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Baptism: Symbol or Sacred? – Sermon Notes

Baptism: Symbol or Sacred?

Pastor Rick Henderson
July 8-9, 2023

Manuscript Outline


Since we’re talking about baptism today, I’m curious if any of you have ever seen this photo before.  This is from our church, back in 1898.  Ice is floating in the river and this lady is jumping in.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not tough Minnesota.

Look at this guy in the tree.  Do you know who that is? That’s a teenage Pastor Woody. (Just Kidding.)

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Out of all the things I get to do as a pastor—baptism is my favorite.  Out of all the things we do in our worship services—baptism is my favorite.  It’s not even close.  Baptism is something that’s a big deal to followers of Jesus.  Baptism has been a big deal to different denominations and church traditions.  And, unfortunately, baptism has been a source of some big hurts.  Baptism is massively important and sometimes it’s downright problematic.

Today, we’re going to wade right into it.  We’re going to take an eye’s-wide-open look at why this is such a big deal.  And, and—I believe you’re going to walk out of here encouraged.  I’m hoping and praying that those of you who have been on the fence will confidently, and with excitement, make the move to get baptized.  If your curious why this is gets so much attention, we have Jesus to thank for that.

MATTHEW 28:19b-20a “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

He said this after his crucifixion, after his resurrection and right before he ascended into heaven.  If you were there, how do you think these words would have hit you.  This guy was dead and now he’s not dead.  Once you and I got passed the shock of that, I bet we would have hung on every word.  We would have clung to each word like it was the last french fry at the bottom of the bag.

Out of all the things he could have said in that moment, this is what he wanted to say in his final conversation with his followers. Go everywhere.  Teach people to obey me.  Baptize them.  I don’t know how to take Jesus seriously and not take this seriously.  We have a word for things that are this weighty, this serious, this monumental.  The word is sacred.  That word, sacred, I don’t think we should use it lightly.

Some of you know that I was recently in Europe.  On the flight home, we had a 16-hour layover in Paris.  What do you do if you have a 16-hour layover in Paris?  You take an Uber to the city.  We did.  And this is where we were dropped off, at Notre Dame.

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It was stunning and a bit disappointing.  Construction is ongoing.  It won’t be finished for 2-3 more years.  Do you remember what happened 4 years ago?

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People all over the globe were transfixed to images of Notre Dame burning.  I’m bringing this up because I want to ask you what might be a provocative question.

QUESTION:  Was anything sacred lost in the Notre Dame fire?

Certainly, value was lost.   Certainly, cherished artwork was lost.  Certainly, relics of history were lost.  But was anything sacred lost?  I’ll let you wrestle down that tension and answer that question for yourself.  I will say this, for all the religious symbols that were forever lost to the flames...

A SYMBOL is not SUBSTANCE.

It doesn’t mean it’s not cherished.  It doesn’t mean that it’s not deeply meaningful and extremely valuable.  A symbol is not the same as substance.  I think we get this.  Right now, is wedding season.  I just performed a wedding this week.  I don’t know if there is better example of what we’re talking about than a wedding.

At every wedding, whether it’s with a church or in a courthouse, a couple stands up, in front of family and friends.  They make some pretty serious promises.  And they then symbolize those promises with a what?  A ring.

Now, imagine there’s a couple at a wedding who are dating, and it’s gotten serious.  They are moved by what they see in the ceremony.  They notice that they’re both wearing rings.  So, they swap rings with each other.  Does that make them married?  Not a chance.  It’s silly for me to even ask that question.  Because a symbol is not substance.  Today, as we talk about baptism, we have to also talk about the power of symbols.

THE POWER OF SYMBOLS:

  • They aren’t necessarily sacred, but what they represent can be.
  • They remind, connect and unite us with truth and community.

We are going to experience this on July 23rd, when we gather together to celebrate with all of those who get baptized.  It’s going to be here.  And I hope you will be here.

