The Meaning of Baptism
Baptism Message No. 1
1 Corinthians 6:17
Eric H.H. Chang
Liverpool, England, 1975
In this message we will look at a few aspects of the meaning of baptism. The reason for doing this is that some people are contemplating baptism and they need to understand what it means. There are also Christians who have been baptized, yet do not understand at all what baptism means. And there are some non-Christians who would like to know what this matter of baptism is all about.
Those who have already been baptized can revisit a crucial question: When you were baptized, what exactly did you do in relation to God? What happened to you on the day you were baptized? What does it mean for you today? Is it something of the past, or does it still have meaning for you now? There is also the question: If you are not baptized, are you really a Christian?
In speaking on baptism, I will avoid difficult or technical terms. I want to discuss it very simply in a way that everyone can easily understand it. Some people have tried to read books on baptism but found them hard to understand, so they give up reading them.
When I was in Bible college, a fellow student asked me, “I’ve never been baptized. What is the meaning of baptism? Why should I be baptized?” Here was somebody who had been a Christian for many years and who had committed himself to God’s work, yet still didn’t know the significance of baptism. So he had never been baptized. But after our discussion together, he finally got baptized.
Baptism is the covenant of union with Christ
I will give you the definition of baptism in one sentence, and then elaborate on it: Baptism is the sacrament of union. You might say to yourself, “Well, that definition doesn’t help me much.” But I just want you to bear in mind the word “union”. A sacrament is simply the outward expression of something that has already taken place inside you. In the church we have two sacraments: the sacrament of union and the sacrament of communion. To put it in another way, we can say that baptism is the covenant of union. But union with whom? Union with Christ.
What is the best way to understand this? I will use the illustration of a wedding because a wedding is also a covenant of union. When two people get married, they enter into a covenant of union with each other. Likewise, when you enter into baptism, you enter into a covenant of union with Christ.
What is the Biblical foundation for comparing baptism to a wedding? There is much Scriptural evidence, but I will limit it to one or two points. In 1 Corinthians 6:17 we read:
“But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”
Think carefully on these words: “He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” When were you joined to Christ, if that has ever happened in your life? You were joined to him in baptism. The word “joined” is the same word which is used in Matthew 19:5 to speak of husband and wife being “joined” together in marriage. That same word is used in our present verse, 1Cor.6:17, to speak of the union of the disciple—the Christian—with Christ.
This truth is seen in several other passages, for example, Ephesians 5:22-33, a whole section on marriage which is often read at weddings. But interestingly, right in the middle of this passage on marriage, we find in verse 26 a reference to baptism: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (vv. 25b-26). And in verse 31, we have the same statement as in Matthew 19:5, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Moreover, the Bible often speaks of the Lord Jesus as the bridegroom of the church. Paul says to the Corinthians, “I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband” (2Cor.11:2). Here we see the picture of marriage—of the Christian united with Christ—a picture which is used again and again. Romans 6:3-5 says that at baptism we are united with Christ in his death and in newness of life.
Baptism, like a wedding, is indispensable
What is the meaning of a wedding? Is the ceremony really important? Can’t two persons become husband and wife without going through marriage? The universal answer to this question is “no”. (Editor’s note: This statement was generally true in 1975, the year when this message was given.) You cannot become husband and wife without marriage. Whether in the most primitive societies or the most advanced countries, it is the same. Nowhere in the world will any two persons be regarded as husband and wife who have not gone through marriage. But why not? Why can’t we just dispense with marriage? The reason is that the marriage or wedding is not just a ceremony but a covenant. A covenant, you could say, is a contract with one another, a committal or commitment to one another. Where there is no covenant or contract between two persons, their love has not become concrete: it has not materialized in a distinct transaction between them. So no matter how much they love one another, they are not husband and wife.
When we speak of a covenant or contract, we do not necessarily mean that the two persons have to go to a church. Even the unbeliever knows that unless he has a covenant or contract with his wife, they are not really and legally husband and wife. Even if they don’t go to a church, they must still go to the Registry Office to sign, “This day we have become husband and wife.” At the Office, they are required to have two or three witnesses who also sign the marriage certificate. But why the witnesses? They are there to testify that this contract has been established in their presence. So we can see that this personal relationship is not definitely established until there is a covenant.
Similarly, a person can say that he believes in God and Christ, and that he loves God and wants to follow the Lord Jesus. But so long as he has not entered into a covenant with God through Christ, he is not a Christian. That is because in a covenant, you commit to each another. Up to that point in time, there had been no concrete committal. Or there was a committal in the heart but it hasn’t yet been established in front of witnesses as to make it concrete. So we can see that baptism is not just any kind of ceremony but a covenant.
The word “covenant” is used again and again in the Bible. That’s why you have the Old Covenant or the Old Testament. The English word “testament” is used to translate the Greek word for “covenant”. You also have the New Testament or the New Covenant.
In summary, what do we do in baptism? We enter into a union with Christ. This union is not just a feeling but a definite commitment, a covenant with God through Christ.
Comparing baptism and marriage, two covenants of union
Let us now look into this a little more deeply, and compare the union in a wedding with the union with Christ in baptism.
Firstly, in a wedding, the two persons commit themselves to each other because of their mutual love. So also in baptism we commit ourselves to Christ, expressing our love for him. You would not marry somebody you just happen to like. Such a marriage would be very unfortunate. No, you must really love the person to the extent of sharing your life with him or her. So also for the Christian. We do not just commit ourselves to Christ because we happen to like him, but because we want to commit ourselves totally and unconditionally to him and ultimately to God. We want to share our life with Christ.
