Saturday, June 27, 2009

Flying the flag of baptism

A few years ago when Georgia changed it’s state flag, I was entering Candler Hospital in Savannah, when I looked up and noticed the new flag flying at the hospital. As I entered the lobby, I commented to the man at the desk, “I noticed they’re flying the new Georgia flag.” He waved it off and said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just a piece of cloth.”

But he was wrong. It’s not just a piece of cloth. It means something. Just ask some of the people who passionately debated the change in the flag. Don’t say it’s just a piece of cloth. Don’t say it’s just a symbol. The flag has great meaning.

I know that I do not have to fly the flag to be an American, but I fly the flag, because I am proud to be an American. I see the 50 stars and 13 stripes, the red, white and blue and my heart swells with pride in this great nation that the flag represents.

So don’t say, “It’s just a piece of cloth.” Don’t say, “It’s only a symbol.” This cloth, this symbol, has great meaning!

There is a similar action for a believer in Jesus Christ. It, too, is symbolic of a great truth. I am referring to baptism.

I choose to be baptized to show my faith in Jesus Christ. He died on the cross to set me free from the penalty of sin. He was buried, and He rose from the grave and now lives in my life. One day I will go to spend eternity with Him in ehaven.

I know that I do not have to be baptized to be a Christian, but when I was nine years old and came to faith in Christ, I chose to be baptized, because I am proud to be a Christian. When I went under the water and came out again, I remembered his death, burial and resurrection for me. The apostle Paul put it this way: “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.” (Romans 6:4, NIV)

So don’t say that it doesn’t matter how you are baptized. Don’t say it’s just a symbol. This symbol of baptism has great importance as it represents our faith.

What does it mean to fly the flag of baptism?

I. It matters how it looks (Matthew 3:16; Romans 6:4).

For one thing, it matters how it looks. If somebody tried to sell you an American flag that had 12 stripes and 49 stars, would you want that? Would it matter? Of course it would! It should have 13 stripes and 50 stars. Would you want an American flag that had a green field instead of a blue field, and yellow stripes instead of red stripes? It has to look right to have the right meaning.

Likewise, it matters how baptism looks, because it has meaning. It must be by immersion to show death, burial and resurrection. Sprinkling or pouring does not have the meaning of immersion.

The Greek word baptizo means to dip, immerse. There are Greek words for sprinkling and pouring. Rantizo means to sprinkle. Epicheo means to pour. But those words are not used for baptism in the New Testament. The Greek New Testament uses baptizo, to immerse. It is interesting that the Greek Orthodox Church, which understands the Greek language, still immerses to this day.

Matthew 3:16 says that when Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water, because he was immersed. He went down into the water, and came back up.

Romans 6:4 tells us why: we are buried with Christ and raised with Christ. You cannot symbolize death, burial and resurrection with sprinkling or pouring. Only immersion shows the true meaning of baptism.

Don’t say it doesn’t matter. It does matter.

II. It matters how it is used (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41).

It also matters how it is used. We do not put up with misuse of the flag, do we? A person should respect the flag. We salute it, we don’t let it touch the ground or get tattered and torn. A flag should not be worn as a piece of clothing, because it’s more than just a piece of cloth. If a protester burns an American flag, we are outraged by such treatment of our flag. It matters how it is used.

Likewise, it matters how we use baptism. It must be for believers, not infants who have no faith.

In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, we are told to go and make disciples, and baptize them. It doesn’t say make babies and baptize them, it says make disciples and baptize them.

Acts 2:41 says that those who heard the gospel and accepted the message were baptized. In every instance in the New Testament, baptism was for believers. In cases where whole families are baptized, it is because the whole families trusted Christ. There are no references in the New Testament to baptizing babies.

Some have argued that baptism replaces circumcision, and just as a Jewish family circumcised their child as a sign of the covenant, so Christian families should christen their children as a sign of a covenant with Christ.

But Jeremiah 31:31-34 prophesied that God would make a new covenant with His people and it would be a covenant written on their hearts. Hebrews 8:7-13 quotes this passage from Jeremiah and then comments in verse 13, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:13, NIV)

So if you take your practice of baptism from circumcision, you are basing baptism on a covenant that is obsolete and disappears. But if you base your baptism on a believer’s baptism from a changed heart, your base your baptism on the new covenant of Jesus Christ that will last.

Don’t say it’s just a symbol and doesn’t matter. It does matter.

Senator John McCain was imprisoned for a symbol. Fighting under the American flag, he was shot down over North Vietnam was a prisoner of war for many years. He tells this story:

In the final years of our imprisonment, the North Vietnamese moved us from small cells with one or two prisoners to large rooms with as many as 30-40 men to a room. We preferred this situation for the companionship and strength we could draw from our fellow prisoners. In addition to moving us to new quarters, our captors also let us receive packages and letters from home. Many men received word form their families for the first time in several years. The improved conditions were a result of public pressure on the North Vietnamese by the American public. In our cell was one Navy officer, Lt. Commander Mike Christian. Over a period of time, Mike had gathered bits and pieces of red and white cloth from various packages. Using a piece of bamboo he had fashioned into a needle, Mike sewed a United States flag on the inside of his shirt, one of the blue pajama tops we all wore.

Every night in our cell, Mike would put his shirt on the wall, and we would say the pledge of allegiance. I know that the pledge of allegiance may not be the most important aspect of our day now, but I can tell you that at the time it was the most important aspect of our lives.

This had been going on for sometime until one of the guards came in as we were reciting our pledge. They ripped the flag off the wall and dragged Mike out. He was beaten for several hours and then thrown into the cell.

Later that night, as we were settling down to sleep on the concrete slabs that we called our beds, I looked over to the spot where the guards had thrown Mike. There, under the solitary light bulb hanging form the ceiling, I saw Mike. Still bloody and his face swollen beyond recognition, Mike was gathering bits and pieces of cloth together. He was sewing a new American flag.

Don’t say it’s just a piece of cloth. Don’t say it’s only a symbol.

Baptists in some countries have had their children confiscated by the state church because they didn’t baptize them as infants. During the Communist rule of the Soviet Union, Christians were either forbidden to baptize at all, or forced to wait until they were 21 years of age. Often baptisms had to be carried out in secret. Yet that did not stop them from following Christ in believer’s baptism.

In Muslim countries, baptism symbolizes death, burial, and resurrection, and sometimes it leads to the person’s literal death. Ali Mustaf Maka'il, a 22-year-old college student and cloth merchant, a former Muslim who was baptized into faith in Christ in 1995, was shot and killed in Mogadishu, Somalia in 2006, simply because he refused to join a crowd in chanting verses from the Qur’an. His story could be repeated again and again and again in the Muslim world. Some missionaries say that the greatest danger is that when they share the gospel in Muslim lands and Muslims accept Christ, they know that many of those Muslims will then be killed for their new faith.

Baptism represents death, and in some places in the world, you will die for daring to be baptized. Don’t say it’s only a symbol.

How about you? Christ died and arose for your salvation. All he asks is that we proudly wear his badge of baptism, which symbolizes our own death to the old life, rising to follow Christ. What flag are you flying?


Anonymous said...

Brother Bob,
Just catching up on some old e-mail and stopped into your blog.This is one of the finest thoughts on baptism I have ever read. Powerful images. Moving and well worth sharing. Thanks, Tommy Anthony

Brother Bob said...

Thanks, Tommy. Feel free to quote it if it helps in your preaching on the subject.