In previous posts I have argued that the symbolism of baptism is mostly gone today. In New Testament times, nearly all people immediately understood that when someone got baptized, they were symbolically dying to their past and rising again to a new life for the future. Such a ceremony would spark questions and discussion about why the person was getting baptized.
While baptism means something similar today, most people (including Christians) do not immediately grasp the symbolism. The symbolism has to be taught. Just as a joke loses its humor when it has to be explained, so also a symbol loses its force when it is explained. We need symbols which are more naturally and immediately grasped by all people so that they are compelled to ask why you are dying to your past.
The symbols should represent a break with the past and the beginning of a new future. If possible, it would also be good to symbolize death, burial, and resurrection. One way to look for symbols is to look at the burial customs of a particular culture, and then try to find a ritual, ceremony, or symbol that mimics the burial customs.
I will begin to suggest some for our own culture tomorrow, but let us work our way toward them by considering the extreme examples from other cultures around the world.
Burial Customs and Baptism
There is group of people in the Philippines known as the Caviteño. When a Cavite person is nearing death due to sickness or old age, the person goes out into the forest and selects a tree. Then the family members build the person a little hut at the base of this tree in which they will live until they die. But they are not left alone to die. The family and friends come out to hollow out the tree trunk of the standing tree.
When the person dies, he or she is entombed vertically in the hollowed-out tree trunk. The symbolism is that just as trees give life to the tribe through fruit and wood for their fires, so when a person dies, they give their life back to the tree.
So in this culture, a water baptism would not represent death, burial, and resurrection at all. But maybe when a Cavite chooses to leave their former way of life and turn to follow Jesus, it would be appropriate for them to go out into the woods and select a tree. Then live in the hut while they and their family members hollow out the tree trunk. Then, on a certain day, they get into the tree trunk where they stay for a period of time, before returning back out of the tree, as through returning from the dead.
Or take a certain group of Tibetin Buddhists who practice “sky burial.” When a person dies, the family hires a certain man of the town to go with them to barren field outside of town. There, the man cuts the dead body into pieces and feeds it to the vultures. The ritual is gruesome, but it nevertheless is a burial tradition. And once again, water baptism would be meaningless in such a culture. Is there a ceremony or ritual by which someone could symbolically give themselves a “sky burial”? Maybe they could take some bread out and feed it to the birds, although since vultures do not eat bread, maybe the person could take some meat out and present it to the vultures instead.
Burial Symbolism and Baptism
With some creative thinking, such symbolic rituals of death and resurrection could be performed in nearly all cultures for any burial ceremony. Some cultures wrap the body in cloth and dump it in the sea. In other cultures, bodies are sent down a river in a canoe, or floated out to sea on a raft, or raised up to the sky in the trees. While some of these rituals would be dangerous to do to an actual living person, maybe a replica of the person could be made out of wood or stone, and then dumped into the sea or sent down the river.
Different cultures have different customs for death and burial. In many of these cultures, water baptism would be meaningless as a symbol and a different ritual would be needed to represent the idea of dying with Christ and being raised again to a new life.
But what about in our own culture? I think that since we practice burial, there is a place for baptism, but maybe with some tweaks which better represent what is going on. There are also numerous other symbols which could be used to represent a break with the past and the resurrection to a new life for the future. We will look at some of these for our own culture tomorrow.
Johnny Cox says
Well, these baptism post I have found some disagreement. I agree when you are show casing narrow minded traditions in church, and I am all for that, but now you are removing one of the most clearly attested teachings of the NT. I do not feel that you have proved your point, but rather much of what you have written actually could be used to promote the re-institution of water baptism. (As really, nobody today does it like the NT anymore.)
Water baptism is a commanded of the Gospels, demonstrated repeatedly in the books of Acts, and explained in Romans 6. The reason I state it like this is because most everybody goes wrong, starting with a poor understanding from Romans 3&4 that makes them misinterpret the gospels and the demonstrations in the books of Acts concerning baptism.
Today baptism is said to be “An outward sign of inward grace.” or “A public proclamation of changed life” which is not directly taught in the NT. (Though it may be, but these phrases are not scripture, they are inferences.)
In Romans where it says, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” has been misused for the last 100 years in the American church, as a reason to NOT baptize. It has become so settled in the mind of the denominational community that “Asking Jesus into the heart” has become the defacto method for becoming a Christian, fearing baptizing converts immediately upon profession of faith will cause them to be “saved by works”. Faith has been redefined as mental ascent, or agreement, instead of what the context contends as belief that promoted action. If Abram had not packed up his camels and stayed in Haran, he would not have been the father of many nations (Abraham).
I totally reject that “baptism has lost its symbolism” as the world is covered with water and every human being on earth uses it to become clean and yearns for it when it is not near. A person will die without water, so it has got to be around somewhere. It is not a stretch of any culture to understand baptism. Baptism is symbolism for the tomb. Your examples in this article are examples of tombs. You would just apply baptism to the tombs to make the connection.
