Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
—Matthew 3:13-17, NIV
Jesus comes to John the Baptizer for baptism. John protests that it is a role reversal: Jesus should be baptizing John, not the other way around! But Jesus says, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Are outward ceremonies necessary? Is it not the underlying spiritual reality that counts? Can we, who are fully cognizant of those underlying spiritual realities, discard their outward physical expressions as crutches? In the above passage, we see two people whose spiritual insights exceed any of ours, debating this very question. None other than Jesus Himself affirms the necessity for the outward physical act.
In another place, Jesus took bread and wine and instituted a perpetual feast among His disciples. “Do this in remembrance of me,” He said. (This commandment was originally given only to the Twelve, but in Matthew 28:20, Jesus told the Twelve that all the commandments He had given them applied to all believers.)
Some Christians say that the operative command here is “remember me.” They think it is the remembrance that counts, and not the physical act of communion, but it seems to me that “remembering” without “doing” is a form of amnesia and not a memorial at all.
Other Christians maintain that the operative command here is “take and eat.” They feel there is real physical benefit from this act, but it seems to me that “remembering” is just as much a part of communion as the bread and the wine. It seems to me that “doing” without “remembering” is just a light snack.
I do not believe that the “underlying spiritual realities” can be separated from the “outward physical expressions” except in philosophic reflection. I agree with the Eastern Orthodox writer (I forget his name) who maintains that it is impossible to “remember” without “doing” or to “do” without “remembering.” Jesus commanded both; half-way obedience is no better than disobedience. How can forgetting be a memorial? How disobedience be a sacrament?
In the same way, John enjoins us to repent and be baptized. (In Matthew 28:19, Jesus tells His disciples that all new Christians are to be received this way.) Some people think that baptism is a prerequisite to salvation, based on this passage. Other people think that the physical act of baptism is optional, the repentance being the mandatory part, citing the case of the thief upon the cross.
I’d like to observe that the case of the thief on the cross is an academic distraction. Few of us are presently nailed to crosses. Few of us are beset with the problem of being physically prevented from undergoing physical baptism. The case of the thief on the cross does not relieve us of the necessity of submitting to baptism, because there is no pronouncement by Jesus on that occasion clarifying who may harmlessly omit the physical ceremony. What that passage teaches, no more and no less, is that the judge of all flesh is merciful and not bureaucratic, and can handle each case individually. With that knowledge, we are freed from considering theoretical but unreal possibilities, because we know that when it comes time for Jesus to judge, He will be merciful and fair. The whole issue of whether or not baptism is prerequisite to heaven has no practical application and needs no resolution for those who trust God to do the right thing.
Although the New Testament offers no outright statement about how the act of baptism fits into the teaching that we are saved by faith, it does offer us an outright commandment that we are to repent and be baptized, and that the church is to baptize its converts.
Now the commandment is to repent AND be baptized. How can you begin your repentance with an act of disobedience?
Baptism and communion are not optional, empty physical rituals; nor are they magical incantations. They are warm-up exercises, if you will, that allow us to practice obedience. Whatever the eternal significance of communion and baptism may be, they are simple things to do. Whatever the outcome of our debates on the theological significance of these outward rites, they are easy to do. So let us not postpone our obedience until the theologians all agree: let us repent and be baptized; let us “do this in remembrance” of Him.
When Jesus returns, how would you prefer to be found: as an obedient servant whose understanding is incomplete, or as a competent theologian whose obedience is incomplete?
Jesus said that whoever is faithful in little things will be faithful in greater things as well. Let us rejoice that Jesus has given us an up-ramp with such a gentle slope and take full advantage of the opportunity to show ourselves approved.