Summary: Jesus’ baptism tells us something about the significance of baptism for all Christians.
Some of the most memorable events in the church are baptisms. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of participating in many baptisms, and I have to say that they are some of my greatest recollections of church.
The first baptism I participated in up close and personal was my own. At age 13, on Easter Sunday, 1978, I came forward with my knees knocking and a pit in my stomach and was immersed into Christ at my home church in Louisville, KY. It was the Sunday after the University of Kentucky won their 5th NCAA championship in basketball, so it really was a big weekend!
Another baptism that stands out in my mind was that of Jimmy. Jimmy was 17 when he accepted Christ. A shy young man, he is a big guy, probably 6’-4" and 320 lbs. Because of his shyness, Jimmy wanted to be baptized in a private ceremony. We gathered several church and family members in the sanctuary of the church, Jimmy confessed his belief in Jesus Christ before all those there, and we went back to change for the baptism. Jimmy put on shorts and a shirt, because none of the white robes we had would fit him. As we stood in the back room just before entering the baptistery, I went through what we would do. Hold your nose, I will put my hand in the middle of your back, bend at your knees, I will plunge you under the water and then lift you back up. I kind of showed him how it would go, and I could see grave concern in his face. "What’s wrong, Jimmy?"
"How deep is the water?" "Oh, about so deep," motioning to a level just at the waist. "I’ve never been in water that deep before!" His lips were almost white with fear. I tried to calm him, explaining that I’d never lost anyone yet. As we stepped into the warm water, he didn’t seem terribly frightened. We walked to the other end of the baptistery, I explained to the witnesses that because Jimmy had publicly confessed Jesus as His Lord and Savior I was now baptizing him in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. With that I raised his hands to his nose and pushed him backward.
When Jimmy went under the water, it displaced enough of it that a tidal wave slammed over the plexiglass front wall of the baptistry. Water also filled my waders. Not only that, but Jimmy didn’t like the fact that I was pushing him under water. When I leaned him backward, both his sizable arms went flailing. He grabbed the side and pulled himself up out of the water. I’ve never seen anyone exit the baptistry quicker. I’ve never exited more slowly as I did with waders full of water.
There’s a third baptism that sticks in my mind. It was about 7 years ago, when my daughter, Hannah accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. She was so small we almost had to stand her on a stool to keep her head above water. She had approached me about being baptized, and we talked. I thought she seemed pretty young but she seemed to understand what she was doing. I had her talk to one of the elders of the church, and he too felt she understood the decision she was making. As I repeated the confession with her in front of the church, it was everything I could do to keep from balling like a baby. When I baptized her, she didn’t displace much water in the baptistry (the water came almost to her neck). At Hannah’s baptism, I learned that you can be immersed and sprinkled at the same time. When she came out of the baptismal water, I then covered her with my tears.
Baptism is a very odd kind of ritual, if you stand back and look at it objectively. A person states their belief that Jesus is the Son of God and that they want to follow Him, to become His disciple. After making that decision, the Bible commands that they be dipped in water. On the one hand, it’s not a difficult command to follow. All that’s required is two willing people, a baptizer and a baptizee, and enough water to cover your body. On the other hand, it is a very difficult command to follow. It takes a tremendous amount of faith to publicly commit to someone, and to trust Him with your life. Like most of God’s commands, nothing could ever be so easy and so difficult at the same time.
Before addressing the passage from Matthew for this morning, I want to talk a little about baptism itself. There has been lots of controversy within Christianity about it. Some people think that baptism can take other forms like sprinkling or pouring. In the Christian church, we practice immersion because the Greek word "baptidzo" literally means to dip or dunk. For the first several hundred years of Christianity, every new believer was immersed. Then an exception was made in a critical instance, and sprinkling and pouring became the norm. King James was sprinkled when he entered the church. Therefore he commanded the translat-ors of his English version of the Bible not to translate that word, but just to carry it over in Greek. So they made up a new English word, "Baptize." Since it was a new word, it could be defined any way they wanted. The English word "baptize" was then defined broad enough to include sprinkling, pouring or dunking. In our church, we hold that the only Biblical mode of baptism is immersion. I believe that only full immersion carries the symbolism that baptism implies. I think that will become clear after we expand on the account of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew 3.