Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying, "THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, "MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!'" 4 Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" 15 But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he permitted Him. 16 And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."
Baptism : part of Jesus' Ministry and Part of our Mission
Today we begin a brief series on the Biblical teachings concerning baptism. There are several reasons for this. One is that in almost seventeen years I have never preached a series of messages on the Biblical meaning of baptism. This is a gaping hole in our treatment of the whole message of the Bible for our time.
Another reason is that Jesus made baptism part of his ministry and part of our mission. Baptism is not man's idea. It was God's idea. It is not a denominational thing. It is a Biblical thing. It started with John the Baptist at the beginning of our gospels. He came, verse 11 says, to "baptize with water for repentance." It continued in the ministry of Jesus himself. John 4:1 says, "Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John," although it was the disciples, not Jesus who did the actual immersing (John 4:2). And the practice was picked up by the church not because of their own wisdom, but because of the command of the Lord. At the end of his earthly ministry Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). So Jesus made baptism part of his ministry and part of our mission.
Baptism : Universal in the Early Church
Another reason for the series is that the practice of baptism was universal in the early church. It was not just for converted Jews or converted gentiles, or any one specific church. It was practiced for all converts in all the churches. We know of no unbaptized believers (except the thief on the cross, Luke 23:43). For example, in Romans 6 Paul says to a church that he has never visited (in answer to a question whether Christians can sin that grace may abound), "How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Romans 6:2-3).
In other words, he bases his argument that Christians can't go on willfully sinning on the fact that we have all died with Christ, as baptism shows. Dead men don't sin. He assumes that the Roman believers were all baptized, and he was simply reminding them what it stood for. It was a universal, defining experience in the early church. If we are to be in sync with the entire New Testament and the entire early church we must take baptism seriously and practice it faithfully.
Finally, there is a reason for this series that relates to our situation today at Bethlehem. We believe that we have been remiss in not calling for a more forthright and public declaration of faith in response to the ministry of the word. Most American evangelicals are familiar with what Billy Graham does at the end of his preaching, calling people to walk to the front. Sometimes these are called "invitations." Sometimes "altar calls." When you look for something like this in the Bible there is no clear example. But what is clear is that when Paul preached the word, say in a synagogue or on the Areopagus, he got connected with those who believed (Acts 17:4,12,34).
The Decisive, Public Way of Taking a Public Stand
And if you ask what the decisive, public way of taking a Christian stand was in the New Testament, the answer is, baptism. The message Peter gave in Acts 2 ended with the words, "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38). Our renewed conviction is that we need to regularly offer baptism as the decisive public way for people to respond publicly to the gospel. But to do this we felt we needed a clearer understanding as a church of what baptism is. Hence the series on baptism.
Then, in a step of faith and hope in God's saving power among us through the summer, we are planning to have baptism and testimony services every Wednesday evening beginning in June, with some of them being off-site in lakes and pools. Our thought is that God has been and will be at work among us to bring people to faith and readiness for baptism, and that the guests and families that come to baptisms need to hear the testimonies of how God brought people to himself and what it means to be a Christian.
David Livingston is planning Sunday morning baptismal classes throughout the summer that will prepare a person in two weeks for following through on their profession of faith in baptism. We want to keep the time between the profession of faith and the baptism fairly short, because that is the way the New Testament did it, and because then the symbol feels more like a declaration of the new reality of faith.
Beginning with John the Baptist
Today we begin our series with the baptizing ministry of John the Baptist. This is the New Testament origin of Christian baptism. There is a close continuity between Christian Baptism and John's baptism. John began baptizing, Jesus continued baptizing, and he commanded the church to keep on with the practice : though now the act would be done in his name. So there are crucial things to learn about baptism from the baptism of John.
The most important thing to learn is that when a Jewish person received John's baptism, it was a radical act of individual commitment to belong to the true people of God, based on personal confession and repentance, NOT on corporate identity with Israel through birth.
This is one of the main reasons I am a Baptist, that is, this is one of the main reasons that I do not believe in baptizing infants, who cannot make this personal commitment or confession or repentance. John's baptism was an assault on the very assumptions that give rise to much infant baptism. Let me try to explain and show you what I mean from Matthew 3.
First of all, get the picture. According to verses 1-2, John comes into "the wilderness of Judea, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" He is in Judea and he is preaching to Jews, God's chosen people. He is the promised prophet who would come and prepare the way of the Lord : make things ready for the Messiah. It's important to realize that John's ministry was to Jews, not primarily to Gentiles.
The reason this is important is that the Jews are already God's chosen people in an outward, ethnic sense. So this means that John's radical call to repentance was being given to Jews who were already part of the historic people of God. These are the people John was telling to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. These were people who were part of God's covenant and they had the sign of the covenant : at least the men did : namely, circumcision.