  • They help us understand without having to think.

It’s not that they bypass our brains.  The message just gets to that place of understanding so quickly and naturally, it’s like we didn’t even have to think about it.  That’s not only a religious thing.  That’s just part of being a human being.  We are so reliant upon symbols, it’s so second nature—we don’t even notice anymore.  As a matter of fact, symbols often express what we mean in a way that’s quicker, clearer and more compelling than words ever could.

How many of like using gifs in your text messages?  Why is that?  Because symbols communicate quickly and effectively in a way that words by themselves sometimes can’t.  By the way, if you’re confused as to whether is jif or gif.  This is Jif.

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This is a gif.

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Symbolism is powerful because you and I are hard wired to think in stories.  Symbols pack an entire story into a single image.

QUESTION:  Is baptism more SYMBOL or SUBSTANCE?

Regardless of how you answer that question, how your family of origin answers that question—there’s no way around that there’s a lot of symbolism that just about every church tradition attaches to baptism.  Baptism is like the car bumper of Christianity.

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People want to accessorize it with all kinds of things.  And each symbol, each layer represents something meaningful.  Over the years, people have added layer after layer to baptism.  Let me give you a few examples.

  • Waiting periods between your profession of faith and baptism. That idea was to give people a chance to demonstrate the authenticity of their faith and to make sure they understood their decision to follow Jesus.
  • Special locations, like a baptismal font.
  • Baptism clothing...in traditional churches infants were special gowns. Some churches have people were white robes.  In our church, we give you a t-shirt.
  • It’s common today for churches to add videos of people telling their stories about choosing to follow Jesus.

I’m not throwing shade at any of that.  But when we peel back all the layers, what is baptism?  How does Jesus want us to think about it?  Is baptism sacred or does it represent something that’s sacred?

For my money, the most helpful, clear, breaking-it-down-slowly explanation was written down by a man the Apostle Paul.  He included it in a letter he wrote to a network of house churches in the city of Rome.  I’m going to put it all on the screen, so that we all are looking at the same thing, as we take our time walking through it.  As I make observations, you can make observations too.  Be thinking about our question:  Is baptism more symbol or substance?

ROMANS 6:1-2  What shall we say, then? 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?

We’re entering the chat right in the middle of an important conversation.  It’s a conversation that’s still needed today.  It goes like this.

  • My life has more sin and moral mess ups than I want to admit.
  • Jesus 100% forgives me for all of that, when I trust in him by faith.
  • That’s called grace.
  • So, the more I sin, the more I’m forgiven, the more grace I get, right?.
  • Sounds like I should keep on sinning to keep this grace train rolling!

What a childish perspective.  What a toxic perspective.  It utterly lacks gratitude.  It utterly lacks understanding for the real impact of our morally broken choices.

What does it mean to die to sin?  It doesn’t mean that we lose our ability to sin.  My ability to sin is still intact.  How about yours?  No, it means we’ve given up our allegiance to sin.  There were some people who thought because they were forgiven, because they were given grace, that they were now free to do whatever they wanted, however they wanted, whenever they wanted.  That is the perspective of someone whose allegiance is to themselves.

What we are about to see is that baptism is declaring to allegiance to Jesus.  I identify with you, Jesus.  You are the leader.  You are the authority of my life.  I find delight in submitting to what you say.  This is why, right before we baptize someone, we ask, “Is it your intention to live for Him for the rest of your life?”

ROMANS 6:3-4  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.

How many of you have seen someone baptized?  Is being baptized and being buried literally the same thing?  Nope.  So, if baptism represents being buried, doesn’t that point to it being a symbol?  There are 3 ways that churches typically administer baptism:  sprinkling water on someone, pouring water on someone, or totally submerging someone.  I’m not interest in judging anybody or any church.  I’ve happily baptized people by pouring water, when getting in the tank and being submerged is not an option.  I do want to ask.  Which of those 3 methods best symbolizes being buried?

