Baptism: A Believer’s Wedding Ceremony

            There’s a TV show that first came on decades ago that is currently having a comeback – “Kids Say the Darndest Things”.  Art Linkletter hosted the first version, Bill Cosby hosted the second version, and now Tiffany Haddish is hosting the third version.  And I enjoy watching that show, because it’s so true.  You just never know what kids are gonna say. 

            For example, there was a husband and wife who were cleaning the church building one evening and their 3-year-old son was helping them.  They walked up to the baptistery to make sure that nothing was in the water and their son said, “You can’t drink that water.”  When they asked him why, he said, “Because it has sins in it.”

            I heard of another couple who were driving home from church and they were talking about a friend who was going to be baptized that day.  Their 3-year-old daughter asked the question, “What does it mean to be baptized?”  Their 5-year-old son spoke up and said, “Oh, baptism — that’s when the preacher washes all your senses away.”  Well, he was close.

            Like many of you, I can remember the day when I made that decision.  I was 12 years old.  It was a Sunday in Norfolk, Virginia in 1968.   And when the invitation was extended at the end of the sermon, and everyone began to sing, I nervously pushed my way out into the aisle, went up to the preacher, bro. Melvin Vaughan, and told him I wanted to be baptized into Christ.  And I was.

            I made that decision because Jesus said in Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” 

            I made that decision because Peter said in Acts 2:38, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

            I made that decision because I understood that baptism is an essential part of the conversion process.  And so, on that day in 1968, I was “born again” of the water and the Spirit.  At the point of baptism, when my faith was expressed through obedience to God’s commands and I repented of my sins, my sins were washed away, I came in contact with the blood of Jesus Christ and I received the Holy Spirit into my life.

            It’s interesting to me that in all of Paul’s letters, whenever he mentions baptism, he assumes that it’s something all of his Christian readers have experienced.  For example, when he talks about how our lives have changed as Christians, he says, “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ were baptized into death?  Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4).

            In I Corinthians, when Paul talks about our oneness together in Christ, he says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (I Corinthians 12:13). 

            In Galatians, when Paul talks about how our lives are shaped by our faith in Christ, he says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27).

            And so, this morning, I’d like to talk with you about baptism for a bit.  And, as I do this, I’d like for those of you who have been baptized to reflect on the significance of your own baptism.  Or, if you’ve never been baptized, you may have wondered why so many other people have done it, or why there’s so much talk about baptism in the New Testament.  What did baptism mean for the early Christians, and what does it mean for us now? 

            And as we consider that, I’d like to share an image with you that I think will help us to appreciate a bit more the significance and beauty of baptism.  Now, there are several images that are used in the New Testament to describe what takes place at the point of baptism.  Baptism is sometimes referred to as a circumcision, or as a burial, or as a cleansing. 

            But the image I’d like to suggest to you this morning is that of a wedding ceremony, which formalizes the lifetime commitment between a man and a woman.  Now I realize that relating baptism to our traditional wedding ceremony in our 21st century American culture, is not a picture that comes directly from scripture.  But I do think the picture of baptism as a wedding ceremony is suggested in a number of Biblical passages.

            For example, Jesus himself claimed the church as his bride.  Paul said to the Romans, “Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another, even to him who was raised from the dead…” (Romans 7:4).  As Christians, we are individually and collectively the bride of Christ.  And, if that’s the case, then it makes sense that there was a particular point in time that we joined our lives with him, that we entered into a marriage covenant with Christ.

            In fact, that word “covenant” is significant.  Let me digress just a little bit to talk about the concept of covenant in the Bible.  Think back to Abraham.  God made a covenant with Abraham promising that, through his offspring, all the nations of earth would be blessed.  And as a sign of that covenant, God commanded that all newborn male children be circumcised.  That ritual was to be a symbol of their faith in God and it was an essential requirement of that covenant.

