I had the joy of baptizing my youngest child this past Sunday. Each time I do a baptism, I feel both elated and mystified.
Christians have been doing this baptism thing ever since Jesus himself was baptized. It’s one of only two things — baptism and communion — that all Christians do, regardless of what their denominational tradition is. But what is it? And why do we do it?
It’s interesting that for something so significant for Christians that we all do it that there is no real explanation about it in the Bible at all. Sure, there are a scattering of verses that refer to it. But it’s more assumed than explained. (So much for the Bible being a rule book!)
Theologian J.I. Packer calls our two practices of baptism and communion a “wash and a meal.” I like that.
As a kid, the central act that my family did that brought us together as a family was eating dinner together. It was a rare occasion when we didn’t all gather around the table together.
Sitting and eating together is the single most relationship-building thing any of us ever do. Tables make families.
(This is why our church is called The Table.)
Now, when I was a kid, my Mom would always send me to the bathroom to wash my hands before dinner. And I would grumble about it. Every. Single. Time.
But when I saw how dirty the water was when I washed up, I understood her request — though I never told her so.
As a kid, what I would have loved it if I could have washed my hands once — really, really well — and never had to do it again after that. Well, that’s what baptism is. It’s the washing up before sitting down at the family table to eat.
Now, how we do the washing up gets some people bent out of shape. I’ve had a man quit the church I was pastoring because I didn’t do it the right way, according to him. Some traditions sprinkle, some pour over, and some immerse. There are good reasons for each of the different ways that people are baptized. But none of them are worth ending relationships over.
The oldest instructions we have on how to do baptisms comes from the Didache (also called The Teaching of the Twelve) from about A.D. 110. It’s the oldest piece of Christian writing we have other than the New Testament. Here’s chapter 7 on baptism in its entirety:
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
OK. So much for battles over methods. All three of the basics are permitted. And I’ve done all three. I just prefer the symbol that going all the way under in a river adds to it.
First of all, Jesus was baptized in a river. And I like to take my cues from him as often as possible. That doesn’t make river baptism the best. It just adds to the symbol, knowing it’s how Jesus himself experienced it.
The baptism that John and Jesus practiced was a baptism of repentance and was most likely modeled after the Jewish practice of immersing converts to Judaism as a sign of entering a new life. And since they did it in the Jordan River, the river the Hebrews passed through to enter the Promised Land, they were basically having people become Jews all over again. It was a recognition that they were becoming God’s people as for the first time.
I also like it that a river has a sense of being alive that still water doesn’t. Did you notice the Didache uses the words “living water” instead of “river”? In John 7:38, Jesus speaks of our experience of the Spirit like this, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
I like to match the outward expression of faith in baptism with the inward experience of the Spirit, who is to be a river of living water within our hearts.
Next, I love that rivers are cold. This means there’s some pain involved in baptism, even if it’s just a gasp at the coldness. Yes, this life of following Jesus is a good one, but it’s got plenty of rough spots in it. It was Jesus after all who called us to take up our crosses and follow him.
When I baptized my friend Bob, it was on New Year’s Day and the lake had frozen over, with just a little open water at one part of the shore. And when I baptized my daughter, the temperature turned so cold that day it started to snow.
Snow is another beautiful biblical image, especially when paired with baptism. In Isaiah 1:18, we read the words of the prophet, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” And just like washing up before a meal is an act of getting cleaned up, so too is the act of baptism. It’s not that we’re cleaning ourselves up, but it’s a symbolic way of entering into the cleaning up of our lives that Jesus has done for us.
And then with immersion, you go all in. I love it as an image of “going all in” with Jesus. Nothing held back. Completely soaked in him.
Then, after you go in, you come out. Well, hopefully so! There have been a few that were a struggle to get back up. But just as Jesus went into the tomb and came out of it, dying and being resurrected, so baptism symbolizes death to an old way of life and rising to a new way of life.
In Col. 2:12, the apostle Paul writes, “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
And in 2 Cor. 5:17-19, Paul also writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
And finally, we are baptized “into” Christ. Just as we’re wrapped with a towel afterward and put on new clothes, so we are clothed with Christ. Paul writes essentially that in Gal. 3:27 — “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
If you haven’t gone “all in” or been cleaned up and wrapped up in Christ, by all means, get yourself baptized!