We could also ask, is baptism and being raised form the dead literally the same thing?  Nope.  So, if baptism represents being raised from the dead, doesn’t that also point to it being a symbol?   Remembering our options, sprinkling water, pouring water, or submerging in water and then coming up out of the water—which of those 3 best symbolizes rising to new life?

GREEK 101

βαπτιzω: 1) to dip or immerse

The Greek word for “baptism” literally meant to plunge, soak, or dip. “Baptism” wasn’t primarily a religious word at all.  Sometimes this word was used it for people who drowned or ships that went down at sea. We even have a recipe for pickles recorded by a Greek physician named Nicander. He says, literally, “bapto (as in, dip quickly) the cucumber in water, and then baptizo (as in, immerse and let it soak) in vinegar.”

Some form of the word is used 91 times in the New Testament.  Not only does it mean to immerse in water, it also carries with the concept of identification.  There are countries where it’s common or acceptable to persecute Christians for their faith.  Interestingly, when someone converts to faith in Jesus, persecution doesn’t begin until they are baptized.  Because that’s when others see the person as truly identifying with Jesus.

Isn’t it true that who you identify with says something about you?  That’s why we wear sports jerseys.  That’s why you won’t do business with certain stores or companies.  That’s why you may only buy a certain type of car.  Who we identify with, what we identify with matters.  That’s a universal, human thing.  Baptism says, “I identify with Jesus.  I’m with Him.  I’m on His team.  I follow Him.”

If you were to read the entire book of Romans, this is what you’d find.

ROMANS 3:21-5:21 ROMANS 6-8
Jesus died for me (substitution). I died with Him (identification).
Jesus paid sin’s penalty (justification). Jesus broke sin’s power (sanctification).

Baptism is more than a religious act.  It’s a drama that tells the story of death and new life.  The story that’s being dramatized and symbolized is powerful.  Jesus took my place.  I identify with him.  He’s given me new life and new status.  Because of him I am free.

ROMANS 6:5-8 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. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

I recently read something from theologian I follow.  I thought it so clearly captured a key aspect of what Paul is saying that I wanted us to write it and down and remember it.

Baptism moves us from I believe to WE believe.

Baptism is simultaneously about the individual and for the community.  The story that we are telling when we get baptized is our own personal story.  And yet, it’s bigger than me.  It’s bigger than the person being baptized.  It encourages the church family and it preaches the gospel to those who don’t yet know Jesus.

I can understand why someone would ask, why should I get baptized.  Reasonable question.  As what baptism is starts to come into focus, it’s just as reasonable to ask, why wouldn’t I get baptized.  That’s not the only question.  Some of us are also asking this.

 QUESTION: What about infant baptism?

When you read the New Testament you’ll find parents bringing their children to Jesus. He held them, welcomed them, and told us to welcome them.  Have you ever wondered, why didn’t Jesus baptize children?  Why didn’t Jesus instruct anyone to baptize very young children?  Why aren’t there any stories of young children being baptized anywhere in the New Testament, or instructions about baptizing infants and young children?

Every instance of baptism in Acts and beyond happened immediately when someone expressed faith in Jesus or it happened shortly after someone expressed faith in Jesus.  The understanding that baptism is something that accompanies belief in Jesus is called believer’s baptism.  When we believe in Jesus, out of obedience to Jesus, we publicly express that with baptism.

So, what’s the answer to our question.

ANSWER: Infant baptism is an expression the PARENTS’ faith, not a CHILD’S faith.

Tertullian was a leader and theologian, from Africa, in the second century.  He might be the first person in human history to write down the concept that where you were born and who you were born isn’t the thing the defines your spiritual identity.

A man becomes a Christian, he is not born one.  –Tertullian

We could say this.  There are baby Christians, but no Christian babies.

