The Visual Gospel
Shaun LePage, November 20, 2005
A. Symbolism is all around us. Some symbols can stir up strong emotions. Why is that? Because symbolism communicates a message. It often makes a stronger statement than the most eloquent words. Symbolism can burn images into our minds deeper and longer than a great speech or sermon might stick in our memory.
1. Example: If a young man wanted to date your daughter, and came to your house with a shaved head and a Swastika painted on top of his head, would that communicate anything to you? Would you need to converse with him to see if he would be allowed to date your daughter? If so, please see me after the service and we’ll arrange for some family counseling.
2. Example: If someone tries to fly the Confederate Flag over the state capitol building in Topeka, would that stir up any emotions? Would that be communicating a message? Apparently so. The state of Alabama learned the power of this particular symbol a few years ago.
3. Example: The Cross. Oklahoma City officials removed a 30-foot cross back in March of 2003. The cross had stood on the fair grounds there for more than 40 years, but one man complained and got the National Freedom From Religion foundation to back him. Since city officials had lost a costly lawsuit a few years earlier trying to keep a cross in their city seal, they gave in to pressure and removed the cross. This shows us that the cross—the symbol of Christianity—communicates a message and stirs emotions.
B. Symbolism can be a powerful means for demonstrating a belief.
1. An ordinance is a symbol—“a symbolic ritual prescribed by our Lord, practiced in the early church, and expounded by the apostles in the epistles of the New Testament.” (Coppell Bible Fellowship Doctrinal Statement)
2. CPS: “Baptizing” is the visual gospel.
1. We’re in the midst of a series of messages related to our Core Values. Those core values are printed on the back of your bulletin. As I’ve said, your elder board developed this list before I ever came into the picture— When I did come into the picture, we found that we shared these values. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a helpful one as we consider the direction Community Bible Church should take in the future.
a) We believe these values are biblical.
b) We believe these should be a grid through which we evaluate our programming and make our decisions.
2. I’ve asked you to think in terms of three relationships as we look at these values: Your relationship with God, your relationship with unbelievers and your relationship with believers.
a) We spent a couple weeks looking at our relationship with God—that our purpose as individuals and as a church is to glorify Him. The way we glorify Him is basically through the Greatest Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The values on our list most closely related are worship and prayer.
b) Of course, the second greatest commandment is inseparable from the first—love your neighbor as yourself. If we say that we love God but hate our neighbor, we are liars. Love for God must result in love for neighbor. So outreach, community and our other values are all closely related to these commandments.
c) For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the Great Commission found in Matthew 28. My case is this: The Great Commission is the work of those who love people. They love people because they love God. And they love God because they desire to glorify God.
3. Today I want to talk about the second step of the Great Commission: Baptizing.
II. “Baptizing”: Jesus commanded baptism in the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20. And, it’s been controversial ever since. I imagine that Jesus gave the Great Commission, ascended into heaven, then the disciples made their way back to town and on the way got in an argument about baptism. I speculate. The disagreements have centered around three questions: Why, how and whom? These may seem like silly religious disputes—and maybe some of them are. But some of them are important. Jesus commanded baptism in the Great Commission, so how we answer these questions is directly related to how well we—as a church—will ultimately fulfill the Great Commission.
A. 1. Why should we baptize? If we get the “why” right, everything else falls in place.
1. It was the command of Jesus. (Matthew 28:19) This is almost all that needs to be said. Why make it part of the Great Commission? We’ll come back to this question after we understand baptism a little better. As we answer these questions, I think it will become clear why Jesus made this ritual—this ordinance—the first act of obedience for a new believer and a vital part of the Great Commission. But the first thing we need to know when trying to understand “why” is simply this: Jesus commanded it. That’s a big deal—enough of a reason in itself.
2. It was the practice of the early church. This is evident in many places in Acts (2:41, 8:12, 18:8, 19:1-7, etc.)—showing that the early church took Jesus’ command literally—physical baptism. It is true that we are baptized with the Holy Spirit when we are saved, but the early church also baptized new believers in water.
3. It was the assumption of the New Testament. As I mentioned earlier—the writers of the New Testament took it for granted that all believers had been baptized (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:13-17; Galatians 3:27).
4. Perhaps the most important aspect in answering “why?” is to understand the meaning of baptism.
a) Some believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. Those who believe this tend to call baptism and the Lord’s Supper “sacraments” though the word is sometimes used as a synonym for “ordinance.” Even though a handful of passages in the New Testament seem to support the conclusion that baptism imparts salvation, close examination reveals otherwise.
(i) For example: Mark 16:16.
(a) The first half of the verse seems to make baptism necessary for salvation.
(b) The second half of the verse, however, does not mention baptism. This reveals that it is simply absence of belief—not baptism—which results in condemnation. So, it is belief—not baptism—that results in being saved.
