How do you know if you are a Christian? It may seem like a simple question, but at times the answer can be hard to articulate.
An inward faith and relationship with Jesus can, at times, be outwardly expressed through different practices. We call some of these practices ‘sacraments,’ and this week, we are exploring the sacrament of Baptism.
There was a point in Jesus’ life where he was no longer known as a carpenter from Nazareth but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It was a significant turning point in his life. Like Jesus, there comes the point in all of our lives where we recognize our need for a change of purpose, for a turning point. Join us Sunday as we talk about what marks that turning point in our lives and what it looks like to take the first step in our Christ-centered lives.
I want to start this message with a question. How do you know you’re a Christian? How do you know you’re a follower of Jesus? After all, people get deceived about a lot of things. || Experts in finance say bright people sometimes think they’re on solid ground financially, when the truth is they’re one step away from bankruptcy. Experts in nutrition say a lot of people think they have healthy eating habits, but their diet is a disaster. Our potential to deceive ourselves about things is really quite high. || So thoughtful people have to wonder, how do you really know you’re a Christian? What are the indicators? The writers of Scripture speak about many important indicators. If there’s spiritual life in me and I’m a Christian, I will have understood and embraced Jesus’ teaching — his offer of forgiveness, and new life through his death on the cross and Resurrection. Another indicator is that I have a growing love for God and want to learn about him together with other believers. I want to study the Bible and worship. Another one is I have a greater sensitivity to the presence of sin in my life, and my conscience is tender. Another one is I’m more responsive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit. And another one is I want other people to know about God, so I share my faith. These are just some marks showing the presence of spiritual life. If they’re present, they’re indicators that God is at work in a life that belongs to him. If they’re not present, little warning lights ought to go on like they do on the dashboard of my car. Those little lights alert me to dangers. Some of them are quite subtle, which is a good thing because I know virtually nothing about cars. There’s a little light that comes on to say the engine is heating up, and I wouldn’t know that if it weren’t for that little light. There’s a little light that comes on to say the oil is low, and I probably wouldn’t know that if it weren’t for that little light. These lights are warning lights so you know you have to do something. || And what I want to do is talk today about one of the primary practices that really is an indicator of the presence of spiritual life. This practice is called a sacrament. We really only have two sacraments at Blue Oaks — baptism and communion. Today I want to talk about baptism. || If you claim to be a follower of Jesus but are not following him in this practice, I hope a few warning lights will go on for you today. || Baptism is an expression in a public way of someone who has put their trust in Jesus and has become his follower. Baptism is really the initiation rite of the Christian faith. It’s when you go public. It’s one thing to say in the privacy of your own heart, “I’m committed to God.” It’s another thing to do what some people will be doing today, which is to stand in front of our church and say, “I am publicly proclaiming myself to be a follower of Jesus, and this is the primary commitment of my life.” || Baptism was so important to Jesus that the very first thing he did when he began his public ministry was to be baptized. Before he turned the water into wine Before he fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish Before he healed the sick and the lame Before he delivered the Sermon on the Mount Before he invited even the first person to follow him… Jesus was baptized. || In his final instruction to his followers, Jesus said: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20) Baptism was to be one of many steps in the spiritual journey of following Jesus. And baptism became the practice and the pattern of the early church. When 3,000 people came to faith in Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, all 3,000 were baptized that day. When an Ethiopian official had the Gospel explained to him by Phillip, they came to some water and the Ethiopian asked to be baptized right there. Luke says in Act 8: As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of me being baptized?” (Act 8:36) || There are nine conversion stories recorded in the Book of Acts. Every one of them begins with a person putting their faith in Jesus Christ. And every story ends with the visible expression of baptism by that person. || And I want to encourage you today that if you haven’t been baptized, this is something you seriously consider. || So I want to devote the remainder of our time to some of the common questions about baptism so you can give good consideration to this. || And the first question is: Why was Jesus baptized? Even John the Baptist was puzzled by this. In Matthew 3 we read: Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13-14) John says he’s the one who needs to be baptized by Jesus. He