It is difficult to digest a sudden death, especially if the deceased is a well-known personality or a loved one. Death stops our mouths for just a little while. We are immediately confronted with the stark fact that there are limits to human life. At least temporarily we are forced to stop and think about the possible meaning of our existence.
Too soon the shock and the sadness wears off and we all too quickly return to the settled routines of daily life. We don’t allow the mourning experience to cause us to reflect more deeply on our own ways of living.
But think for a moment. If we were to allow our minds to follow up those initial thoughts after such a shock to the system, we would soon start to examine our own ways of living and as a direct consequence take a changed look at our spiritual priorities.
Biblical revelation is not without good advice in this regard, if we would heed the warning. The apostle James said: “Come now, you who say, ‘today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain’; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.’ Instead you ought to say ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live, and we shall do this or that’” (James 4:13-15).
People live their lives as if they had all the time in the world. We humans are too often great procrastinators. We are going to write that letter or visit that friend or make a real effort to quit smoking. But it’s always tomorrow. We never seem to do it now!
We not only put off normal obligations of various courtesies to others, but we also procrastinate about the most important decision that we shall make in our entire lifetimes.
Reconciliation with the Creator God is the first priority of any thinking human being. Individually, we are only going to be alive for a limited period of human history. We do not have forever to procrastinate. To give routine matters of living first place in our lives would be a tragic error of incredible dimensions.
So how do we go about implementing a reconciliation with the Creator God? First of all we must make an about-face. The Bible speaks of it as repentance of our sins.
What is sin? The Bible definition of sin is “transgression of the law” (I John 3:4). That is, God’s law. Sin is not what you think is wrong, but what God says is wrong. Then we are asked to be baptized in water. Baptism as practiced in the New Testament is simply a rite confirming repentance. The two go hand in hand.
The most noted Christian of the first century was once confronted with the urgent need for water baptism. “What are you waiting for?” said Ananias to Saul. “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away” (Acts 22:16). Now why would one say a thing like that to Saul of Tarsus? Only three days before, Saul had been struck down by Jesus Christ on his way to Damascus to torture Christians. He had spent the three days totally unseeing – blinded by the brightness of Jesus Christ’s appearance. That unprecedented experience began the transformation of Saul from a self-righteous religionist into perhaps the most publicized Christian of his time.
Saul’s future lifework was outlined rather immediately after his total about-face. But before he could become the famous Paul, or even begin to commence to fulfill his Christ-given commission, Jesus inducted him into God’s Church through the deeply symbolic ceremony of baptism.
But why was such a ceremony necessary? Would not Paul’s obvious repentance be sufficient? Why go to the trouble of being plunged under water? How could the baptismal ceremony wash Paul’s sins away?
To begin to give an answer to these questions, it is necessary to understand that the cleansing concept of baptism is richly rooted in the pages of the Old Testament.
Water baptism is prefigured by a number of graphic accounts in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most poignant example is the symbolic baptism of all the ancient House of Israel in the Red Sea – leaving the old, corrupt way of life and emerging into the prospect of living their lives anew through the vehicle of the freshly revealed righteousness of God’s law.
The apostle Paul really grasped the Old Testament role of baptism and was deeply moved to teach its meaning to the Greeks in the Corinthian church. He wrote: “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (I Cor. 10:1-2).
Accounts of ceremonial cleansing by water in ancient Israel are too numerous to fully document. The high priest Aaron was not allowed to enter the Holy Place without first bathing his flesh in water (Lev. 16:1-4). Naaman, chief general of the Syrian army and afflicted by leprosy in the time of Elisha approached God’s prophet to solicit total recovery. Elisha’s instructions were, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times.” That seemed silly to this dignified, perhaps even pompous General of the Army. Naaman just didn’t want to do it according to Elisha’s explicit direction. His reply: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage” (II Kings 5:12).
His aides later persuaded Naaman to cool off and put aside his vanity. He followed Elisha’s seemingly stupid instructions and was totally healed of a terminal skin condition. The point is that the bathing of the flesh and the clothing that touched the flesh was the prescribed formula for symbolically ridding the Israelites (and willing Gentiles) for a whole host of physical and sometimes spiritual problems. God has always wanted humanity to be clean; physically, mentally and spiritually
These water-based ceremonies in the Old Testament were a type of the New Testament spiritual cleansing that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. These pre-Christian antecedents could not really cleanse sinners of spiritual defilement and make them eligible candidates for God’s Kingdom.
Jeremiah put his finger directly on the problem: “Though you wash yourself with lye (a harsh cleansing agent) and use much soap (in water), the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God” (Jer. 2:22).
Paul put the Old Testament ceremonial washings into even sharper focus: “According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, (washings), regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation (Jesus Christ’s blood sacrifice on the stake)” (Heb. 9:9-10). Those ablutions were only a sign. They could never really cleanse the mind itself.
Jesus Christ did what all of the offerings, sacrifices and ceremonial washings combined could not do. The shedding of His life’s blood broke the barrier between God and man forever.
Man’s repentance, followed by Christ’s ministration to man of the Holy Spirit, actually changes the mind. All of those Old Testament washings did symbolically prefigure important New Testament principles, not the least of which is water baptism.
John the Baptist built a bridge between Old Testament rituals and Christ. It added more clarity to the picture of God’s plan of salvation. John recognized that the proper spiritual approach, repentance must precede baptism. He sharply rebuked the “religious” types of his day, saying: “Bear fruits that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8). John would have no part of baptizing those whose attitudes were wedded to sin.
John the Baptist also set the example for the Christians ceremonial form, total immersion in water. “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there (John 3:23). And many other New Testament examples affirm, the only valid form of baptism is total immersion in a symbolic watery grave. Only a complete submerging could properly picture the death and burial of the “old man” (Rom. 6:3-6). The word baptism itself is merely a transliteration of the Greek word baptize whose primary meaning is to dip, submerge or plunge beneath the surface (Translator’s New Testament, p. 555). Any other method is merely man-made traditions and contrary to God’s inspired New Testament teaching.
Of course, total immersion of and by itself is no more effective, spiritually speaking, than the scrupulous washing of pots and pans. Water has no mystical or magical effects on the person immersed. But the symbolism is so profound in God’s sight that the candidate must demonstrate his repentance and faith by literally observing the baptismal ceremony.
So much is this true that even after the Roman gentile Cornelius and his household had received the Holy Spirit before water baptism, a very rare exception to normal procedure, the apostle Peter said to them: “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:47-48).
The simple rite of water baptism is meant to mark publicly a miraculous change in the repentant sinner. It is an embarking on a new, clean, right way of life that will end up in great reward and ultimate happiness. Its symbolism is meant to instill a permanent change of direction, with spiritual cleansing throughout the remainder of one’s natural life.
But it is useless to go through the baptismal ceremony without really repenting of your sins. God repudiates such a baptism. Peter, in his first sermon following the inauguration of the first-century Church of God on the day of Pentecost, gives the baptismal candidate the correct order of events: “Repent (first), and (then) be baptized every one of you (Acts 2:38).
Once you have really repented there is no longer any reason to delay water baptism. Six months’ probation as some require, or some such other stipulation, is simply not biblically required. Water baptism is imperative, a vital link in the chain of events in reconciling yourself with God. Baptism symbolically cleanses and purifies the repentant sinner from all his or hers past.
“What are you waiting for?” Get up and make an about-face in your life, and then be baptized and wash your sins away.