There are only two ordinances in the Christian Church – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Communion as most people call it today. Both are instituted in the Gospels, celebrated in the book of Acts, and explained in the Epistles. Since they are instituted in the Gospels, and that by our Lord Himself, we may conclude that they are a part of the message to us. Since they are celebrated in the book of Acts, we conclude that they belong to the practice of Christ’s Church. Since they are explained in the Epistles, we conclude that they are designed to be continued until Christ comes again.
I am sure we have all heard teaching about Baptism and Communion before. Sometimes that teaching comes in a Baptism service and when The Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Like all teaching, it never hurts to hear it again and so I thought on this special day in our local congregation when we will be celebrating a Baptism and sharing Communion together, it would be good to take another look at these two special practices in the Church which in and of themselves appear a little ‘strange’ to the world around us and yet the reality they point to is the greatest truth known to mankind.
Why do we Baptise? There are two reasons why we continue with the practice of Baptism. Firstly it was Jesus Himself who told His disciples to, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19). So first and foremost we baptise because Jesus asked us to continue this symbolic practice.
We also baptise because Baptism was an established practice of the Early Church. We read in Acts 2:41, concerning the converts on the Day of Pentecost: “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” In Acts 8:26-39 we read of Philip’s preaching to the eunuch from Isaiah 33, as they went on their way, the eunuch inquired if he might be baptised (v. 38). Further examples of Apostolic practice may be found in Acts 10:44-48; 16:31-33 and 18:8.
Who should be Baptised? Well the simple answer from the Bible is that disciples (or followers) of Christ, i.e. believers, and those who had received the Holy Spirit are baptised. The eunuch confessed his faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and then Philip baptized him (Acts 8:30-38; cf. Acts 16:33-34). That’s why believers who are baptised usually make a profession of faith to those who may gather to witness and celebrate their Baptism. Peter was privileged to preach the gospel to the Gentiles for the first time at Cornelius’ home. While Peter was still preaching, “.. the Holy Spirit fell on all them that heard the word.” Peter then inquired, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptised which have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” Then he commanded them to be baptised in the name of the Lord (Acts 10:44-48). Therefore, we conclude that those who have personally confessed Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord (i.e. Christians) should be baptized.
What is Baptism? let’s look at the practice itself and what it really means. Baptism is a declaration of the believer’s identification with Jesus Christ. Specifically we identify with Christ in four ways:
- We identify with Christ in His death – “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3)
- We identify with Christ in His burial – “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:4a)
- We identify with Christ in His resurrection – “As Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4b)
- We identify with Christ in His life – “It’s no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Simply put, Baptism is an outward physical sign of an inward spiritual reality.
Baptism is a declaration of the believer’s identification with Christ in His, death, burial, resurrection and life. That’s why the Apostle Paul could say “I am crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). Christ’s death is a death for the believer. The believer’s identification with Christ in His death is symbolized by his going under the water “buried with Him by Baptism into death.” But the Apostle also speaks of our being “risen with Christ” (Colossians 3:1). Our identification with Him in resurrection life is symbolized by our coming up out of the water “… as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Thus, Baptism is an acknowledgement that our fallen humanity and its sinful ways are dead in Christ, “we are crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed” and in our Baptism we profess that we are living a new life that henceforth we do not serve sin, but that we now walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:6).
Let me now say something about the way we baptise. This is a little controversial and some parts of the Church have a very different practice when it comes to Baptism both in how the Baptism occurs and who is baptised. There are hundreds of pages of Church history I could give you to read which would explain how this division developed in the Church – but at the end of the day, we really need to just go back to the beginning and see what happened when the Church was born.
When we examine the practice of the early Church we are forced to conclude two things about those who are baptised. Number one: they are believers. They are followers of Jesus Christ. They have been born-again into the Kingdom of God and they proclaim Jesus as Lord. Number two: they are baptised by being fully immersed in water. The word Baptism was transliterated from the word baptizo meaning to “make fully whelmed; to dip or to sink”. That’s why it says in John 3:23 that, “John was baptising at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water.” When baptised, believers went down into the water (Acts 8:38) and came up from the water (Matthew 3:16).
Therefore, Baptism by immersion is the biblical pattern for the Church. The symbol of Baptism by immersion is also the most meaningful and it fits with the reality behind Baptism in that it pictures a believer’s identification with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. When the believer goes down into the water, death is pictured; when the believer goes under the water, burial is pictured; when the believer comes out of the water, resurrection is pictured. All this symbolism is lost when sprinkling is practiced – and therefore the symbolic power and fullness of meaning of Baptism is lost.
