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What’s the difference?
My friend and co-worker took a trip to Israel a few years back and was excitedly showing me pictures after returning. One sticks with me, of him standing in a river of jade green water. Trees dangle their branches over its banks. An arid, mountainous desert landscape lies on either side. Another man stood beside him, one hand on my friend’s shoulder, the other raised to the sky. Both of them had their eyes closed.
He’d said, “That’s the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. I got baptized in the same spot!” As a Christian, he was so excited to be able to follow in his master’s footsteps. It was a joyous moment for him, as it is for millions of practicing Christians around the world.
This wasn’t my friend’s first baptism. He was baptized five years earlier, when he first gave his life to Christ. I was first baptized as a young child, after accepting Jesus at a Vacation Bible School event. Another friend of mine, a practicing Catholic, was baptized as an infant.
The ritual of baptism varies widely across the many denominations of Christianity but can easily be broken up into two categories: Infant and Adult. They’re both beautiful, symbolic pictures of a new life dedicated to Jesus Christ and the Christian church, a celebration of His victory over death on the Cross of Calvary, and a public declaration of faith to any that bear witness to it. But they also draw some stark contrasts regarding the reasons they’re performed, their ritual methods, and most importantly, the will of the one being baptized.
First, a little history.
Most experts believe Christian baptism has its origins in Levitical purification rituals. Jewish priests would bathe themselves in water before they performed their duties. Many Bible verses point to the importance of water baptism for the believing Christian. (1 Peter 3:21, Romans 6:3-5, Colossians 2:12, Galatians 3:26-29).
Jesus Christ himself was famously baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist (See Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, John 1) saying, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” (Matt 3: 15) He also mentioned importance of baptizing new disciples in the Great Commission, saying “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28: 19). Both the actions and commands of Jesus Christ stressed the importance of baptism in the early Christian church.
Most modern theology experts believe baptism was only ever meant to be a symbol for adult believers, an outward expression in of the Christian believer’s internal saving faith. Symbolically, in immersion baptism, going under the water represents the death of the person, symbolically linking them to Jesus’s death on the cross, and coming out of the water represents Christ’s resurrection after three days in the tomb. Jesus expressed the importance of public faith to his disciples numerous times during his ministry.
“But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33) Jesus made it clear he wanted his followers to love him enough to profess it publicly, if they were able, but this was clearly not a requisite for salvation, as observed with the Penitent Thief.
In the twenty-fourth chapter of Luke, a robber, who’d been condemned to die by crucifixion alongside Jesus, asked him to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus told the man he’d be in paradise with him that very day. Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.”
A public water baptism today is a symbolic equivalent of what the Penitent Thief did. He’d already been sentenced to die, and after being nailed by his hands and feet to a cross, was slowly suffocating. Meanwhile, a man claiming to be God in the flesh received the same sentence and was dying next to him. What faith the man must’ve had, after watching Jesus be beaten, mocked, spit on by the soldiers, to still call him innocent in front of the crowd around them and ask for mercy. It was that faith Jesus responded to, promising him salvation even though he clearly wouldn’t be baptized before he died.
Thus we have the consensus of baptism by the modern church: though not necessary for salvation, any true believer should care enough about their dedication and love for the Lord to make a public profession of it in the form of water baptism. Most adult baptisms are performed soon after conversion, by full immersion in water. The man or woman being baptized will stand waist deep in water with a pastor or priest, profess of their belief in Jesus where a church’s congregation can hear them, and then be lowered beneath the water and brought back up again.
Adults & children
Because there are many denominations of Christianity in practice today, the baptism ritual and its meaning can vary wildly. However, the biggest differences tend to be between adults and children.
Most of the newer denominations of Christianity don’t baptize infants at all and are against the practice of infant baptism, believing that, since baptism is meant to be a public expression of faith, babies shouldn’t be baptized since they couldn’t possibly understand the commitment the ritual is intended for and aren’t really consenting to doing so anyway, but undergoing it at the behest of their parents.
However, infant baptism tends to hold a different meaning for these denominations. Some call it a sacrament and require it for joining the church and being noted in the church’s registry, others claim the ritual is more like a dedication, dedicating the life of the child to God and promising to raise them in a way that pleases Him.
Unlike adult baptism, which usually involves complete immersion in water, infant baptism is usually performed by sprinkling, dipping, or pouring. Few modern churches still practice the full immersion of infants in water, and I would honestly be hesitant of any church that requires your child to do so, for obvious reasons. The infant baptism is also sometimes called a christening, a naming ceremony, where the child is given a Christian name and assigned godparents who promise to be involved in the spiritual rearing of the child. Families may even pass down special baptismal clothes through many generations.
Regardless of the denomination, baptism is meant to be a beautiful picture of the human-God relationship Christians believe mankind was given through Jesus Christ. For the Christian believer, it’s something to celebrate, as important as a birthday or graduation. It’s not something that should be taken lightly by anyone who truly claims to believe in the Christian faith. After all, if it was important to Jesus, the man who claimed to be God in the Flesh, shouldn’t it be important to one of His followers?
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