Unfortunately today, baptism seems so…tiny. It’s actually…cute (maybe sweet?) when it’s given to a child. A little baby, a small gathering of people, a little bowl of water, tiny drops sprinkled upon the little baby’s head followed by a small applause and a short prayer. How…small!
As it currently stands, it sure does take faith to believe that anything is actually accomplished in the rite of baptism. Maybe that’s why the practice of infant baptism has fallen upon hard times in the evangelical Christian church. If I’m to really appreciate this little event, what I need is someone to shout at a little louder, to wake me from my slumber, to tell me what is happening to this child while I witness this little ritual.
“Shouting” is necessary in order to get your message across to a dull hearer. It’s actually one of the great virtues of fiction writers. Often times, in order for the reader to get the message of a story, the writer must use words to draw big pictures, yell, if you will, at the reader to convey the message. This was one of the great characteristics of the writer, Flannery O’Connor.
As Dr. Leithart pointed out, “O’Connor spoke of her need to shout and draw large figures for her blind-and-deaf audience: ‘When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.’”1
Does God shout at me, or do I need an American fiction writer to do all the yelling? The Scriptures continually speak of the “hard of hearing,” the “blinded,” and the “stubborn, stiff necked” people. Israel is led astray and the prophets come proclaiming, “Repent!” Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, grabs his disciples by their cloaks shouting, “Wake up!”
But what about me? An evangelical Christian, a passive bystander, bored in the middle of a baptismal ceremony, is there a shout out to me? From all appearances, this ritual looks like a little water is sprinkled. That’s it. Can God shout a little louder?
Here’s God shouting: Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, God flooded the world. And let’s just say it took him 40 days and nights to do it. The heavens ripped open and water sprinkled the earth to flood the entire world so that every mountain was submerged in the deep. Every living creature was wiped off the face of the earth, and every evil man was drowned in the depths. The waters were so deep, so wide, so BIG, that nothing survived except one man and his family and a couple of animals on a boat. This family—men, women, and children—were saved through this flood of water while evil was completely eradicated from the earth.
That example works, but let’s use another one too: What if God took one million people, led them out of slavery, and had them cross a giant body of water—let’s call it, The Red Sea. And what if the waters parted as they walked on dry land following their leader, Moses. As they walked on dry land through the waters, thunder and lighting flashed, the heavens opened up and it started to sprinkle raindrops on them as they walked through the Red Sea (Psalm 77:16-20). Let’s say that this action “baptized them into Moses” (1 Cor. 10:2). And finally, as they crossed safely through those waters, the waters fell upon the wicked men and killed the forces of evil by drowning them in the sea.
This is God shouting at you, bored, evangelical Christian: Baptism Saves! It’s God’s way of saying, if you think flooding the world was BIG, wait until I give you Christian baptism. The baptism of a child is BIGGER than flooding the world. The baptism of a child is BIGGER than sending a million people through the Red Sea and crushing evil enemies. In other words, baptism is not the tiny picture. Baptism is God doing the impossible. What God could not do in flooding the world, he did in baptizing a child. The action of the flood destroying the world is really the small foretaste, a shadow, pointing to the substance, which is baptism into Jesus Christ.
Flooding the world or drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea cannot send the Holy Spirit in power upon a person, killing the power of sin, changing their hearts, and severing evil at the root. Yet, this is precisely what the Apostle Peter tells us baptism into Jesus Christ does: when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, now saves you, which corresponds to this…” (1 Peter 3:20-21).
What that tiny sprinkle of water accomplishes is more powerful than anything ever done in the past. The Old Testament’s big, dramatic actions of God using water are given to a dull, hard of hearing, evangelical Christian church. God is shouting, “Baptism saves!”
The Old Testament continually looked forward to the coming of the New Covenant. Killing a man is easy. Wiping the world clean with water? No problem! Destroying Pharaoh? Simple. But to change a man’s life by forgiving him, cleansing him, and giving him a new heart and mind, that’s the impossible. That can only be accomplished in the New Covenant. It’s only the gospel of Jesus Christ that transforms the world instead of simply destroying it.
The prophets of old saw this. It didn’t matter how many battles or wars of destruction or dramatic acts of God were seen in the world. Nothing could change the heart of man. Nothing, until the coming of the New Covenant, which is now applied to us through baptism into Jesus Christ. Only the dove that fell upon Jesus at his baptism can take away your sins when he falls upon you at your baptism.
As the old prophet Ezekiel says in speaking of the coming New Covenant, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25).
To the evangelical Christian that is constantly dulled by the refrain, “Water can’t save!” God is shouting back, “Let me show you what I’ve done with just ‘a little’ water!” In God’s Word, he is continually shouting through big pictures and mighty events to a deaf crowd. Will you hear? Will you see?
But if you can’t hear God shouting about baptism, just imagine if he gave you other dramatic events. Would you miss that message too? What if the heavens opened up and the bread of angels fell from God’s heavenly table to the earth to feed over a million people starving in the wilderness wandering. What if you called the bread, manna—literally translated, “What is it?”—because you’ve never seen the bread of angels before. And what if Jesus told you what is was. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:51). Would this be God shouting at you to eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper to remain faithful and strong in the faith? To believe that would take a lot of faith. Otherwise, you might think it a tiny or boring ceremony—something dispensable, not essential to an evangelical Sunday morning, much less, your life. After all, “What is it?”
As it currently stands, it sure does take faith to believe that anything is actually accomplished in the rite of baptism. And that’s the point. Because without faith, it’s impossible to please God.
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