“…baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…”
Jesus commands his disciples to not only make disciples, but to baptize them as well. But what does that mean? Is it just a quick confession of faith followed by a dunk in the water? An elaborate ceremony preceded by months of preparation?
In the early church—and in some places still today—baptism is intentionally done in public as a testimony to non-believers. In other places it’s done in great secrecy as the act of baptism itself is a death sentence if witnessed by certain authorities. And in other places, baptism takes place in a large tub in the church, often with some cheesy wilderness wallpaper in the background.
People argue about the proper way and proper time to do baptism. Is baptism with sprinkling or pouring adequate, does it get the job done? Should baptism be done immediately after someone puts their faith in Christ or after a time of discipleship and growth. Should a person who was baptized as an infant be baptized again as an adult? This question is of great importance to many people in the area of the world where I live. Others will argue the necessity of baptism, itself. But here’s the thing—the ritual of baptism is not the most important thing. Like most things, if there is no change of heart, mind, and will, then the ritual itself has little meaning.
I looked up “baptism” in the Thesaurus where three words stood out to me; three words that help me to look at baptism in a clearer light, and to focus on that which is really important:
1. For the past—Cleansing : In the act of baptism we accept and acknowledge the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ. We confess that the “old ways are gone” and that we now stand as new creatures in Christ. In the early church people would wait until just before death to be baptized because they believed that baptism cleansed them completely and restored to them a sinless perfection. The hope was, then, that they would die before they fell back into sin. The Bible clearly states, though, that it is by faith that we find salvation and cleansing. The act of baptism is a physical manifestation of a spiritual truth working in our hearts.
2. For the present—Immersion : Being baptized “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” brings with it a new purpose for living—an immersion in the things of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. When we live an “immersed” life everything about the way we live will look different—our hopes, our dreams, our goals, our attitudes, the way we relate to others, our use of money and time, the way we raise our children, our work habits, and more.
3. For the future—A New Name : In some church traditions baptism takes place as an infant and is often accompanied by the naming of the child. This name becomes the child’s identity and often carries great meaning for the child and his or her family. Adults, too, when baptized receive a new name that they will carry with them into the remainder of their lives—a name that becomes their identity.
The baptized person is no longer just “Sally”, but “Sally—follower of Christ,” or “Sally—child of God,” or “Sally—Christ’s disciple.” We are a new being with new identity to carry with us into the rest of our lives. This is what we carry to the world in which we live–forgiveness and cleansing, a life of purpose, and a new identity as a partner with Christ in this mission to which we’ve been called.