If you were baptized as a child, it was the intent of your parents that you would one day be a follower of Jesus yourself. Your baptism as an adult, as an expression of your faith in Jesus can be viewed as the fulfillment of your parents’ good intentions for you.  It in no way repudiates the baptism you received as a child.  To be clear. We do not reject or minimize your parents’ faith.  Thank God for your parents and their desire to raise you in a such a way that you would one day want to choose Jesus for yourself.

If you were baptized as a child, we don’t put your earlier baptism in the category of “not good enough,” We just put it in the category of “before you believed.” If believer’s baptism is like a wedding ring, maybe we should look at infant baptism like an engagement ring.  It was your parents hope that you would also share faith in Jesus.  We invite you to celebrate your belief in Christ by making a public declaration of this in baptism.

This naturally leads to our next question, maybe the most important question.

QUESTION: Who should be baptized?

WRONG ANSWERS ONLY: 

  • If you believe this will earn God’s love and acceptance.
  • If you believe God will bless you more.
  • If you feel like you’re worthy enough.

Baptism is about recognizing we aren’t worthy.  We aren’t good enough—only Jesus is!  For all who give their allegiance to him, he not only forgives, he also gives us his status of holy, his status of being worthy.  It’s not about us.  It’s about him. Continuing with wrong answers only.

  • If you think this girl at church is a smoke show and you want her to date you.

Ya’ll think I’m playing.  I’ve been doing this a long time.

How do you know if you should be baptized?  You should get baptized if you’ve switched your allegiance to Jesus.  You should get baptized because you want to publically identify with him.  This is THE answer…

Baptism is a PUBLIC declaration of a PERSONAL decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Baptism is for believers. Believers realize their sin unravels our ability to connect with God. They have given up all efforts to reach God through good works or religious activity.  They have concluded that only Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for their sins can bridge the gap between them and God. They are confident that Jesus can give new life because he proved it by rising form the dead.  A believer is someone who has decided to trust Christ alone for salvation.

Because of that, this is the kind of thing you’ll read throughout the New Testament.  What I’m going to put on the screen is an excerpt from the Apostle Peter, preaching about this very thing.

Acts 2:38  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

If there is a verse in the Bible that’s going to confuse people about baptism, it’s this one.  And it all comes down to the preposition, for.  I completely understand how someone would read this and conclude, I have to get baptized so that I will be forgiven.

The assumption is that for = in order to get.  However, in both Greek and English, there are many uses for the word for.  If I said to you, “Take two aspirin for your headache, you know that I don’t mean, ‘take two aspirin in order to get’ a headache.”  You are taking the aspirin for what reason—you already have a headache.  The word that’s used in Greek that we translate “for,” also means on account of, or because of.  That’s exactly how this is being used here.  We could state that verse this way, and it would mean the exact same thing. 

Acts 2:38  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ because of the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

If you’ve come to the place where you realize that you are a sinner in need of a savior.  If you have put your trust in and your allegiance with Jesus as the only hope for forgiveness.  If you trust what he did on the cross and the resurrection—you should be baptized.

I’ve got a road trip coming up and decided to double check all my reservations.  I realized that I booked a hotel for the wrong week.  So, I didn’t have place for my family and I to spend the night.  I tried to cancel, but I’d already paid and there was no refund.  A rep from the travel app said only the hotel could waive it.  So, I called the hotel and I was told that I was out of luck.  I wasn’t getting my money back and I had to pay for another hotel room all over again.

Immediately after that, someone from my travel app called me and said they’d try to fix it.  Not only did this person fix my reservation and get the hotel to waive the cancellation fee, this person also got me a little refund.   I was so excited.  I couldn’t wait to tell my wife.  I didn’t even mind telling her I was a dummy and made the reservation for the wrong day.  I was so excited to share the story of what this person did for me.

That’s baptism.  I messed up.  There is a cost to my mess up.  Jesus fixed it and I want to tell everyone about it.  What about you?