GraceLife Church of Pineville

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The Simple and Serious Symbols of Baptism

Table of Contents


On Easter we declare:

He (Christ) is risen!
He is risen indeed.

In that simple exchange we declare great truths—namely:

  • That the man Jesus is alive
  • That we all join together in common belief—indeed He is risen!

The resurrection from the dead is the great event. Having happened in one man’s life, it’s the event we all look forward to participating in, in our futures.

Resurrection from the dead is the great truth that we also look forward to covering as part of our current, larger series on the elementary principles of the oracles of God.1This larger series includes six oracles—the first two of which we already covered: (1) repentance from dead works, (2) faith toward God, (3) baptisms, (4) laying on of hands, (5) resurrection from the dead, and (6) eternal judgment. But we’re not skipping ahead in our study simply because it’s Easter—we must wait to discuss the resurrection. We should be good at that. That’s what the entire Christian life is built upon—waiting in anticipation of that day. Instead, we continue our subseries on baptisms, the third of our six oracles or elementary principles. And we’ll explore it in the same way we have understood that simple declaration, “He is risen; He is risen, indeed.”

We said in the introduction to this study that baptism is a symbol. In this sermon, we explore how the simple yet serious symbols of baptism declare that the man Jesus died, but is now alive, and that we all join together in Him, in common belief. He has risen, indeed.

The simple yet serious symbols of baptism declare that the man Jesus died, but is now alive, and …. we all join together in Him, in common belief.

If you haven’t believed in Jesus for eternal life, then please understand on an individual level that Christ’s death and resurrection is for you. Christ gave His life for you. If you have already placed your trust in Him for salvation, may you be reminded that Christ gave Himself both for individuals (like you and me) and for the church: a group of believers who anticipate their union with Christ and who are gifted with the down payment of that life to be utilized here on earth. So until we realize our eternal salvation, we are to live as the church of Christ in the world—the church Christ gave Himself for.

Water baptism reminds us of these things, in three simple yet serious ways.

What Does Water Baptism Symbolize?

#1 Baptism Symbolizes Our Purification in Christ

Having been made clean by His word, water baptism symbolizes our purification in Christ. Ephesians 5:25–27 says:

Christ … loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.2 The New King James Version (Thomas Nelson, 1982); emphasis added.[/mf]

To understand this idea of being cleansed or purified by the word, consider the following words in the Gospel of John—words that Jesus spoke to His disciples in the last week of His life (what we now call Easter week or Holy Week); they show us how Christ cleanses us (purifies us) by His word:

Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”2The implication was, “Jesus, wash my whole body!” (not an entirely illogical conclusion). Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.3Jesus was referring to Judas, who, unlike the other disciples, was not a believer and would later betray Him. (John 13:5–10)

Within this passage, we see a symbolic action (v. 7). Jesus says to Peter that he doesn’t realize what He’s doing. Peter thought he understood—the literal action was not hard to understand: Jesus was washing feet. And Peter protests, but Jesus said He was going to do this, because it symbolized something greater. Washing the disciples’ feet in this scene was a picture of Christ’s service to the church.

Washing the disciples’ feet in this scene was a picture of Christ’s service to the church.

Verse 10 in particular shows how the service of Jesus to His disciples was a step in ongoing sanctification; He explains that all of them except Judas were, in a greater sense, already “clean.” They had trusted in Jesus’s word about Himself—that He was the Messiah. They trusted Him for life. They were justified. And having been cleansed through belief, Christ is faithful to continue to serve them through the ministry of His word.

The “word” Jesus is referring to is the word that He had spoken to them—that had justified them once for all—and that now, in an ongoing way, would sanctify them and grow them in discipleship.

Interestingly, Jesus says to Peter, in essence, “You’re already clean, but if you want to continue in this process with Me—if you want to share in My work—you must obey Me.” Hypothetically, if Peter had denied Jesus this opportunity to wash his feet, Peter still would have been clean, but he would have been denied the chance to share in Christ’s future ministry.

