Baptism and Contextualization: Part II

Click HERE for Part I of this series.

What does baptism have to do with culture? As I said in the previous essay, the short answer is “everything!” To begin with, baptism is baptism into Jesus’ death (Romans 6:3). Paul explains this as the crucifixion of the “old man” (“old self”) in a chapter that follows a long contrast between Adam and Christ (Romans 5:12-21). The old man is our Adamic past. This is not merely psychological or individualistic; it includes our whole life outside of Christ, including our social, cultural, religious, and political pasts. All that we were in Adam, in every dimension of life, has been crucified with Christ.

What were we in Adam? The simplest definition would be “flesh.” Paul sets it out for us concretely: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21).

Baptism, in other words, is a profound and definitive break with Adam and all that belongs to him.

That does not mean that a Japanese person who is baptized no longer speaks Japanese or that he or she quits eating raw fish. Even after baptism, Japanese continue to take off their shoes when entering their own or other’s homes. The baptismal revolution is deeper than such surface practices. That is why Paul can eat kosher food with his Jewish friends and also enjoy shrimp cocktail and pork rinds with Gentiles.

Where do we draw the boundaries and how do we know when it is ok to eat and when not — a real issue in Paul’s day (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). The answer is not simple, but to state it briefly, we turn to Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Scripture gives us guidelines, so that we know what parts of “culture” have been completely “cut off” and what parts have been washed in the waters of baptism to be sanctified for Jesus. (I hope to address this in more detail in another essay.)

Baptism, of course, is not just “death.” Baptism is also resurrection (Romans 6:4-5, 8, 11). Baptism is the beginning of a new life. It redefines us, making us new persons. First, baptism gives me a new “past,” a new history. Whatever else I was before I was baptized, my new history is most important. How so? Because baptism is adoption into the family of Abraham. Baptism makes me a son of Abraham and an heir (Galatians 3:27-29). This means that the whole Biblical story from Genesis 12 to the end of Revelation is the story of my family. It is a story that I must prayerfully seek to know and understand so that I may become what my baptism has made me.

Second, baptism redefines me in the present. Paul says that in baptism, I have been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). In baptism, we have been crucified with Christ so that we no longer live, but Christ lives in us (Galatians 2:20). For the baptized Christian to live in accordance with his or her baptism means to live for and as Christ (Philippians 1:21). We have been raised together with Christ so that we may live with Him, no longer enslaved to the Adamic life, but alive to God in Christ (Romans 6:1-11).

To be baptized is to put on Christ, which is to be redefined, personally, psychologically, socially, religiously, culturally, politically, and all else. That is our new definition as followers of Jesus. He must increase; we must decrease.

Third, baptism redefines us by impelling us toward the future. Baptism makes us “heirs” (Galatians 3:29), even joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17). Our cultural past is not the standard. In fact, of course, no cultural past is inscribed in stone. All nations, all cultures are being led, or dragged, into God’s future. So, especially, the baptized believer. To be redefined in terms of Christ is a present reality that points to future realization. For I am not now what I shall be. But knowing what God has predestined me to be as an individual and what He has predestined the Church to be as the new society means that the personal, cultural, and social standards that I seek have not been realized either in the past or the present, but they shall be fulfilled in the future.

How can I know those standards? Again, the answer is in seeking to know and apply the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, for the heart of the Scripture is Christ Himself (Luke 24:25-27), to whose image we are being conformed, individually (Romans 8:28-29) and as a Church (Ephesians 4:11-16).

I have written a book arguing that Jesus’ baptism by John the baptizer is the paradigm of Christian baptism.1 How could Jesus’ baptism by John redefine Him? How does His baptism in this respect relate to ours? In every way!

Remember that Jesus’ baptism by John was not the normal thing John was doing. It was fundamentally different from every other baptism John performed. Only Jesus’ baptism was accompanied by the gift of the Spirit and the declaration of the Father. Jesus’ baptism was the first “new covenant” baptism. It brought about a decisive change with Jesus’ past, redefined Him for the present, and impelled Him toward God’s future purposes for Him.

From the time of His baptism, Jesus was no longer the carpenter from Nazareth. That expression spoke of what He had been, but no longer was. From the time of His baptism, Jesus is not working with wood and Nazareth is no longer really His home. His baptism, in other words, brought about personal and social changes, because it was a change in vocation. From the time of His baptism, Jesus was introduced into His Messianic ministry as the Son of Man, a prophet like Ezekiel — who is called “Son of Man more than anyone in Scripture.

His baptism also brought about changes in His family relationships. When Mary asked for His help at the wedding in Cana, Jesus was not being rude to answer, “What have I to do with you?” (John 2:4). He was reminding Mary that His baptism redefined all His relationships, including His relationship with her. In the same way, when Mary and Jesus’ brothers came to “lay hold on him” because they thought he had gone too far (Mark 3:21), Jesus told them that His family had been redefined as those who do the will of God (Mark 3:31-35). He will no longer be controlled by the “flesh.”

Since His baptism was the first step in His ministry, it redefined Jesus’ present, no less than His past. That is why the Spirit immediately “drove” Him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12). From the time of His baptism on, Jesus was the New Adam and would be tested and treated as such.

More than anything else, His baptism defined Jesus’ future. The Spirit descended as a sacrificial animal to lead Jesus to the victory of the cross, the vindication of resurrection, and the exaltation of ascension. Baptism pointed to and determined the way for the future of cross and crown.

In the same way, our baptisms redefine all earthy relationships and call us to a future of conformity to Christ. “If If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

In baptism, we are called to live for Jesus and to seek conformity to Him above all others, just as He was called to live for the Father and do His will. Our new identity, our new culture and social reality is in the future. So, we run the race with our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2), remembering the baptismal revolution (Hebrews 10:19-25) and feasting weekly on the bread and wine that makes Him ever present (Matthew 28:20b).

To state this in terms of the title and the discussion of “contextualization,” we should say, I believe, that baptism re-contextualizes the recipient. The person who was before in the context of Adam, in one of its many forms, died to Adam and has been recreated into the context of Jesus. The baptized person’s past has been re-contextualized as a child of Abraham, making the whole of Scripture profoundly relevant to his personal story as well as his knowledge of Jesus, who is our past as well as our present and future.

The baptized Christian’s future is the context of the kingdom, for which we daily pray and seek: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Indeed, because our Father will certainly hear this prayer and because Jesus is “with” His church, the history of the world is being gradually “contextualized” into the predestined kingdom future, to the honor of the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church

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References   [ + ]

1. The Baptism of Jesus the Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010).
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