Fire & Water
There once was a young Adventist woman who was baptized twice, if you use the traditional understanding of being immersed in water in front of the congregation. The second time was the traditional way – she was 15 years old, with a washcloth held in the hand of the pastor, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
The first time she was baptized, however, was roughly one minute earlier, when she resisted the pastor’s help going down the steps into the tank, slipped, and fell headfirst into the water.
Ask many Adventists and they’ll be able to tell you a similarly funny baptism story, like the pastor forgetting the vows mid-service, or going commando in a choir robe instead of a weighted baptismal robe and desperately trying to stop the hem from floating up to their waist.
The ubiquity of these stories points to baptism’s deep importance in Adventist culture, and Christianity in general. In some faith traditions, people are baptized as babies, either by being immersed in water or having it sprinkled or poured on their heads. Catholics, for example, are christened with water as a sign that they are now part of the church of God and can be saved. Some denominations believe that, no matter the age, baptism represents a literal change or rebirth for a believer, and is absolutely necessary for salvation. Other denominations believe that baptism represents an internal change and a choice to follow God made at a different moment in a person’s life. They often compare this distinction to a wedding ceremony: while a wedding celebrates and memorializes a couple’s love and commitment, it does not mark the moment when they fell in love with each other.
For many people, baptism is also essential to identity and being part of a community. We can see an example of this in the following scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where Toula – a woman from a proudly Greek family – watches as her non-Greek fiancé Ian is baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church so that he can get married in her childhood church and be accepted by her family.
Putting debates over the correct meaning and practice of baptism aside for a moment, one thing is clear: baptism forms an essential part of every mainline Christian denomination – a significance we can trace back to Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
As the story opens (accounts of which you can find in Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3:1-23), Jesus’ cousin John has been wandering the wilderness of Judea, urging people to repent of their sins and be baptized before the imminent coming of the Messiah. Many scholars argue that the baptism John encouraged originates in ancient Jewish cleansing rituals as outlined in Leviticus. These were expanded to symbolically cleanse Gentiles who wanted to become Jewish; baptism, however, did not take on the same spiritual significance we see in it today until John the Baptist began to practice it.
I am just the messenger, John explains. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11 NIV).
Compelled by his message, crowds flock to the Jordan River to repent and have the wild-eyed prophet plunge them into the water. Then, one day, John sees the last person he expects among the eager crowds: the Messiah himself. He is flabbergasted. “I need to be baptized by you,” he protests, “and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14 NIV).
But Jesus insists. John takes him out into deeper water, plunges him below the surface, and in the moment he emerges, a voice from the heavens declares “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NIV). At the same time, a dove that every gospel identifies as the Holy Spirit descends above Jesus’ head.
It could not be any clearer to those watching: this is the Messiah who John proclaimed. He who will baptize with fire has been baptized in water just like them.
When he steps out of the river, Jesus’ ministry officially begins. Interestingly enough, over the next three years we only have one mention of him performing any baptisms (John 3:22), an ambiguous line that is contradicted a chapter later (John 4:2). When he gives his disciples the Great Commission shortly before returning to heaven, however, baptism is an essential part of it: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he says, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 ESV).
And so they did – after multi-year friendships and short conversations, for large crowds and individual converts, in sparkling pools and roadside streams – generation after generation of Jesus’ followers, stretching from the early church to today, baptized, in water, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
- People traditionally think of baptism as the washing away of one’s sins and the choice to follow Christ. Jesus, however, was sinless, and was not exactly deciding to follow himself. How does this affect your perception of his baptism? Why did Jesus believe his own baptism was necessary?
- According to phase 2 of the Beyond Beliefs study 65.16% of those Millennials surveyed who were baptized before the age of 14 said that if they could do it again, they would have done it later. Do you think that we make baptism too much of an emphasis for young people? How young is too young, in your opinion?
- Romans 6:3-5 says that we were baptized “into Christ’s death”. How does the actual act of baptism symbolize this? Can this same symbolism of death and resurrection be symbolized by pouring or sprinkling methods?
- One thing that happens often in the Adventist church which is only common in a few other churches is re-baptism. Typically, this is done by someone who feels that they have wandered away from their commitment to God and wish to begin again. Read the following passages about baptism. From these passages, do you think that re-baptism is Biblically sound, or is baptism more of a one-time thing? What other ritual/ordinance might be helpful for a person who wishes to renew their walk with God, if re-baptism were not an option?
- In many cases were re-baptism is practiced, it has something to do with a person joining a Christian denomination which does not agree with the method of baptism practiced in their former denomination. To what extent should Christians accept the baptisms of other Christians, especially given Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:4-6?
- Some Christian denominations make a strong emphasis on two different types of baptism: by water, and by fire. The water kind is, of course, baptism in physical form as practiced in most churches. Baptism by fire means the baptism by the Holy Spirit. Read these verses about baptism by fire/Holy Spirit. How does this form of baptism relate to water baptism, if at all?