Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Baptism and Freedom

Two Sundays ago in a post on biblical symbols and the spiritual realities to which they point, I promised to take a further installment or two to consider the symbolic acts of Christianity. People refer to these meaningful gestures as ceremonies, rituals, rites, sacraments or ordinances. What we call them is not terribly important provided we recognize their value and participate in them.

Gestures Like These

I will probably use the word “gestures” more than once to describe these. That is not a way of minimizing them. Rather, it refers back to a point I made in that earlier post, which is that a symbol itself is not the reality to which it points. The two things are distinct, and the spiritual truth to which a symbolic act is intended to direct our attention is always the thing with which God is most deeply concerned.

If that seems unbelievably obvious to you, bear in mind that throughout history people have constantly got it wrong. They continue to get it wrong today, emphasizing rituals and sacraments as if they are talismanic or even magical. This is a point Jesus made to the Pharisees — who took ritual very seriously indeed — on many occasions. If we look at Talmudic Judaism today, it is evident the Lord’s lesson was never apprehended.

I also pointed out that there are really only two New Testament ordinances; at least, only two that are commanded.

Ordinances and Commands

I know, I know: ordinances are commands. If my wording seems redundant, it’s because some folks, like Charles Orr, list as Christian ordinances things that are never specifically commanded of all believers, such as foot washing and the laying on of hands. Thus, a distinction needs to be made between things the Lord specifically instructed his followers to do and things we infer he would probably like us to do, even if such a distinction produces awkward, repetitive constructions like “commanded ordinances”.

But only two ordinances? This represents a notable shift from the Old Testament order, which was full of symbolic acts such as tithing, the keeping of the Sabbath, the celebration of the feasts of Jehovah, the offering of sacrifices and incense, the Nazirite vow, the sprinkling of blood, the release of the scapegoat, and any number of other gestures that signified something greater in the spiritual realm. This comparative New Testament freedom from obligations imposed by law ought to be expected: it is quite consistent with the period of grace with which we are currently blessed.

The two familiar NT ordinances to which I refer are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both involve symbolic gestures which signify something greater. The first is a singular event; the other the ongoing practice of the church. When we run into error or controversy around these practices, it is usually of the same sort: obsessing about the symbol itself to the detriment of the thing it signifies.

Baptism, Burial and Resurrection

I will keep this first post short since, as you can see, we have a six-part series on baptism linked in our left column for anyone interested in greater detail about it. Here I am concerned primarily with the relationship of the symbolic act of baptism to the spiritual reality it depicts for us.

Baptism is the act of being immersed in water and re-emerging. Other symbolic acts such as sprinkling are referred to as baptisms by some churches, but they are not the baptism of the first century church. The Greek words baptizō and baptisma are related to baptō, meaning to dip. All signify immersion or submersion. Moreover, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon indicates that contemporary writers including Plato, Polybius, Diodorus, Strabo, Josephus and Plutarch each use the same term to refer to things like the sinking of ships. The baptisms we find described in our Bibles all involved rivers or other bodies of water. Figuratively, in Greek, to be “baptized” means to be overwhelmed.

Is a picture of the correct symbol forming?

Origins and Antecedents

Where did this symbol come from, you ask? It is thought that a sort of baptism developed within Judaism over the centuries prior to the coming of Christ as a convenient way to perform the ritual cleansings prescribed in the Law of Moses. Baths for ritual immersion called mikveh were used to wash the ritually defiled. After the Babylonian captivity mikveh were also used to ceremonially wash converts from other nations. Some of these ancient baths exist today on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

That said, there is no real Hebrew equivalent for the ordinance of baptism. The concept of baptism as a rite appears in our Bibles right at the beginning of the New Testament with the coming of John the Baptist. We are not told how baptism became the defining feature of John’s ministry, but if he did indeed take a formalized Jewish cleansing ritual, add the new repentance angle, and then perform it on crowds of willing Jews far away from the Temple Mount and far outside the authority of the religious elite — and in the Jordan River of all places — it should hardly surprise us to read that John’s ministry dismayed and antagonized the Pharisees.

Buried Therefore With Him

But back to immersion for a moment. That aspect is of paramount importance when we consider how the symbolic act of baptism relates to the spiritual reality it depicts for Christians. While the cleansing aspect was primary in pre-Christian baptisms like John’s, the death and resurrection of Christ gave the Christian baptism new and powerful meaning.

The apostle Paul appropriates baptism as a symbol of burial and resurrection:
“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.”

“… having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God.”
Not Like Other Baptisms

Peter distinguishes Christian baptism from earlier baptisms this way:
“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.”
Here he notes not just that the removal of dirt from the body is no longer the primary import of the rite of baptism, but that, just as Paul indicates, baptism’s significance is now all wrapped up in Christ’s resurrection. What that means to the believer cannot be overestimated.

Why does it matter so much? Again, it is Paul that unpacks this truth for us:
“Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.”
If we indeed died with Christ and were raised again with him, as Christian baptism reminds us, then sin in my life today is a choice, not a slavemaster. “We will also live with him” is not some platitude equivalent to “We will go to heaven someday.” No. We will LIVE with him. Now. Here. Every day. It means the resurrection power of Jesus Christ is at work in every one of our lives to allow us to be free from sin. The nature of Adam, which used to control me, is now dead to me. I am dead to Adam. I am free of the domination of sin. And it remains to each of us to make that freedom a reality in our lives.

Is that a truth many times greater than the ritual that symbolizes it for us? It certainly is.

Preferences and Requirements

Now, I very much prefer the ritual of water baptism by immersion just like John’s, not least because it most accurately reflects the spiritual reality it points to. I actually prefer it outdoors, where unbelievers and seekers can see it and be alternately offended by or attracted to it.

But I recognize this: that the symbol is not the reality. A ritual cannot save you, and a ritual cannot free you to live a life pleasing to God. It only points to the work of Christ, which can and did. The thief on the cross was never baptized, but he was promised paradise. I guarantee you many unbaptized believers have joined him in paradise since, not because the ritual of baptism is unimportant, but because it is only a symbol.

The reality in Christ is far, far greater. If you have to choose between the two, go with the reality.

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