basically says, “I’m the sinner here; you’re not a sinner.” So why was Jesus baptized? I want to identify four things that ought to be considered by many of us. First: 1. Jesus was baptized to mark a turning point in his life. When Jesus was baptized he was announcing publicly a change of purpose in his life. He was putting the carpenter tools back in the tool box. And from that point on John the Baptist, his cousin, didn’t introduce Jesus as the carpenter from Nazareth, but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Baptism was a turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry. And like Jesus, there comes a point in all of our lives where we recognize our need for a transition, for a change of purpose, for a turning point. But unlike Jesus, we’re sinners. We’ve done things to mess up our lives. Jesus said in Luke 5: I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32) So for us, putting our faith in Jesus ought to mark the turning point in our lives. That’s called repentance. Luke writes in Acts 3: Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. (Acts 3:19) || You know, if we didn’t need to make some changes in our lives, we wouldn’t need Jesus Christ. || It’s like the woman who signed up for a fitness class and the instructor said to be sure to wear loose clothing. And the woman said, “If I had any loose clothing, I wouldn’t need this class.” If we didn’t need to make some changes in our lives, we wouldn’t need Jesus. || When we get baptized, we’re announcing a turning point. We’re stating that with the grace and power of Jesus Christ in our lives, we’re turning away from things like lying and gossip and greed and lust. Baptism ought to mark a turning point in our lives where we say that with God’s power and grace, we’re now depending on him to help us walk in a new direction. || Alright, the second reason is: 2. Jesus was baptized as a public expression of his commitment to God. When we get married, we go through a ceremony to publicly express our commitment to our spouse. In California it just takes a marriage license, a qualified official, one witness, and you can get married in 30 seconds. So the obvious question is: Why do pastors take so long with wedding ceremonies when they can get it done in 30 seconds? And the answer is: To make the father of the bride think he’s getting his money’s worth. || Why do people go to all the expense and all the time for an elaborate wedding? Because it is such a personally meaningful experience for them. The ceremony is the way to announce publicly the significance of the new relationship. || Well, when Jesus was baptized, it was as a public expression of his allegiance to God the Father. || When the writer of Scripture says in a casual way that Jesus traveled from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist, it’s important that you know that for him, that was a walk of about 60 miles. That’s how important and how significant this was to him. And after Jesus pledged his commitment to God the Father in this way through Baptism, Matthew writes: As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17) It was very obvious that God the Father was pleased with this public commitment from Jesus. When a believer in Jesus Christ gets baptized, that person is making a public declaration before God and their friends, family and church of their commitment to just follow Jesus Christ. It’s a statement that says God comes first in your life now. That’s an awesome commitment and it needs to be a personal, calculated decision that only you can make. || Alright, the third reason is: 3. Jesus was baptized as a demonstration of humility. John the Baptist was shocked that Jesus asked to be baptized. He said he wasn’t even worthy to carry his sandals. He said, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you. Why do you come to me?” But Jesus was willing to be baptized to demonstrate that he humbly came to serve and he humbly came to lead by example. He could have said he didn’t need to be baptized because he was the Son of God. He could have been concerned that people might think he was a terrible sinner or something if he did it (and he hadn’t sinned). But instead Jesus walked into into the Jordan River; and John, another human being, lowered the son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, under the water and lifted him back out. It took humility for Jesus to be baptized. And all throughout his ministry, Jesus demonstrated humility like that. And he never asks us to do what he himself wasn’t willing to do first. || To be honest with you, I think one of the biggest obstacles some people have to being baptized — and maybe you have it — is pride. And you need to know the writers of Scripture say God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble. || Baptism is a demonstration of your humility. || And if because of your pride you say you could never get baptized, I want you to remember that Jesus humbled himself; he walked miles to the Jordan River. