One (Week 6)
Baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Back in 2015, an image swept across the internet. For a few weeks, this one particular image was the only thing it seemed like anyone was talking about. The image was a picture of a dress. But the thing that made the dress so fascinating was that no one could agree on what colour the dress was. Some saw it as a white dress with gold lace while others saw it as a blue dress with black lace. We actually have a picture of the dress we can put up on the screen.
How many people see this as a white dress with gold lace? And who sees this dress as blue with black lace? The first time I saw this picture I thought “It’s obviously a white dress with gold lace” but then a few hours later I saw it again and thought “Someone must have altered the picture because this one is blue with black lace.”
Finally, after the world lost their minds debating the colour of the dress, some colour psychologists or something were able to explain how some of us see one thing while others see another thing. Some people looked at the dress and saw a white dress that’s in a shadow. Others assumed the dress was taken under a more yellowish light like the sun and assumed it was blue. What’s happening here is that your brain makes certain assumptions about the lighting conditions and extrapolates the true colours from those assumptions.
Here’s another example of this effect. In this next picture, we have what is either a duck or a rabbit. How many people look at this picture and see a rabbit? How many people look at this picture and see a duck? Now, unlike the dress, which has a right answer, this image was specifically drawn in a way where you could see both a rabbit and a duck. There is no right answer to this picture.
I bring up both of these images to point out that often times, as the Church, we can spend a lot of time debating things that either don’t have an answer or even if they do, don’t have a very satisfying answer. It’s both a rabbit and a duck. The dress in question can be viewed as both white and gold or blue and black.
And one of the questions the Church has spent a lot of time debating and arguing and spilling blood over is the question of baptism. What is the proper mode and timing of baptism? When should it happen? Who is it for? Should we baptize infants or should we baptize adults? Should we baptize by sprinkling or immersion? But what happens when we spend all of our time in those discussions is that we can easily lose track of what’s most important; of what it represents.
We’re coming to the close of our series One talking about the unity of the church. In Ephesians chapter 4 Paul tells us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace.” And he gives us seven reasons for that unity, because “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
But it wasn’t so long ago that Christians literally killed other Christians over the mode and methods and timing of baptism. Christians who insisted that infant baptism was the right way killed Christians who believed in adult baptism because they said they were heretics. But as we talked about last week, this confuses essential and non-essential theology.
So if the modes and timing of baptism are non-essential, then what are the essentials? What is important about baptism? Before we attempt to answer that question, let’s spend some time in prayer.
Paul tells us that there is one baptism. And I would argue that we’re all essentially doing the same thing. Some denominations baptize their infants and then at a later date hope that those kids choose to go through some kind of confirmation process. Other denominations dedicate their infants, where the parents promise to raise them in a godly home and teach them about Jesus, and then at a later date hope those kids choose to get baptized when they’re ready. Obviously, there is some nuance to both positions, but I would argue that the similarities are greater than the differences.
Furthermore, most of the passages in the New Testament that talk about baptism don’t mention if it should be adult or infant. Rather, what the New Testament affirms, again and again, is that baptism is our mean of identifying with the death and resurrection of Jesus. So today, we’re essentially going to skirt the issue of modes and methods and timing and focus more on what it means to identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 10, Paul says, “For I don’t want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”
What Paul is doing here is that he’s alluding back to the Exodus from Egypt. The ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt and when God freed them from that slavery using Moses, they passed through the Red Sea and found freedom on the other side. And so Paul is essentially saying that in a sense, the Israelites were baptized into Moses when they passed through the Red Sea. In this sense, there was a kind of dying to their old life of slavery and being reborn as free people. The Exodus from Egypt and everything that went along with it was a seminal moment in Jewish history. This event shaped Jewish understand for generations to come.
Which explains why John the Baptist was seen baptizing people in the Jordan River at the start of Jesus’ ministry. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were living in Palestine under Roman occupation. And so they would look back at the Exodus, look back at how God delivered them from slavery and they assumed that God was interested in doing that again. However, they also believed the reason the Romans were occupying Palestine was that most of Israel was living in sin. And so John’s baptism became a baptism of repentance from that way of life with the hope that if the Jews lived the way God had called them to live God would again rescue them from their current oppressors.
Slavery, exodus, freedom. That was the pattern. That was the expectation.
And what the New Testament authors insisted was that that very much was the pattern—slavery, exodus, freedom—except the Jewish exodus from Egypt was simply a foreshadowing of things to come. When Paul, in 1 Corinthians, says that their ancestors were baptized into Moses, what he’s saying is that passing through the Red Sea was the means by which their ancestors identified with Moses. That they became the people of Moses.
Next, we can take a look at Romans chapter 6, where Paul says, “What then shall we say? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
What Paul is saying is that in the same way that the ancient Israelites were baptized into Moses when they passed through the Red Sea, when we experience baptism that we are baptized into Jesus, that we identify with him. That there is a sort of dying to your old life and being resurrected to a new life. He doesn’t seem to care as much about when that baptism happens—whether in adults or infants—rather that it does happen. That we do in fact identify with Jesus.