(ii) For example: Acts 2:37,38
(a) This text seems to tell us that baptism in the name of Jesus Christ is a necessary step to receive the forgiveness of sins.
(b) However, when we look at the greater context of Acts and the New Testament, we find—according to Greek scholar Daniel B. Wallace—that the first century Christians’ “idea of baptism incorporated both the spiritual reality and the physical symbol” (NETS, 2020-21, footnote 29). In other words, Peter—as well as other New Testament writers including Paul—could not imagine a believer not being baptized. It was commanded by Jesus and was considered the first act of obedience in a new life of obedience to the teachings of Jesus. It simply wasn’t an option. They did not teach that baptism imparted salvation, but at the same time they did not teach that baptism was optional.
(c) Also, in regard to Peter’s confusing statement in Acts 2, notice that in Acts 3 Peter delivered another sermon and did not even mention baptism. Look at vs.17-20.
(d) So, even though a few passages can be confusing, the clear teaching of the New Testament is that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
1. Example: Romans 3:27,28.
2. Example: Ephesians 2:8,9.
(e) We do not stand in judgment of any person, but we must judge teaching and doctrine, comparing it to Scripture, to see whether it is true. This teaching—that water baptism is necessary for salvation—strikes at the heart of the gospel message and contradicts the clear teaching of the apostles found in the New Testament. It must be rejected because it teaches that salvation is by faith plus work. It must be condemned as false and destructive.
b) Some believe baptism is a continuation of circumcision.
(i) As circumcision initiated Hebrews into the Abrahamic covenant—they say—baptism initiates us into the New Covenant. Baptism—in other words—has been substituted for circumcision.
(ii) This is why those who hold this view of baptism baptize infants. Dr. Charles Hodge—who holds this view—states, “God, on his part, promises to grant the benefits signified in baptism to all adults who receive that sacrament in the exercise of faith, and to all infants who, when they arrive at maturity, remain faithful to the vows made in their name when they were baptized” (quoted by Erickson, p.1093).
(iii) Paul had no patience for those who tried to impose circumcision on new believers, and clearly considered the external act of circumcision null and void.
(iv) Romans 2:29.
(v) The New Testament teaches “that circumcision is to be replaced, not by another external act (e.g., baptism), but by an internal act of the heart. Paul points out that Old Testament circumcision was an outward formality denoting Jewishness, but the true Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly” (Erickson, p.1100).
(vi) So, I do not believe this view necessarily cuts at the heart of the gospel, but I do believe it confuses things, and is a misinterpretation of Scripture and therefore should be rejected.
c) The third major view is the one to which we hold here at Community Bible Church. We believe that baptism is a token of salvation—an outward symbol of an inner reality.
(i) Romans 6:1-11
(a) The question: v.1. Continue in sin? Apparently, some were teaching that if when we sin, then go to God for forgiveness, we get more of God’s grace, then it only makes sense to sin more so we can get more and more of God’s grace.
(b) The response: v.2. Paul—with great emotion, I believe—condemned this idea. You don’t get it, he is saying. We died to sin! Don’t you understand the symbolism of your baptism? Don’t you understand the inner reality behind this symbolism? Let me explain:
(c) The illustration: vv.3-5. We’ve been baptized into His death! We have been buried with Him through baptism into death. If this is true—v.5—then certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection! He is describing for us the reality which water baptism pictures.
(d) We have been “buried with Him through baptism” (v.4). So, the act of immersing someone down into the water symbolizes that spiritual burial.
(e) “We shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (v.5). So, the truth behind the symbolism of bringing a person up out of the water symbolizes our spiritual resurrection.
(f) The exhortation: v.11. This answers the question of v.1. Shall we continue in sin? No, he says, “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive in Christ Jesus.” When you were baptized you were declaring to all witnesses that you are now dead to sin because of the death of Christ. When you were brought up out of the water, you were declaring to all witnesses that you are alive in Christ because of His resurrection.
d) So, why should we baptize?
(i) It was the command of Jesus.
(ii) It was the practice of the early church.
(iii) It is the assumption of the New Testament.
(iv) It is the demonstration of our faith. The meaning of baptism helps us to answer “why?” To praise! To declare publicly what God has done for you is “praise.” Praise is bragging on God. Baptism is an act of praise for what Jesus has done—a demonstration of faith.
(a) The story is told about the baptism of King Aengus by St. Patrick in the middle of the fifth century. Sometime during the rite, St. Patrick leaned on his sharp-pointed staff and inadvertently stabbed the king’s foot. After the baptism was over, St. Patrick looked down at all the blood, realized what he had done, and begged the king’s forgiveness. “Why did you suffer this pain in silence,” Patrick wanted to know. The king replied, “I thought it was part of the ritual.” (Knowing the Face of God, Tim Stafford, p. 121ff)
(b) Jesus shed His blood so our blood would not be spilled. Jesus died for us so we would not have to remain dead in our sins. Baptism is a demonstration of our faith in what Christ did for us.
