Baptism is one of the sacred rites Christians around the world share in common. It’s one thing that unifies us. We can all say we were baptized in Christ. 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. All over the world, the sacramental rite of Baptism unites us.
It’s the external details and intellectual explanations surrounding the sacrament of Holy Baptism that cause us headaches. It’s amazing how unloving people can use the most unifying of rituals to drive a wedge between Christians.
But what I want to do today is to look at what the Gospel of Mark says, and look at a couple of the words in the text, and see if we can grow in our understanding about what baptism means – and how it can be a powerful force in our own lives.
The gospel in 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.”
The Greek word translated as repentance means “to turn around” or “turn away” or “change your mind.” Repentance means we make a conscious decision to turn our lives around by turning away from unloving actions that hurt others or ourselves.
People have asked, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized? He never sinned.”
Jesus was in a constant state of repentance according to the definition. He always turned away from unloving actions. He outwardly displayed his commitment to turn away from sin by going through the ritual.
The Greek word (aphiemi) translated as “forgiveness” in this passage can be interpreted several ways. First is the religious way. Forgiveness comes from God because you “repent” – most often believed to mean “saying you’re sorry.” This is what many are taught when thinking of baptism. God lets go of our sins, washes them away, and God will never remember them again because you get immersed in water. That’s a traditional church way to think of it.
But in the verse: “John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” it doesn’t look like John the Baptist was suggesting we repent in order to get God’s forgiveness. God isn’t mentioned. John had no Christological atonement theology. And if repenting is all you have to do for God’s forgiveness, then Jesus didn’t have to die. There must be something else.
Other definitions of aphiemi say it can mean “to release, let go, depart from, or abandon.” John proclaimed a washing in water (symbolic of cleansing the outside of the body, i.e., external actions) indicating one’s commitment to turn away (from sin) for the letting go of unloving actions. In this kind of forgiveness, you have a part to play: to let go of sin so it does no harm to others and you won’t suffer negative consequences.
(I’m finishing up a short ebook on the power to forgive that goes into more detail about the variety of meanings of forgiveness and it will be ready to read sometime in January.)
John said, “I baptize you with water,” meaning ‘I can only help you to clean up your actions by telling you some of the rules to follow. That will help you at the surface level.’
Jesus repeated that external washing with water isn’t enough when he said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. (Matt. 23:25-26)
Martin Luther compared the water, used for ritual cleansing in the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast, to the Law. The Law helps clean the outside. It can’t reach into the heart to clean the inside by itself.
Baptism with water is an incredibly important and symbolic act that, when performed in a Christian church, initiates a life of commitment to God. The early church, and continues to be a practice in some churches today, required those who wanted to be baptized to go through a one or two year process of education and training to be accepted for baptism.
The catechumens immersed themselves in a process of prayer and study and worship so they understood what they were making a commitment to. It’s a good practice. It’s not a biblical command that you have to do that, but just because it’s not biblical doesn’t mean it’s a bad practice. It’s a baptism with water—teaching you the rules to help you manage your outward behavior.
Then John said, “But one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus baptizes with “a holy spirit.”
The early translators turned this into “the Holy Spirit.” I’m not dissing the Trinitarian doctrine here. I’m just pointing out that translation is always subjective and dependent upon the theology of the translator.
There are no articles like “a” or “the” in Greek. And no capitalization either.
“But one is coming who will baptize you with (a) holy spirit” is another way to translate it.
Jesus immersed himself in the goodness of God, in a life of prayer, study of the Scriptures, worship of God in spirit and truth—service and love for the welfare of his neighbor. Jesus possessed a spirit that was worthy of awe, praise, and honor. He helped people because he loved them, not because a holy book told him he had to do it to go to heaven one day.
Jesus baptizes (immerses, surrounds, pours out) with (or “in”) a holy (worthy of awe, honor, praise) spirit that helps clean the inside of the cup (your inner motivations, the spirit in which you do things). Your actions will be good because love will be the motivation.
Religion should be more than an attempt to clean the outside of the cup. Your actions might appear worthy of praise, but your motivations could be selfish and conniving. God sees the heart and knows why you do what you do. God wants to see actions coming from a spirit within you that is worthy of praise.
You continue to play a part in baptism. Baptism is not a historical thing. Baptism is an immersion in the Spirit, in the goodness of God—today and for the rest of your life.
Isn’t it strange that some churches make you think it’s sinful to be baptized more than once? That doesn’t make sense. Martin Luther said we should remember our baptism every day. We should remember the commitment we have made to be followers of Jesus Christ every day.
Baptism is always about today—it’s not about what happened years ago when you got wet in the church. Baptism is a today thing. Are you committed to following the example of Jesus Christ today, immersing yourself in the goodness of God? St. Paul said, “Don’t you know that it’s the goodness of God that leads you to repentance?”
Doing your part in baptism means you will continue to immerse yourself in the things of God—prayer, Bible study, worship, service, fellowship and breaking of bread for the building up of relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, acts of love to our neighbor that are pleasing to God, and to let go of sin in your life. And it’s a daily thing.
Once you’ve done your part in immersing yourself in the spirit of Jesus and the goodness of God, a spirit that is worthy of praise (i.e., the Holy Spirit) will motivate you to act in the best interests of your neighbor.