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More Than a Ceremony
Rich with symbolism, baptism is one of the most significant turning points in the Christian life.
he new convert stood waist high in water, shivering slightly - not from the cold but the tremendous importance of the ceremony. As he stood there, memories flooded in. The words of the minister snapped him back to the present. 'Have you repented of you sins and accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour?'
'yes', he replied. As the minister began to speak again, the man was filled with thoughts of his own past and the significance of the minister's words: '...your repentance of your sins...and your acceptance of Jesus Christ... I now baptise you...into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.'
The hands of the minister pressed down on him, forcing him under the water. When he emerged, the once-sombre atmosphere of the baptismal ceremony was displaced by exhilaration. Congratulations', the minister exclaimed, reaching out to shake his hand. He had been baptised!
But what did it all mean? Many adults in the Western, or Christian, world have heard about water baptism. They may be familiar with the Bible, which clearly reveals that God requires his elect to be baptised at an age when they are fully aware of what they are doing. Some have even been baptised by complete immersion at one time or another in their adult life.
Yet what most of these people understand about the purpose of this ceremony is quite limited. Perhaps some have only looked at baptism as an initiation rite into a particular Church or denomination. If so, they would be wrong.
A New Beginning
Baptism's real symbolism is, first of all, the beginning of our relationship with God and with others in the body of true believers founded by Jesus Christ. However, baptism means still more than that. Rich with meaning, it is the most significant ceremony in the Christian life. It symbolises several distinct aspects of Christianity, all vital for Christians to understand.
One basic symbol of baptism is belief. Through baptism, an individual shows that he believes God - and that he believes Christ died for the sins of humanity and was resurrected that we might live (John 3:16, I Peter 1:3).
Belief was a prerequisite for baptism in the days of the apostles (Acts 8:12), just as it is today. 'He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned,' says the Bible (Mark 16:16). When Christ's apostles preached, they admonished prospective converts to believe and be baptised. After Paul had 'reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath' in Corinth, for example, 'many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized' (Acts 18:4,8).
Baptism signifies total commitment to a different way of life. Christ spoke about the commitment, emphasising the importance of first 'counting the cost, before becoming a disciple: 'For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it - lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all who see it begin to mock him' (Luke 14:28-29).
Baptism, then, is the beginning of a life of change. Commitment is essential to a Christian's success. Without it, a Christian will not remain faithful.
Baptism also demonstrates repentance from a past way of life. On the annual festival of Pentecost, just weeks after Christ's crucifixion, Peter preached a powerful sermon to those present at the temple in Jerusalem. He spoke about his people's guilt in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2).
Devout Jews from every nation of the Roman world 'were cut to the heart' and asked Peter what they could do. Peter answered: 'Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit' (verse 38).
At conversion a person must recognise that his life apart from God is wrong and will ultimately lead to death. He or she must deeply repent of that God-less state of mind. Repentance incudes willingness to give up those thoughts and actions which are contrary to God's will as clearly expressed in the Bible. It is, as Paul says, death of the old self: 'Do you not know that many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3). In fact, Paul goes on to show that immersion in water is a kind of burial of the past way of thinking and acting contrary to God's law: 'Therefore we were buried through baptism into death' (verse 4).
Cleansing and Reconciliation
Another meaning of baptism is our cleansing and consequent reconciliation to God. God will not compromise with sin. 'But your iniquities have separated you from God; and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear' (Isaiah 59:2).
Baptism is a symbol of cleansing the sinner and forgiving his or her sins. As Paul explained: '...Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord' (Acts 22:16). This cleansing of sins reconciles us to God, making a relationship with the creator possible: 'When we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son' (Romans 5:10).
Not until we are clean does God, who cannot compromise with sin, give us his Holy Spirit. This brings us to another crucial purpose of baptism. Baptism symbolises the human need for the Holy Spirit.
God of course, already knows this. But he wants us to realise we need his help. Until we do, he will not give us his Holy Spirit.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul explains 'the carnal [or human] mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be' (Romans 8:7). When a person is baptised, he or she is saying in essence: 'I can't do it alone, God I need your help.' God sees this attitude and willingly gives us all the help we need (Acts 2:38). Following baptism, God gives truly repentant men and women a seed of his own nature - his own Spirit.
The waters of baptism are symbolic of his vital Holy Spirit: 'For John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now' (Acts 1:5). Baptism also demonstrates our submission to God. Dealing with the past is only part of a Christian's responsibility. At baptism each believer must also be willing to begin living God's laws and be willing to submit to God, living in accordance with his ways (James 4:7). But more than this, to be baptised you need the involvement of others - you cannot do it alone. A believer must ask the Church for help from those who 'watch out for your souls' (Hebrews 13:17).
A most encouraging meaning of baptism is resurrection. Just as Christians rise from the waters of baptism, so in the future God has promised to save them from death by a spiritual resurrection (I Corinthians 15:52, Philippians 3:10-11).
However, our present life must also be made new, Paul says, 'For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ' (Galatians 3:27). The Christian is to walk in 'newness of life' (Romans 6:4) in everything he thinks, says does. Baptism also unites individual believers together. (Ephesians 4:5). God draws his people from all races, nationalities and walks of life. A collection of personalities so diverse might seem difficult to unite, but with God's Spirit, given upon baptism, Christians become united by a common purpose and divine heritage (I Corinthians 12:13).
This unity with other parts of the spiritual body of Christ - the Church - is also a crucial meaning. We are not called to be Christians alone, but rather to be part of a family of people with a similar mind, those who have also repented of their past way of life and who are sincerely trying to live God's way.
Baptism, then, is not simply a personal link with God. It also establishes bonds with other people who, despite many superficial differences, have a common purpose.
Finally, baptism symbolises our adoption into the family of God: 'For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption' (Romans 8:14-15). Baptism, then is not the crowning achievement for an individual who has overcome the world on his own. It is instead, a turning point that begins the new Christian life.
Baptism is both an end and a beginning!