Do we really need symbols today?
All truth derives its significance from its relationship to Christ. He is the Truth, the ultimate reality and revelation of God Himself. The proclamation and portrayal of truth by symbols and symbolic acts can be very powerful and meaningful. The more deeply we appreciate the truth it represents, the more firmly we will hold to the practice of the symbol.
There is a stark simplicity in the New Testament pattern of acceptable worship, in contrast to the rich ritualism of the Old Covenant worship and service in the earthly sanctuary of God. Why is that? We have moved from the symbolic rituals, which foreshadowed God’s great redemption, to the wonderful reality. Today the emphasis is on worship “in spirit and in truth,” with a minimum of rituals or symbols. Rather than that diminishing their significance, the few that are enjoined upon us must be of great importance. We will look at the significant symbolism of Baptism, Headcovering/Hair, and the Lord’s Supper. Each of these portrays a fundamental and essential truth concerning Christ and our relationship to Him.
First of all, what are the value and limitations of symbols? Symbols can have great value, especially when used to represent love and loyalty to a relationship (engagement and wedding rings), faithfulness to a promise or covenant (rainbow, Gen 9:8-17), circumcision (Gen 17:8-15), baptism (Matt 28:18-20; Rom 6:1-5), authority to act on behalf of another (King’s signet ring, seal, Esther 8:2, 8-10), or a uniform, a badge. Symbols seem particularly precious in the absence of one of the parties involved.
What limitation is there on their value? Sadly, the outward symbol cannot guarantee the true condition of heart of those involved. A wedding ring does not guarantee love and faithfulness to the vows of marriage, though that is what it represents. The Jews boasted in their covenant with God, and kept up the sign of the covenant (circumcision), while being lawbreakers and unfaithful to God (Rom 2:25-29). The same condition is possible for us today concerning baptism, hair and the headcovering, and the Lord’s Supper.
Is baptism really essential, since God knows my heart and the reality of my confession? We must avoid several errors and extremes in looking at baptism. The act of being baptized does not create salvation and new life in Christ. Rather, it is a symbolic act that visibly portrays what took place spiritually when one was saved by faith in Christ. It seems obvious that the scriptural method of baptism is total immersion in water, not sprinkling or pouring a little water on the person. Not only do the examples in Scripture confirm this (Acts 8:38-39), but also the doctrine expounded of its significance – it is a symbolic burial, with an implied resurrection (Rom 6:3-5). Normally, a funeral is a formal and solemn event. The burial is often the most difficult aspect as we face the finality of the removal of a loved one from us. Every earthly relationship is legally severed, every obligation legally terminated.
Have we pondered the profound reality portrayed by baptism? Romans 5:12-21 teaches that sin entered the world through one man, Adam, and through his one act of disobedience, all of us have fallen under the jurisdiction of sin and death. His action carried such consequences because he was established as head over creation; all under his jurisdiction were affected by his choice. In exactly the same way, except in reverse, there has been a significant act of one Man, Jesus Christ, which carries potential consequences for the rest of mankind. Christ has been brought uniquely into our fallen world, by means of a virgin birth into sinless humanity, in order to become the new head over creation. His pure and righteous life enabled Him to present Himself as the great propitiation by His death for all others. Each of us needs to learn that He not only died for all my sins, He died for me, representing me. Now, in victorious resurrection out of death, He is established as the new head over all creation, with complete authority to justify and impart eternal life to any dying sinner who will put faith in Him. The moment we place our trust in Him for salvation, we are removed from the jurisdiction of sin with its condemnation, and placed in an entirely new relationship to God, possessing eternal life in Him. We are judicially set free from sin by His death, and now are free to live in “newness of life” by the Spirit.
Baptism would be a meaningless ritual, if not based upon this reality. It is a symbolic act in which we acknowledge our complete identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection on our behalf. Romans 6 is not indulging in creative imagination when it states that “we died to sin,” “our old man was crucified with Him,” and “we died with Christ.” Rather, it is declaring the legal severing of our relationship to Adam and his sin, and the removal from sin’s jurisdiction and consequence, by the death of Christ. When it states that we are now “alive unto God,” “alive from among the dead,” it is declaring the blessed new creation relationship and responsibilities under our new Head. Romans 6 begins with the challenge: “Shall we continue in sin?” Our baptism expresses our faith and commitment towards a Sovereign Savior, that we can and will live a new kind of life. Baptism has been rightly called “the badge of discipleship.” All those who trust in the Savior are intended to experience the freedom and fruitfulness of eternal life in Christ, overcoming sin, and learning to follow Him. The power to live the Christian life is ministered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and is experienced as we enjoy the Lord Jesus.
In conclusion, baptism is a solemn event just like a funeral marking the finality of a former life ended; yet it is also a joyful celebration of a new life begun in union with our risen Lord and Savior (note the marriage analogy in Romans 7:1-4). It is difficult to imagine a believer, who understands what it symbolizes, refusing to obey the Lord’s command. As the pledge of discipleship, baptism expresses a submission to the Lord’s leadership and control for life.