Jesus commanded it, the early church did it, and Paul the author of Romans was told by Ananias “And now, why delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name.'” (By the way, it is at baptism where we call upon Jesus (Rom 10:9-10)
Baptism is one of the few clear things that I pray we not jettison for some “new” understanding, but just do what we are told to do. For the sake of Christian unity, lets immerse people in water when they want to become Christians and not change it according to whim.
On a very technical sense, are people saved when they can’t get baptized? like these famous examples: “What if there was no water around like in a desert?” or “What if you were on a plane and it was crashing?” or “You are walking down the aisle and right before you get to the preacher the person spontaneously combusts?”
I think Jeremy has correctly identified what happens with these people, they are saved, because faith is the key. But their faith would have to be genuine enough that they would have gotten baptized under better circumstances and would have continued to walk with God through out their whole life.
Don’t take an theology that explains an exceptional circumstance and then build a new theology upon that makes you negate clear New Testament practice.
You can be technically right, and practically wrong.
Jeremy Myers says
You make good points.
My main concern is that many people get baptized because they think they are supposed to, or that it will make God happy, or that it is necessary to get baptized to receive eternal life.
If we can properly teach baptism to people, and they understand what it is and what it isn’t, then I’m all for it.
Johnny Cox says
“My main concern is that many people get baptized because they think they are supposed to (Jesus commanded it didn’t He?), or that it will make God happy (Jesus did it fulfill all righteousness), or that it is necessary to get baptized to receive eternal life (for what other reason would you do it, you can’t find outward sign of inward grace in the NT, that is just a modern tradition).
People got baptized to become Christians. that’s just how they did it in the NT and we should too. Yes we are saved by grace through faith, Paul wrote that with full knowledge of Baptism also. If he could put it together we should be able too.
Asking Jesus into your heart is just as institutional, traditional and worldly as buildings, orders of service, 3 point sermons, suits, and blue hymnals.
Jeremy Myers says
I don’t tell people to ask Jesus into their heart. I agree that it is not biblical.
But I also believe that water baptism does not make people Christians. I do not think this idea is biblical either. There are only 2-3 verses in the New Testament that are used to teach this idea, but a study of the context indicates that either Spirit baptism is in view (not water baptism) or that the result of the water baptism is not eternal life, but something else entirely.
Johnny Cox says
Not to keep this going, but I think you need to write a post of how you do a conversion, save someone etc. Then show us how what you do corresponds with scripture, or why it doesn’t have too.
Still really think you are holding an opinion of Abram that kept his camels in Haran.
“Abraham didn’t have to travel to the promise land to get there, it was his belief in the promise land that really matters!” (What I’m hearing . . . )
If water baptism makes people Christians, then how does one explain the people I know who were baptized
*to please their girlfriend?
*to please their parents?
*because they thought it was just a ritual one must go through to join a church?
*to become a member of a large church so they will have access to the members to sell them insurance, rel estate, etc.?
*so they could join a church and thereby convince the community that they were “upstanding citizens”, when in fact they were part of the mob, an assassin, having multiple affairs, a dishonest business person, etc.?
These are people who have said after the fact that they were not, are not and never have been Christians.
None of us can possibly convert or save anyone. That is the Spirit’s job. If we think we can do any such thing, that amounts to usurping the Spirit. Bluntly put, that means we’re trying to play God.
John Fisher says
No one is claiming that baptism without faith will make a person a saved Christian, otherwise there would be people running around throwing water on everyone saying “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me, I’ve just made you saved. You’ll go to Heaven and become perfect whether you like it or not; it’s for your own good.”
No, it’s certainly clear from Scripture that faith is entirely necessary for salvation, no one here is claiming otherwise. But the point that Johnny is making is that faith isn’t just going “OK God, I accept salvation.” For that matter, salvation isn’t just not going to Hell. Part of the shocking revelation that Jesus brought us is that God doesn’t just want us to go to a happy, peaceful place, but that he’s inviting us to enter into a familial relationship with Him and as His children we will live with Him, do things with Him and and work with Him (and consequentially each other, forming a body that is One). Paul refers to us as coworkers to God (and to not let it be in vain).
As far as baptism goes, the Scriptures treat it a natural response to the invitation to turn away from sin and enter into His family (Johnny point’s out the rhetorical “Why delay?” of Romans 10 and I’ve pointed out the “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” of Acts 10).
So, claiming that there is saving power in baptism doesn’t mean “I’m saving myself independent of what God has done,” but that baptism is an act of cooperating with God in turning away from your sins.”
