We have been thinking about the major changes The LORD looks for us commit to if we want to take up His offer of a new life in Christ. These are repentance from dead lifestyles and choosing to live through faith in Him. However, He is aware that left to our own abilities we would not be able to sustain our love for Him. This is because we need His help to live without hindrance from sin and its consequences both in the unseen spiritual dimension of life and in the more physical material one. In this section and the next we will look at two helps He has provided for us as we seek to follow Him. In the New Testament they were often, but not always, part of the experience of new Christians as they set out to follow Jesus. Sadly, not all Christians and churches consider them important today. (This is partially due to them valuing the traditions of men more than God’s instructions, but also because they are often focussed on what they need to do to “get to heaven” rather than loving Him with all they are.) In this section we will look at baptism and subsequently at the invitation to “receive the Holy Spirit”. Both of these are provided not to help us escape hell, but to enable and equip us to serve our Father in this life. Please do not allow yourself to be denied their benefits because of the doubts of others.
Ritual washing was not unknown to the Jews. When John the Baptist came out of the desert to tell people to repent, he gained his nickname by offering them “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness is not simply about having the slate wiped clean; in the New Testament it is more importantly about being released from the power as well as the guilt of sin. It was therefore a surprise to John when Jesus, whom he recognised as the promised Messiah, came to him to be baptised. John had refused to baptise the religious leaders whose lives did not demonstrate repentance, but with Jesus he resisted doing so for the very opposite reason. Jesus persuaded him to go ahead with the baptism however and the Father confirmed that this was right by sending the Holy Spirit upon Christ in the form of a dove and by speaking audibly from heaven - a very rare occurrence. Immediately afterwards Jesus went into the desert for nearly six weeks of prayer and fasting, a time which concluded with Satan seeking to deceive Him just as he had deceived Eve.
Not much else is recorded in the four Gospels about baptism, but John does tell us that Jesus oversaw His disciples as they baptised people in Judea. It was only after His resurrection that Jesus told His disciples to baptise new disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and to teach them to do what He commanded. Mark records in his gospel that Jesus tells them at the same time, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” In the Acts of the Apostles (the fifth book of the New Testament, from now on referred to simply as “Acts”) we see that the early church normally included baptism along with repentance and faith in the responses they looked for in those who wanted to follow Christ. Other than that it was commanded by Him, we might ask why they should do this?
It is unfortunate that what was a Greek word in common use at the time the New Testament was written has become a religious word in English today. The word was used by the Greeks to describe the action of filling a cup from a bowl by plunging it into the wine and then lifting it out again, or filling a bucket from a trough of water. This is what John the Baptist did to people, and so did the disciples of Jesus both before and after His death and resurrection - they buried people in water and lifted them out again. Later in the New Testament, Paul explained baptism by saying that it mirrored both the death and burial of Christ (immersing the cup in the wine) and His resurrection (pulling it out again). This, he reasoned, is not simply a physical re-enactment but also has benefit in the spiritual realm. He emphasised that being spiritually buried with Christ in this way applies His death to each one of us, but it does not stop there.
When those with faith in Christ are baptised, they are also spiritually raised to start a new life in Him. This is an important truth. Baptism establishes Christian believers in a new place before God and before the spiritual powers in heavenly places. These powers are angels, the majority of whom are loyal to The LORD but also some who have rebelled against Him and aligned themselves with Satan. When people sin, we unwittingly allow these rebellious spirits to justly claim some authority over us - the more we sin, the greater their influence. In The LORD’s wisdom, He has provided us with baptism as the way in which we can make clear to these spirits that we have turned from our sinful ways, we have begun to put our trust in God and are appealing to Him for the benefits of His Son’s death and resurrection to be applied to our lives. Elsewhere Paul states that it is through baptism that believers “put on Christ”. Doing so marks our fresh start in Christ before God, before spiritual beings in heavenly places and before other people.
It is very easy for Christians to focus their thoughts on eternity and to see everything in terms of making sure they are secure. However, such thinking is self-centred and takes us away from loving The LORD with all that we are. The reason we need a fresh start in this life is that we are too used to living for ourselves not Him. If we are to be free to serve Him in this life, we need to die to our old lifestyle and start a new one. We need to identify ourselves both with the death of Jesus Christ and with His resurrection. We need to take off the old and put on the new. However, it is not just from ourselves that we need to be freed; we also need to be free from the pull of the society in which we live. The New Testament use two events from the Old Testament to illustrate this aspect of baptism. The first is the rescue of Noah and his family from the corrupt world in which they were living. We often think that they were saved from the Flood, but Peter states that these eight people “were saved through water”. When they went into the ark they left a violent society outside it; God’s judgement fell on that society and wiped it out. When those within the ark stepped outside , the society in which they once lived no longer had any influence on them.
The second incident quoted in the New Testament is when Moses led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground at The LORD’s command, whilst the Egyptian Pharaoh and his army who pursued them were drowned as they tried to cross by the same route. Israel had been slaves to the Egyptians for a long time. They had suffered under cruel task-masters and eventually cried to The LORD to deliver them. He had raised up Moses for the task, but even after the Egyptians had reluctantly let them go they still chased after them to take them captive again. It was only when Moses and the people went through the Red Sea - were baptised in it as Paul wrote - and came out the other side that all threat from the Egyptians was removed. The society which Noah left behind was destroyed in the waters of the Flood, the power of Egypt was brought to an end in the Red Sea. However, in both cases God’s people passed through those same waters and came out on the other side free from the pull of the society they once belonged to. Peter, the New Testament author who likened baptism to Noah’s rescue, put it this way, “And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
This is why the best time for a Christian to be baptised is at the start of their new life. We need to be freed from our old lifestyle so that we are at liberty in the spiritual realm to walk with Christ in this life. Baptism is the way The LORD has given us to appeal to Him for a new life, knowing that we are released from our past sins, that the spiritual power they had over us has been brought to end. Whilst there may be no apparent physical change for a new believer, when someone responds to Christ’s command through faith and is baptised, their old life is buried with Christ and they are raised just as He was to a new life. This is the very best way to get started following Christ and we encourage you to do so.
N.B. If anyone is reading this is a Christian who was not told about baptism when they were converted and have not yet been baptised, we encourage you to rectify this as soon as possible. As explained above, baptism is not about qualifying for a pass into heaven, it is about being set fully free to serve The LORD in this life. When Paul came across some believers in Ephesus, he suspected that they were missing something from their Christian experience. At first he thought they had not received the Holy Spirit (our next topic) but it soon emerged that they had not been baptised as believers into Christ. When Paul explained that the baptism of Jesus was different to that of John, they were baptised immediately and were then filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul was not peddling a particular doctrine when he encouraged them to respond in this way; he was concerned that they should be equipped to the utmost to serve the God who has rescued them from sin and death. We encourage you to follow their example.
Next: Receive the Holy Spirit
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