Why Are We Baptized?
If you were to ask almost any evangelical Christian to explain the meaning of baptism they would most likely say it is a public declaration of their commitment to Christ, a sign that their sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus and that they have been raised to new life in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is nothing explicitly wrong with these answers. The problem is not with the details it is with the focus. In other words, when we think about baptism we should not focus upon ourselves but upon Jesus Christ.
I began this series by saying Jesus was baptized "as the eschaton Adam, the new covenant head of the people of God. The first Adam had failed; the second Adam (Israel) had failed. But the last Adam was assured of success. His baptism was not an act of humiliation. It was not primarily as an example. It was not an act of solidarity with sinners. It was a proclamation that the eschaton Adam, the new covenant head, had arrived to undo the damage done by the first Adam."
Just prior to his ascension Jesus told his disciples to, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19. The Greek word eis, usually translated as "in" here, is translated as "into" with equal accuracy). These words of Christ tell us the most important aspect of baptism is not purification. Instead, the central element is inclusion.
This idea appears elsewhere in the New Testament: the Israelites were baptized into the name of Moses when they were under the cloud and passed through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2). Paul chides the Christians in Corinth for being baptized into the name of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:13). The idea of baptismal inclusion is brought into sharp relief in Paul's letter to the church in Galatia. To those wayward folk Paul said, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:27-29). Once again we see the idea of inclusion. And because someone is included or reckoned as found in Christ there is a change of identity.
Now, we don't want to come to the conclusion that baptism causes the change. Instead, baptism signifies union with Christ, union with Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. Baptism is a sign and seal of this union. Indeed, based on Matthew 28:18, baptism signifies a union to the three persons of the Godhead - Father, Son and Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ.
Once we have this idea firmly in mind we may turn our attention to the other aspects of baptism. Without a doubt, baptism also signifies cleansing from personal sin and the washing away of the sin nature. Even here our focus must be on Jesus Christ rather than ourselves. Baptism, again, is about Jesus reaching out to us and blessing us.
In conclusion I want to mention one more important principle. Baptism is a one-time event. No one can be baptized twice with the baptism of Jesus Christ. This is something Paul expressed in his letter to the Hebrews. You see, those who are baptized are participating in Christ's death. They receive their "death sentence" and die with Jesus Christ. "And just as Christ died once and for all (Romans 6:10), and just as there can be no repetition of his sacrifice, so do those who are baptized suffer their death with Christ once and for all" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Fortress Press Edition, 211.)
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