Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Baptism 101

I finally have a moment to add a new post! In the last post I laid out the basic beliefs of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. I would like to go through its basic doctrines one by one, and show how these compare with the Evangelical and the Messianic. 

The first contact that a person has with the Lutheran Church is often through infant baptism, so I'll look at that first.

Here is the view of the LCMS on Infant Baptism:
"Whole households, everyone in the family, were baptized in the beginning of New Testament times, which in all probability included infants (Acts 16:15 and 33)...  In Romans 6, the Holy Spirit tells us in the Word that in Baptism we have been united with Jesus' death and resurrection -- regenerated, dying to sin and rising to new life. That happens to infants when baptized (Gal. 3:27). 
From the beginning of New Testament Christianity at Pentecost to our time, unbroken and uninterrupted, the Church has baptized babies. Polycarp (69-155 AD), a disciple of the Apostle John, was baptized as an infant. Justin Martyr (100-166 AD) of the next generation, about the year 150 AD, states in his Dialog with Trypho The Jew that Baptism is the circumcision of the New Testament." Irenaeus (130-200 AD) writes in Against Heresies II 22:4 that Jesus came to save all through means of Himself -- all, I say, who through Him are born again to God -- infants and children, boys and youth, and old men."

The Evangelical Difference:

In the beginning of the Reformation, Protestants, for the most part continued the Roman Catholic medieval practice of infant baptism.  Because Baptists (Anabaptists) rejected such infant baptism, the Baptists were never really considered to be Protestants in the general sense.  Also, because of this rejection of infant baptism, Baptists were often persecuted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.

The vast majority of Evangelicals today believe in believer's baptism, not infant baptism, and do not ascribe any saving grace to the practice. It is merely an outward expression of our dying with "Christ" and rising with him as part of the new birth. This is all good and well, but it still misses out on the significance of and history of the practice.

Here is an article that I wrote several years ago on the origins of baptism:

Have you ever wondered, as you saw someone being baptized, where this ceremony originated? Perhaps your mind went to John the Baptist as the one who inaugurated this, such as in Mark 1:4: “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The truth is, this rite was hundreds of years old by the time John came on the scene and it was well known to every Jewish person. The Hebrew word for immersion is tevilah and means literally immersing in a ritual bath known as a mikvah (also spelled mikveh). A mikvah was hewn out of the ground or rock so that it contained a volume and depth of water sufficient enough to allow a person to immerse him/herself. Steps led down into the water and, in some cases, separate steps led out of the water. Furthermore, the water had to be “living” in that it must be fresh and moving with an inlet and an outlet. John 7:38 He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Archaeological remains of mikvahs have been found throughout Israel in synagogues, at the entrance to the Temple area, in many private homes, and even on top of the desert fortress called Masada. It was understood that if a community had only enough money for a synagogue or a mikvah, the mikvah would be built first.
The word mikvah is mentioned 3 times in the Torah (5 books of Moses) and a total of 12 times in the Old Testament. It has three different meanings: as a gathering of waters, as linen yarn, and as hope. I see a correlation between the water and the spirit, the linen yarn and the garments of a priest, and between hope and the king; Holy Spirit, Son, and Father in their offices.  In the Torah, the usage always refers to water. The first is in Genesis 1:10 “God called the dry ground ‘land,’ and the gathered waters (mikvah) he called ‘seas.’” Its two-letter root ‘KV’ means a measuring line, such as is made by water seeking its own level. Just as the word ‘Hebrew’ means one who crosses a boundary, so one who goes into a mikvah passes through one state and arises into another. Immersion in a mikvah was required for men and women converting to Judaism and for a woman after her monthly cycle. It was customary as a sign of purity and repentance, such as before the Sabbath, in order to sensitize oneself to the holiness of the day. An example of the word mikvah meaning ‘hope’, is in Jeremiah 14:6”  "O the hope (mikvah) of Israel, the savior thereof in time of trouble."
Before a person went into the mikvah, they were to take a bath and groom themselves. Then they would go into the waters of the mikvah alone and stand straight up with their feet spread and their hands in front of them. They immersed themselves by squatting and then rising up straight again, as is said of Jesus in Matthew 3:16 “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water”. To ensure that every part of their body was exposed to the water, the subject fluttered their eyelids and flexed their toes once they were under. There always had to be a witness who stood out of the water to make sure the immersing person was completely covered by water. The witness could not touch them because it might prevent a part of the subject’s body from coming in contact with the water. Such was the role of John the Baptist.
The mikvah was seen both as a symbol of death and of the womb from which one emerged ritually pure in a new birth. It was always associated with repentance. According to Dr. David Flusser, “the Dead Sea scrolls as well as the New Testament teach that water can purify the body only if the soul has first been purified through repentance and righteousness.” The immersion into Messiah is to install a person into the priesthood, the kingdom, and to elevate them to a higher degree of holiness. It went beyond the baptism of John, as Acts 19:3-5 makes clear: “ So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”
Many of the commandments in the Bible are expressed as general principles; specifics about how to carry them out were often not provided.  It was/is left up to individual believers and their spiritual leaders to work out the details. Such ideas were passed down through the generations as Oral Traditions. In the case of the mikvah, the details about what was an acceptable structure, a proper source of water, etc evolved over the years. By the time of the New Testament, it was well institutionalized and became the norm in the First Century church. But as the church became primarily Gentile it put a great distance between itself and its Jewish roots. Today as we seek to become more like the New Testament church, do we need to adopt their traditions?  Especially since, by comparison, we fall short of their stipulations. While there are many opinions on this, I believe the answer is a guarded “no”. The Bible is saturated with symbolic acts that serve as reminders of God’s truth. The key is to communicate the truth/principle(s) of a commandment in our expression of it.  Moreover, understanding the Jewish background helps us to better understand the Bible. In Hebrews 6:2 we are encouraged to feed on “solid food” and not just “milk”. We are told that this should include “instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.”  Notice that “baptisms” is plural; this to me implies that we need to understand its history.
Dennis Kananen
I once attended an Evangelical Presbyterian church study where the pastor was teaching the congregation about baptism. The Presbyterian history was compared with the Lutheran, and so on. The thing is that the further you get from the source, the more suspect the finding is! It really doesn't matter what these denominations came up with; what matters is what it meant to the original believers who were baptized. This is where the value of the Messianic scholars is really found. 
The Messianic approach in the first century and today is that baptism (mikvah) is by immersion in the name of the Messiah Yeshua. It comes after the expression of our faith in the Son of God and the repentance of our sins by the blood of the Lamb. It is a visual expression of our moving from the Kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God, whose light is the Messiah Himself. The Spirit of God effects the change in our life.

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