            And then, several hundred years later, the law of Moses became the basis for a temporary covenant.  When the law of Moses was first given, the Israelites pronounced their vows of faithfulness with God, just as in a wedding ceremony when the bride and groom promise to be faithful and keep themselves only for each other.  “…And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the Lord said we will do.'” (Exodus 24:3).  They said, in essence, “We make a promise, we make a vow to be faithful to God.”

            And God’s promise, in return, was that he would be their God and that he would love them and take care of them.  Throughout his covenant relationship with Israel, God continually referred to Israel as his bride whom he had lovingly chosen from among all other people.  God was a loving husband who had set his affections on them and promised to be faithful to them.

            “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth….Therefore know that the Lord your God, he is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love him and keep his commandments.” (Deuteronomy 7:6,9).

            That covenant relationship lasted for centuries, but with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, there came a new covenant.  And this covenant is no longer sealed with circumcision.

            Colossians 2, In Christ you had a different kind of circumcision, a circumcision not done by hands. It was through…his death that you were made free from the power of your sinful self.  When you were baptized, you were buried with Christ, and you were raised up with him through your faith in God’s power that was shown when he raised Christ from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12, NCV).

            Paul says here that circumcision is no longer the symbol of the covenant relationship.  Now, that covenant relationship is sealed with baptism.  And, if we are the bride of Christ (which we are), and if that marriage covenant begins with the act of baptism (which it does), then I think we can properly refer to baptism as a believer’s wedding ceremony.

            Personally, I think it’s a beautiful picture, and I think it’s one that will help us to appreciate the significance of baptism, and even more than that, to appreciate the significance of our relationship with Jesus Christ.  So, allow me to suggest a few similarities between baptism and a wedding ceremony.

I.          Baptism is the point at which we become one with Christ

            When we look at the marriage relationship, we see that, in the beginning, when God created man and woman, he joined them together in the union of flesh and spirit that we know as marriage.  “Adam said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’  Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:23-24).

            When Jesus was talking about the permanence of the marriage relationship, he quoted that passage, and then he added those words that are often quoted in a wedding ceremony:  “The two shall become flesh.  So then, they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:8-9).  In marriage, the husband and wife form a union, two persons joined together as one — one body, one spirit, one purpose.

            In much the same way, Christ takes the church as his own bride, so that, once united, the church becomes his body.  We become one with him.  The beauty of this is perhaps best seen in Ephesians 5.  It’s a passage that talks about how husbands ought to treat their wives, but just when you think that’s the thrust of the passage, Paul turns it into a profound reference to Christ and the church: 

            “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.  For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones.  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:28-32).

            Paul says that just as a man and a woman are joined together into one flesh as husband and wife, so also we are joined together in one flesh with Christ.  But when does that take place?  It takes place at our wedding ceremony.  It takes place when we are baptized into Christ.

            In I Corinthians 12, Paul says, “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.” (I Corinthians 12:13).  Paul tells us that our union into one body with Christ takes place when we are baptized.  In baptism, just as in a wedding ceremony, there is a uniting as we become one body with Christ.

II.        The Purity of the Bride

            By Jewish custom, a bride of the first century would bathe herself in an act of ceremonial cleansing before putting on her wedding dress.  It was similar to our tradition today that a bride wears a white wedding gown which is intended to signify the purity that she brings to the bridegroom.

            But Christ is very much aware of the fact that we are not pure brides.  None of us is without sin.  And certainly none of us was without sin when we came to Christ.  But the beauty of baptism is that Christ is the one who cleanses us and makes us pure as he brings us into a loving relationship with himself. 

            To describe that cleansing, Paul refers again to baptism:  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27).  Through baptism, we have been washed in the blood of Christ and in the process, we become a pure bride.

            In Acts 22, Paul reflected on his own personal conversion experience.  He said that Ananias had told him, “And now why are you waiting?  Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16).  And it’s the same for each of us.  With the waters of baptism, the bridegroom, Jesus Christ, washes away our sins, bathes us in his own purity, and presents us to himself as a pure bride, without spot or blemish.

