Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
Reading: Acts 2:36-47
Many men and women are vaguely aware that all is not well with their lives – we might not be able to clearly identify what the problem is but we know that there is a problem somewhere. And yet we still like to imagine that we can sort things out all on our own. When we realise that our problem is spiritual one we assume that if we are not already good enough for God then we could be if only we put our mind to it.
The various religions in the world encourage such a mindset. They emphasise what has to be done to please their particular deity. And we mustn’t think that religions are alone in this either: atheistic philosophical systems, aware of the restlessness of the human heart, have their own solutions to propose as to how we ought to think and live.
The biblical diagnosis of mankind’s fundamental problem is that there has been a breakdown in relations between ourselves and the God who is our Creator and our Judge. Further the Bible tells us that this breakdown is serious and beyond the human capacity of repair. However, until God begins a work of grace in our lives we are unlikely to admit that our condition is really as bad as that. And until we are brought to such a realisation we won’t be ready to accept the salvation God offers. Instead we will go on doing our own thing and hoping for the best.
The message of the Christian faith is that through Jesus Christ God has prepared a solution to this problem of the breakdown of relationships between us and God. The solution is called salvation and this God freely offers to unworthy sinners. However unworthy sinners are so often too proud to accept such a free gift – we prefer to try to earn it, we want to somehow merit God’s favour.
Sometimes in our efforts to "save ourselves" we will even take some of the genuine and good things that God has given and try to use them in such a way that allows us to take at least some credit for our salvation.
Amongst these good things we must include both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And these two good things form the subject of our studies this morning. They are both good things because they have been given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. And yet good things can become unhelpful, ineffective and even dangerous if not understood and used properly.
The Church’s Basis of Faith contains the following statement:
"Baptism and the Lord's Supper have been given to the churches by Christ as visible signs of the gospel. Baptism is a symbol of union with Christ and entry into his Church but does not impart spiritual life. The Lord's Supper is a commemoration of Christ's sacrifice offered once for all and involves no change in the bread and wine. All its blessings are received by faith."
Jesus told his followers what they were to do
If you were to ask the straightforward question:
Why do churches practise baptism and celebrate the Lord’s Supper?
The answer would be very easy to give.
Jesus said so!
In the case of baptism he included this in his final instructions given to his apostles before ascending to heaven. We usually refer to these instructions as the Great Commission and they are found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel:
Mt.28:18-20 "And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Jesus’ disciples had baptised people during Jesus’ ministry but after the giving of the Great Commission it was not long before the first baptisms of the Christian era were carried out – they took place on the Day of Pentecost:
Acts 2:41 "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls."
As the gospel spread we find regular reference to the practise of baptism welcoming converts into the church:
Philip preached with evident success firstly in Samaria then in a desert location:
Acts 8:12 "But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women."
Acts 8:36, 38 "And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?"... And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him."
Saul a fanatical Jew was baptised when he was converted and Gentiles too when they came to faith were baptised
Lydia, a god-fearing woman, was baptised when she came to faith and so was a jailer in the same city when he too believed on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Baptism was administered to all those who responded to the gospel regardless of their background or racial origin.
As for the Lord’s Supper, Luke records Jesus speaking to his closest disciples in the upper room on the night before he was betrayed:
Lk.22:19 "And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.""
The apostle Paul wrote years later to a mixed church of Gentile and Jewish converts:
1Cor.11:23-25 "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.""
While there are fewer references to believers celebrating the Lord’s Supper than there are to baptism nevertheless we find following the Day of Pentecost that these new believers:
Acts 2:42 "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
Years later the practice was still being observed:
Acts 20:7 "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight."
The disciples had listened to Jesus’ instructions and were concerned to carry them out. They baptised and the celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The church does so still.
What do baptism and the Lord’s Supper signify?
When Jesus gave these two practices to his followers he was not inventing something completely new that had never had any precedent. In the Jewish religion ritual washings and baptisms were a common enough feature. In the NT Jesus’ ministry was preceded by John the Baptist and his very title is the give-away.
Jewish washings were not about physical cleansing but much more about a spiritual cleansing or a ceremonial purification. If a non-Jew wanted to become a proselyte and be welcomed into the Jewish community part of the process he would have to go through included just such a ritual washing or baptism.