And the reason why it’s important to identify with Jesus is because of this new exodus. Later in Romans chapter 8, Paul explains that all of creation is in bondage to sin and death. Those are the real oppressors; that’s the real slavery. And just like the exodus from slavery in Egypt, that God is in the process of rescuing all of creation from slavery to sin and death. Slavery, exodus, freedom. That’s the pattern.
But unlike the exodus from Egypt that happened all at once, this new exodus is happening over time. It started with Jesus. With his death and resurrection. And Paul is saying that in baptism we participate in that same death and resurrection. His assertion is that sin can only hold us in captivity until death, but after death, when we experience resurrection, that death can no longer be our master. And so, when we’re baptized, we’re baptized into Christ death and when we come out of the water it’s like we’re experiencing resurrection. Sin and death are no longer our masters. When we experience baptism, when we identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus, we die to sin and are raised to new life in Jesus. We are no longer bound to sin because we have died to it. Slavery, exodus, freedom.
This new exodus started with Jesus, it continues in us as followers of Jesus and it will culminate with all of creation some day. And so, in a very real sense, those of us who have been baptized, who identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus, are little pockets of new creation scattered in a world that is still longing for redemption.
Here’s how this works. Recently I became a permanent resident of Canada. I’m not quite a citizen—I can’t vote or run for public office—but in just about every other sense I’m just like a real Canadian. In order to remain a permanent resident of Canada, I have to live in Canada for three out of any given five year period.
But here’s the interesting then. When I became a permanent resident, the officer said that Karly, my wife, as a citizen of Canada, acts like a little island of Canada wherever we go. Which means, if we moved to the States or Italy or Thailand, as long as I’m living with her, then I’m considered to be “living in Canada.” Karly is a little pocket or island of Canada.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” This is essentially what Paul is talking about. Those of us who are in Christ, who have been baptized into his death and resurrection, are little islands of the new order.
Someday in the future, Jesus will finish what he started. He will redeem and restore everything. All of creation will be new. In the meantime, we are future people living in the present. Everywhere we go new creation follows us. Baptism is our means of identifying with the death and resurrection of Jesus; dying to our slavery to sin, being raised to new creation life. Slavery, exodus, freedom. That’s the pattern. That’s what Jesus is up to. And the way we participate in this new exodus is through one baptism into Jesus.
Or, as N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Hope, “The revolutionary new world, which began in the resurrection of Jesus—the world where Jesus reigns as Lord, having won the victory over sin and death—has its frontline outposts in those who in baptism have shared his death and resurrection. The intermediate stage between the resurrection of Jesus and the renewal of the whole world is the renewal of human beings—you and me!—in our own lives of obedience here and now.”
So what does this mean for Monday? Aside from some cool information, what difference does this one baptism and new created order play in our everyday lives? I think there are a couple implication of this reality.
First of all, it means that we can trust God with everything in this life. I think for a lot of us, we have a fairly deistic view of God. What I mean by that is we generally believe God is distant from the world. That he set it in motion and has since walked away to let it run its course. When we view God this way, it can be easy for fear to run our lives or for us to think that we’re the ones that need to make things happen. We can spend our time worrying about our finances or relationships or what the government is doing. But what Jesus shows us is that a deistic view of God is fundamentally flawed. That God, through Jesus, is actively involved in the world and in our lives. And so we don’t need to constantly run around trying to control everything. Rather, Jesus is in charge. He has authority and power and he’s in the process of bringing everything out of bondage to death and sin. We can trust God.
Secondly, we actually can say no to sin in our lives. I grew up in a tradition that essentially taught that if I pray a prayer if I ask Jesus into my heart, that he will eventually take me to heaven someday. This meant that our entire relationship was a one-time transaction. I did a thing once and eventually, Jesus will do a thing. But that kind of transactional view of Jesus means that we are essentially stuck in this life with sin as our master. But Paul insists that sin has no master over those of us who have been baptized into Jesus. Sin has no ability to force us to live a certain way, act a certain way, feel things and think things that are contrary to God’s way.
What baptism into Jesus means is that you can actually experience and display the fruit of his spirit on a regular basis. That we can be people who show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. We can love our neighbour; not just endure them, but genuinely love them. You don’t have to be a person controlled by anger or lust or selfishness or envy. You can be set free from all of those things.
You can trust God with everything in life, knowing that Jesus is in the process of renewing all creation. You can say no to areas of sin in your life. If you have been baptized into Christ, you are a new creation. You are an island of God’s future living in the present.
It doesn’t matter if you were baptized as an infant or as an adult. It doesn’t matter if you were baptized by sprinkling or by full immersion in water. The modes and methods and timing of baptism aren’t what’s important. The reality is that baptism is our means of identifying with the death and resurrection of Jesus right here and right now.