Baptism as ordination

The church has somehow separated the baptism of water from the baptism of the Spirit, and thus it fails to understand that baptism is more than incorporation into the community of the committed. It is ordination for full participation in Christ's ministry.

Rex D. Edwards, D. Div., is editorial associate and field representative of MINISTRY.

It was a bitterly cold January day in 1527. A boat on the River Limmat was carrying Felix Manz to his execution. At his trial Manz had freely confessed to being a teacher of doctrines forbidden in Switzerland. "We bring together those who are willing to accept Christ, obey the Word, and follow in His footsteps. We unite them by baptism, and leave the rest in their present conviction." Pressed to say more on his views about baptism in particular, he declared: "More is involved in Baptism; things on which I prefer not to enlarge just now."1

To explain what "more is involved in Baptism" is a truth whose time has come. Is there more to the Biblical meaning than the church has generally recognized in its present practice?

Traditionally, the emphasis in Seventh-day Adventist teaching on baptism has centered on three aspects: (1) baptism is a personal act of faith, as opposed to the un-Biblical concept of infant baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:37- 41; 8:12, 26-39; 10:44-48; 16:14, 15, 31-33; 18:8, et cetera); (2) baptism as an outward sign of the believer's acceptance of God's grace, administered by immersion and marking the washing away and renunciation of sin; and (3) baptism as the public confession of the believer's repentance and covenant with Christ resulting in his incorporation into His body, the church (Gal. 3:26-28; 1 Cor. 12:12-14, 27). 2

But, as comprehensive as are these Biblical meanings of baptism, we may be surprised to discover that "none of these meanings applies directly to Christ's baptism." 3 Obviously, the meaning of Christian baptism is rooted in the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:11-17). But in what respect do the practice of Christian baptism and the baptism of Jesus differ?

The answer lies in a question that Paul later addressed to twelve converts in Ephesus. "What baptism were you given?" he asked (Acts 19:3, N.E.B.).* With remarkable unanimity they responded, "John's baptism" (ibid.), which means "a baptism in token of repentance" (verse 4). We assume that these disciples left Palestine after having been baptized by John and had not heard of Jesus and His baptism. Further, they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit (verse 2). On hearing of Jesus as the fulfillment of John's predictions, they were baptized in His name (verse 5), and immediately they received the Holy Spirit (verse 6).

The essential difference, then, between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus was that John's was a baptism of water unto repentance, while the baptism of Jesus was a baptism of water and the Spirit unto ministry (Matt. 3:11). Such a baptism does not exclude or replace the baptism of water, rather it clearly signifies that a baptism that does not convey the Spirit is not a proper baptism and must be completed by receiving the Spirit. In that sense, John's baptism is inadequate as is evident from the experience of Apollo, who "knew only John's baptism" (Acts 18:25, N.E.B.). The real meaning of Jesus' baptism, marked by the descent of the Spirit, was that He thereby received His ordination to the ministry (Matt. 3:13- 17; John 1:29-34). Jesus never returned to the carpenter's shop. His baptism marked the inauguration of His Galilean ministry. Commentators are in agreement that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at His baptism signified this ordination to ministry. (Interestingly, it was not until the believers in the church at Ephesus were baptized in the baptism of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit that that church developed into a missionary church.)

Since Christ's baptism is the prototype of Christian baptism, the baptism of water and the baptism of the Spirit belong together.

What are the implications of this model for the Christian?

Christ's baptism and ours

Through His baptism, Christ was initiated into the ministry which led Him to the cross and resurrection. By seeking the baptism of John, Jesus Himself interpreted His baptism as one of identification with sinners, the initiation of redemptive action, baptism into obedience to the Father and love for the lost. "Jesus did not receive baptism as a confession of guilt on His own account. He identified Himself with sinners, taking the steps that we are to take, and doing the work that we must do". 4 A new and important era was opening before Him. The baptism of Jesus indicated consecration to His vocation as the Messiah. His baptism anticipated, so to speak, His entire life, from the moment of baptism right on to death.