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords allowed himself to be baptized. And he simply asks others to follow his example. || Alright, the fourth reason is: 4. Jesus was baptized as a picture of his ultimate mission. What was his ultimate mission? His ultimate mission was to die on a cross as a sinless substitute for us, to be buried in a tomb, and then to raise from the dead eternally. And that’s what baptism pictures when a person goes down into the water like a dead person being buried and then rising back up, coming to life. Paul writes to the Romans: We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4) Every time a person is baptized, it’s reenacting the death, the burial, and the resurrection — the ultimate mission of Jesus. || And the writers of Scripture say very clearly that we ought to be baptized because Jesus wants us to identify visibly with his death, burial and resurrection. || Now I’ll bet many of you are almost ready to do this. You’re almost ready to mark a turning point in your life, to publicly express your commitment to God, to humble yourself, and to picture his ultimate mission as changing your life. But maybe you have a few more questions that are unanswered. So I’m going to do my best to answer a few more questions. The next question is: When should I be baptized? Maybe you were baptized as a baby or a child and you wonder if you should be baptized again. Or maybe you recently decided to follow Jesus Christ and you wonder how much you need to know or how much you need to learn before you’re baptized. What do the writers of Scripture say about this? || I want to look at a couple examples of the progression of events in the Bible. The first is from Acts 8. Luke writes: Simon himself believed and was baptized. (Acts 8:13) Notice the progression — first he believed and then he was baptized, in that order. || Another example is from Acts 18: Crispus the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:8) Notice the pattern — first they believed, then they were baptized. That’s the pattern we find consistently in the New Testament church. People would first put their faith in Jesus, and then they would express it publicly with baptism. || When a couple gets married, they look each other in the eyes and they express their vows of love and devotion. And then to mark the significance of those vows, they exchange rings with each other. The rings come after the vows. The symbol comes after the commitment. Baptism is only significant after a person makes a commitment to follow Jesus Christ. || Once you come to faith, you don’t have to spend time getting your spiritual act together before you take the public step of baptism. Waiting until we grow up in the faith is not a requirement of baptism. The simple requirement is to have the faith of a child. The requirement is that we have genuinely put our trust in Jesus. || Now what if you put your faith and trust in Jesus three years ago or 15 years ago, but you haven’t been baptized yet — either because no one taught you about it or maybe you just put it off. I think when you understand that you need to be baptized after you come to faith in Jesus, you just follow. You just go ahead and do it, whether you made your decision to follow Jesus five days ago, five months ago, five years ago, or 50 years ago. || Maybe your parents had you baptized when you were a baby or very young. That was true for me. I was baptized as an infant. And if that’s true for you, you may ask, “Isn’t that good enough?” || Often parents want their children baptized primarily as a sign of their dedication and commitment to God, expressing their intent that one day they hope their child becomes a follower of Jesus. If your parents did that for you, I think their motivation was pure and in the right place, and you ought to be thankful for their spiritual concern. You ought to express gratitude to them for that. But at the same time, if you look in the Bible, baptism always came after someone came to faith. || If you decide to be baptized as an adult because you’ve come to your own sense of faith now, that doesn’t repudiate the baptism you received as a child. You can kind of view it as a fulfillment of your parents’ wishes and their prayer that you would follow Jesus one day on your own. || Now if you’ve reached a point in your life where you’ve made your own decision to put your faith in Jesus Christ, that’s when you should follow his example and express your decision with baptism. || And that naturally leads to another question. When are my children ready to be baptized? You need to know that thoughtful and committed Christians have disagreed about this question across the centuries. Our understanding as a church is that, as the writers of Scripture teach, baptism is an expression of the commitment of the person being baptized. It’s an expression of trust or faith. Therefore, baptism ought to be restricted to someone who is mature enough to make that decision and that commitment. At Blue Oaks we have parent/child dedications where parents pledge to do their best to point their child toward Jesus. We don’t baptize young children at Blue Oaks. || Let me give you a quick little theology lesson as to why so many Christian groups baptize babies and young children when it’s not in the Bible. I think you’ll find it kind of fascinating and eyeopening. || A couple hundred years after the church began, a couple doctrines began to get distorted. One of the doctrines that got distorted was the doctrine of original sin. Some Christians got their teaching skewed on this and began to teach that the moment a child was born, God held them accountable for their sinful nature; and if they were to die, they would spend eternity apart from Jesus. But the writers of Scripture never teach that. Jesus himself said in Mark 10: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Mark 10:14) In the Old Testament we find a sad scene where David is grieving over the death of his infant child. There’s not a more difficult death to grieve than the death of a child. But notice what David says in 2 Samuel 12: But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me. (2 Samuel 12:22) David wasn’t concerned about his baby going to hell. He knew the baby couldn’t return to him in this life, but he was confident he would go to him one day in heaven. || Because people got their teaching skewed on the doctrine of original sin, it led to a distortion on the doctrine of baptism. And people came up with a doctrine called baptismal regeneration. This doctrine taught that when you baptize a baby, it saves them from spending eternity apart from Jesus if they die. But remember, the writers of Scripture never teach that a baby’s soul is in danger in the first place. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to children. David was confident he would see his child again one day. || So when should your children be baptized? It’s our understanding of Scripture that it should only occur in the same sequence that it occurs for the rest of us — after someone has made the decision to follow Jesus. Not because mom or dad thinks it would be fun to have the whole family baptized together. Not because brothers and sisters are being baptized. Not because friends are being baptized. But because Jesus has changed their heart and life, and they’re ready to express outwardly what has happened inwardly. || Alright, the next question is: Is baptism a guarantee of getting into heaven when I die? And the clear answer here is no. God offers his forgiveness and grace in life as a free gift of grace. We receive it by trust. Baptism is an expression of that trust. And this is important, if you’ve been counting on the fact that you were baptized as a ticket into heaven — someone sprinkled water over you when you were a few weeks old — you’ve misunderstood what baptism is about. Baptism is not a ticket into heaven or a mechanical deal. It is an expression of trust, but you have to make that decision to trust. || Please don’t misunderstand what baptism is about in this sense and don’t count on it as an automatic ticket into heaven. || Alright, the next question is, Why do we immerse people under the water? There are many different methods of baptism practiced in different Christian circles. Some sprinkle with water. Others pour water over the head. And others completely immerse the person in water. Some even have the tradition of going under the water three times — in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. At Blue Oaks we baptize by immersion unless there’s some kind of compelling physical reason or special need to prevent it. Immersion paints the truest picture of dying to sin and raising to new life in Christ. Matthew writes: As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. (Matthew 3:16) Notice that phrase “up out of the water.” Obviously he was immersed or he wouldn’t have been able to come up out of the water, right? It was a biblical pattern, to go down into the water and come up out of the water. || And ultimately we know it’s not the water that saves anyone or the amount of water that saves anyone; Jesus does the saving as you follow him. || The next question is: What are the logistics of being baptized? This may be the biggest question for you even though it’s just very practical. || People often have questions like: Where do I go? What do I bring? Do I need a towel? Do I hold my nose? Well, you come to the front of the room at the end of the service when others are getting baptized. You can bring a change of clothes, but you don’t need to. We have shorts and t-shirts. You can go into the bathroom and change if you would like. You can bring a towel, but you don’t need to. We have plenty. You can hold your nose if you feel comfortable doing that. Some of my huge body-builder friends — 250 pounds, 3 percent body fat — think there’s no way a wimp like Matt can hold them, that I’ll drop them in the water or something. I just want you to know, I’ve never dropped anyone in a baptism. People are light in the water, and I’ll take that body-builder and dunk him under like he’s a 100 pound little girl. || Alright, last question: Can I be a follower of Christ and not be baptized? || Honestly, I have very deep pastoral concerns about this question. || I want to say a word to you if you’ve not been baptized yet. || Some of you haven’t been baptized because you’re just starting to explore Christianity. You’re putting together information about God, Jesus and the cross. You’re in the early stages of searching and have not made a commitment to God yet. I want to be very clear about this. This step of baptism is not for you yet. It’s not a step that you want to take prematurely, before you’ve made that inner faith commitment. || I’ll give you an analogy to clarify this, particularly for those of you who are women. You can answer me out loud when we get to the question part. Here’s the analogy. Let’s say you’ve been dating a man for about a month. He’s charming, amazingly bright and devastatingly handsome. He looks just like Brad Pitt. In addition to looking like Brad Pitt, this guy is confident but modest and bold yet gentle. At the same time, this guy makes it clear that he is smitten with you. He showers you with gifts, affection and expressions of love. He lets you know that the great longing of his heart is to be with you. For him, the sun rises and sets with you. After a month, he gets down on one knee and