To put it this way, if Paul knew that we are saved through our faith (and he says as much) then why would he tell the Romans that it is “through baptism” that we die to our old life? Likewise, if Peter knew that we receive salvation through faith (and I don’t doubt that he did) then why does he say that we are being delivered “through water?” And of course Jesus didn’t say “whoever believes will be saved, then some might choose a symbolic way to declare it publicly if they want to,” he said “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Again, this isn’t the claim that “I can make water have magical saving power” but that Jesus and those who learned directly from Him treated conversion and baptism as inseparable because true faith bears fruit. You are correct that without faith there is no benefit to being dunked in water, but with faith we are baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” not “in order to make a public declaration.”
As far as your last paragraph, claim also isn’t “I can convert/save people for God” but “I’m choosing to take serious his command to be His hands and feet, to respond to the Great Commission. It’s not an attempt to play God but choosing to cooperate with him as we are part of his Plan; of course it’s the work of the Spirit, but the Spirit can work through us.
Johnny Cox says
What he said! 🙂
Jeremy Myers says
Whew! I may just have to write some posts on this…
First, I don’t equate “salvation” with receiving eternal life. The term “salvation” and it cognates are notoriously slippery in Scripture, and can mean a wide variety of things. So we must always be careful when reading about being saved (by baptism, by childbearing, etc), that we do not confuse “salvation” with “eternal life.”
Second, “forgiveness of sins” is also slippery. I don’t believe anybody has to do anything to receive forgiveness of sins. Neither faith nor baptism is required.
John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was the Jewish baptism of repentance which I wrote a few posts about, and which has nothing to do with receiving eternal life, and everything to do with the repentance of Israel as a nation so that she can be restored to her rightful place among the nations as God promised in Scripture. It is not about heaven vs. hell or any such thing.
Nearly every reference in the Bible to baptism falls into one of these two categories. Which means that most discussion of baptism as it relates to our eternal destiny is suffering from a category mistake. We have put it in the wrong theological category. It is not about eternal life, cooperating with God to receive forgiveness of sins, or anything like this.
Johnny Cox says
The N.T. practice was water baptism immediately upon profession of faith (whether it was needed or not). Any other practice breaks the unity of the church, and the lack of water baptism is actually a tradition of omission, thus not showing a greater understanding of faith, but rather a lack of reverence for the will and intention of Jesus himself. Even in Acts 10, Peter says “Who should withhold water?”
Why do you seek to introduce a non biblical practice into the church?
Just because Jews “did it first” or other religions have ceremonial washings does not invalidate the practice. If Jesus says “baptize them” like in Matt 24, Mark 16 then the Lord Jesus has intended that same practice for his church. To NOT do it shows disobedience. The church is closely related to synagogue, should we stop meeting together because the Jews did it first? In Acts 19, people baptized in Johns baptism were re-baptized into Jesus’ baptism.
To call all of these baptisms “spiritual” or “John’s baptism” is a poor hermeneutic.
Jeremy Myers says
Did you read the entire series on baptism? I tried to answer most of these objections during the series.
If you did not find my arguments compelling, that is fine. I don’t mind.
Johnny Cox says
Well yeah, most of what you have written I feel I could use to support my position. The main difference seems to be you see an evolution in the book of Acts, things changing. I see the same baptism each time, water with side issues. Examples:
Like I think The Baptism of the HS showed they got to be water baptized. They were not receiving eternal life yet. There is a difference between a falling and indwelling.
Those who got baptized in Johns Baptism (after the resurrection) had to receive water baptism in Jesus.
Same baptism again
The major reason we are different on this issue is that even though you have arrived at the correct principle, what baptism represents, I still think God wants us to do these silly, arcane, old fashioned things. Lamaan was told to dipp in the Jordan 6 times, I believe to rid him of his pride. To convince people like me, I need more support for the dismissing of Baptism. I feel your narrative theology is too esoteric and is rebuffed by Old fashioned “thus saith the Lord” also I could use 98% of what you wrote to support my position!
Jeremy I think your smart and stuff, it’s a disagreement, you may not want to answer questions in your book for people like me, it would get a lot longer!
Jeremy Myers says
I see your point. Maybe you could.
A lot of it probably does boil down to a hermeneutical paradigm.
I see almost all of Scripture as descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us what was done, not necessarily what we must do. To learn what we must do, we look at what was done in the past, and then look to the Spirit’s guidance and the wise counsel of fellow believers to determine what could be done today.
So the “thus saith the Lord” passages were applicable to the people then, but not always for now.
Small correction. The Cavite people are actually all Christian. There are no pagans left in the Philippines.
Ken Wiseman says
Was baptism ever patterned after a death ritual? The tree burial and sky burial rituals are interesting, but they are no more symbolic of anything than putting a coffin 6 feet in the ground. Symbolism is not necessarily bound to a particular culture. So, (and this is the biggest and only point) we do this in obedience to the Word. Obedience plus symbolism.