So what does that say about the long established practice of baptising infants by sprinkling water on them? Is this a real Baptism? If I have been sprinkled like this as a baby does that mean I should not be baptised as a believer when I am able to make my own profession of faith? Tough questions. This is a very challenging conversation to have and I have had it many times with many people over many years. For some people, their infant Baptism is very real and it’s when they go through another process called ‘confirmation’ that they make their own personal profession of faith and in some way legitimise or ‘confirm’ the Baptism they had when they were too young to even remember. I respect those people and those Churches which teach and practice this thing which many of us prefer to call a ‘Christening’ but I am a simple man and I prefer simple solutions.
The simple solution for me is this: don’t change what never needed changing. Baptism in the New Testament is pretty clear and you simply cannot build an argument for infant Baptism from the Bible. Many have tried, but in my opinion they have failed and always will fail because you cannot inject a foreign theology and practice back into the historical account of the early Church.
So my advice to those who were sprinkled as a child in another part of the Church is to ask God what you should do. This is not a life and death issue – Baptism is not essential for salvation, However it is a very powerful testimony and a truly beautiful symbolic declaration of what God has already done in your life. So if you believe God is opening the door for you to be baptised as a believer, then it doesn’t matter what happened to you when you were a child and knew nothing about faith or Jesus. You can respect your parents in the choice they made and the Church which supported that choice – but you are not bound by it. Let God lead you.
I remember my Baptism like it was yesterday, even though it will be 50 years next February. I professed my faith in Jesus Christ and was baptised by immersion and it was a life-defining moment for me in more ways than one. So I am unapologetic in my support for believers Baptism by immersion – not just because I have studied the theology of Baptism and the early Church practice of Baptism – I am a rusted-on supporter of believers Baptism by immersion because of my own experience and because it is without doubt the most powerful symbolic representation of my salvation and God’s grace in my life.
That is why I have always encouraged people to seek the Lord about their own Baptism and not to be afraid to quite literally ‘take the plunge’ and profess your faith publicly in this very special way. It doesn’t matter of you have known Jesus for 30 days or 30 years – your Baptism will be incredibly special in your walk with God and your witness to those around you.
One of my most vivid memories as a Pastor, conducting Baptisms, is the day I baptised five disciples of Jesus Christ in an above-ground swimming pool on the grassy slopes of a farm at Mandurama, just outside Blayney in NSW. Only one of those five believers was a relatively new disciple, the other four were mature Christians who had walked with Christ for many years but had come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit over period of a few weeks in our Church and approached me and asked about being baptised. None of them knew the others had approached me and they didn’t know who was being baptised with them until that special day arrived. It was a wonderful time! The oldest candidate that day was actually my own mother and I will never forget what a joy it was for me to baptise her.
So it’s never too late friends. You may be a brand new believer or someone who embraced God’s gift of salvation many decades ago – it doesn’t matter. If you have not been baptised as a believer and proclaimed your faith through this very special practice which Jesus Himself submitted to, then I encourage you to start talking to God about this and see where He may lead you.
The Lord’s Supper, or ‘Communion’ as many people call it now, is another very powerful symbolic practice which points to a spiritual reality. Again, like Baptism, Communion is practiced in many different ways across the Body of Christ. Some Churches celebrate Communion every week, others once a month, others once every three months and some believers don’t celebrate Communion at all.
For those who do come together around the table of the Lord there are three aspects to this symbolic meal. Obviously this points to the death of Jesus Christ and the symbolism of the bread and cup representing His broken body and shed blood is as simple as it is profound. However, this simple feast actually carries three powerful symbolic truths which I would like to explain. For some, this will be revision. For others it may be the first time you understand the depth of meaning in this simple practice. Communion is firstly a reminder of what Christ did in the past; secondly it’s a symbol of our present relationship with Christ; and thirdly it’s a promise of what Christ will do in the future. Let’s have a closer look at these three aspects.
Communion is a memorial of Jesus’ death
“On the evening He was betrayed, while Jesus was eating a meal with His disciples, He took some bread and said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). When we participate in Communion, we each eat a small piece of bread in remembrance of the broken body of Jesus. “In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:20). When we drink a small amount of wine (or grape juice), we remember that Jesus’ blood was shed for us, and that His blood inaugurated or sealed the new covenant between us and God. Just as the old covenant was sealed by the sprinkling of blood, the new covenant was established by Jesus’ blood (Hebrews 9:18-28).
Paul said, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Lord’s Supper looks back to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Is Jesus’ death a good thing, or a bad thing? Well there are some very sorrowful aspects to His death, but it’s what Jesus’ death achieved which is wonderful news for all of us. Jesus is glad that He did it. It shows how much God loves us – so much that He sent His Son to die for us, so that our sins would be forgiven and we may live forever with Him.
