Summary: Understanding the true meaning of Christian baptism through an examination of the Jewish ritual of proselyte baptism.
One of the greatest joys that I have as a pastor is when an individual who is far from God visits our community of believers, begins to hear the voice of God calling them to a higher place, a fresh beginning, a new life, and that person responds to the call of God by committing their life to Him through a public proclamation of faith and through baptism. When we experience those times we are seeing unquestionable evidence that God is present among us, and that we as a church are fulfilling the mission Christ gave to his church...to make disciples.
Today is one of those very special days. We have two individuals who have become part of our church family, have heard God very clearly speaking to them; calling them to a new life, and following the service today are going to publicly declare their entrance into that new life through baptism.
We are between sermon series today. We’ve just finished a series called “Charting The Course” where we’ve talked about the five core values of New Prairie Community of Faith. Next week we will begin a six-week series in which we’ll take you on a journey through the book of Romans. In praying about what to talk with you about today, I sensed that God would like for us to spend a little time talking about what we’re going to experience together in an hour or so. Baptism is one of many things in the church that most everyone is familiar with; we’ve heard the word, we’ve seen it done, we know that it is an important part of the Christian experience. But I wonder if we really understand what it’s all about. When did it begin? Why do we do it? What’s the purpose of being baptized? There are several things that we recognize as a part of “church-life” but may not really understand; baptism being one.
To begin understanding this thing called Christian baptism, we first have to understand that Christianity was born out of Judaism. Jesus Christ, in his flesh, was a Jew - descended from the lineage of King David. After his birth he was presented to the high-priest and was circumcised. He grew up in a Jewish home. He was taught all of the Jewish laws, customs and traditions. He fully participated in the Jewish religion, celebrating in all of the feasts and festivals. He would have had a bar-mitzvah like ceremony at the age of 13. As an adult, he was recognized as a Jewish rabbi - giving him authority to speak to people gathered at the synagogue.
As Jesus began his ministry, he called 12 men to follow him and be his disciples. These men were all Jews. During the 3 1/2 years they spent together, before Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension—they remained Jews. They continued to observe and practice the fundamentals of the Jewish religion, with Jesus helping them to look outside of the legalistic box constructed by the Pharisees and Sadducees, and see the true, rich meaning behind their religious practices. Jesus mission was never to destroy, discard, or eliminate in any way the Jewish faith. Rather, his mission was to simply illuminate it, helping Jews & Gentiles alike to see that the centuries of religious custom and tradition were to serve one purpose - to demonstrate and foreshadow that Jesus Christ is the long-awaited Messiah. Everything that Jesus taught his disciples, his friends, the crowds gathered on the hillside or the shore, he taught as a Jewish rabbi, from a Jewish context.
Once we understand this, we can begin to understand why we as Christians do some of the things we do today. For instance - when we celebrate communion in our churches today, we are really celebrating the Jewish Passover which was fulfilled by Jesus Christ and fully explained by Him during the last supper with his disciples. Our Christian marriage ceremonies today are a beautiful picture of the Jewish understanding of covenant. Like these and many others, baptism finds it’s roots in the ancient Jewish practice of proselyte baptism. Let’s take few moments to examine this practice together.
From the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were the chosen people of God. They were the only people on the face of the earth who knew the one, true God. From Abraham, God raised up this nation to be his voice to the entire world. It was to them that God introduced Himself, gave his laws and commands. His manifest presence was confined to the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle and later the temple. The only way for a human being to know and understand God was to be born a Jew, or to become a Jew through conversion. Here is where we introduce ourselves to the term proselyte. In the simplest sense, this word means convert. In our context here, a proselyte is a non-Jewish person becoming a Jewish person.