The Meaning of Baptism

Pentecost 22
October 21, 2018

I am happy to present to you today a book I’ve written. It’s called My Beloved Son, The Meaning of Baptism, Keeping the Faith in a Secular Age. I wrote the book for you and would like you to have a copy of it. So, if you didn’t take one as you came in please do so after the service, and if you’ll bring it to the coffee hour after church I’ll sign it for you. Those of you who have been coming to church here for the past 25 years will find little in this book that you haven’t heard from this pulpit many times. But then again, this is a book about the gospel of God: the teachings of Christ and the message of our salvation in Him (Rom. 1.1–6). The richness of that message, which is a revelation of the wisdom of God, is inexhaustible. I have found it to be a rule that we cannot meditate on the wonder of the gospel, study it, listen to it, and ask questions of it, without learning something new. The gospel of God is like a great symphony. As often as we hear it, we hear something new in it. Imagine a diamond with more facets than you could count in one lifetime; you would never tire of seeing it sparkle always from a different angle. Not that the gospel changes; it does not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But because the gospel of our salvation is the message of God’s grace delivered to us in person by Him, it is not just a story of something that happened once in a time long ago, in a land far away. If it were such a story, I guess we could hear it once or even twice and be done with it. But, the gospel of God is more than a report of things past. It is an event that is always immediate and new because He who loves us is with us here and now. His wisdom and his love, which flow from his divine nature, are infinite; therefore the meaning of the gospel of God is a mystery we can never fully comprehend or exhaust. To hear it once and love it is to always want more of it. That’s a poetic way of saying that if you are inclined to take this book home, put it on a shelf, and not read it because you think you’ve heard it all before, think again. Jesus called his followers “disciples” for a reason. Disciples are students. As long as we are on this side of the grave walking with the Lord, class is in session. When it comes to the meaning of baptism, we all have a lot to learn.

Having attended Sunday school in our youth and come to church these many years, what can we learn about baptism that we don’t already know? Let’s reflect for a moment on the curious question that Jesus put to his disciples when he asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk.10.38). The disciples replied, “We are able.” And Jesus assured them that they would drink from his cup and receive the same baptism as He. But on that day before the triumph of Palm Sunday, when the disciples thought he was going to be crowned a king like all other worldly kings, only greater, the future bishops of Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic church had no idea really what he was talking about. They would soon learn, the hard way. What is the cup that Jesus called “the cup that I drink?” What was Jesus referring to when he spoke of “the baptism with which I am baptized?” What does that “cup” have to do with baptism?

Let’s begin our meditation on these mysterious words by remembering where the disciples and Jesus were at the time. They were approaching Jerusalem. And as they neared the city, Jesus, foreseeing the prophetic events that would transpire there, told them that “the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles, and they will mock him and scourge him and kill him and after three days he will rise.” (Mk. 10.33) Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. But by their response to His saying this, the disciples revealed that they did not hear what He was saying, nor did they understand his mission. The clue that they were clueless about him comes when, following this prophecy of his death, they called him “teacher” and then asked a favor of him. Jesus was not just a “teacher.” The rich young man, whose sad story we read last week, made the same mistake. He thought Jesus was a rabbi like any other rabbi and so missed a singular opportunity to serve the Lord. The disciples, likewise, were incredibly slow learners. Jesus was, as he said to them repeatedly, “the Son of man”: the perfect representative of mankind to God, the divinely appointed mediator between man and God. As the Son of man, his mission was to do much more than just teach wisdom and morality. As he would say to them, “The Son of man came not be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Mk.10.45). A man who could say that about himself is not just a teacher. He was a prophet. But he was also more than a prophet. By giving his life as a ransom, he would become a Redeemer, Deliverer, and Savior. He did not prophecy that in Jerusalem he would be randomly murdered or assassinated by plotters. He said that he would intentionally give himself, willingly to death in order to free others. But free others from what? And how could he know all this ahead of time?

Jesus’ mission was to fulfill the scriptures. He knew what was going to happen to him because the Old Testament prophecies laid out what he would have to do to accomplish our salvation and what his enemies would do to him. The prophecy from Isaiah 53.1–12 that we read today tells the story. This is the most important prophecy in the Old Testament. You should know it by heart. It says that God’s “righteous one will make many righteous”, that he will be “numbered among the transgressors”; that God will “lay on him the iniquity of us all” and “by his wounds we are healed.” This prophecy was delivered to Israel five hundred years before Christ was born. But it remained an enigma to the Jews who didn’t understand it, and still do not. Israel waited all those centuries for God to act. Then Jesus was born, grew up in Nazareth, and received the baptism from John. Then Mark says he came into Galilee preaching the gospel and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” (Mk.1.15). Jesus called his message “the gospel”, the good news. His good news was the assurance that God’s righteous one foreseen by Isaiah had come and that he was about to fulfill the scriptures and by suffering and dying make many righteous.