III.       The Exchange of Wedding Vows

            Without question, the most important part of any wedding ceremony is the exchange of vows between the bride and the groom.  Now, their commitment to one another doesn’t begin at this point.  That commitment has developed and grown throughout the dating process and throughout the engagement.  But until those vows are exchanged, either party is free to change his or her mind and not commit to a lifetime together.  But, at the wedding ceremony, that changes.

            In a wedding ceremony, the bride and groom typically promise to love, honor and cherish, “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health” for as long as they both shall live.  Both of them promise to remain faithful to each other until death, which are terribly serious words in this throwaway world in which we live.  For Christians, the marriage covenant will be the second most important commitment we will ever make.

            The most important commitment anyone can make is the commitment of one’s life to Jesus Christ.  And that commitment is expressed in our wedding vows, our pledge in the wedding ceremony of baptism.  Peter talked about that pledge as he compared the floodwaters that saved Noah to the act of baptism:

            “…God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water.  And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you — not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 3:20-21, NET).

            The flood, in which the lives of only eight people were saved, was symbolic of a much greater salvation — a spiritual cleansing which is available to all mankind.  Baptism, as a wedding pledge, is the outward, open and public expression of one’s acceptance of Christ’s offer of a lifetime together.  Through the act of baptism, we come before many witnesses and we pledge to Jesus Christ our love and our commitment.

            I think that baptism itself is a confession of one’s faith in Christ.  It says to everyone present, “I believe in Jesus Christ and I trust him enough to take this step of obedience.”

            But beyond that, the early Christians accompanied the act of baptism with an actual spoken confession of their faith in Christ.  Apparently, it was done in very much the same way that vows are made by a wedding couple.  Paul seems to refer to these public confessions when he reminded Timothy of his pledge of commitment to Christ:  “…Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (I Timothy 6:12).

            This vow should never be entered into lightly.  No vow — especially one of commitment to Christ — should be made without prayerful consideration of the implications.  In marriage, when you make that commitment to one another, you do so with the knowledge that there will not only be good times to share together, but there will also be some bad times to endure together.  But you make the promise to remain faithful to one another regardless of what happens in the years ahead.  The same thing is true of our Christian lives.

            Jesus talked with his disciples about this reality.  When James and John came to Jesus asking for a special place in his kingdom, Jesus said, “You do not know what you ask.  Can you drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).  In other words, “Following me is going to involve a lot of suffering; are you prepared for that?”

            I understand that no bride or groom wants to anticipate all the problems that could possibly come up during a marriage.  But we make that commitment to be faithful “for better or worse, in sickness and in health”.  No matter what happens, we promise to remain faithful to one another.

            Likewise, none of us wants to anticipate suffering for being a Christian.  But in the wedding ceremony of baptism, we tie our destiny to Christ — we make the decision and the commitment to be faithful no matter what, whether our lifetime together leads us to joy and peace or to persecution and suffering.

The Basis of a Marriage

            So, baptism is a beautiful part of being joined together with Christ.  But I would suggest that, at the same time, we need to be careful about putting too much emphasis on it.

            And again, let me use the wedding imagery to tell you want I mean by that.  According to a recent study, the average wedding in this country costs over $35,000.  That includes $16,000 for the wedding site, $6100 for an engagement ring, $4100 for a reception band, $2500 for flowers and $2800 for a photographer.  Altogether, on the average, over $35,000 is spent by people on a wedding.

            Compare that with this statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau – 20% of first marriages will result in divorce within 5 years, 33% will result in divorce within 10 years.  Which leads me to the conclusion that a lot of people put a lot more thought and effort into their wedding ceremony than they do their marriage.

            If a couple gets married without love and without a commitment to one another, their wedding may be beautiful and extravagant, but it’s nothing but a sham.  And I mention that because I think it’s possible for us to make the same mistake with baptism.  I think there are a lot of people who put a lot more thought and effort into their baptism than they do their relationship with Jesus Christ, and the result is a high divorce rate, a large number of Christians who don’t remain faithful.

