Baptism

Meaning(s) of Baptism

Three things demand clarity before we look into the meaning(s) of baptism. 1. With The Open Door Community, there is plenty of room for diversity in theology and practice.

2.  However, one issue of clarity seems pertinent: Baptism does not save.  Salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) that expresses itself in repentance and confession of Jesus as LORD (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9).  Participating or not participating in the ritual does not impact a person’s eternity.  Therefore, while we enthusiastically encourage baptism, we refer to the practice as a non-essential.

3.  In so doing, we affirm the sentiment of Reformer Rupertus Meldinius who once said, "In the essentials we need unity, in the non-essentials we need freedom; but in all things we need love."

Now, to explore the meaning(s) of baptism.

Consider Jesus' baptism.  In order to identify with the community that He had come to redeem (all of humanity through Israel) Jesus experienced John the Baptizer's water baptism of repentance.  Immediately following that moment, Mark exposes the fusion of the three Persons of the Trinity.  The Spirit descended on the Son as the voice of the Father sounded.  Jesus' baptism served as the anointing and inauguration of His ministry.

We could say that we pattern our baptisms after Jesus' baptism and, to some degree, we do.  However, there was something far more significant and far more symbolic going on at Jesus' baptism that serves as the pattern for our own: it pointed to the climax of His work: His death and resurrection.

Jesus' baptism pointed to the defining moment through which all things would be made new.

Thus, when we experience baptism, rather than participating in the baptism of Jesus, we participate in His death, resurrection, and reign.  Baptism, therefore, is a symbolic declaration that:

  • Christ died my death: I am united with Him in His death.
  • Christ is alive: I am united with Him in His life.
  • Christ reigns today: I am united with Him in the work of the Kingdom.
  • I am fully immersed in the life of Christ.
  • I do not save myself.  I am saved through the work of Christ.
  • I belong to God as His beloved.  He is my home.  He is my hope.
  • I choose to go and live out the life of Christ in community with others.

But wait!

Fully functioning, cognitive adults who have been captivated by the Story of God made tangible in the Person of Jesus might be able to symbolically declare this with their baptism, but what about infants?

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we see children included in the Covenant Rituals exchanged between God and humanity.  In each Covenant, God's interaction was usually with an adult representative but the covenant love of God always reached children before they were even aware.

In Mark 10, we watch the intentional inclusion of children continue in the life of Jesus.  As His disciples tried to restrict inclusion to adults, Jesus, who didn't seem to mind whether a child understood or not, accepted and blessed them.

In Acts 2, Peter gives voice to the new thing that God has done and is doing among a community of people who understood that with a new thing came new initiation rituals.  When they inquired of Peter what that should do, his answer included an initiation ritual: repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit, you and your children!  The baptism of children is implied five times throughout Acts in household baptisms, however, repeatedly throughout the New Testament, baptism, regardless of the timing of it, meant nothing if one's life did not demonstrate the truth of what that baptism represented.

Thus, when we experience an infant baptism, rather than declaring the salvation of the little one, we declare that:

  • God is the initiator in salvation.
  • God's covenant is complete prior to any response.
  • God's redemptive activity is focused on the entire community of humanity and reaches us before we can even understand it.
  • Before we recognize it, God is working to incorporate us into community with Him and others.
  • Even the sweetest, most innocent newborn is in desperate need of God's grace.
  • We rest on the on God's Promise to be that child's God.
  • We commit ourselves to stewarding that child in God's Way.

To sum it up:

The center of attention in baptism is not on who is baptized nor who baptizes. Neither is the focus on when or how.  Rather, the center of attention in baptism is on the Triune God: baptism is an expression of our union with the Father and Son through the Spirit.

For the adult: Baptism is a unique, whole-person, experiential way of participating in and narrating the redemptive Story of God.  In the ritual, we experience God's most extravagant moment of love in an other kind of way.

For the infant and family: Baptism is crying out to God to make good on His promise to apply His redemptive work to their child.

Open Door's Approach to Baptism:

We are not interested in making religious practices essential that don't appear to be essential in the Scriptures; however, whether you're an infant, you've been following Jesus for a lifetime, or are brand new to following Him, we do encourage baptism simply because its a beautiful participation in the Story of God.

Origin of Baptism

In Mark's Gospel, we discover the New Testament’s first mention of baptism.  There, we find John the Baptizer in the wilderness baptizing people who were a part of the Covenant Community (Hebrews), most of whom had been physically marked with the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (circumcision) and had considered themselves as the “in-with-God” people. Jesus, both the Covenant-giver and member of the Covenant Community, approached John to be baptized.  Once baptized, Mark wrote that the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended, and the Father’s voice sounded: “You are My beloved Son.  With You I am well pleased!”  Holy Spirit empowerment, clarity in identity and affirmation in value are offered Jesus before His ministry even began.

Before Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptizer referred to Jesus as the One who will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11).  After Jesus’ baptism, we learn that He never baptized anyone with water but that His disciples did (John 4:2), and that part of our vocation as followers of Jesus is to disciple-make by baptizing and teaching (Matthew 28).  The New Testament continues with frequent mention of the practice of baptism.

 Baptism seems to be a central practice of the Jesus Community but what is its origin?

 In the beginning…

Our Story begins with the Creator speaking existence into being.  The poetry of Genesis 1 portrays the Artisan God inviting creation to rise up from the depths.  New Life emerged thru water on the prompting of the Creator.

In the home of a desperate Hebrew slave…

Our Story continues with the surprisingly reproductive Covenant Community enslaved in the brick kilns of Egypt.  The Pharaoh enacted genocide through the drowning of any newborn Hebrew boy.  One mother would not let anyone else throw her beloved son into the Nile…eventually, though, she had to do it herself.  She placed her baby boy in a basket and placed him in the waters of the Nile, only to be rescued by the Dictator’s own daughter.  Rescue came thru water.

In between walls of water…

The boy, named Moses, grew up and was invited by God to participate in the liberation of the Covenant Community from Egypt.  Their route to freedom seemed to dead-end at the Red Sea.  However, God parted the Red Sea and they walked through the water to their freedom.  Freedom came thru water.

Into the Promsied Land…

After a 40-year wilderness wander, Moses’ predecessor, Joshua, led the Covenant Community to the brink of the Promised Land.  All they had to do was cross the Jordan River and they would be there.  Again, God parted the waters and they walked through to receive God’s Promise.  God’s Promise came thru water.

In our Story, new life, rescue, freedom, and God’s Promises all came thru water.

Back to Mark 1…

John the Baptizer came to prepare the way for the One who would make all things new by bringing rescue and freedom to the community of humanity as the very embodiment of God’s Promise.  Thus, borrowing from his own Story, the ritual that John the Baptizer chose to prepare the people involved bringing them thru water.

The baptism of repentance that John offered the Covenant Community, therefore, required a radical act of individual commitment to belong to God's Community.

Why so radical?

Because those being baptized (the already-circumcised, in-with-God people) had to admit that being born a Jew guaranteed them nothing.  Because they had to acknowledge that what counted was not who their parents were, but whom they lived for.  Because in order to be baptized by John, they had to renounce their dependency on ethnic Jewishness and rely wholly on the mercy of God.