By Linda Rex
January 10, 2021, BAPTISM OF THE LORD | EPIPHANY—Recently my son and I visited the new location of the Tennessee State Museum here in Nashville. The time tunnel, which I clearly had issues trying to follow the timeline on, began with the origins of earth. Over the years, I have read many different versions of the creation story, so I was not surprised by the approach used by those who wrote the inscription for the display.
Often, we as human beings are intrigued by beginnings. As my family had a celebratory meal at a local restaurant recently, we noticed a pictorial history of the restaurant was posted on the wall and was being played on a television screen high over a window. Beginnings do matter, for often they explain how and why we end up the way we are today. What happens along the way also matters, because the circumstances in our lives affect where we are and who we are. The choices we and others make also play a big role in where and how we end up—examples of such consequences filled the walls of the history time tunnel I visited.
In the book of Genesis when it says “In the beginning…” we find the Spirit of God brooding over the nothingness and God’s voice speaking life into it. The apostle John began his gospel with the words, “In the beginning…” The Word of God through whom all things were made out of nothing had come into our humanity, the apostle John wrote. It was as though he was rewriting the human story beginning with the coming of the Son of Man into our humanity in the incarnation.
There is something significant here we should attend to, I believe. This God by whom all things came into being from nothing sent his Word through whom all things were made by the Spirit to be embodied in human flesh in the womb of Mary. This Son of God and Son of man, Jesus, was born like a human baby is born and grew up as every human child does. Christ brought his divine life into the darkness of our broken humanity and into this world which we have filled with our human depravity, evil, and sin.
Once again God created something out of nothing. As God in human flesh, Jesus Christ forged into our humanity the capacity for God to dwell in man. When Jesus rose from the grave after his crucifixion, he sent the Holy Spirit so that each human being could participate in his life with the Father in the Spirit. The Spirit he sent awakens us to our new birth in Christ—we are new creatures. What we lost in the fall, Jesus redeemed, restored and renewed and offered back to us in the Spirit.
When the apostle Mark described John the Baptizer, he showed us a man who acted and looked like Elijah the prophet, ate locusts and wild honey, and baptized people for the remission of sins, telling them to repent and turn to the Messiah who was coming. The other writers of the gospels say the Baptizer pointed out the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders at that time, told soldiers not to practice extortion but to be content with their pay, and instructed others of their need to repent and change the way they lived.
John was doing a powerful ministry, calling his people to repent of their sins and to be baptized even though they thought they didn’t need to be baptized—after all, they were God’s special people. But then John did a very special baptism. John the Baptizer was so humble that he did not even feel worthy to loosen the strap of Jesus’ sandal—but here Christ was, wanting to be baptized. The Baptizer knew then that Jesus would baptize in a way John never could baptize. John could only baptize people in water—Jesus would baptize people with the Holy Spirit.
How did John know this was the case? God had told him that the person on whom the Spirit would descend like a dove was the Messiah, the One who would baptize with the Spirit. So, one day Jesus came to be baptized. He didn’t have any reason to be baptized—he was the sinless Son of God. Why be baptized? Perhaps this was his initiation into his official ministry. Perhaps he was showing us what we are supposed to do as an entry into the congregation of the people of God. Certainly, it can be seen in this act of baptism that he identified with each and every sinner in the world and as the representative sinner was baptized in our place and on our behalf.
When Christ rose out of the waters of the Jordan River, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him as a gentle dove. He heard his Father’s voice, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” We see present in this moment the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit—the unity of their purpose, love, and blessing. We heard the voice of God speaking to Jesus and today it resonates within our own hearts as we picture ourselves within the Holy Son, rising out of the waters of baptism to receive our own blessing by the Father.
We can take comfort that no matter how we were baptized, when we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we were baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we share in his inheritance as the Son of the Father. While we share in Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism, we share in his receiving of the Spirit as well. The Holy Spirit comes to live within, gives us new life, allows us to participate in Christ’s life with the Father in the Spirit and to share in Christ’s mission in this world of spreading the good news.