B. 2. How should we baptize?
1. The “why” or the meaning of baptism—as I said—dictates the how. It pictures the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Immersion is the most effective way to communicate the meaning behind baptism.
a) Also, the word “baptize” is a transliteration of the Greek word “baptizo”. This word simply means “immerse”.
b) Every New Testament instance of baptism allows for immersion. It might not specifically say, “he was then immersed,” but it allows for it and even more than that seems to go out of the way to give us the clear picture:
(i) Example: After Jesus was baptized—for different reasons than we are baptized—Matthew tells us, “Jesus went up immediately from the water” (3:16).
(ii) When Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, Luke tells us “they both went down into the water” (8:38), and then “they came up out of the water” (8:39).
c) There is a perfectly good Greek word for “sprinkle”, but it is never used in connection with baptism.
d) The early church immersed. It wasn’t until the third century that we have any record of anyone being baptized any other way.
e) So, how should we baptize? We should immerse. We are not legalistic on this matter, but if a person is physically able to be immersed, and if we have enough water to immerse, if we can break through the ice, why should we not use it to demonstrate our faith?
2. One other point under the “how”—Jesus said to baptize disciples “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Two observations about this:
a) First: “In” literally means “into.”
(i) By telling us to baptize disciples means that we are to lead new believers “into” a relationship with their Savior.
(ii) Dr. Tom Constable writes, “Making disciples involves bringing people into relationship with Jesus as pupils to teacher. It involves getting them to take His yoke of instruction upon themselves as authoritative (11:29), accepting His words as true, and submitting to His will as what is right… Baptism,” he writes, “indicates both coming into covenant relationship with God and pledging submission to His lordship.” (Soniclight.com, Matthew, p.388)
(iii) “name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
b) Second: “Name” here is singular—not “…in the names of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Or “…in the name of the Father and the name of the Son and the name of the Holy Spirit.” Why is this important? Because there is one God who exists eternally in three Persons. This is a doctrinal statement unique to Christianity. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Get the right God.” Ground new disciples theologically. Yes! Teach new believers good theology.
(i) Listen again to Dr. Constable: “Jesus placed Himself on a level with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The early Christians evidently did not understand the words ‘in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ as a baptismal formula that they needed to use whenever they baptized someone (cf. Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; Rom. 6:3). Jesus apparently meant that His disciples were to connect others with the triune God of the Bible in baptism.”
(ii) That’s right. When I baptize someone, I use this phrase as a formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” That’s all well and good—not a big deal. But the original point was much bigger. As Dr. Constable says, the point was to “connect others with the triune God of the Bible.” Do you see how baptism should be a launching pad of right theology?
(iii) Baptism is more than just getting people wet and saying “Thank you, Jesus, for my ticket to heaven.” No! It is grounding them in Biblical theology that leads them into a solid relationship with the One who saved them.
C. 3. Whom should we baptize? We hold to “believer’s baptism.”
1. Scripture makes it clear that personal, conscious faith in Christ is a prerequisite to baptism.
2. All persons the New Testament specifically identifies by name as having been baptized were adults at the time of their baptism (Erickson, p.1097).
3. Again, we don’t condemn those who baptize infants, but we believe they are confusing the issue. Some who baptize infants even admit that it is really just a baby dedication. Baby dedications are wonderful things, but why would you sprinkle water on the child, a) creating confusing over what baptism is and b) making the child madder than a hornet?
4. We choose to dedicate children through simple prayer—much as Jesus apparently did by laying hands on them and blessing them.
5. Just before we baptize a man, woman or child, we ask them, “Are you trusting in Christ and Christ alone for salvation?” If he or she can answer, “Yes!” by speaking a known language, through sign-language or by a nod of the head, he or she should be baptized.
6. Whom should we baptize? Believers.
D. 4. Why is it part of the Great Commission?
1. Answer: Because it’s more than just a one-time photo-op ritual. Baptism is assimilation.
2. It’s like the hand-off in a relay. The hand-off isn’t the most important factor, but if it’s done wrong, it can slow the next runner down.
3. Baptism is a transition—a pivot from one direction to an entirely new direction. Baptism represents the responsibility of disciple-makers (i.e., The Church) to make sure a new believer gets off to a good start. Since baptism is rich with meaning, that physical demonstration should not be acted out until the new believer understands the meaning behind the demonstration. In other words, when that man or woman or boy or girl comes up out of the water, he or she should hit the ground running as a disciple—not just a wet Christian. He should know what he’s getting into. She should understand that this is only the beginning of a life-long journey of taking up her cross daily and following Christ.