            Sometimes the impression is left when baptism is preached that baptism is more important than anything else in our lives.  And I hope that I don’t leave you with that impression.  Because our faith and our commitment to Jesus Christ is of much greater importance, and baptism is only of significance when it is done as an expression of that faith and commitment.

            If anyone thinks that simply going through the motions of baptism brings him into a covenant relationship with Christ, he’s only fooling himself.  As Peter said, baptism is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (I Peter 3:21).  In other words, the true significance of baptism is not what happens on the outside.  It’s what happens on the inside that makes the act important.

            And so, if there’s no repentance and change of heart, if there’s no faith in God’s promises, and if there’s no commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ, a person can go through the act of baptism every day of the year, every year of his life, and still not have a proper relationship with God.

            What Paul said in Romans 2 about circumcision is also true of baptism.  Paul said, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter.” (Romans 2:28-29).

            Paul could just as easily have said, “A person is not a Christian if he is only one outwardly, nor is baptism merely outward and physical.”  It is important that we have a proper perspective of the essence of baptism and that we establish the clear priority of one’s faith and commitment to Christ.  We need only look at the many people who’ve gone through the motions of baptism without knowing why, or without truly committing themselves to the relationship they ought to have with Christ.  And, as a result, this world is filled with so-called “Christians” for whom Christ in their lives is not important.  And I think it’s just like the thousands of marriages in this country that have failed despite beautiful wedding ceremonies. 

            Probably the most elaborate wedding ceremony in our lifetime was the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.  When it was held, people all around the world turned on their television sets to watch that gorgeous wedding, and they “oohed” and “ahed”.  It was beautiful, like something out of a fairy tale.  But it soon became very apparent that there was something lacking in that relationship.  There was no real love, there was no commitment to one another, and even a wedding ceremony costing hundreds of thousands of dollars couldn’t make up for that.  And the same thing is true on a spiritual level.

            Someone might say, “Alan, I agree with everything you’ve said.  I think a person’s relationship with Christ is tied to his faith and commitment and has nothing whatsoever to do with baptism.”  But that’s not what I said.  I said that faith and commitment are the most important aspects of one’s relationship with Christ.

            Let’s go back to the wedding analogy.  Since the commitment of love in a couple’s relationship is more important than the actual wedding ceremony, does that mean that the ceremony is unimportant?  Not at all.  Without the wedding, there can be no joining of two into one.  Without the wedding, the man and woman will never enjoy all the rights and privileges of a husband and wife.  Without the wedding, there is no marriage.

            I would suggest to you this morning that while faith and commitment form the basis of our relationship with Christ, that doesn’t mean that baptism isn’t important.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  Without baptism, there can be no joining together with Christ.  Without baptism, we can never enjoy the rights and the privileges that are offered by Christ, including forgiveness of sins.  Without baptism, we have no right to wear the name of Christ.  Without the wedding ceremony of baptism, there is no marriage and we are not the bride of Christ.

            I think the biggest fear people have regarding baptism is that if baptism is viewed as essential for salvation, that would make it a “work” of man, replacing the grace of God.  And Paul said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

            But can you imagine a woman saying she really doesn’t want a wedding because she’s afraid that people might think she’s trying to earn her way into a married relationship?  That’s ridiculous.  Nobody would ever dream of calling a wedding ceremony a “work”.  It’s something that’s done as an expression of love and commitment.

            Have you ever noticed how many times in the book of Acts baptism is followed by rejoicing?  The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized and went on his way rejoicing.  The Philippian jailer was baptized and rejoiced with all his family.  They weren’t rejoicing because they had managed to earn their way into heaven.  Rather, their joy in baptism was the joyous celebration of a bride who has just experienced the beautiful expression of her love.  Baptism is our wedding ceremony as we are joined together with Christ.

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