But how would his suffering and death make many righteous? What could he accomplish by dying that he couldn’t do better by living? And what has his suffering and death to do with baptism and with a cup? It all seems so confusing, doesn’t it? The Bible, especially the prophecies, is not easy reading. One of the factors that makes reading the New Testament so difficult is that almost everything in the New Testament is a commentary on the Old, so that unless you know the Old Testament well, there’s no hope of understanding what’s written in the New. I’ve told you before; the gospel is not rocket science. It’s harder than rocket science. That’s why there are more capable rocket scientists than there are capable theologians. So pray for me, friends, as I try to explain the gospel.

Jesus told his disciples that he was going to drink from a cup. What cup? The cup that Jesus was destined to drink is the cup of God’s wrath. Isaiah 51.17-23, Jeremiah 25.28-29 and Ezekiel 23.31–35 spoke of it. The cup of God’s wrath is God’s anger poured out on the Jews for their disobedience to his laws and on Gentiles for their idolatry; the cup of God’s wrath is the punishment that God pours out on sinners for their immorality and apostasy. The cup is poison to our minds and souls. And yet the people of the world keep drinking from it because they prefer to be drunk and disorderly rather than keep sane and sober for their prayers. In this image of a world gone mad, there’s only one hope. Someone needs to drink the whole cup and drain it in order for others to stop drinking from it. If someone would drain the cup dry, there would be nothing more for the others to drink and without it, sanity and holiness would return to the earth. Human beings would then have hope of living in peace again with God and each other. When Jesus said that he would drink that cup, he meant that he would fulfill the scriptures of Isaiah and Jeremiah and that he would drink the poison cup of madness, drain it dry, and take God’s wrath upon himself. Jesus’ mission was to fulfill the scriptures and thereby win our salvation by drinking the cup of God’s wrath meant for us. By taking on himself the anger of God towards sinners, Jesus set us free; he abolished the curse put on Adam and Eve and their descendants and so restored us to God’s good graces.

Now, let’s think about something further. The Lord God said that “my righteous one will make many righteous.” He said “many” not “all.” Why are many saved to eternal life but not all? Because although Christ died for all, not all will believe in him, not all will accept him, not all will love him, not all will receive baptism in his name. It remains up to each one of us as individuals to decide whether we will believe in Jesus and rejoice in what he has done for us. As Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him may not perish but will have eternal life”( John 3.16). Jesus has done his part. He has drunk the cup of God’s wrath and fulfilled the scriptures that demanded his self-sacrifice. Now it’s up to you, as it’s up to each of us to decide. Will you love him or not? Will you open your heart to him or not? Many have, many do, and many will. But not all believe and not all will be baptized.

So that brings us to the meaning of baptism. Jesus instituted baptism to be the sacramental means by which God unites us to his Son so that, through baptism, all the benefits of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection become ours. Because He drank the cup of our punishment, died and then was raised up to eternal life with God in heaven, we who are united to Him in baptism also are freed from God’s wrath and blessed with a new eternal life. In other words, because God’s Son makes us one with him in baptism, we become in baptism as much sons and daughters of God as he is. We are not, as he is, in full possession of the divine nature. That prize will be ours in the final judgment. But until then we are, as the Son of man is, forever reconciled to God who has forgiven us our sins because our Savior obediently fulfilled the scriptures even unto death. Adam’s disobedience left us estranged from God. Christ’s obedience has restored us to full communion with God. Therefore, we no longer drink the cup of God’s wrath, but we drink the cup of God’s forgiveness that Our Lord shares with us in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

So that is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized.” Jesus has instituted the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion to be the means by which we receive the forgiveness of our sins. Don’t take any of this for granted. Many who think they know something think that baptism is just a little ceremony we do to initiate newcomers into the church and that Holy Communion is a little memorial we keep for the sake of tradition. Many grow weary of the gospel and tired of the church and lose their faith, thinking that all of this stuff about drinking the cup of God’s wrath is nothing but mythology. I can only tell you what I tell you every Sunday, that the gospel is not mythology but theology grounded in history that proceeds from a genuine revelation of God. Christ has really done this. He accomplished his mission by fulfilling the scriptures. If you don’t believe me read Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 again and then read the story of Christ’s passion and death on the cross and see for yourself. Jesus did what he said would do. He gave his life as a ransom for many, as prophecy demanded. And we, who have been baptized in his name, owe our salvation to him. Today as we come to Holy Communion and drink from his cup, remember and never forget that salvation is not cheap. Christ purchased our salvation at the cost of his life. We owe him everything, really everything; and because of him we have everything, really everything to hope for and even in the darkest hour no reason ever to despair.