Baptism is perhaps the most obvious of the sacraments. It is a material element that invites the participants into the gospel story of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:4). It is likened to faith and the confession of Lordship as a centerpiece of Christian unity (Ephesians 4:4-6). It is given to us by Christ’s own example, apostolic teaching, and two millennia of church practice. At the close of the first Gospel, it is placed squarely into the ongoing work of the apostles and ultimately the church they planted throughout the world:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
This text alone is sufficient to say most if not all of what we mean when we call baptism a mystery of God.
Let me tell you a story. There is one God over all the universe, but there is a region in his dominion which stands in a state of rebellion. Rather than crush the rebellion with his omnipotent justice, God has chosen to incite resistance against the false prince of this rebellious world. The prophets of Israel were his advance guard, and in the Gospels, the true king lands to commence a full invasion of enemy territory. He enters combats against the power of this world, and at one point even appears to be defeated, slain upon a cross. On Sunday morning he is risen and declared to be Lord, definitively and for all time. His kingdom is one of persuasion, and he invites all persons to participate in his service and in the insurrection against the false prince.
This story is what Jesus is proclaiming when he claims all authority in heaven and on earth. Baptism is part of the announcement that the King has landed and that we have chosen sides. It is, like the confession of Jesus that traditionally accompanies it, an oath of allegiance. When Jesus connects his authority with the commission to baptize, it is neither accidental nor incidental. It is a royal decree.
The command of the decree is that disciples be made. What is a disciple? Disciple does not mean “saved,” though that seems to be the point we typically emphasize with baptism. No, a disciple is a learner. A disciple is a follower. To use Dallas Willard’s favorite term, a disciple is an apprentice who has taken up the trade of his master. Discipleship is not a decision; it is the holy vocation.
So how does one “make disciples”? For the twelve, being a disciple meant following Jesus about Palestine, listening to his teachings, and imitating his conduct. But what about us? According to Jesus, disciples are made by the process of (1) baptism and (2) teaching. The teaching part seems obvious enough, but that baptism is listed – even listed first – is surprising to many. Apprenticeship means imitation of the master, and ours is a baptized Lord (Matthew 3:13-17). Apprenticeship means a break with other disciplines, other ways of life, other masters. Baptism embodies that break, a death to the old man and his false lord (Romans 6:6-11).
Discipleship is a process. No person learns the art of the master overnight. Baptism does not suddenly remake one into the image of the Lord. Baptism draws us into this process, one continued when the church begins “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Baptism is an initiation.
Into the Name
Baptism is not merely a marker or placeholder, but it is in truth a means of transportation into God’s presence. “Through baptism, human beings step out of isolation and into the trinitarian communion, and thus also into the communion of the church.”1 This point is emphasized by the trinitarian formula that accompanies baptism in this text. The three part pronouncement was so emphasized by the early church that some even administered it with three immersions to highlight the sense of the declaration.2
We are baptized in the presence of the Trinity, a point conveyed in the letter to the Ephesians. Christ, as always, leads the way, when the Father “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:19). Now likewise, by baptism in Christ we are lifted into the presence of the Triune God.
God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
With one faith, one hope, and one baptism, the one body appears in union with the one Spirit, the one Lord, and the one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:4-6). We are baptized into the Father, and so are baptized into His Family. We are baptized into the Son, and so are baptized into the life of Christ and his place in God’s presence. We are baptized into the Spirit, and so are baptized into mystery and power.
What might surprise some readers is that this is mostly a point of consensus among the leaders of many different church traditions.
From the Orthodox Church, Iranaeus M. C. Steenberg writes: “Baptism, as entry, is the mystery by which this movement into the life of Christ is made a reality in the human creature.”3 Roman Catholic priest Gerard Kelly states: “The rites of baptism in the Catholic Church make people Christians and bestow a particular identity on them.”4 Notable Anglican author N.T. Wright would offer: “Baptism is not an optional extra for followers of Jesus. Jesus himself linked baptism to his own death; part of the meaning of baptism is to commit us, through plunging into water, to dying with Jesus and coming to share his new life.”5 Scot McKnight, who has served as professor at North Park University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, answered his own question about how to build churches with a “gospel culture”: “The first thing is to emphasize baptism. What I mean here is Romans 6 as the articulation of Matthew 28:16-20. Jesus told his disciples to baptize disciples.”6 And to put the cherry on top, let us read from Andreas J. Köstenberger, director of PhD Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: “Baptism is an essential part of Christian discipleship.”7
This renaissance of baptismal concern sounds a hopeful note for churches like the Church of Christ which have so much invested in the practice and doctrine of baptism. We are now seeing baptism acting as a mystery that carries the gospel with it in our postmodern age. Ages have passed and doctrinal debates have had their day, but today disciples are still baptized. Today, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit still take part in baptism.
May it ever be “until the end of the age.”