A little while ago, I stood at the side of a pool in Yateley, Hampshire, and shared how I had decided that I wanted to follow Jesus. Shortly after, I got into the pool, had my Dad and a family friend pray for me, they put me under the water and then I got out.
I believe on that day something very special happened, and the significance of it can be found by looking at how the bible authors talk about water. I spoke at my church looking at the theme of water through the bible, how it connects to baptism, and what it means to be baptised as well as how it gives the Christian hope. You can watch the talk on YouTube or continue with the script below. The video is a bit jumpy but the audio works and it also includes a Q&A at the end where we answered questions that our church sent in during the morning. I start talking at 16 minutes or so.
Here at Hope Church we believe baptism is a full immersion under water. This is because the historic use of the word points to full immersion as well as what the first Christians did and taught which we see particularly the book of Acts. We will look more at that in a moment. We could go into the history of the early church as well but we’ll leave that for the Q&A if you like.
So what does baptism signify? Lets follow the theme of water through the bible.
Well, let’s begin in Genesis. In the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth but the earth was “without form and void” and the Spirit of God is hovering over what the bible calls “the waters”. Out of the waters God has created, he makes land, vegetation and populates the earth with creatures. In the second chapter we see water giving life to the garden of Eden.
God brings life from the waters and water brings life to the garden.
Following the theme of water we find ourselves in Genesis 6-9. What happens? The flood.
Water destroys. Not because God is angry, in fact it is the opposite. God is grieved that the creation he has made has set itself on the path of self-destruction. The waters become God’s judgement in which the consequences of rejecting the author and sustainer of life play out.
Noah and his family are saved from the water and are rescued from death.
The next time we see the waters in this way is in Exodus 2. If you’ve seen the beginning of Prince of Egypt you’ll recognise the story. Pharoah wants to kill all newborn boys and to save Moses his parents laid in a basket and placed in the river. His name is given to him because it means to be ‘drawn out’ and he was ‘drawn out’ of the water.
Moses was drawn from the water and rescued from death
As we heard last week from Chris, the Exodus is vital to understanding communion and in many ways the idea of baptism comes from this story as well. As the Israelites escape Egypt, they pass through the waters safely, but like the flood, God’s judgement on the Egyptians comes in the form of the waters closing over them.
The Israelites are saved from the water and are rescued from slavery and death.
As we go further through the Old Testament, we start to note that the laws focus on water and the need for cleanliness. If you have read up to this point you start to recognise that sin, the failure to love God and others properly, is a deadly corruption and requires some serious action to be dealt with or it leads to death. Leviticus 17 shows that it is through the blood of an animal that reconciliation with God can happen – what we call atonement. We see later in the bible that it is only Jesus that can bring total reconciliation through his blood.
The people of God are saved through the water and blood that cleanses and atones for sin.
Then we get to Joshua, we did a series on Joshua a bit over a year or so ago which can be found on our podcast. If you know the story you might remember the similarities to the story of the Exodus. Joshua and the Israelites have to cross the Jordan river to get to the promised land. God parts the waters for them.
The people of God pass through the waters into the promised land.
In 2 Kings 5 we see a man called Naaman wash in the Jordan 7 times and is healed from a skin disease and in the language of the passage, he is made clean.
Naaman is healed through the waters and rescued from shame.
Going into the wisdom books – Job to Song of Solomon – these themes continue. I’ll only give one example here from Psalm 69 which says,
"Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters. Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up or the pit close its mouth over me."
The Psalm continues on to end,
"The Lord hears the needy and does not despise his captive people. Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and all that move in them, for God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it; the children of his servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell there."
God will save his people from the waters of death and give them life in the land.
There is more in the prophets, don’t forget Jonah being saved from the sea, and many more!
Lets summarise so far, there are two themes around water –
The first: water can symbolise judgement, destruction and death.
The second: Passing through the waters with God means rescue, freedom, healing, being made clean, having shame removed, entry to the promised land and life. All of which can be summarised by the word ‘Salvation’.
While there is no explicit use of baptism in the Old Testament, the New Testament assumes the background that we’ve just discussed. In the first book in the New Testament, the gospel of Matthew, we see baptism with very little explanation in chapter 3. John the Baptist turns up and with all I’ve discussed so far in mind, especially the rituals of cleansing in Numbers and Leviticus, we have an understanding of why John might be baptising people. John calls it a “baptism of repentance”. Repentance simply means to turn around – John is calling people to turn their lives towards God through this act of baptism.
