WAYPOINTS: Baptism, a new chapter in journey of faith
I wonder what words John the Baptist used when he baptized Jesus. For almost 30 years the Son of God had lived in relative obscurity in a little village known as Nazareth in the northern part of Israel. Recently, Jesus’ cousin John had answered God’s call to a prophetic ministry challenging people to turn away from their sins and back to the Lord. As a sign of their repentance, men and women flocked to be baptized by John in the Jordan River in a symbolic washing away of all the bad thoughts and words and deeds which clung so closely to them.
One day as John was ministering he looked up to see Jesus walking toward him and asking to be baptized. John must have been stunned, for at that moment the Holy Spirit revealed to him that the boy he had grown up playing alongside was the promised Messiah. John protested, but relented at Jesus’ insistence — and when Jesus came up out of the water the Spirit who had always dwelt within him now flowed powerfully through him — and the history of the world changed forever.
From day one, followers of Jesus have used baptism as a mark of a new chapter in their journeys in faith. There are various aspects of baptism about which Christians have disagreed over the generations, but there are foundational truths which need to be honored.
The first is that baptism has two parts — John’s portion emphasizes repentance and forgiveness. Saint Luke put it this way in his gospel, And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)
One of the first things the Holy Spirit does in a person’s life is convict him of just how great a distance his own sin has pushed him from God. The chasm that separates sinful man from a holy God is so great that there is no way we can earn salvation for ourselves. But, God be praised, when Jesus went to the cross he embraced for himself the consequence that should have been delivered to us. Our debt has been paid. There is no sin humbly confessed that our Lord will not forgive. Through the waters of baptism those sins are washed away now and forever.
What Jesus adds to the forgiveness offered in baptism is rebirth. Jesus once looked at a leader of the Jews named Nicodemus, who had come to him seeking answers to questions of faith, and said to him, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’.” (John 3:6,7) When a person is baptized the old man is symbolically drowned and dies to the hold that the world, the flesh and the devil have had on his life. Rising up out of the water, the Holy Spirit breathes new life into the newly baptized and he is born again into God’s family.
A second truth is that when a person is baptized the Holy Spirit does not just visit him, but dwells within him. On the day of that first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was made available to every follower of Jesus, the disciples poured out of the upper room where they had been staying. A crowd gathered around to see what was happening, so Saint Peter figuratively reached into his back pocket and pulled out the very first sermon preached by the Church. It must have been one that would have made Billy Graham proud because when Peter finished the people were cut to the heart and asked what they needed to do. Peter replied, Repent and be baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38,39) They baptized 3,000 people that day. It is this same Holy Spirit who has empowered believers in every generation since to produce fruit for the building up of God’s kingdom.
A final truth that must not be taken for granted is that baptism matters to God. Remember that conversation Nicodemus and Jesus were having that we considered earlier? Listen to this startling statement Jesus made, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) Later, as Jesus is preparing to ascend into heaven following his resurrection he makes the point again, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15,16) Clearly, faith is the gateway to larger life. But just as clearly, the Lord is not recommending baptism as one option among many in a buffet of choices for how one walks in the faith.
Have you accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Have you confessed your sin and invited him into your heart? If so, have you been baptized as a reflection of that commitment? If you answered, “Yes,” then alleluia. If “No,” then think seriously about getting yourself to the nearest community of believers and let them prepare you for a death and rebirth which will change your life forever.
The Rev. Mike Hesse is senior pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church in Destin.