Secondly, as with a wedding, baptism is a proclamation in which I declare to everyone that I love this person. In baptism, I am declaring before all witnesses, before all people, and before all the spiritual powers in heaven and on earth, that I love the Lord Jesus Christ and have committed myself to God through Christ.
Thirdly, by declaring my commitment to God, I am prepared to break all ties with my old way of life. That is true even of a marriage. After you get married, your life is no longer the same as it used to be. You enter into a new kind of life, a life of partnership with someone else. It is not a self-centered life in which I am free to do as I please. On the contrary, I now have another person whom I am concerned about. My life is now completely changed because of this. Likewise, at baptism I have died to the old way of life of sin and of the self, by uniting with Christ to die a death like his. I then enter into a new life of union and communion with God in righteousness, being united with Christ in his resurrection (Romans 6:5,11).
Fourthly, where there is true love between two persons, each will put the interests of the other person above his or her own. They will think about the other person, not themselves. Some in their devotion have given up their own professional trainings, their own interests, to be where their husbands are going to be. And we likewise as Christians say in baptism, “From now on, Christ’s interests come before mine. His interests, which are based on the will of his Father, come before my professional aspirations and social interests. His interests are central to my heart.” I hope that as I say this, those who are Christians will search their hearts and ask, “Have I been true to my baptismal commitment?”
Fifthly, when two persons marry, they are united. They don’t just go off in different directions. Where the one is, the other will be. They will walk together and share their interests together. What kind of a marriage would it be if one person decides to live here and the other there? No, you want to be together to have fellowship with one another. Likewise the true Christian is constantly united with Christ in his death and in his resurrection, because only in this way can he be reconciled to God, to have constant fellowship with Him. The Christian who doesn’t pray or delight in communing with God doesn’t yet know what it means to be a Christian.
Sixthly, in their marriage, the devoted wife says to the husband, “I would like you to be the head of this household.” In every administration there must be a head. The family is a social unit and administration, and it has to be run by somebody. Somebody has to take up the responsibility of signing statements and documents, and so forth. This does not mean an inequality between husband and wife, but that in their love for one another, they respect each other and want to give the place of honor to each other. So also, when we receive baptism, the Christian wants to give Christ the honor in his life. He also wants to glorify God, the Father of Jesus Christ. He is pleased to say, “God is king and lord of my life, and I will follow His Christ whom He has exalted as Lord (Acts 2:36).” What a joy it is!
A seventh point of comparison is that at the wedding, the husband and wife exchange a wedding gift, usually a ring, with one another. What does the wedding ring symbolize?
It is a pledge: “I will never leave you or forsake you. I present you this ring as the evidence of my pledge.” So also, when we are baptized, God gives us a present, His Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s pledge to us (2Cor.1:22; 5:5; Eph.1:13) by which He promises: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
The other thing which the ring signifies is that I will fulfill what I have promised you. This is what a wife expects from her husband, that he will protect her in times of danger, provide for her needs, and instruct her or give her counsel when necessary. God also promises us that He will fulfill all that He has promised us: He will provide for us, protect us, and lead us. He goes far beyond that, by giving us His eternal life.
For lack of time, I have made these comparisons very brief. We have compared baptism to a wedding, but it is important to stress that we are not saying that baptism is a wedding. Yet there is still a parallel between the two: both are covenants of union.
Points of difference
I briefly mention two points of difference between baptism and a wedding. First, the actual sign is different between a baptism and a wedding. At a baptism you see a person being immersed in the water and then being lifted up out of the water. You may wonder to yourself: “What’s going on here? What does it all mean?” Both a wedding and a baptism are sacraments of union, but one point of difference is that our union with Christ is far more complex than the marriage union of two persons. It is more difficult because of the existence of sin. Sin stands between us and God, making this union and communion not only difficult but impossible.
This kind of difficulty doesn’t usually exist between two persons. If you love one another, you get married and that often settles the matter. But the complication of sin can be illustrated by the scenario in which the two persons who marry each other actually come from families that are enemies of each other. Here you can see the great problem of such a union. So too, sin is the obstacle that blocks our being united with God, an obstruction which must first be removed. Therefore God, who loves us and wants to join us to Himself, had to send the Lord Jesus to die on the cross to remove the barrier of sin.
In baptism, when you are immersed into the water, you express that you on your part are prepared to die to sin, that is, to turn your back on sin, so that your old way of life is over. And when you rise from the water, the act symbolizes your being raised to a new life of righteousness given us in Christ. Baptism is not to be understood as joining a religion. We are not interested in religion.
Secondly, it is important to understand that in baptism, we move from sin to righteousness, and from darkness to light. From the moment we are baptized, we commit ourselves to do God’s will for all time, to always please Him. It is different from a wedding, where afterwards the married man and the married woman are anxious about worldly things, and how to please the wife or the husband (1Cor.7:33-34).
We have covered the meaning of baptism very simply, and I hope clearly enough for everyone to understand what it means. Those who will soon take the step of baptism must think carefully what it means. It is a big step just as being united in marriage is a big step. For those of us who have already been united with Christ, let us always remember what this means. Let us always remember what our privileges and responsibilities are.
When you are in difficulty and problems, always remember that God loves you and that you have been united to Him in Christ. Trust Him. Never doubt His care for you. He sees your tears, He knows your sorrows, and He cares for you in every detail. So bring your cares to Him. You will find out just how much He loves you. And also learn to live in righteousness to glorify Him, so that He will truly have joy in us and we in Him.
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church