Confess Your Sin, Repent, be Baptized
To these people, who were ethnic Jews, part of God's covenant people, having the sign of the covenant, circumcision, John said, in effect, "Confess your sins, repent, and signal this with baptism, because God's wrath is hanging over you like an axe over the root of a tree." Look at verse 6: "They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins." This is why his baptism was called "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). He called for the Jews to admit that they were sinners and needed to get right with God, and to admit that being Jews was no guarantee of being saved. In other words baptism was a sign that they were renouncing their old dependency on ethnic Jewishness and were relying wholly on the mercy of God to forgive those who confess their sins and repent.
You can see this even more clearly in verse 7: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'" That's the issue : the wrath of God. Not just on the nations who are uncircumcised, but even on God's own people. In other words, Jewishness was no guarantee of salvation. Being born into a covenant family was no guarantee of being a child of God. Baptism is John's new sign of belonging of the true people of God : not based on Jewishness or being born into a covenant family, but based on radically personal, individual repentance and faith. They got baptized one by one to show that they were repenting as individuals, and joining the true people of God : the true Israel, not simply the old ethnic Israel, but the true remnant of those who personally repent and believe. Merely traditional Jews were become true spiritual Jews through repentance : at least that was John's aim.
"We Have Abraham as our Father"
We see even more deeply into John's position when John responds to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says in verse 8, "Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance." And then he reads their minds, it seems, and says in verse 9, "And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." Now what were the Pharisees and Sadducees really saying with the words, "We have Abraham as our father!"? They were saying, "Don't talk to us about the wrath of God. Wrath belongs to the gentiles, not to the descendants of Abraham."
In other words, they were saying that physical descent from Abraham guaranteed the security of their salvation. There was no threat of wrath! "We have Abraham as our father!" What was their reasoning? Well, John shows us by the way he responds. In verse 9b he says, "I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In other words, what they were thinking was that God had made a promise to the children of Abraham that they would be blessed, not just with temporal blessings, but with eternal blessings (he would be their God and they his people) and that God would always be for them as his covenant people. Since God cannot lie, the children of Abraham are safe, no matter what, because if God destroyed his own people, then there would be no one left of fulfil the promises to, and he would prove to be a liar. So they use the faithfulness of God as their warrant for security.
To this John has a stunning response: he says, you are right about the faithfulness of God, but you make a terrible mistake in thinking that, if you perish in his wrath, he can't fulfil his promises. He can, and he will. God can, if he must, raise up children to Abraham from these stones (or from Gentiles!). In other words God is not boxed in or limited, the way you think he is. He will be faithful to fulfill his promises to the children to Abraham, but he will not fulfill them to unbelieving, unrepentant children of Abraham. And if all of the children should be unrepentant and unbelieving, he would raise up from stones children who would believe and repent.
God Can Raise up Children Who Believe and Repent
Now what does all this tell us about baptism? Three things:
1. It tells us that John's baptism is not simple continuation of circumcision. This is important because those who defend infant baptism often appeal to circumcision as the old sign of the covenant and say that baptism is the new sign. The one was given to infants and so should the other be. Circumcision was the sign of belonging to the Old Covenant people of God. Every Jewish male received it. If you were born Jewish, you received the sign of the covenant as a baby boy. So at least some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to see circumcision as the sign of God's favor and of their security as the covenant people. But John's baptism was a radical attack on this false security. He infuriated the Pharisees by calling the people to renounce reliance on the sign of the covenant that they got when they were infants, and to receive another sign to show that they were not relying on Jewish birth, but on the mercy of God received by repentance and faith. A new people within Israel was being formed, and a new sign of a new covenant was being instituted. It was not a simple continuation of circumcision. It was an indictment of a misuse of circumcision as a guarantee of salvation. Circumcision was a sign of ethnic continuity; baptism was a sign of spiritual reality.
2. John's baptism was a sign of personal, individual repentance, not a sign of birth into a covenant family. It is hard to overstate how radical this was in John's day. The Jews already had a sign of the covenant, circumcision. John came calling for repentance and offering a new sign, baptism. This was incredibly offensive, far more offensive even than when a Baptist today says that baptism is not a sign to be received by infants born into a Christian home, but a sign of repentance and faith that a person chooses for himself, even if he already has been christened as an infant, the way the Jews were circumcised as infants. John's baptism is the beginning of the radical, individual Christian ordinance of baptizing those who believe.
3. John's baptism fits what we are going to see in all the rest of the New Testament, and indeed in all the first two centuries of the Christian era until A.D. 200 when Tertullian mentions infant baptism for the first time in any historical document, namely, that all baptism was the baptism of believers, not infants. And the reason was that baptism was the sign of belonging to the new people of God who are constituted not by birth or ethnic identity, but by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
The way of salvation is repentance and faith in Christ, not ethnic identity or birth to Christian parents. God calls us today, no matter who our parents were, and no matter what ritual we received as infants : God calls us today to repent and believe on Christ alone for salvation and to receive the new sign of the new covenant of the people of God : the sign of repentance and faith, baptism. So I call on every one of you who has not followed Christ in this way, "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). This is the call of God. This is the path of obedience and life.