4. Here’s why I think this is so important to talk about:
a) The goal of the church is to make mature disciples. This is an important premise which I’ll develop more next week. For now, listen to the rebuke of the writer of Hebrews to the original readers of his letter. This is Hebrews 5:12-14: “By this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Your goal as an individual is to grow up. My goal as an individual is to mature. Our goal as a church is to help each other mature in Christ.
b) If we get the full picture here of what baptism should be—a passing of the baton, directing new believers into a relationship with their Savior, challenging believers to be disciples, assimilating people into the body—it will help us reach that goal of maturity.
c) If we have a limited picture of baptism—a one-time ritual that lasts just a few minutes—then it will stunt our growth. We will probably not realize our goal of making mature disciples.
d) Church historian, Justo Gonzalez tells us that the early church—when it was entirely Jewish—would baptize someone almost immediately after salvation. Later, as more and more Gentiles came to faith, there was a need for a time of preparation and instruction prior to baptism. Gentiles didn’t have the foundation the Jewish believers had in the Scriptures, so the church leaders felt this was necessary in order to make sure the new Gentile believers understood the faith.
e) I’m not suggesting we develop a three-year degree for anyone who wants to be baptized, but I am suggesting we need to enlarge our view of what baptism should be—recognizing the need for directing Christians toward maturity.
E. Application: As I wrap this up, it seems to me there are three different categories of people I need to address—let me ask some more questions:
1. Have you never been baptized? The first step is to ask yourself if you have ever believed. This is the point! This is what gives baptism its meaning—it’s nothing but a brief dip in the pond if you don’t believe. First and foremost: believe! Put your trust in Christ’s death and resurrection for your sins, then let’s make an appointment for you to demonstrate your belief through baptism.
2. Have you believed but never been baptized?
a) “Be baptized!” If someone asked you, “Are you trusting in Christ and Christ alone for salvation?” and you could sincerely answer, “Yes!” I say with Peter: “Be baptized!”
b) Personally, I was “baptized” (sprinkled) as an infant. But I became a believer at the age of 19 and five years later—when I began to understand the significance of baptism—I chose to be baptized (immersed) as a demonstration of my faith.
c) Perhaps, like me, no one ever invited you or encouraged you to make that public declaration of what Christ has done in your life. Maybe you’ve been a Christian for many years now and feel the time for the first act of obedience has passed. I urge you to obey Christ and publicly praise Him for raising you up to new life in Him whether that spiritual reality took place this morning or 15 years ago.
d) Let me know if you would like to be baptized. Even though we won’t be able to baptize you immediately—today—if you tell me you’d like to be baptized, it’s almost as good. I won’t forget. I’ll sign you up.
3. Have you believed and been baptized? I want to challenge you to think of your baptism in terms of the Great Commission. Maybe you never thought about it the way it’s been presented today—that there was a reason why Jesus stuck it in the middle of the Great Commission. Maybe you never realized it was the first step toward being a disciple—taking up your cross daily and following Jesus. A challenge to pay the high cost of discipleship. That’s okay. See it that way now. Do this: Consider yourself alive to Jesus! What does it mean to take up your cross? It means to die! In baptism we are saying, “The old me died and the new me is alive in Christ!” Recommit yourself to becoming a disciple-maker. Recommit yourself to becoming a mature disciple.
B. Military Honors—Demonstration of Gratitude
1. Several years ago, my uncle, Frank LePage, died of cancer. He was a highly decorated officer in the Air Force. He received Military Funeral Honors in the Alton National Cemetery in Alton, Illinois. I attended—with my extended family—and I will never forget the experience.
2. If you have never witnessed Military Funeral Honors, I strongly suggest you take the next opportunity. There is symbolism in abundance. The 21-gun salute, the flag draped over the casket, the jets flying over, the bugler playing taps—all symbols which communicate honor, respect and gratitude.
3. The Air Force publishes this explanation of military funerals: “Military Funeral Honors (MFH) is the ceremonial paying of respect and the final demonstration of the country’s gratitude to those who, in times of war and peace, have faithfully defended our Nation…” (Air Force Reserves, http://arpc.afrc.af.mil/xp/MilfunHon.htm)
4. Just as the honor guard meticulously folded the flag, and in perfect unison fired the 21-gun salute, and beautifully played taps to demonstrate the belief that my uncle’s service to his country was honorable and important, we should carefully and respectfully observe the ordinance of baptism to demonstrate our belief that what Christ has done for us was infinitely honorable and eternally important.
5. Then we should live lives that demonstrate the reality behind the symbolism. We should take up our cross daily and follow the One who took up a literal cross for us.