Before Jesus Christ's ministry began, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness about repentance from sin and baptism. In Matthew 3:11, he speaks of three different types of baptism: "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (emphasis ours). All four gospels mention baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, but only Matthew and Luke mention baptism by fire.
Water rituals like baptism were common in antiquity. God instructed the Levitical priests to use water in many of the purification rituals, for instance, in the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 14:8-9). For Christians, baptism by full immersion in water is a public expression of repentance of sins and the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior (see Acts 2:38). Coming up out of his or her watery grave (see Romans 6:3-11), a new Christian, forgiven of sin, is clean and ready to receive God's Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (Acts 8:17).
Do we ever think about our baptism? Do we remember the date we were baptized or who baptized us? Was anyone baptized with us? Do we recall how excited or nervous we were? Do we remember anything about the minister's prayer over us? It is possibly the most important day of our lives, and some of us rarely give it any thought.
On the last day of Unleavened Bread, God symbolically baptized the children of Israel as they went down into the Red Sea during the night and stepped out of their watery grave the next morning (Exodus 14:21-31). As they looked behind them in the dawn, hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and horses lay dead along the shore, and many others floated in the waves.
They could literally see that God had destroyed those who had oppressed them for hundreds of years. The Egyptians would never again be able to afflict them in any way, as God had washed away and destroyed what had enslaved them. They were clean and free! Seeing this, the Israelites feared God and broke into a song of praise to the Lord (Exodus 14:30-31; 15:1-21). Do we ever praise God for counting us worthy to be baptized into His church?
We tend to think of baptism as a New Testament thing, but it can be found early in the Old Testament. Even this baptism of the Israelites in the Red Sea was not the first baptism recorded in Scripture, although the earlier event is mentioned as a baptism only in the New Testament:
. . . once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. (I Peter 3:20-22)
The apostle Peter mentions Noah and his family being "saved through water" and Christian baptism being its antitype. In the Flood story is an example of baptism by water, when the world of that time was cleansed of sin by the destruction of all humanity but for eight people. The entire earth was plunged into a watery grave, and only Noah's family rose out of it to new life.
Have we ever considered that there might have been an even earlier baptism—when the earth was covered with water at Creation? Did God "baptize" the earth to cleanse it of the sins of "the angels who did not keep their proper domain" (Jude 6; see II Peter 2:4)? Genesis 1:2 informs us that the earth was covered in water, and on the third day, God gathered the waters into seas to let the dry land appear (Genesis 1:9-10). Earth rose out of the water cleansed and prepared for new life.
How important is baptism to God? From these examples, He seems to begin every instance of new life—new creation—with a baptism, a cleansing in water for the remission of sins, making baptism an essential and vital early step in God's creative work with humanity.
Returning to Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist mentions a second baptism, saying, "He who is coming after me . . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." After rising up out of the watery grave of baptism, a Christian has hands laid on him or her to receive the Holy Spirit, placing him or her into the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, the church. Notice I Corinthians 12:13: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit." Through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a Christian is regenerated (Titus 3:5), becoming a son or daughter of God the Father.
Matthew 3:11 mentions a third baptism, the baptism of fire. Contrary to the belief of some Pentecostals, the baptism of fire is not connected to the baptism of the Holy Spirit or speaking in tongues, although they try to connect it with the tongues of fire seen over the disciples when the Holy Spirit filled them on the Day of Pentecost in AD 31 (Acts 2:1-4).
John defines the baptism of fire in the next verse: "His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12). The baptism of fire is synonymous with what Jesus called Gehenna, often mistranslated as "hell." It is the punishing fire of God's eternal judgment, a baptism no Christian would ever want! Revelation 20:15 speaks of it using another term: "And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire."
The children of Israel were indeed baptized in the sea (I Corinthians 10:1-2), and God swept their slavery away. They came up from the Red Sea singing for joy at the victory God gave them. But they could never see past their physical needs and fleshly desires. Almost none of them ever received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and so, without genuine faith in God, they all died in the wilderness, never entering the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:16-19).
Revelation 14:1-5 prophesies of another people who will sing for joy at their redemption from the sins and slavery of this world. These 144,000 "firstfruits to God and to the Lamb," unlike the unfaithful Israelites, "follow the Lamb wherever He goes." These Christians, whose foreheads bear the Father's name, took their baptisms seriously, ridding themselves of faults to please their Redeemer. Their reward is to live eternally as the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9).
Is baptism a big deal to God? It is amazing to consider how few in all of history have been invited into fellowship with God, given His truth, and baptized into Christ's Body. Is that not worth singing about?
- Ronny H. Graham
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