Similarly, through the Christian's baptism, Christ incorporates him into His body and ordains him for participation in His ministry. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is the counterpart of what happened to Jesus at His baptism. The same Spirit who remained in Jesus for Messianic ministry has, ever since Pentecost, dwelt in the church, which is the temple of His body.

For Jesus, baptism meant that He was consecrated as Messiah. For us, baptism means that we are consecrated as the Messianic people. We are reminded: "As Christians submit to the solemn rite of baptism, He [Christ] registers the vow that they make to be true to Him. This vow is their oath of allegiance. They are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thus they are united with the three great powers of heaven." "After the believing soul has received the ordinance of baptism, he is to bear in mind that he is dedicated to God, to Christ, and to the Holy Spirit." 5

Further, a new identity is established, for "those who receive the ordinance of baptism thereby make a public declaration that they have renounced the world, and have become members of the royal family, children of the heavenly King." 6 Since the "three great powers in heaven are witnesses . . . invisible but present," 7 the baptismal ceremony can not be relegated to an inconspicuous place in the divine service hour or reduced to a liturgical interruption without indignity to the "invisible guests" or a loss of vital meaning.

The life of which baptism is the starting point is a life "in Christ." Our baptism anticipates our entire life. "Baptized into union with him, you have all put on Christ as a garment" (Gal. 3:27, N.E.B.). Paul's ethics are essentially the ethics of baptism. The one business of our life is to realize, to give effect to, what was given to us in our baptism. "The vows which we take upon ourselves in baptism embrace much. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we are buried in the likeness of Christ's death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection, and we are to live a new life. Our life is to be bound up with the life of Christ. . . . He has made a covenant with God. He has died to the world. He is to live to the Lord, to use for Him all his entrusted capabilities, never losing the realization that he bears God's signature, that he is a subject of Christ's kingdom, a partaker of the divine nature. He is to surrender to God all that he is and all that he has, employing all his gifts to His name's glory." 8

Ministry of the baptized

According to this understanding of baptism, to be baptized means to be called to the life of a servant.

To be baptized is to live in and for Christ. Man's natural predisposition is self-oriented. Christ's death delivered us from the tyranny of self. "One has died for all; therefore all have died" (2 Cor. 5:14, R.S.V.)+ By nature we are members of "the body of sin" (Rom. 6:6); and "the body of this death" (Rom. 7:24); by baptism we are united with Him and made participants in His death; through baptism we have died with Him (Rom. 6:2, 3). The one baptized "is to make all worldly considerations secondary to this new relation. Publicly he has declared that he will no longer live in pride and self-indulgence. He is no longer to live a careless, indifferent life." 9 Since we are grafted into "the body of Christ" of which we are made members, we no longer belong to ourselves but to Him, thus "He died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor. 5:15, R.S.V.). The fruit of baptism is obedient service. Baptism means that Christ draws us into His work of salvation. Thus "those who have taken part in the solemn rite of baptism have pledged themselves to seek for those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God; pledged themselves to labor earnestly for the salvation of sinners." 10

To be baptized is to live in and for the church. By baptism we are incorporated in Christ, made members of the body of Christ. But the body of Christ is His church. Therefore Christian baptism is indissolubly related to the Biblical concept of the church. The baptized person is no longer simply an individual person but a member of the church. By baptism, one living stone after another is built into the temple of the Lord, one member after another into the body of Christ (1 Peter 2:3-10). All these members have a direct relation to Christ, who is the head. From Him the whole body draws its increase and growth (Eph. 4:16). But in relation to one another and to the whole body, each member has his own special function of service and support to fulfill. All the baptized are called to engage in a life of worship and prayer and in a work of service (ergon diakonias), in the church, "for building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12, R.S.V.). By the quality of their service, and the contributions they make, the growth of the body may be promoted or retarded. "For the whole body is joined and knit together through that which every member supplies, according to the working in due measure of each part" (Eph. 4:16).

