This morning as we celebrate the baptisms of Doug and Gideon, I want to think with you for a few minutes about the word ‘baptism’ and what it means. Jesus actually uses the word ‘baptism’ to refer to three different experiences that Christians have, and all three are important.
The Greek word ‘baptizo’ originally had a very simple meaning: to dip, or to immerse. It wasn’t necessarily in water; ancient Greek chefs made pickles by ‘baptizing’ them in vinegar, and if they’d had fondues, they would have used the word ‘baptizo’ for that as well! When it comes to water baptism, Jesus is obviously using the word literally for dipping or immersing people in water; the other two meanings are metaphorical, but no less important.
Let’s start with baptism in water. We know that Jesus commanded his disciples to do this. In Matthew 28:18-20 he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.
The early Christians obeyed this particular command to baptize right from the beginning. In our reading from Acts today we heard of the Holy Spirit filling the followers of Jesus; a crowd was attracted, and Peter preached the good news of Jesus to the crowd. Later on in the chapter, some of the people were convinced by what Peter said, and they asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, ‘“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”…So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added’ (Acts 2:38, 41).
So the act of becoming a Christian in the early church always included not only the inward actions of repentance and faith, but also the outward action of being baptized. Some people think of this as strange, but in fact it isn’t strange at all. We humans have always used physical signs in this way. We don’t just say hello to each other, we shake hands as well, and some people will formalize a deal by shaking hands on it. At a wedding we don’t just promise to love each other, we join hands, give and receive rings, and exchange formal kisses. Athletes attending the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games carry the flag of their country, and they know it’s not just a piece of cloth; it has a very special meaning to them. These are just three examples of our human tendency to use physical signs and give them a much deeper meaning.
Baptism in the early church was such a rich symbol that all sorts of meanings were discovered in it. As we’ve seen, Jesus connected it with becoming disciples; it was a sort of enrolment in the School of Jesus. It was also an obvious sign of cleansing – washing away sin and evil through God’s forgiveness, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, and starting a new life with Christ. Paul also talks about it as a sort of death and resurrection, and immersion was a particularly good symbol of that: going under the water was like dying with Jesus to the old way of life, and coming up out of the water was like rising with him to the new way of life. Sometimes in the early church, new Christians would symbolize that by taking off their old clothes before being baptized, and then putting on new clothes when they came out of the water.
Sometimes people denigrate symbols, but I think that most of us know how powerful they can be. For instance, many of us in church today are wearing wedding rings. There’s no law that we have to do this, but we choose to do it – we choose to wear on our fingers a symbol of our love for our husband or wife, and our commitment to them. I think that most of us would agree that these rings are very important to us. Yes, they are a symbol, but we’d never say, “They’re just a symbol”. We know how powerful that symbol is, and what it means to us.
Baptism is like that. It’s so powerful a symbol, in fact, that the New Testament often talks about it as actually accomplishing what it symbolizes. For instance, in John chapter 3 Jesus says ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5); baptism with water is seen here as an essential part of the process of new birth. And in Galatians Paul points to both faith and baptism; he says, ‘For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ (Galatians 3:26-27).
So the Holy Spirit uses two things – our faith, and the act of baptism – as a means of bringing us to new birth in the family of God. This is true, even though faith and baptism might be separated chronologically. A baby might be baptized, and then later on come to faith in Christ. An adult might come to faith and then later on be baptized – perhaps even after many years! But the two things belong together theologically; neither of them is complete without the other. Peter didn’t just tell the crowd to repent and believe in Jesus – he told them to be baptized as well. But on the other hand, we don’t just baptize people – we ask them questions about their faith as well.
So this is the first baptism – baptism in water. But there’s a second way Jesus uses the word ‘baptism’: he talks about baptism in the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, chapter 1, we read these words: ‘While staying with (his disciples), he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And in verse 8 he goes on to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.
In the next chapter, as we read this morning, the Day of Pentecost arrived and they were all together in one place, when suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a mighty rushing wind that filled the whole house where they were sitting. And they saw little flickering tongues, just like flames of fire, resting on each one of them. And then all of them were aware of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and they found themselves speaking in different languages that they hadn’t learned before, speaking about God’s mighty acts of power.
This was obviously a very powerful experience that changed their lives – a real encounter with the Spirit of the living God. But it was not the only time they experienced this. Two chapters later – and we don’t know how much time had elapsed in between – they were meeting after some of them had been imprisoned and flogged for preaching about Jesus. In their place we might have prayed for safety, but they didn’t – they prayed for boldness to keep spreading the message of Jesus, and they asked God to keep confirming it by sending signs and wonders. And then we read that, ‘When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31).
So this is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. A person being baptized in the Holy Spirit is being immersed or plunged into the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is not just a fanciful metaphor. Many people who have had these powerful experiences of the presence of God report that this is exactly what it felt like: they felt as if they were totally surrounded and filled with the love of God and the power of his Spirit.