Let’s look at another passage for an example of cleansing by the word of the Lord. In John 15:3, Jesus makes it explicit that He has made the disciples clean by His word, and He continues to minister to them:

You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.

In John 17:17, Jesus is praying to the Father on behalf of believers; the verse uses the word “sanctify” to refer to this same idea of being cleansed, set apart, made holy:

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.

There’s the same idea again: The believer in Jesus has been made clean through the words of Jesus—by trusting in what He says. When we are baptized, we are declaring that Jesus has purified us because we have believed His word. It’s not the water that does the cleansing. We are baptized to symbolize the cleansing that has already taken place—we’re declaring that Jesus has purified us.

We are baptized to symbolize the cleansing that has already taken place—we’re declaring that Jesus has purified us.

#2 Baptism Symbolizes Death and Life

The next thing symbolized by water baptism is not pure; it’s putrid. Jesus foretold it to His listeners, though (time after time, as we’ve already seen) they misunderstood—they missed the symbolic meaning. He told them, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50).

Why was He distressed about baptism? Because the baptism He spoke of was suffering and death. Remember, baptism is identification—it’s immersion into something—and Jesus spoke of His death (and suffering) as a baptism.

But we won’t talk about death without talking about life, especially because that’s what Easter is about.

There’s a key chapter in the Bible that describes this—how baptism symbolizes death and life on multiple levels.4If you’ve been following this series, you no doubt have noticed the pattern: Many of the theological concepts of which we speak happen on multiple levels and have multiple references, multiple categories. Just as faith, justification, salvation, and sanctification have multiple levels or stages, there are multiple types of baptisms in Scripture. And so too there are multiple deaths—physical death, spiritual death, and eternal death—and multiple kinds of life—physical life, spiritual life, and eternal life.

Before we start stacking layers, though, I want to demonstrate that the symbols are understandable. Even children can understand them. In fact, I don’t know of a better way to show the simple and serious nature of this topic other than to let the symbols do the work.

Imagine there’s a big pool of water in front of you. You step into it. The water, however much there is, cleanses you as it touches you. If it comes up over your head, we’d say it consumes you. Whatever we’re baptized in, it consumes us.

If we are totally submerged and stay underwater, we die. Water in baptism symbolizes death; it’s like a grave. When we’re immersed, it symbolizes Jesus’s death and your own identification with His death.

But just as Jesus didn’t stay dead, we don’t leave the baptized person under the water. We raise them back out of the water. Thus, baptism symbolizes life (new life in Him) as well.

Just as Jesus didn’t stay dead, we don’t leave the baptized person under the water. We raise them back out of the water … [symbolizing] new life in Him. 

To put it simply, baptism symbolizes being buried in death and raised to new life.

Life, Death, and Baptism in Romans 6

A question: If Jesus saved you from sin and from dying, and instead made you clean and alive, should you act dirty and dead, or pure and alive? Romans 6 helps us with this answer.

In this part of his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul has just finished explaining justification by faith, and he is now talking about sanctification in faith. He’s explained why there is death in the world and how it all relates to sin and to Adam, but just as death reigned in Adam, life is going to reign in Christ. Paul’s really hit his stride by this point, and so when he talks about baptism and death, he packs a lot in. I’ll give some summarizing points first, and then we’ll read the verses.

You can think of these summaries as theology (doctrine—what we believe), but also as practical application that comes from that theology.

The theology of Romans 6: 

  • Baptism symbolizes Christ’s physical death and Christ’s physical resurrection unto life.
  • You will live again after you die because you are in Christ and Christ was raised from the dead.
  • Baptism symbolizes Christ’s permanent defeat of death and Christ’s present promise of life.

The application of Romans 6:

  • You have an ability to live to God in a way that was unavailable prior to the death and resurrection of Christ.
  • Because He died to sin, Jesus has been freed from the effects of sin.
  • Our sin battered His body—He bore the effects of our sin. He walked with the weight of our sin as he carried His own cross to die for our sin. He died and was entombed for our sin.
  • His resurrection life is free from sin because these things have been dealt with once and for all. It is finished.
  • So, if you are in Jesus, you are called to be freed from sin. That’s not just a promise for the future (for heaven, where we know we’ll be sin-free); it is a present promise. We are called to walk now in the newness of life.