Continuing on in Matthew 3, Jesus meets with John and John recognises that Jesus doesn’t need to repent. Jesus responds to John’s questioning with the explanation that his being baptised is to ‘fulfill all righteousness’. This simply means that Jesus is showing what obedience to God looks like. Baptism for Jesus is the initiation of his work, his ministry of teaching and healing as God pours his spirit on him and confirms his identity as the son of God.
Jesus’ baptism is a vital step in accomplishing God’s plan for salvation.
Jesus’ ministry continues and at the end of his ministry he is crucified, placed in a tomb and 3 days later he rises from the dead. He is seen by his disciples and they are changed forever as he explains to them how he has fulfilled what the scriptures have pointed to – his people will be rescued from death by a person who will be wounded by it. He tells his disciples that
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28)
From this point forward, baptism is assumed as a starting point of the Christian life. Throughout Acts we see the disciples, now called Apostles (which means ‘sent ones’), doing just what Jesus commanded. They baptise new believers like the Ethiopian in Acts 8, the Apostle Philip explains the Book of Isaiah and the Ethiopian spots some water and asks to be immediately baptised. We see Peter speaking to a crowd in Acts 10, the Holy Spirit falls on those who heard the words and Peter baptises anyone and everyone.
Before I wrap all of this up together there is one more thing I think is worth pointing out and hopefully bringing a bit of clarity on.
In Peter’s speech in Acts 2 he says,
"Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38)
What does it mean to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ? Well Jesus says in Matthew 28 that he has the authority of Heaven and Earth and that he will be with those who are in him always. This is a claim that Jesus is not just a man but God in flesh. To be baptised in his name is to put your trust in his identity that he has the power to forgive sins and to offer eternal life. John puts it like this in his gospel,
"Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God " John 1:12
By being baptised in his name you show that you are a part of the family of God. You are now a part of a global community that seeks to follow Jesus in everything, no matter how tough it might get. You are part of a story that goes back to the very beginning of creation and part of a people that are called to live in the kingdom of God here and now living forgiveness, love, hope and peace and offering salvation in the name of Jesus to any that want it.
It is clear from scripture, that baptism is both important to the life of a Christian and highly symbolic for the story of God’s people. Through baptism we can see how we fit in that story because we join in with the story of salvation the moment we go into the water.
As Christians we go into the waters because Jesus did and commanded us to.
We go into the waters knowing that we are made clean
We go into the waters knowing that on the other side is freedom from the slavery of sin
We go into the waters knowing that on the other side is the promised land of new creation
We go into the waters of death knowing that, through Jesus’ resurrection, we will be raised to eternal life
We go into the waters in the name of the father the son and the holy spirit because we have become part of the family of God.
While I am sure I was told what my baptism symbolised when I was 12 years old. It means far more to me now the more that I understand the bible and the story of God’s rescue. It is a symbol of salvation.
Do you see why it is significant? The waters of life swirl around us and if we face them on our own terms they will end up destroying us. BUT … with God, no matter how tough things get, in fact even if we die, we will live again.
Are you afraid of death? Cling to Jesus and find life. If you are baptised, remember the significance of that day - that while in the waters, even under the water, you will rise out of them to new life.
Are you struggling in your relationship with God or struggling with sin? Has your disconnection with church meant you struggle to feel close to God? You are not alone, and I want to encourage those of you who are wrestling with sin because of this with a couple of verses from scripture that connect with baptism.
Paul writes in Romans 6 to encourage those wrestling with sin and to answer a theological problem with the idea of grace:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”
So, while we wrestle with sin, it has no power over you. The best remedy for sin is falling more in love with Jesus and following his command to love others. This is what baptism symbolises, your death to the powers of this world and the new life we have in Jesus.
For those of you feeling distant from God the author of the book of Hebrews tells us that we can
“draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”.
While baptism does not save us, the act is a visible and memorable connection for us with the family of God. If you have decided to follow Jesus, know that you can already come into his presence. You can draw near now, even if you haven’t been baptised, and you can look forward to being baptised in the near future.
If you don’t have this assurance or if you’d like prayer for anything else I’d love to pray with you. Feel free to get in touch.
If this is all new to you, you don’t even know what you think about Jesus, feel free to get in touch. I think Jesus is the good news that everyone needs to hear. There is hope even in the face of death and there is life that defeats the grave on offer to all who want to accept it. I’d love to pray with you either through Zoom or a socially distant walk if you are nearby.