What’s it like to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? I suspect there are many different answers to that question. To some people it’s probably the same sort of dramatic experience that these early Christians had. To others, it may be something quieter and less tangible, but it’s obvious its happened because of the changes in their lives. I still love the way my dad described it to me years ago; this is what he said:
On Shrove Tuesday 1971, I was part of a prayer group and all the members knew that I was waiting, in obedience to the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Two of the group asked me if I would like them to pray with me. I agreed and they prayed but nothing happened. I was trying to will myself into the experience but that isn’t how it happens. So, in my heart I prayed, “Well, Lord, I’ve waited twelve years, I can wait longer, if that’s what you want”. And that was what the Lord was waiting for… And so it happened. My heart was bursting with a joy and peace and love I had never known before.
The way I would describe it is that it’s like standing under a great waterfall but the water not only cleanses the outside but pours through the whole body, soaking and enriching every cell. It’s realizing that every drop of that water is the Spirit’s power filling me to overflowing with the love of Jesus.
So you see, it’s not just something that happens in the pages of the Bible. I’m sure there are probably hundreds of thousands of people around the world today would who would testify that they, too, have experienced what Jesus promised: baptism in the Holy Spirit.
But here’s the thing: water baptism is within our control, but baptism in the Holy Spirit is not. Only God can baptize people with the Holy Spirit, and only God can decide what form that baptism will take – whether it comes with deep emotions or not, or whether it’s accompanied by miraculous acts, like those early Christians suddenly finding themselves speaking in languages they’d never learned. Jesus told his church to baptize people in the name of God, but he told them to ‘wait’ for baptism in the Holy Spirit. We can’t make it happen; we can only wait for it, praying that the Holy Spirit will fill us, and that God will make us open to whatever it is he wants to do in us by the work of the Holy Spirit.
So we’ve talked about baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit. But there’s a third way the word is used in the New Testament: the baptism of suffering. In Mark chapter ten, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to him with an audacious request: ‘“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able”. Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared”’ (Mark 10:37-40).
Jesus is referring to the cross, of course. On the cross he would drink the cup of suffering on our behalf, and he would be plunged or baptized into suffering, just like a ship in a storm being overwhelmed by the waves. This baptism is like the ‘taking up our cross and following Jesus’ that Jesus talks about elsewhere. To be baptized is to be baptized in the name of Jesus, and not to be ashamed to own that name.
And not everyone is going to be glad that we own that name. Around the world today many of our Christian brothers and sisters are persecuted for following Jesus. In some countries it is a capital offence to convert to Christianity, and everyone knows it. In many of those countries, if you obey the command of Jesus to be his witnesses, you will be thrown in prison and possibly executed as well. Here, in the tolerant west, we don’t suffer that sort of persecution, but I would suggest to you that if we obey some of the more controversial commands of Jesus – loving our enemies and praying for them rather than pouring hatred and violence on them, for instance – we will also experience some of the scorn and derision that followers of Jesus have always experienced.
So I want to say to all of us who have been baptized, and especially to Doug and Gideon who will be baptized in a moment, that in our baptism we take the name of Jesus Christ – we are called ‘Christians’ – and Jesus calls us not to be ashamed to own that name. Of course, he’s not asking us to be self-righteous, as if we were saying “I’m a Christian, so I’m better than those who aren’t”. That would be completely foreign to the spirit of Jesus! But equally, he’s calling us to walk into those situations where we know that the name of Jesus is not respected or honoured, and not to be ashamed or fearful to say, “I’m marked with that name; I belong to him”.
Let’s go around this one last time. In the New Testament there are three experiences that Jesus describes with the word ‘baptism’.
Water baptism is something we do in obedience to him. Through faith and baptism we become followers of Jesus; we are washed from sin and born again into the family of God. Once it’s done, it doesn’t need to be done again; Paul says in Ephesians that there is ‘one’ baptism. In joyful obedience to that command of Jesus, we will baptize Doug and Gideon this morning.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit isn’t something we can do; it’s something we can pray for and wait for. And I hope that all of you will pray for it and wait for it. If you’ve never experienced anything like it, I hope you will keep on praying for it. Don’t try to make it happen; don’t try to manufacture some sort of powerful emotional experience. None of that works, because it’s not real. True baptism in the Holy Spirit is a gift of God. And unlike water baptism, it is repeatable; as we’ve seen, the early Christians experienced it more than once.
Baptism in water is something we do; baptism in the Holy Spirit is something we pray for and wait for. But the baptism of suffering is something we’re ready for. We don’t go looking for it, and no one in their right mind asks for it. But when it comes our way, we accept it – I’d even go so far as to say, we accept it with joy, like the Christians in the book of Acts, who, we’re told, ‘rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name’ of Jesus (Acts 5:41). It’s not a sign that we’re doing something wrong; it’s an inevitable consequence of faithfulness to Jesus in a world that does not recognize his authority. So when we experience it, let’s ask God to strengthen us to endure it, and to be faithful to the one who has called us to follow him as baptized Christians.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.