The bottom line: Baptism symbolizes that you have been made clean, and there’s a choice to live that way or not. That’s what Romans 6 is all about:

What shall we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace will increase? Never! How should we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. (vv. 1–10)

Next comes the “So what?” of this passage:

Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Never! Do you know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves5Or “servants.” of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 11–23)

Baptism symbolizes life and death.

#3 Baptism Symbolizes Our Complete Immersion into the Life of Jesus

This third point is a bit of a summary of all that we’ve said above: Baptism symbolizes our complete immersion into the life of Christ.

Romans 6 references a baptism that’s greater than water baptism. It’s baptism of the Holy Spirit. When you believe in Jesus, you are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Bible speaks of that symbolically, metaphorically, using baptism language—Christ baptizes you with the Holy Spirit. It’s the language John the Baptist used when he baptized Jesus with water. He said, “I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is greater than I. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit …” (Luke 3:16). 

Your belief in Jesus is invisible; the heart is the seat of faith. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is also invisible. If someone believes in Jesus for the first time, that person won’t start glowing yellow.

But although your belief (faith) in Jesus is invisible, it’s invaluable. Your spiritual baptism is invisible, but invaluable. Water baptism gives visible testimony to an invisible truth. You immerse yourself in the water because you are immersed now in all things Jesus.

 You immerse yourself in the water because you are immersed now in all things Jesus.

Why? Because when you are baptized in the Spirit, your identity is in Christ:

  • You identify with His death.
  • You identify with His life.
  • You identify with His crucifixion of sin.
  • You identify with His resurrection of life (or righteousness).
  • You identify with His defeat of that which mastered you.
  • You identify with His victory that set you free.

We could summarize it this way: Because you identify with the death and life of Jesus, you should die to the things Jesus died to, and you should live to the things Jesus lives to. Jesus died to sin—you, too, should die to sin. Jesus lived (lives) to God, and you should live to God.

You can’t identify with the death or life of anyone else. If a loved one dies, someone very dear to you, you can’t identify yourself with that person’s death—it only leaves you both dead. Only if you identify with the death and life of Jesus will you truly live. Anything outside of the life and death of Jesus is an old self, a dead self. If you are a believer in Jesus, the Bible says you are a new creature. The old self is buried in the water. The new self emerges.

Because you identify with the death and life of Jesus, you should die to the things Jesus died to, and you should live to the things Jesus lives to. … Anything outside of the life and death of Jesus is an old self, a dead self.

I know of no passage of Scripture that pictures it better than 2 Corinthians 5. Paul writes:

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:14–21)

What an exchange! Your identity was sin. God took that on, so that He might give to you His identity, which is righteousness. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf”—He made the Righteous to be sin—”so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (v. 21).

Conclusion: The Offer Before You

You can become the righteousness of God in Christ because He will cleanse; He will purify. You can trade your death for His life if you will trust Him, if you believe Him, entrusting both your current and future life to Him. If you will immerse yourself in Christ—I’m not talking about immersion in water (though it’s a good symbol), but immersion in Christ—He will carry you through both this life and the next.

There are things we do in this life to remind ourselves of the serious offer before us. They are simple symbols given to us by the Lord.

We drink the fruit of the vine that symbolizes His blood.

We break bread that symbolizes His broken body.6Both the drinking of the wine (or juice) and eating of the bread are the symbols used during the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Holy Communion).

We are plunged into waters and re-emerge because we declared that we have been washed and made alive in Christ.

But no symbol is so serious or simple as the promise of the Scriptures: To gain eternal life, there is no ritual. All of the activity, all of the work, has been done by Christ on the cross and by His subsequent resurrection three days later. There is just you and Christ and the decision of whether you will accept His free gift of eternal life. Trust Him for it. He will give it to you.

To gain eternal life, there is no ritual. … The work has been done. … [Will you] accept His free gift of eternal life?