There’s a story in 1 Samuel about the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them. They had beaten by the Philistines and wanted a rematch. So they carried the Ark with them into battle so that, in their own words, “it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” Rather than asking God to save them they thought “it” would save them. They confused the symbol with the thing it represented. The symbol is not the thing.*
We must be careful not to do the same thing. It would be easy to make idols out of the symbols of Christian faith. A gold or silver cross is not a good luck charm; wearing it around your neck will not affect the events in the course of a day. The image of the cross, even the Bible, can become an idol if that’s what our faith is in rather than the one who hung on the cross or inspired the Bible.
Baptism is also a symbol. Jesus was baptized at the beginning of his earthly ministry. We are commanded to be baptized as our first act of obidience. Baptism is a profession of faith; it’s a ritual that declares to the world we have been born again. Baptism symbolizes the old person being put to death – think about Paul saying he is crucified with Christ – and the new person rising in a new life with Christ. But… it doesn’ make one saved. There is no transforming power in the act of baptism. It is a symbolic jesture of what has already taken place; it is a symbol of the thing, not the thing itself.
Funny true story: I was baptized at age 12. I was then, and am still now, afraid of water. I didn’t really learn to swim until after Teresa and I were married and lived in a place with a pool. I’m a halfway decent swimmer, but still don’t put the same kind of faith in water that I do in dry land. I just don’t trust it. I’ll do 70 mph on a motorcycle, but won’t go over 30 on a jet ski. No one ever drown sliding on asphalt, but I digress. As Pastor Roland Parker was just about to submerge me at age 12, I reached up my right hand and held the side of the baptistry. Everything but my right hand had gone completely under water, but as we all had a little chuckle he thought it over. He reasoned that by our church covenant and by-lays, baptism means “full immersion.” So just to be sure, he encourage me to trust him, and did it again. He repeated the words “I baptize you my brother in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and dunked me a second time.
Back then it had seemed perfectly logical. If I knew then what I know now… Even though he didn’t suggest I would die and go to hell if it wasn’t done properly, I had to meet that church’s baptism requirement to join their fellowship. There are some Baptist that really do believe salvation comes by faith and then baptism, in that order, and that both are necessary. There are also many that believe in baptism only. The act of baptism is highly visible, and that’s what some people’s faith is in rather than repenting and believing in God. The Gospel is not taught as often in as many places as it used to be; more people have seen a baptism than have had the scriptures read and explained to them. This leads to people – perhaps good church people at that – to come and go over the years and be baptized each time they return. Some pastors that perhaps know better are given to re-baptize when people ask for it. Remember that religion focuses on what we do, not on what God has done.
The symbol is not the thing. The Ark of the Covenant nor the Jerusalem temple saved the Israelites of the Old Testament. Neither the cross, the Bible, taking the Lord’s Supper nor baptism will save today, unless our faith is first placed in the risen savior.
*The symbol is not the thing is a sermon preached by Ken Bolin earlier this year. He was more focused on the symbolism of communion.