So Jesus took up a pre-existing practice and developed it. In the NT Christian baptism is closely associated with several related ideas:
Confession of sin
Washing away (or remission) of sin
Close association or union with Christ himself specifically with regard to his:
Much the same can be said about the Lord’s Supper.
Jewish religious practice involved "fellowship" meals where worshippers ate portions of food that had been offered as sacrifices. The Lord’s Supper first took place during a celebration of the Passover Meal when Jewish people looked back to the time of their deliverance from Egypt.
Jesus however radically re-oriented this meal that he commanded his followers to celebrate. The point of reference was no longer to be the Passover deliverance from the physical bondage of Egypt but Jesus Himself and in particular his life laid down in sacrifice.
In both instances neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper brought automatic benefits. We must not look at either baptism or the Supper as working independently of faith. A person with no faith who gets baptised does nothing more than get wet. A person who participates in the Supper without faith merely consumes a piece of bread and drinks a drop of juice.
What does this mean for us?
If you are not yet a Christian disciple you do not become one simply by being baptised or by taking part in the Lord’s Supper. If you do not have spiritual life neither baptism nor the Supper will give it to you.
How foolish it would be for you to put your trust in these things if you haven’t put your trust in Jesus Christ who is at the very centre of both baptism and the Supper!
Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are for those who have exercised faith and who are continuing to exercise faith in the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If, on the other hand, you have put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ then both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are for you. There are various reasons why that is so:
Firstly, Jesus didn’t advise them or suggest them he commanded them. You, as a Christian, disciple are to demonstrate your adherence to Christ by your obedience. It is not your obedience that makes you a Christian, but, as a Christian, obedience is the order of the day. It was Jesus, after all, who declared:
Jn.14:15 "If you love me you will keep my commandments."
Secondly, both baptism and the Supper are outward signs of inward grace. Participation in the outward form is totally consistent with the inward reality that God has brought about in your life as a believer. There is blessing in participating properly in the things that our Lord has ordained for us.
Thirdly, participation in both ordinances declares openly before witnesses of the change that God has worked in our lives and of the hope upon which our lives as believers are now based.
Baptism symbolises our entry into the community of the church. In baptism we declare both that we belong to Christ and to his people. We do not baptise ourselves but receive baptism at the hands of another. Immersion too gives us a vivid picture of what has taken place – our sins have been dealt with, our old life is buried with Christ in his death and we live our new life sharing in his resurrection. Baptism is a one-off experience – once we’re in, we’re in!
The Lord’s Supper on the other hand is something that we participate in again and again. It reminds that our fellowship with God as forgiven sinners is totally dependent upon the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
How helpful this is!
If we start getting cocky about who we are or what we have become we are reminded by this feast that none of our current status can be attributed to ourselves but to him who died for us.
If we start getting anxious about how poorly we’re living as Christians it encourages us to remember that we are saved by grace.
If we begin to look around and become discouraged by what we see happening or what we don’t see happening then this feast reminds us that Jesus has promised to return and this memorial meal will be replaced by the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
Where do we go from here?
The first question I must ask you is: Have you become a disciple of Jesus Christ? That is the place where we must all start.
There are certain truths we must come to embrace personally in our lives. For example, we must all come to that point where we realise that God is holy and that we are sinners and also that holiness is incompatible with sin – that is repentance. We must realise we can’t save ourselves by what we do - that is repentance too. We must realise that we can however be saved by what Jesus has done on behalf of sinners and look to him to save us – that is faith. He died a death that is sufficient to satisfy the demands of a holy God for every sinner who will trust him and we won’t look to him in vain.
"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved." Acts 16:31
Have you done that?
If you have then have you gone on to be baptised? If not, why not? What is holding you back? If you are participating at the Supper but are not yet baptised doesn’t that seem a bit odd? After all both are commands of our Lord.
Or perhaps you are wondering whether or not you are worthy enough? Let me tell you right now – no-one is ever worthy to be baptised, it simply has nothing to do with our worthiness. In the NT people believed and were baptised almost immediately.
So speak to me or one of the other elders if you want to know more about baptism. We are currently repairing the baptistery and plan to open it during the course of this year – should you be one of the ones going through the waters testifying to the fact that Jesus saves sinners and adding your own personal testimony that he has saved you and that you want to walk with him as his obedient disciple?
May the Lord bless his word to us today.