Baptism is one of the rites Christians around the world share in common. It’s one thing that unifies us. If you meet a Catholic in Nova Scotia. He was baptized. If you meet a Pentecostal in Kenya. She was baptized. If you meet a Baptist in Paducah, she was baptized. Christians share this common initiation rite. Some think that the ritual part is the salvific end and you have little else to do. As usual, it’s the external details and intellectual explanations surrounding the sacrament of Holy Baptism that causes us headaches.
The gospel verse 4 says, “John [the Baptist] came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…and all the people…confessed their sins and were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Let’s look at three words in this passage: repent, baptism, and forgiveness.
I was taught in seminary to say that God does all the work in baptism. Really? It’s an intellectual rationalization that helps justify infant baptism. Yet Jesus wasn’t ritually baptized until he was thirty years of age. Why did he wait so long?
Did Jesus have to repent and be baptized? Yes.
The Greek word for repentance means “to turn around” or “turn away.” It also means “change your mind.” Repentance means we make a conscious decision to turn away from the temptations of the world.
Jesus didn’t have to be sorry for his sins. But he did have to continually turn away from the temptation to sin. He was in a constant state of repentance according to the definition. He resisted the powerful attraction to satisfy the desires of the flesh. He committed, in the outward ritual of baptism, to turn away from the world.
Did Jesus need to be baptized? It depends on how you understand “baptized.”
The Greek word for baptize means “immerse” or “pour lots of water over.” There are actually two words in Greek for baptize. One is a temporary immersion (like blanching vegetables for one minute before you freeze them). The other is a very long immersion (like pickling vegetables, canning them and sticking them in a cupboard).
The baptism John spoke of is the lengthy method of immersion. Metaphorically, Jesus immersed himself in the things of God, in a life of prayer, study of the scriptures, worship of God in spirit and truth, in service and love for the welfare of His neighbor.
Immersing, pouring, or sprinkling with water for a few seconds in a church ceremony does not instill a new Spirit within a person. It takes canning as opposed to blanching to do that.
Let’s go on to “forgiveness.” Religious training has led many to believe that forgiveness in this verse refers to God’s forgiveness. Except God isn’t mentioned in the verse.
Don’t get me wrong. The concept that God lets go of our sins, washes them away, and will never remember them again is a wonderful way to think of it. But if you take fourth and sixteenth century theology out of the equation, the verse is rather practical.
“John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” doesn’t appear that John was suggesting we get baptized so God will forget our sins.
Similarly, in Luke 24:46-7, Jesus said “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Do you think Jesus meant God’s forgiveness? If he meant God’s forgiveness, wouldn’t he have said that? I think he meant people should be entreated to stop hurting themselves and each other.
As I say in my new ebook, 7 Prayers for the Power to Forgive and Move Forward with Your Life: “In biblical times, the main usage of aphiemi [the Greek word translated as “forgive”] was “to let go, send away, leave, or abandon.” Aphiemi did not refer to forgiveness in a religious sense.
In baptism, we are making a commitment to turn away from the world and abandon (or let go of) sin that hurts ourselves and others. In this kind of forgiveness, we have a part to play—to let go of sin, to depart from sin so it does not dominate us and so we stop hurting each other.
Baptism with water is an incredibly important and symbolic act, that when performed in a Christian church, initiates a life of commitment to God. It used to be in the early church, and continues to be a practice in some churches today, that those who wanted to be baptized were required to go through a one or two year process of education to be accepted for baptism. The catechumens were immersed in a process of prayer, study, and worship so they understood what they were making a commitment to. Education is a good practice. Yet it’s not a biblical command that you must do it to be baptized.
Ultimately, all that education is supposed to help people to love each other, i.e., to stop hurting one another rather than to make sure we all believe the right things.
Learning what the Christian life is about and making a conscious commitment to Christ in the church offers more benefits than giving a parent or grandparent the idea that the water is holy magic and if some is poured on the child it will guarantee she will go to heaven when she dies.
The water of baptism is not what saves you. It’s the letting go of sin that saves you. You have a part to play in that. Letting go of hurtful actions saves you from the negative consequences of sin—pain, trouble, sorrow, punishment. When you don’t sin, then you have no negative consequences to suffer.
Has the ceremonial act of baptism with water rescued you from sin today? It’s not the symbol that saves us. It’s the turning away from sin, the commitment you make to avoid sin by loving God and our neighbor, and the Holy Spirit that rescues you today from sin and its consequences.
We all still have a part to play in baptism. Baptism is not a one-time thing. Baptism is a long term immersion in the Spirit, in the things that bring us into communion with God—prayer, Bible study, worship, service, fellowship and breaking of bread for the building up of relationships with your neighbors, and acts of love to all people—today and for the rest of your life.
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