Baptism is a big deal. We baptize based on a “decision” by the individual to partake in this ancient rite of passage. It’s a ceremony of a person’s witness to his congregation that he has taken on Jesus as Lord, Savior, and identity. That is, the baptized person is now in Christ, participating in life in a new way. He’s walked into a new reality, a true reality that not all can see.
I give you a few texts: John 3:1-21, Romans 6, and Acts 10:24-48.
In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night under the cover of darkness no doubt on account of fear of his fellow Pharisees. He wants to better know this strange but authoritative and God-like teacher, but he is not ready to do so openly. He can’t seem to figure out how he’s supposed to be reborn from above by water and the Spirit, but this is the sort of transformation Jesus prescribes for those who would see the Kingdom of God. Like James’s “wisdom from above,” Jesus’s reality isn’t bound by conventional modes of life. This rebirth is wholistic. It gives eyes to see and ears to hear. It is a dying and a rising to new possibility. I am not convinced what Jesus describes to Nicodemus is explicitly referencing baptism, but it sure seems to to overlap nicely with the effects of baptism. The new birth is new creation akin to Christ’s coming out of the tomb alive on Easter morning. After this rebirth, Nicodemus will look familiar to his friends and colleagues but not identical to his former self, and nor will he see anything exactly the same as he’d seen it before.
Which brings me to Romans 6. This for me is THE passage on baptism. It’s where the identification with Christ in his death is the means for dealing a death blow to sin, and being resurrected to a new kind of life. As usual, this Kingdom of God admission via the rebirth from above as well as this being buried with Christ in baptism, frees the baptized person from sin (slavery) which allows her to live life anew in the present as well as in the ultimate future promised in eternal life. I could say a lot more about Romans 6, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Finally, as Peter says in Acts 10, “Surely no one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as we also did.” Peter had a dream. It’s a dream about access and about membership in the People of God. Peter thought he knew about God and His plan when Jesus taught him and the eleven about all kinds of things. Jesus had even commissioned Peter on the shore after Jesus had been raised and Peter had denied him three times to “feed his sheep.” But even with those advantages, Peter could not up to this point buy that those of the uncircumcision, as Paul would call the Gentiles, were “in”. What we find in Acts 10 is a robust display of the Holy Spirit’s power to convict and convince on the one hand and to work with and through unlikely people for their salvation on the other. When Peter preached the gospel, Cornelius’s household, which had been engaged in prayer for this very moment to occur, welcomed the good news that the Spirit had given Peter for this Gentile family. The Spirit was powerful enough to convince a devout Jew who struggled to square his faith in Christ and His kingdom of inclusivity with the rigor of the Judaism he had known from his youth, and the Spirit was powerful enough to work in this untrained but seeking household.
God creates life in the Spirit by His Spirit’s inhabiting His people and those people’s obedience to the promptings of His Spirit to unleash the good news so that new believers might be washed by Spiritual water and bear witness to others through the physical act of being baptized in the local church. All of this results in new life, new creation, new eyes & ears, and new possibilities that will carry the baptized person forward to be part of the family that God has always intended and called forth. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. To Him be all glory and honor.