Spirituality Information

Understanding the Gospel of Matthew and Why it Matters - Part 9

Matthew 3:4-6
John Baptizes the People

4 Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him,

6 And they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The Meaning of John's Baptism

This passage gives us an incredible opportunity to learn about the meaning and mode of baptism. One of the first principles that we can learn from this passage is that baptism is always to be accompanied by repentance (v.2) and confession of sins (v.6). As you remember from our last passage, baptism was a ceremony that marked entrance into a new kingdom. It was an act that symbolized the inauguration of citizenship in a new nation. Originally, baptism was practiced as a rite of passage for Gentiles who desired to become citizens of Israel. John's baptism was practiced as a rite of passage of Jews who wanted to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven. In both circumstances, the act of baptism symbolized a transformation from unclean to clean, unacceptable to acceptable. Gentiles had to be washed to become Jews, Jews and Gentiles have to be washed to become citizens of heaven.

Does baptism save? The Bible answers with a resounding no. Baptism does not make a person a Christian any more than pledging the U. S. flag makes someone an American. Christians are saved by grace through faith alone. Baptism is an external action that reveals an internal transformation. Baptism reveals that a change of citizenship has taken place, but is not in itself the cause of the change. This is why John's baptism had to be accompanied by genuine repentance. John did not want to baptize anybody who he suspected had not already experienced an inner transformation. The public confession of sins was one way in which people gave evidence to John that they were experiencing authentic repentance, and that they truly were qualified to receive the ceremony of baptism.

This is why I believe that true Christian baptism is believer's baptism. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of an infant or small child receiving baptism. Instead, we read of adults coming to John (and later the Apostles), repenting and confessing of their sins, and then being baptized. I believe that infants are incapable of receiving a genuine Christian baptism simply because they are unable to repent or confess sins. The Scriptures are overwhelmingly clear that baptism is an act for Christians who have repented of their sins and placed their trust in Jesus. Infants cannot do these things, and therefore are not qualified for baptism.

Once more, let me say clearly that baptism is not a requirement of salvation. Yet, nevertheless, it is a requirement of obedience to Christ. Jesus Himself never baptized anybody, but His disciples did. Later, the Apostles made it clear what Jesus expected of His followers: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins?" It is by repentance that we are saved (the inner transformation), and it is through baptism that we give evidence to God, ourselves, and other people that we have been washed and made new. It is the first step of a lifetime of commitment to Christ as Master.

I struggled for many years to understand how a church ought to handle the ordinance of baptism. There have always been two prevailing views: First, that baptism ought to be something that is done as soon as possible for a new believer; second, that candidates for baptism ought to have a trial period of a few weeks or even months to offer evidence that they have truly repented and are qualified for baptism. Admittedly, I have wavered in which view I hold at different points in my ministry. Currently, I favor the former view. I simply cannot refute the abounding Biblical evidence that baptism seems to be something that was done immediately for those professing Christ.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas witness the miraculous conversion of the Philippian jailer and his family. Notice the immediacy of the baptism: "And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, he and all his family." Why was this man and his family baptized so quickly after their conversion - especially in the middle of the night? I believe that it is because Paul and Silas understood baptism to be the first act of obedience for the jailer and his family. To delay in obeying the command to be baptized is to put off a clear command of God. It would be hypocritical to call Jesus Master and yet to delay in obeying His very first command to believers.

In the New Testament, you would be hard pressed to find one example of a believer who was not baptized. There are examples, of course. The thief on the cross obviously was not baptized before his death. In the same way, many people throughout history have been converted on their deathbeds and were unable to be baptized. That is understandable. What is less easy to understand is the millions of Christians in the world today who call Jesus King and yet have refused to obey His clear command to be baptized. This disobedience classifies them as immature believers at best, deceived unbelievers at worst. Baptism may not be necessary for salvation, but it is necessary as evidence of true salvation, and it ought to be taken seriously.

The Price of Obedience

Consider the price that many Christians paid in the 16th century in obeying the Bible's command to be baptized. The vast majority of the public had received an inauthentic "baptism" when they were born, and were considered baptized by the European states. These European governments made decrees threatening any who attempted to be "re-baptized" as adults. Yet, there were many who became convinced by the Scriptures that to refuse to be baptized as a believing adult was to be disobedient Jesus. At the cost of their lives, they obeyed their Lord.

The decree of Germany and Austria read as follows: "every Anabaptist and rebaptized person of either sex [must] be put to death by sword, or fire, or otherwise." The persecution began in Ulrich, Switzerland between the years of 1527 and 1532, when six of the first "Baptists" were bound, taken by boat to a deep section of the river Limmat, and drowned. In 1528, a re-baptized man called Hubmaier was burnt at the stake in Vienna, his re-baptized wife burnt three days later. The following year, a re-baptized man called Blaurock was scourged, exiled, and burnt at the stake in the town of Tyrol. In the town of Gorz, the house where a group of re-baptized people were meeting for worship was burnt to the ground. In 1531 alone, the town of Gorz saw the death of over 1000 re-baptized men and women. The nearby town of Ensisheim recorded 600 put to death in that year. The persecution spread to England, Holland, and all throughout Europe - thousands gave their lives to be obedient to Jesus in this matter of baptism.

If you lived in 16th century Europe, where the baptism of believing adults was considered illegal, would you be willing to obey Jesus at the cost of your life? Are you willing to do so today?

The Mode of Baptism

How should a person be baptized? Should they be sprinkled, or immersed? I think that there are at least two reasons why we must favor the latter mode of baptism. First, in verse six, when we read that "they were being baptized by him?," the phrase "being baptized" in the Greek is the word "ebaptizonto", which literally means "being dipped in". It is difficult to see why Matthew would have used this word, or why John would have been known as John the Baptist (literally, "John, the dipper") if he had been practicing anything other than immersion in the Jordan River.

Second, 1 Peter 3:21 and other passages seem to imply that the baptism of Christians is somehow connected to the resurrection of Jesus. When the Christian is placed beneath the water, the picture is that of the death of Jesus. When the Christian brought back up out of the water, the picture is that of the resurrection of Jesus. Just as Christ died, baptism speaks of our dying to sin; just as Christ rose, baptism speaks of our rising again to new life in Him. This is a picture that can only be portrayed through an immersion type of baptism. In sprinkling, this picture is lost.

This is not to say that there can never be exceptions. There are occasions when baptism by immersion simply isn't practical, such as in the case of a person confined to their bed or in a wheel chair, or a person with an extreme phobia of water. In these circumstances, I do not think we ought to be legalistic about a full-immersion baptism, but should feel comfortable in using sprinkling or some other mode. Nevertheless, these circumstances should always be the exception - not the norm. This passage shows clearly that the baptism God ordained was that of immersion, and that ought to be the typical baptism that we practice.

Ultimately, the issue of baptism is an issue of obedience. If you have repented of your sins and placed your trust in Christ, yet have disobeyed His command in this area, please ask His forgiveness for your disobedience and seek out baptism in the church that you attend. It truly is your first step in a life lived for Him.

Justin Nale is the pastor of Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC - http://www.mhmbc.org


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