of repentance but was rather to be seen as an official announcement or affirmation of several things. For example, Jesus’ baptism served as…

A) an affirmation of the ministry of John the Baptist, his message of repentance, and the standard of righteousness he was calling Israel to embrace.

B) an opportunity for Jesus to express his commitment to live a life of perfect obedience to the will of God and to the godly standard of righteousness that John was calling other people to.

C) a way to express his willingness to identify with sinners and to submit to things that were meant for sinners only. Ultimately this would foreshadow and find its greatest expression in Jesus’ death on the cross, where a sinless man willingly took on the just punishment for human sin.

D) an example for us, as we likewise express our desire before the entire believing community to be set apart for God and follow his will.

E) the divine announcement of Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy as the Messiah (see Isaiah 42:1-4; Psalm 2:7) and coronation of the King of Kings for His anointed and powerful ministry on the earth. [Note: Jesus was filled with the Spirit before this moment, and so the visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Jesus served as an expression of God’s special anointing].

Jesus’ baptism also gives us some practical things to consider. First, it communicates the importance of making a commitment to obey God and to seek and live out His will for our lives. Second, it calls us to recognize Jesus for who He really is (the King, our Savior, and Lord) and to give him the rightful reign in our hearts as we share in the blessings of His kingdom. And then finally, the text communicates the value of affirmation (in this text – Jesus’ affirmation of John the Baptist and God the Father’s affirmation of the Incarnated Son of God) and provides us with an example of how we ought to proactively affirm the ones we love, especially as we see them following the will of God.

3) The Baptism With/In the Holy Spirit – The mark of the beginning of the Christian life. – Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John: 1:33; 1 Cor. 12:12-13.

In the Gospels we learn that Jesus would be the one who would perform what is known as a baptism in/with the Holy Spirit on all those who are true believers and who have accepted Him as their Lord and Savior. This baptism is not a literal water baptism, but is an unseen "spiritual baptism" given at the beginning of the Christian life at our conversion whereby we are spiritually washed, spiritually made alive or born again with the Spirit (Titus 3:5), adopted into the family of God, justified, and incorporated into the body of Christ (“the Church,” 1 Cor. 12:13). One example of the power of the baptism with the Holy Spirit is found in our ability to make a break with the sinful life that we were once enslaved to, thanks to the indwelling Holy Spirit that is now at work within us. Indeed, the Holy Spirit was active at times in the Old Testament, even empowering, enabling, and filling a select few leaders in Israelite history. However, we do not see Him baptizing and indwelling all who believe like we see in the New Testament, and so we are a blessed people to be living by faith in this age.

Though we see the baptism with the Holy Spirit happening at Pentecost where 120 believers were speaking in foreign tongues, we understand this to be a transitional time in biblical history where the Spirit of God was first poured out in fullness at the dawning of the New Covenant or Church age (Acts 1:5). The purpose of speaking in tongues was that it was to be a sign for non-believing Jews (cf. 1 Cor. 14:22) that the kingdom of God was breaking into the world in great power and that Jesus was indeed their promised Messiah. Since this was a one-time transitional event in biblical history, we should not expect this to be the pattern for us today. In addition, Paul argues that we experience our baptism in the Holy Spirit at conversion (1 Cor. 12:13).

However, there does seem to be times today when the Holy Spirit will cause a Christian to go through a big moment or time of spiritual growth, where someone may experience a powerful movement of God in their hearts and go through a fresh time of renewal, cleansing, and empowerment for ministry. Yet this should not be understood as an additional baptism in the Holy Spirit since this would contradict Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 12:13, where all of us receive the baptism at conversion and are incorporated into the body of Christ. Hypothetically speaking, if some would receive an additional baptism with the Holy Spirit later in their Christian life, then this could set up the potential to have two different classes or categories of Christians -- those that have this additional baptism and those that don’t, and this could lead to a divided church, the very point Paul was arguing against in 1 Cor. 12.

Paul did say to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18, but this is simply a command to give the Holy Spirit (whom we have received in fullness at our conversion) more and more control of our lives, daily surrendering to His influence as He causes us to grow and helps us become more like Christ. In other words, to be filled with the Spirit is to increasingly surrender our lives to God’s control.

What a blessing it is to know that we receive the baptism with the Holy Spirit (a gift given to us by Jesus himself) at our moment of conversion, and that we are brought into the kingdom of God, incorporated into the body of Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, justified, cleansed, made spiritually alive (reborn), and begin the process of sanctification (a term used to describe spiritual growth as we become more like Christ in our knowledge, character and lifestyle). Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! NEXT: We will look at the New Testament teaching on believer's baptism by immersion.