A symbol is an idea or thing that represents something else. And a spiritual symbol enables us to experience profound and enduring meaning in an otherwise ordinary experience. Symbols also have a dynamic dimension. That is, they can evoke different kinds of reflection at different stages of our lives, providing different ways of looking at the same experience, the same truth. This is why symbols endure—they’re adaptable to different explanations, even while remaining the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Against that background, I wish to share my personal experience with the symbol of baptism. Put succinctly, “baptism is a symbol of our union with Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, and our reception of the Holy Spirit” (“Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists,” No. 15). It is done in the name and under the authority of the triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19, 20). The word means immersion in water, an act that carries powerful symbolic meaning.
I find at least four meanings for my personal life in the baptism symbol:
1. A New Beginning
For me, baptism marked the beginning of a new commitment to God. It gave outward expression to a stand I was making—deliberately committing my allegiance to a new Person. But it also seemed a natural step to take as an outgrowth of the influence that God’s reign was having upon my heart. I remember saying to God, “Look, I have had intimate conversations with You for a while now; it’s time for me to move in with You. I am not ashamed of You. I’m willing to go public!”
My impression of baptism back then was not so much that of a lifetime relationship as it was of a new beginning of a committed relationship. It was something similar to the meaning of a wedding, which marks the beginning of something meaningful, with the understanding that a marriage will follow, if you can see the subtle difference.
Some people are able to say, “Lord, I am going to be faithful to You for the rest of my life!” That is commendable. But back then (when I was baptized) I wasn’t able to say that. In fact, I was scared about letting God down. Yet, I concluded, if I can just focus on the fact that baptism marks a new beginning, then I will take each subsequent day as it comes. This approach had the benefit of not placing me under undue pressure as to how the future partnership with God might work out. Instead, I was able to concentrate simply on a fresh start with God.
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Unless you are born again, by water and the Spirit, you cannot truly experience God’s reign” (John 3:3-8, paraphrase). Against the background of those words, it was as though God was saying to me, essentially: “We have had a relationship for a while, Gifford; it’s time to move in; time to take a stand; it’s the next logical step.”
2. A Spiritual Renewal
Baptism is a symbol of spiritual renewal and healing. Back when I was baptized, I was open to and yearning for a spiritual experience. I wanted to have a certain gap filled in my life. Romans 6:1-4 speaks of baptism as a death, burial, and resurrection of the new believer. It’s a text that must not be downplayed. For Paul, this is not a once-for-all event—as if one becomes spiritually fully grown in a moment. For while baptism is, indeed, an event, it serves also as the onset of a process—namely, an ongoing, life-changing spiritual journey at a new and heightened level.
In this experience the new believer wonderfully experiences God through the symbol. It’s a mystery. I experienced the immense meaning of dying, of being buried, of being resurrected to a newness of living. God impressed upon my spirit a soul-cleansing watershed, as it were. Then I arose out of the water with a new expectation for my life. It’s a transforming experience in which the heart opens to the supernatural presence of God—a presence that anticipates and allows for new possibilities in one’s life. It marks and celebrates the movement from slavery to sin to freedom in Christ. It marks the birth of a new heart, receptive to a new outlook, new values, new tastes, new desires, and new possibilities.
3. A New Belonging
Baptism also symbolizes that I belong to a new family, a new community, which the Bible calls the body of Christ, the church (Eph. 3:6; 1 Cor. 12:12, 13). The witness of the local community lends intimacy and shared joy to the baptismal experience. I found the willingness of the church family to join me in my spiritual walk both encouraging and enabling.
So when my mother, my spiritual mentor, stood up while her four children entered the baptismal pool (I was baptized with three of my siblings), she was saying along with the congregation, “You are not alone. You are being celebrated. We affirm you.”
This is the body the new member joins through baptism.
4. The Experience of New Gifts
Baptism, finally, is a symbol of anointing. When I was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a new and authoritative power was released upon me to serve people (see Matt. 3:16; Acts 19:1-5). In the name of the Holy Spirit I was being anointed, and my natural talents were being baptized with me.
This was good news to me. It meant that I was not only wanted by God, but also needed and trusted. I was not left outside (Eph. 4:7-10). The challenge of the local church is to enable the new believer to see this as part of their baptismal heritage, especially at a stage in their spiritual experience when they’re excited and zealous about the transforming power of God in their lives. I found it empowering to see how God endows us with supernatural, spiritual gifts for the building up of the body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12:27-30 for a list of the gifts).
It was then that as a newly empowered, gifted believer I flourished in my music ministry (if I may give a personal example) as I cooperated with other ministries to grow the church—physically, spiritually, and emotionally. The locus of my service was not only the church family, but also the larger community. And this continuum between the marketplace and the worship-place has kept me relevant over the years.
So baptism marked for me a new beginning with a personal, dauntless, and boundless God; a spiritual renewal of my life (even with all its complexities and contradictions); a new sense of belonging (to a diverse and multifaceted community); and a new resourcing of spiritual power (manifested through spiritual gifts and communication). The experience of baptism has launched me on a fresh and adventurous journey with God.
This article originally appeared in Adventist World in July, 2009.
Gifford Rhamie is a lecturer in the Theology Department at Newbold Collegein England, where he specializes in New Testament and Pastoral Studies and codirects the Diversity Centre.