The Christian Rite of Passage

It’s much more than taking a bath.

Baptism September 9, 2015

My son Joel decided to redecorate his room. He wanted to install shelves and cabinets along two adjoining walls—built around his furniture. I liked his ideas, including the corner cupboard/desk to hold his computer and other treasures.

I’ve watched Joel work on other projects, and have praised his efforts. But I was happy he came to me for help. I didn’t want his room cluttered with misfit scraps of lumber semi-nailed together and smeared with whatever colorful coatings he could find in our garage. I thought this should be a learning experience, not just a way to save face for our house. I wanted to teach him all I could, so he would know the satisfaction of doing his very best.

We measured the room and talked about the possibilities. We drew it to scale on graph sheets, placed paper cutouts of furniture in various locations, and scrounged the garage for usable lumber. Then we bought what we didn’t have.

I showed Joel how to do each step, but had him do the lion’s share of the work himself. As my apprentice, he learned to build by building, under the watchful eye of one who’d done work like this before.

The apprenticeship concept fascinates me. We can acquire knowledge of many subjects or trades by going through the motions—under the guidance of someone who’s mastered the technique. God programmed us that way at Creation, and He makes us apprentices in order to teach us Bible truth. Jesus said that we “should do as [He] has done to [us]” (compare John 13:15),* and He often has us do things that might seem strange at first. But as we students follow the Master’s instructions, we learn deep spiritual lessons.

Take baptism, for instance. The Bible uses strong words to highlight its importance. Jesus told Nicodemus that if he weren’t “born of water [baptized] and the Spirit” (John 3:5) he couldn’t be saved. He told His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . ” (Matt. 28:19). He even said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Clearly Jesus thought baptism was vital.

But what is baptism? Why is it so important? How does baptism affect our everyday lives?

Important Spiritual Lessons

Modern baptism means many things to many people. But the Bible word “baptizo” describes complete immersion under water. That’s why, when describing our Master’s baptism in the Jordan River, Matthew said Jesus came “up out of the water” (Matt. 3:16) after John baptized him. Philip the evangelist used a similar method, for when he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, the author of Acts said, “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:38).

Why be completely immersed in water? Here we apprentices learn some important spiritual lessons by following the Master through the physical motions of baptism. Look at just a few.

  1. Our willingness to allow another person to lower us under the water reveals submission—outward evidence of our voluntary surrender to God.
  2. Total immersion gives us a graphic feeling of God’s act of washing away our sins—like a spiritual bath (see Acts 22:16).
  3. While under water, we hold our breath. This symbolic act of dying helps us, in a small way, to imagine the death of Jesus, which made it possible for us to escape eternal death.
  4. The act of immersion resembles burial—the aftermath of death. It reminds us that Jesus lay in the tomb, but also shows our desire to bury the sinful past.
  5. Surfacing again, we take in a lungful of life-giving air, and feel the joy of resurrection. We rise to “live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).

Paul wrote that “having been buried with [Jesus] in baptism [we are] raised with him through [our] faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Baptism endows us with a new slant on life. Never again will our guilty past mar our joy, for our sins have been flushed out into “the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Our hopes, actions, and language will all improve, for now we’re new creatures; “old things have passed away … [and] all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17, NKJV).

The Newness, The Hope

Life takes on new meaning. As Christ rose from the dead, so when He comes, we too, at His command, will burst forth from the tomb. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command . . . and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16; see also Matt. 24:30, 31; 1 Thess. 4:17; 1 Cor. 15:53-55). The dread of death dissolves when we’re aware that life will bloom anew on resurrection day.

And God appears different as well. We no longer see Him as a tyrant seeking an excuse to target us when we make mistakes. When we apprentices follow our Master into the waters of baptism, we imagine that we feel a tinge of terror, that death could be forever. But we don’t die. We rise again, and begin to understand the meaning of the most often quoted verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever [including me] believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We no longer have to fear the record of our sinful past;

We no longer need to worry if today will be our last;

We no longer feel the horror of what comes at judgment’s door;

We’ve been washed, and cleansed, to rise and live in Christ forevermore.†

My son still has a lot to learn. He’s bound to make mistakes, ruin a board or two, and slop some paint where it’s not supposed to go. But his blunders will cause him to pay closer attention to my instruction.

And we may find the sailing rough after we’ve been baptized too. But the experience itself has taught us more about Christ than we knew before … and how to completely entrust our lives to Him.

So baptism is more than taking a bath. It’s one of God’s chosen methods of teaching us human apprentices how to “walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

*All Scripture references are taken from the New International Version, unless otherwise specified.

†“The New Birth,” by Thurman C. Petty, Jr.

This article originally appeared in Adventist World in September, 2008.

Thurman C. Petty, Jr., the author of 15 books, lives in Burleson, Texas.