The death of Jesus is a tremendous gift to us. It is precious. When we are given a gift of great value, a gift that involved personal sacrifice on the part of the giver and it was all done for us, how should we receive it? With mourning and regret at the sacrifice? No, that is not what the giver wants. Rather, we should receive it with great gratitude, as an expression of great love. If we have tears, they should be tears of joy.
So Communion, although a memorial of a death, is not a funeral, as if Jesus were still dead. Rather, we observe this memorial knowing that death held Jesus only three days – knowing that death will now not hold us forever, either. We rejoice that Jesus has conquered death, and has set free all who were enslaved by a fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). We can remember Jesus’ death with the happy knowledge that He has triumphed over sin and death! As Jesus predicted, our mourning has turned into joy (John 16:20). Coming to the Lord’s table and having Communion should be a celebration, not a funeral.
The ancient Israelites looked back to the Passover events as the defining moment in their history, when their identity as a nation began. That was when they escaped death and slavery through the intervention of God and they were freed to serve the Lord. Now in the Church, we look back to the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the defining moment in our history. That is how we escape death and the slavery of sin, and that is how we are freed to serve the Lord. Communion a memorial of this defining moment in our history.
Communion reminds us of our present relationship with Jesus Christ
The crucifixion of Jesus has a continuing significance to all who have taken up their cross to follow Him. We continue to participate in His death and in the new covenant because we participate in His life. Paul wrote, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). In Communion, we show that we share in Jesus Christ. We commune with Him. We are united in Him. As we talked about with Baptism, the New Testament speaks of our sharing with Jesus in four ways. We share in His death, His burial, His resurrection and His life. Our lives are in Him, and He is in us. Communion pictures this spiritual reality.
John 6:54 conveys a similar idea. After Jesus proclaimed himself to be the “bread of life,” he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Our spiritual food is in Jesus Christ. Communion pictures this ongoing truth. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (verse 56). We show that we live in Christ, and that He lives in us.
So the Lord’s Supper helps us look to Christ and be mindful that true life can only be found in Him and with Him. When we are aware that Jesus lives in us, we also pause to think what kind of home we are giving Him. Before He came into our lives, we were habitations of sin. Jesus knew that reality before He even knocked on the door of our lives. He wants to come in so He can start cleaning things up. But when Jesus knocks, many people try to do a quick tidy-up before they open the door. However, we are unable to cleanse our sins – the most we can do is hide them in the closet.
We hide our sins in the closet and invite Jesus into the living room. Eventually we let Him into the kitchen, and then the hallway, and then a bedroom. It is a gradual process. Eventually Jesus gets to that closet where our worst sins are hidden, and He cleans them, too. Year by year, as we grow in spiritual maturity, we surrender more of our lives to our Lord. We let Him truly live in us.
It is a process, and Communion plays a role in this process. Paul wrote, “Everyone should take a careful look at themselves before they eat the bread and drink from the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Every time we participate, we should be mindful of the great meaning involved in this ceremony. When we examine ourselves, we often find sin. This is normal – it is not a reason to avoid the Lord’s Supper – it is a reminder that we need Jesus in our lives. Only He can take our sins away.
As we examine ourselves, we need to also look around to see whether we are treating one another in the way that Jesus desires. If you are united with Christ and I am united to Christ, then we are united to each other by His indwelling Spirit. So Communion, by picturing our participation in Christ, also pictures our participation, our ‘communion’ or our ‘fellowship’ with each other.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because here is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” By participating together in the Lord’s Supper, we picture the fact that we are one body in Christ, one with each other, with responsibilities toward one another.
At Jesus’ last meal with His disciples, Jesus pictured life in God’s kingdom by washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-15). When Peter protested, Jesus said it was necessary that He wash his feet. The Christian life involves both serving and being served.
Communion reminds us of Jesus’ return
Jesus said he would not drink the fruit of the vine again until he came in the fullness of the kingdom (Matthew 26:29; Luke 22:18; Mark 14:25). Whenever we participate, we are reminded of Jesus’ promise. There will be a great messianic “banquet,” a “wedding supper” of celebration. The bread and wine are miniature rehearsals of what will be the greatest victory celebration in all history. Paul wrote that “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). We know that He will come again.
Communion is rich in meaning. That is why it has been a prominent part of the Christian tradition throughout the centuries. Sometimes it has been allowed to become a lifeless ritual, done more out of habit than with meaning. When a ritual loses meaning, some people overreact by stopping the ritual entirely. The better response is to restore its true meaning.
That’s why I thought it was important to take a fresh look at both Baptism and Communion today. May God continue to lead us and speak to us through all the means He has given us. Amen.