To be baptized is to live in and for the world. The baptized individual has his citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20), and is therefore exhorted to set his mind on what is above, not on what is on earth (Col. 3:ljf.). This has often been interpreted in the church to mean that the Christian ought to be unconcerned with earthly affairs, having as little as possible to do with the world. Baptism declares, to the contrary, that the work of Christ has much to do with the world; and the kingship of Christ, which the Father has given Him, has much to do with the world. Since all power in heaven and on earth has been given to Him, His command is "Go ye there fore"—out into the world, the whole world. This is His charge to the church and His charge to every baptized person. The place of the baptized is wherever in the world there is room for service. The baptized, like his Lord, is a servant. Baptism proclaims that as the Christian has been called out of the world, so he returns to the world as its servant; for only in his union with the world's Redeemer is he free to participate creatively and fully in its common life.

In Scripture the church is a missionary community under mandate to continue the unfinished work of Christ. The baptized will not therefore withdraw from the world into the church. Rather, he will be prepared in the church for life in the world. Thus "every true disciple is born into the kingdom of God as a missionary." 11 Therefore, anyone who joins the church by baptism, thereby enlists himself as a minister of the gospel.

"The Saviour's commission to the disciples included all the believers. It includes all believers in Christ to the end of time. It is a fatal mistake to suppose that the work of saving souls depends alone on the ordained minister. All to whom the heavenly inspiration has come are put in trust with the gospel. All who receive the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow men. For this work the church was established, and all who take upon themselves its sacred vows are thereby pledged to be co-workers with Christ." 12

It must be acknowledged, however, that in most churches and for most Christians, baptism does not play this decisive role. In the understanding and experience of most church members it is neither a real incorporation into the community of the committed nor an ordination for full participation in Christ's ministry. This devaluation comes mainly from the separation of the baptism of water and the baptism of the Spirit.

The phrase baptism as ordination does not appear in Scripture, but it is a forceful affirmation of the mission of the whole people of God. The phrase asserts that baptism is not only initiation into God's people, but also the basic commissioning into Christ's ministry. It implies that baptism is the fundamental call to Christian priesthood and that all subsequent summons to priestly activity are dependent upon this primary call."13 It leaves free room for the recognition of charisma in the life of the Christian community. It takes seriously both the ministry of people to each other within their own community of faith as well as their ministry of service to the world as agents of altruistic deeds and proclaimers of the "good news." Only the recovery of the full meaning of baptism can save from irrelevance our talk about the ministry.


* Texts credited to N.E.B. are from The New English Bible. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.

+ Texts credited to R.S.V. are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 ©1971, 1973.
1 Leonard Verduin, The Reformers arid Their Stepchildren (Paternoster Press, 1964), pp. 74, 205.

2 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald, 1960), pp. 113-114.

3 Gottfried Oosterwal, art. "The Role of the Laity," Focus Supplement No. 23.

4 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 111.

5 Ellen G. White, Evangelism, pp. 307, 315.

6 SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1075.

7 Ibid., p. 1074.

8 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, pp. 98, 99.

9 Ibid.

10 Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People, p. 317.

11 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 195.

12 Ibid., p. 822.

13 A pattern of thought very much like this is to be found in Thomas Aquinas. Discussing the sacramental character imputed to the Christian at baptism, Thomas says: "The whole rite of the Christian religion is derived from Christ's priesthood. Consequently, it is clear that the sacramental character is specially the character of Christ, to whose priesthood the faithful are likened by reason of the sacramental characters, which are nothing else than certain participations of Christ's priest hood, flowing from Christ Himself." St. Thomas, Summa Theol. III. q.63, a. 3.



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Rex D. Edwards, D. Div., is editorial associate and field representative of MINISTRY.

August 1983

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