Most of us come from different backgrounds, even in a small community like Caroline County. We have different family values, traditions, and church histories. My church history comes from the Episcopal and Lutheran churches which are fairly different from the Baptist church that I have come to know and love. When my family moved from the Lutheran church to a more conservative Baptist church, a lot of what I believed didn’t really change. I still saw value in the creeds and believed that certain rituals were a valuable way for us to connect with our God. One of those ‘rituals’ that I never got a clear Baptist explanation of was Baptism.
The Pretty Phrase that Lacks Meaning
It is entirely correct that we are to boldly profess our faiths in front of God and man. That is something I don’t dispute in the least. In fact, this is one of the biggest reasons I think many traditional churches are missing the spiritual mark: not enough emphasis on “public” ministry (or ministry outside the church walls).
Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:32 NLT, Source: Bible Gateway)
That said, I’ve always been unsatisfied with the traditional buzz-phrase that baptism is a “public profession of faith”. That just didn’t seem to follow with what we know about baptism in the Bible. Historically, baptism follows with other ceremonial washings that demonstrated a washing of sin. That context would imply that baptism is a ceremonial washing of sins. Either way, the “public profession of faith” and ceremonial washing explanations seem to conflict with Jesus’ own baptism. Let’s recall what occurred when Jesus was baptized.
Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”
But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” (Matthew 3:13-17 NLT, Source: Bible Gateway)
When we look at this account, it doesn’t appear that this was a public profession of faith. Who was the public? Was Jesus in need of publicly displaying His faith? And if baptism is just a public profession of faith, what is up with the voice from heaven and the dove? When we recount the actions of Jesus’ own baptism, it appears something supernatural occurred. Something greater than just a symbolic ‘public profession’ was initiating by the sprinkling of water. This point is reinforced by Paul in the book of Hebrews…
By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, 22 let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:20-22 NLT, Source: Bible Gateway)
There is a spiritual and a physical aspect of salvation. Because of God’s grace, we are saved from death… but we all die eventually, right? The body dies, but the spirit lives forever. That fact alone shows that there is a separation between the body and the soul. What Paul was communicating is that there is a dual-nature to becoming a follower of Christ. Through Christ’s blood, our souls are saved. However, it is through the power of baptism, a power that goes beyond a symbol, that our bodies are ceremonially cleaned. Let’s remember that ceremonial cleaning wasn’t something that the Jewish leaders did ‘when they had the chance’ or when it was convenient. It was something they did because they believed it helped purify themselves before God.
Now, it would be silly for me not to acknowledge that many of the rituals we do have many meanings. When I was going through ‘confirmation’ (the Lutheran version of an older child’s “public profession of faith”), it was about spiritual discipline, instruction, rededication as a part of the Christian family, and personal commitment. Baptism certainly serves a “public profession” function, and I don’t want to take that away from anyone who happens to like that phrase. It takes some courage to get up in front of an entire church and go through with an event like this.
The message I would like to get across is that we shouldn’t be afraid of the “mystical” aspects of our faith, especially when they only serve to make the rituals we conduct more meaningful and help facilitate a closer relationship with God. The God we serve is way bigger than anything we could ever imagine. When we stop putting God in a ‘box of understanding’ and accept the things God can do that seem improbable or impossible, I think we’ll be amazed what He can do, even through regularly occurring rituals that many of us take for granted.