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Rethinking Baptism

I have always been a believer of credobaptism, or believer’s baptism, specifically that baptism is administered only to those who repent and profess faith in Jesus – His sinless life, His perfect death, and powerful resurrection. Still, this article will not discuss divisions between the paedo (child) and credo (belief) baptism crowds. Instead, we will consider the reasons why someone should be baptized and the importance of it.

When growing up and seeking to understand Christianity, I was told many things about baptism and why we administer it within the church. Some of these reasons include:

  • It’s a public proclamation of one’s faith.
  • It’s an outer sign of an inner change.
  • It was performed by Christ, and He commanded that we follow his example.
  • It brings a believer into the Christian community.

In the following, we will question some of these concepts and then add something I believe has often been missing from our thoughts on baptism.

Baptism as Public Proclamation
Many believe that all baptisms should be performed in public, but it’s rarely the general public they desire. Rather, the baptism happens within the church walls where very few non-believers are likely to witness it. What we see more consistently in the Scriptures is not that baptism occurred in public but that it happened immediately after a new believer’s repentance and profession of faith. We aren’t sure if Scripture is referring to public places or the influence of witnesses (e.g., various believers in households, the eunuch by his chariot, Lydia by the river with other women). The evidence seems to point more to the immediacy of baptism, not the place or those present.   So, while baptism may be a proclamation (as are many other things we do), I’m not sure this expresses the full “why” of baptism.

Baptism as an Outer Sign of an Inner Change
Although baptism may be an outer sign, or picture, of salvation, there isn’t a great deal of Scriptural support. We can try and connect some dots between the baptism in water and the baptism of the Spirit shown in Romans 6. But the evidence for an outer sign being the reason for water baptism seems to be lacking. I believe the outer and inner aspects of baptism are interconnected, but as we will see, they are connected in a way that shows baptism as more than a mere outer sign.

Because Jesus Baptized and Commanded Us 
I don’t believe this is good enough. As we speak to a postmodern world, the people we seek to disciple won’t believe this is good enough either. Our parents may have conditioned us to do things because they said so, but this isn’t how God usually operates. Our God explains things to us instead of answering, “Because I said so.” There may be times when we do things God calls us to without fully knowing why. However, most of the time God operates as a Father who desires for His children to know the reason why He has a command, not merely, “Do what I say and deal with it.” Because of this, we should ask why Jesus baptized and why he commanded it.

To Bring Someone into the Christian Community
I agree with this statement, but I believe baptism to be much fuller than this. If we believe that people should be baptized so they can be in a new community, we’re avoiding the argument for why someone should desire this. If we are dealing with God and His ways, baptism has to be larger than a particular culture or time. In this day and age, many believers don’t feel they have to be baptized to be in a community. Most understand, within Protestant circles, that baptism is not an act of salvation. If this is the reason why we are baptized, few will be persuaded. Many may show you the Christian community that they are in without having been baptized. Although they might be kept from some membership rosters, few will care and many might actually be glad that they aren’t considered members – it gets them out of business meetings. Not only that, the eunuch in Acts 8 didn’t return with Philip. He continued in the life and occupation that God had given him. So, maybe this is deeper than a physical community

Why Get Baptized? 
Let’s look to the source of Jesus’ command, found in Matthew 28:18-21:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go, therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Jesus’ grand commission involves these elements: seeking His power and presence; going (literally “as one goes along in life”); making disciples; baptizing and teaching.

When questioning baptism and why we are called to do it, we should look directly at this passage and also at Jesus’ baptism found in the gospels.

After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 3:16-4:1)

To those who say, “We get baptized because Jesus did it,” we must ask, “Why was Jesus baptized and how does it relate to our baptism?”

To Show Our New Identity
Jesus, from what we gather in the Scriptures, was known as Joseph’s son or the carpenter’s son. Few knew Him to be the coming Messiah or God’s Son (see Matt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3; Lk. 2:25-34). When Jesus came out of the water, God spoke:

This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.

This speaks to a new, revealed identity. I am not saying Jesus wasn’t God’s Son prior to this event, but this is the moment when He is identified as such. This is the fulfillment of Scriptures that spoke of the coming Messiah.

I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. (Psalm 2:7)

Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

In a similar way, our baptism makes us new creatures with new identities. Instead of being sons and daughters of Adam, we have become sons and daughters of God. Instead of being servants of this world, we have become servants of the risen King. Instead of being filled with the power of our flesh, being sent to fulfill the kingdom of the world, we are filled with the Spirit and sent to work for the Kingdom of God.

We see this reality as Jesus gives us a new name in Matthew 28. We have a new Father. We have a new King, who is the Son of God. And we now have a new spirit – the Spirit of God whose power abides within us. We are now disciples of Jesus. We are now sons and daughters, servants and sent ones. Baptism reveals this new identity.

Commissioned to Make Disciples with a New Power
Notice what else happens at Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit of God descends upon Him. We know that Jesus wasn’t “saved” at this point, nor was Jesus now officially deified (see Jn. 1). But why did the Spirit descend upon Jesus? We should note what happened immediately after this moment. The Spirit led Him to the wilderness. Jesus’ public ministry started. He was now commissioned to make disciples. It was important for Jesus to start by resisting temptation (although He had been doing this in all the years leading up to this point as well), because He wasn’t making disciples of others but of Himself. Part of His ministry was perfection for our sake. He is our perfect high priest. After being led into the wilderness, Luke says this of Christ:

And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district.

And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.

And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.

And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. 

And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21)

You could say He let the cat out of the bag. Luke starts this passage with, “in the power of the Spirit…” After Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended and His ministry of making disciples started.

This is what I believe we’ve been missing in our understanding of baptism. When we repent and believe and then are baptized, something miraculous happens. It is not that we are saved, because upon profession of belief we are sealed inwardly by the Spirit (Romans 6; Eph 1:13; 4:10). In baptism, the commission of making disciples under a new name and with a new power is established. Notice the two bookends of Jesus’ commission to his disciples: 1) Jesus’ authority (Matt. 28:18); 2) Jesus’ presence (Matt. 28:20).

Some might ask, “But I know many who make disciples without their being baptized. What are the consequences?” I’m not sure that we’ll ever know the consequences of not understanding this commissioning aspect of baptism. Sometimes these questions cannot reveal the consequences. But it might be better understood if we ask what would happen if the command and deeper truth was realized in that person’s life. What would bring you greater satisfaction: looking at beautiful pictures of Hawaii or stepping foot on the beaches?

Simply put, I believe we should baptize new followers of Jesus because:

  • We are commanded.
  • Jesus did it.
  • It is a proclamation of our new identity.

But I also believe there is a deep connection to the Spirit’s power (because of the authority of Christ) for baptism to commission us to make disciples for our King.

This speaks clearly to why we see every instance of baptism of new disciples happening so quickly after they repent and believe. Those who repent and believe, those who are now followers of Jesus, given a new name, should be baptized to receive the enormous gift given through baptism because in it we are given a new power and a new purpose.

So, yes, we are to be baptized because Jesus was, but if we miss why Jesus was baptized, we miss out on the fullness of following in the ways and purposes of our Redeemer.

Seth McBee is the adopted son of God, husband of one wife and father of two boys. He’s a graduate of Seattle Pacific University with a finance degree. By trade Seth is an Investment Portfolio Manager, serving as president of McBee Advisors, Inc. Today, he’s a missional community leader, City Church leader and coach with Soma Communities in Renton, Washington. In his down time, he likes to watch football, cook BBQ, host pancake ebelskiver breakfasts at his home and many other neighborhood events in his hometown of Maple Valley, Washington.