proposes to you. He asks you to marry him. Even though all of this is true, here’s the question: Would you marry this guy after just one month of dating? || This is going to have to be another message or maybe a whole series, isn’t it? Even married women out there are saying, “Yes! That sounds pretty good. What’s his number?” || The answer I was looking for with this analogy is no. Why is no the correct answer? Because you don’t enter into a commitment like that on a superficial basis. It’s a serious commitment, and you have to know what you’re doing. Baptism is the public statement of a total, permanent, binding commitment to God. It’s similar, since marriage is a public statement of a total, permanent, binding commitment to another person. Maybe you’re beginning this search, so you’re not ready to take that step yet. Don’t rush it. You’re right where you need to be. God is very pleased that you’re taking him seriously by studying and learning. Don’t enter into this step prematurely. || Some of you have made a commitment to God and really have given your heart to him. You understand about Jesus and the cross, so you’ve crossed that line. Maybe this is the first time you’re hearing about baptism, but you’ve made a decision. If something were to happen to you between now and the time you get baptized, if the plane you were on went down, God is not going to say to you, “Sorry, you can’t get past the gate. You didn’t get baptized, so I won’t let you in.” That’s not God’s heart, because this is not a mechanical thing. But maybe today is the day for you to take this step in your faith journey. || Some of you say you’re Christians but you’ve never been baptized. Even though you understand all about it, you have no plans to be baptized. You’re just blowing it off. At this point, some danger signs ought to light up. || Jesus clearly commands all of his followers to be baptized as a way of declaring their devotion to him. 1 John 5:3 says: This is love for God: to obey His commands. And His commands are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3) || Very early on, the Roman government demanded that people make their ultimate allegiance to Caesar. And baptism was when someone would get up and say, “No, my ultimate allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the Savior and Lord of my life.” This was a subversive act and an act of civil disobedience in that society. || In many countries around the world today, people still face consequences when they’re baptized and cross that line. They face possible loss of jobs or social ostracism. In some cases, they face the possibility of prison, torture and even death. Yet, they have done it and still do it by the millions. || It happens even in our society. I heard about a man who became a Christian in spite of very severe family opposition. They were from another religious tradition and told him they would disown him if he got baptized. He would not be regarded as their son anymore and would not be welcome in their home. This was a very serious deal, but he chose to be baptized. He said, “Jesus is the Lord of my life. He suffered everything for me, so how could I not be willing to take this step and suffer for him what by comparison is very little?” || Here’s a very strong challenge for those of you who claim to be Christians. You say you’re a Christ follower, but you’ve not taken this step. Christ commanded it, and his followers have taken it, even in our day, knowing that it meant facing possible suffering and even death. They have done it with joy. If you understand all of this and consider yourself a believer but refuse to take this step — there is kind of an obstinate spirit about this in your heart — there ought to be warning lights going on for you. || Some of you have been waiting for a spouse or someone else to decide to get baptized so you can do it together. Stop waiting. This is a step of obedience between you and Jesus, so don’t put this one in the hands of someone else. || Some of you have Christians for a long time. And for whatever reason, you’ve never taken this step — you’ve never been baptized. And it’s reached a point now where you think it would be kind of embarrassing to have other people know that you are being baptized. I don’t know how else to say it — Stop putting it off. Don’t let embarrassment keep you from being obedient to Jesus on this. || Here’s the last word on this central practice that Jesus established. If you are at a place where, for whatever reason, you have been casual about this but decide now that you are going to be obedient and that your heart is going to change, you need to know that this is something that honors God. For those of you who are going to be baptized today, it is going to be a moment that stays with you the rest of your life. I remember that moment so clearly. || There will be times in your life when you experience doubt, uncertainty, regrets or guilt, but God will bring your mind back to that moment. It’s when you say in a public way, “I belong to him.” And God says, “It’s true. You do belong to me.” || You’re going to grow, and you’re going to sense the delight that comes with being able to say, “I am following. I am not following perfectly but I’m following as best I can with God’s help.” || I hope that everyone of us who is a Christ follower is in that position. || Alright, let me close in prayer and then we’ll celebrate with those who are getting baptized. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA