September 18, 2017

The Beauty of Baptism

This Sunday morning, Lord willing, we will have the privilege of witnessing five baptisms at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. Praise God for how He is working! And, on an occasion such as this, it is well if we ponder the spiritual beauty of what we witness when we see someone baptized. So consider, with me, three beautiful aspects of baptism:

1. Baptism is a picture.
Now, note well that baptism is only a picture. It does not wash away sins or contribute to a person’s salvation in any way. It is, rather, a portrait of what has happened already in the life of the man, women, girl, or boy who has been saved through Christ! And yet, though it is only a picture, it is indeed an important and beautiful picture! The Christian’s immersion (or burial) in water is symbolic of the marvelous reality that his or her old, sinful man has been buried with Christ! And, when that same person is then raised out of the water, we have a wonderful picture of the new, resurrection life that has been granted to everyone who is in Christ.
“We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
It is because of this burial and resurrection picture that we baptize only believers (only people who have actually experienced burial and resurrection with Christ). And it is also because of this picture that we baptize by immersion (or burial) in water. For it is immersion, and not sprinkling or pouring, that actually presents to us the beautiful picture that Paul describes in Romans 6 – burial and resurrection with Jesus!

2. Baptism is an announcement.
When a person goes through the waters of baptism, he is, to the best of his ability, confirming his belief that burial and resurrection with Christ has actually taken place in his life. And the elders who take responsibility for the baptism are, to the best of their ability, confirming the same. And, since baptisms often take place in front of the gathered congregation, baptism is not only a confirmation of the saving work of God in a person’s life, but also an announcement of it as well! Baptisms are occasions for public celebration of what God has done; for joining with the angels (Luke 15:10) in the celebration of God’s saving work in the lives of those around us.

3. Baptism is a marker.
Consider the context of that baptism-as-burial-and-resurrection passage in Romans 6. What is Paul’s main point in that passage? Well, he is arguing that Christians must not go on carelessly in their sins. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” he asks in v.2. Good question! And, to nail down the fact that Christians have, indeed, died to sin (and to remind them that Christians can, indeed, “walk in newness of life”), Paul reminds his readers (in vv.3-4) of when they were baptized, and of what baptism pictures! He carries them back to the day of baptism as a reminder that, ‘When you were baptized, the picture was that the old you was buried … and that, in Christ, a new person had come to life. So live that way! “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v.11).’

And the point I am making is that Paul uses baptism as a marker in the life of the believer – as something he or she can look back on as a reminder of what God has done … and of how we should live, in light of it! And so today is an important day, for that reason, too. We are setting up a marker, as it were, in these five lives – a picture to which, Lord willing, they will always be able to look back as a portrait of what God has done in their lives … and therefore of what they are able to be and do, in Christ.

September 5, 2017

"He Himself is our peace"

I’m from the American South. The place where racial tensions have often been at their height. The place where slavery, Jim Crow, and ‘separate but equal’ had their heyday. But also the place where I saw the gospel of Jesus Christ, in stunningly beautiful ways, quietly transcend the ethnic divide which is so much on the forefront of current cultural dialogue.

The place was Tunica County, Mississippi – in the northern tip of that beautifully unique region known as the Mississippi Delta. This is a region where cotton was once king; where huge-scale agriculture is still the order of the day; where magnificent yellow crop-dusters buzz like giant dragonflies overhead; and where, in many localities, the majority population is African-American. It’s also the place where, eager to get my feet wet in pastoral ministry, I was called as a mission pastor (in the little crossroads of Robinsonville, in the northern part of Tunica County) during the summer before my second year of seminary.

Robinsonville, once a sleepy collection of mammoth cotton, rice, and soybean fields, was in a state of flux in the early 2000's.  Nine large casinos had recently been built along the Mississippi River, and both African-Americans from elsewhere in the county, as well as out-of-the-area transplants of various backgrounds and ethnicities, were moving into the area to work at the casinos (and at the hotels, restaurants, and so on that follow, like hungry seagulls, in the casinos' wake).  And the idea behind my coming was that this burgeoning population in northern Tunica County to be reached with the gospel. And, indeed, it did (and still does!).

In the two years we were there, we were able to touch a few of the out-of-the-area transplants with the message of Christ. But it turned out that most of those we touched with the good news were from among the African-American folks who had lived most of their lives in Tunica County. And it was glorious! Gathered together around Jesus Christ, the congregation there became, truly, a family!  And within the church family, if my assessment is correct, there was little to-do made over the oddity of a white, suburban preacher-boy and his wife serving, and immensely loved and welcomed by, a congregation of mostly rural-background African-Americans.  For, in the midst of studying the Bible together, and considering the gospel of Christ together, and singing hymns together, and caring for each other, and just doing life together, I don’t think any of us thought too much about whether we were white, or black, or rural, or suburban. And we certainly didn’t experience any racial tension within the congregation. Were we different in some ways? Absolutely! Did we realize that fact? Of course (sometimes comically!). But it never became a point of contention, or even really much of a point of discussion. We had other, more pressing, things to be doing and discussing! Jesus was bringing us together around Himself!

This was not a part of any strategy or master plan for racial harmony. I was too wet-behind-the-ears to have had any ideas for tackling something like that (and, honestly, too na├»ve to know that it could even have been an issue). But Christ and His gospel really do make a difference when it comes to questions of ethnicity, heritage, culture, and so on! Writing about gospel unity among Jews and Gentiles, Paul said something that, I think, also applies to all sorts of other differences and potential divisions in the church: “He Himself [Jesus] is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). “He Himself is our peace” (emphasis added)! And how true we found that to be! Where people truly gather around Christ, and know Christ, and worship Christ … no matter how different from one another they may be in many respects, they will, by a new spiritual instinct, genuinely love each other! And their differences will seem fairly small in light of what they have in common in Jesus.

So, brothers and sisters, in this day of ethnic tension and dialogue, let us lift up Christ above all else. “He Himself is our peace.”