A month or so ago, Perry Noble and Steven Furtick baptized almost 1,000 people between them in a remarkable day when they sprung the opportunity on people who had come to church with no knowledge of what they’d end up being asked to do.
As I showed you back then, Noble spent just a few minutes actually talking about what baptism meant. The message boiled down to something like, “Go public for Jesus. Get dunked.”
Is baptism really a wet public relations exercise? If it’s all about going public, why would Jesus ask us to do it in church, or in pools set up behind a church? An announcement on Facebook or Craig’s List would be a much more effective way of telling the world of our devotion to Christ. If it’s about going public, Philip did it all wrong when he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the side of a desert road (Acts 8:26-40).
Although baptism is a public sacrament, telling the world about the state of our heart is not its purpose. By putting ourselves at the center of the sacrament, we invert its real meaning and function.
Baptism has three purposes.
- Cleanse us.We are, by nature, corrupt and sinful. Nothing we can do can cleanse us from the stench of our sins that stand as an offense to a perfect and holy God. By his grace, God provided a means of cleansing us of those sins, a method introduced in the Old Testament through sacrifices and blood. This relationship between blood and cleansing is found in a number of places, including Hebrews 9:13-14.
If the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Verses 19-21 in the same chapter describe Moses’ washing the people and vessels of worship with blood to cleanse them before God.
Jesus’ blood becomes a once-for-all substitution of the blood of goats and bulls and washes us from our sinful filthiness. The reason that John prepared the way for Jesus by baptism was to introduce Jesus as the ultimate baptizer. Note John’s first words of identification: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Lamb’s blood cleans us from our sin. Jesus baptizes us.
- Unite us with Christ.Once we are cleansed, it becomes possible to become a child of God. Baptism is a sign of our cleansing and subsequent unification (though not in the sense of being God) with Christ. We see that idea in Romans 6:3-4 where Paul explains why grace is not a license to sin.
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him though baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live in new life.
If you re-read that passage and substitute united in place of baptism, Paul’s argument does not change.
In fact, Paul does use that word in the very next verse to extend the argument.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:5)
We see this sense of unification through baptism in Acts 8:14-17.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Again, substitute united for baptized and the meaning of what is going on here becomes clear. Not only are we united with Christ through baptism; we are also united to the Holy Spirit.
- Point to the Holy Spirit.If the Holy Spirit is an integral aspect of baptism, his role is going to be consistent with the existing purpose of baptism. Titus 3:5-7 shows us the relationship between baptism, Jesus’ blood and the Holy Spirit.
[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
God give us his grace, Jesus offers his purifying blood, and the Holy Spirit washes us from our sin.
This Holy Spirit baptism is seen clearly for the first time in Acts 2, though Peter explains that Joel predicted it.
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. (Acts 2:17)
It is no coincidence that we also see the Holy Spirit as a participant in Jesus’ own baptism.
John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ”˜The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:32-33)
Baptism is a profoundly beautiful and simple sacrament that tells the story of God’s grace to us. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and cleansed us from our sin, making us right with God.
That means that baptism is a sign of something that God does to us, not something we do for God.
Just as the symbols of the Eucharist match the reality of their referents, we might expect that the mode of baptism will match the spiritual reality of what it represents.
But that’s a topic for another day.