Summary: the meaning and significance of Biblical Baptism
There is a story about a Baptist pastor who had just started serving a new congregation. For eight Sundays in a row he preached on the importance of baptism. Finally, the chairman of the deacon board approached him and said, "Preacher, we think you need to choose another theme to preach on." The pastor responded, "Well, I did not know you felt that way. Why don't you just pick out a Bible text and I'll preach on that." The deacon then randomly opened a Bible, closed his eyes and put his finger in the middle of the page. He said, "OK, Pastor, here's the text, Matthew 3:10 - "The ax is laid at the root of the tree." The next Sunday the pastor got up in the pulpit, read that verse, and then said, "Amen. That's wonderful. They laid the ax at the root of the tree. Why would anyone do that? So they could cut down the tree, of course, and then dam up the creek, and get the water deep enough to have a baptism."
Friends, unlike that pastor, I don't have a preoccupation with baptism. This week I realized that though I have been a Baptist pastor for about 17 years, I don't think I have ever preached a sermon on baptism. Oh, I have addressed the subject sometimes, but I have never devoted an entire message to the topic. Well, that is going to change today. As I prepared for today's service, I realized that there would probably be people here, and certainly some who watch on television, who have never witnessed a Baptist type of baptism, where the person is put all the way under the water. If you saw that for the first time today, it may have seemed a little strange or even scary. I also realize there are plenty of people here who have been Baptists all their lives, who were baptized years ago, but who seldom think about the meaning and significance of this event. So, whether this was the first, or the tenth, or the hundredth baptism you have observed, I think we can all benefit from exploring some things the Lord has to say on this topic. So let's pause and pray that God would speak to us through His Word.
Why don't we talk about baptism very often, even in a Baptist church like ours? I suspect it is a topic that makes us a little uncomfortable because it is one that has been so divisive over the years. There was a book written a few years ago called Baptism: The Water That Divides. While Baptists practice "believers baptism by immersion," most other churches utilize other methods such as sprinkling or pouring, and will usually baptize people when they are infants. In the past, this difference was seen literally as a life or death issue. Leaders of other churches often advocated executing Baptists as dangerous heretics, and Baptists were usually willing to die for their convictions. I have to admit that I don't really understand either position. Though I certainly agree with the traditional Baptist teaching and see baptism as an important doctrine, I don't see it as an essential view. I know there are many wonderful Christians who have very different beliefs on baptism than I do. Some of my most cherished spiritual mentors are not Baptists. For example, Francis Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis, R. C. Sproul and J. I. Packer are men whose books fill my shelves and who God has used to nourish my soul, but they all believed in infant baptism. I find that I have much more in common with non-Baptists who are strong evangelicals, then I do with Baptists who are theologically more liberal. Within evangelical circles baptism is usually treated as a subject that we agree to disagree on, and I am glad for that.
The unfortunate result, however, is that baptism is a subject that often gets ignored, even though it is important. Christians from almost all denominations agree that this is not good. Yes, there are a handful of folks who argue that baptism was only intended for 1st Century Christians, or that the Bible commands only spiritual baptism, not water baptism, but they don't have much evidence to support their case and have not been very convincing. Though we differ about the mode and objects of baptism, how it should be done and to whom it should be done, most Christians agree that it is important that we be baptized. After all, the Great Commission, the job that Jesus has given us, involves going and making disciples and, as Matthew 28:19 says, "...baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Also, because Jesus Himself was baptized by John (Matthew 3:13ff and other passages) and as Jesus' followers, we too are baptized. In Acts 2:38 the Apostle Peter commands the crowd to "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." Throughout the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, the clear expectation is that anyone who is a Christian is going to be baptized. As far as we know, the thief on the cross is the only New Testament believer who was never baptized. That is why Paul can say in Ephesians 4:5 that we as Christians all share in one Lord, one faith and one baptism.