In Jesus Christ, we find both God and man in one being. In Jesus we find that God has made something new—a restored humanity in which God dwells by the Spirit now and forever, enabling humanity to dwell with God today in the Spirit and tomorrow in the new heavens and new earth in our glorified humanity. In Jesus we find a capacity to be the human beings God created us to be—image-bearers of the divine being—to love God and one another as we were meant to, beginning now as little children, and growing up into Christlikeness as we mature spiritually.
Whatever state we may find ourselves in today, we can be assured of this—no one is so far gone or so insignificant that God cannot redeem, restore, or renew. We are free to say no to God, as we so often do, and to reap the consequences that go with having done so. So, just know—God is as equally passionate today about removing evil, sin, and death from us and our world as he was when he hung on the cross to get rid of it within our humanity. In Christ, God has done everything we need for our redemption and restoration and has sent his Spirit to awaken us to this new life. Perhaps others may not receive this gift and trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior. But what really matters right now is, what about you?
Do you believe that Jesus is God come into our human flesh to live our life, die our death, and to rise again, freeing us from evil, sin and death? Are you committed to turning away from your self and your way to Jesus Christ, surrendering to him as your Lord and Savior? Will you receive and welcome his gift of the person and presence of the Holy Spirit? Do you believe he will come again one day to deliver us once and for all from evil, sin, and death, and to usher in the new heavens and new earth?
If you wholeheartedly say yes to all these things, then I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit as a public affirmation and celebration of this commitment and be joined together in Christ with his body, the church through baptism. All of us at Grace Communion Nashville would love to join with you on your journey with Christ—it takes a lifetime, even an eternity, and a village to come to fully know and be known by the One who saved us. Let’s do it together!
Abba, Heavenly Father, I receive your gift of life in Christ Jesus–may your Spirit fill me to overflowing, and may my life from this day forward fully reflect your glory, life and love. Finish what you have begun in me this day–I am yours and you are mine, one in Jesus my Lord by your heavenly Spirit. Amen.
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ ” Mark 1:9–11 NASB
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Genesis 1:1–3 NASB
By Linda Rex
PROPER 12—Reflections on when I was first baptized remind me of the disconnect there was between my baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and the rest of my Christian life. Even though the baptism focused on repentance and accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, it seems that once that event took place, then the rest was all up to me, even though I was a recipient of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, I had been taught the scriptures since I was a child, and had to memorize many for school. There were instructions about the ten commandments and the way of love, and warnings that I would reap what I sowed. I lived in constant fear that I would fall short of God’s enormous expectations (and I often did) and believed that God would reject me. My participation in taking the bread and wine once a year was often a desperate plea for forgiveness and an acknowledgement of my unworthiness in his sight. Even though I may have felt forgiven as I came to the table, this experience was short-lived—guilt and shame were my constant companions.
Unfortunately, I was laboring under a false concept of what it meant to be baptized and to be saved. In some ways, I understood what it meant, but at the same time I did not grasp the significance of dying and rising with Jesus. I did not realize that my death and subsequent life in Christ was always and ever a participation in Christ’s perfected and finished work. It was not all up to me—it was completely all up to him; I was saved by grace through faith.
Jesus, who was God in human flesh, did not need to be baptized and yet he obeyed his Father’s command given through John the Baptizer to be baptized for the remission of sins. Jesus was not baptized for his own sins, but for the sins of the whole world, identifying with each human being in our broken, sinful humanity. When we are baptized, it is a participation in his perfect work of baptism as well as a symbolic sharing in his death and resurrection.
This participation in Christ through baptism is merely a beginning of the new life which is ours by faith in Jesus. By faith we receive the anointing in the Holy Spirit by which we share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Father. Our life becomes a life of walking in the Spirit by faith in Christ—a new way of being which has its roots in the Son of God.
We do not suddenly become perfect and yet we are at the same time perfect in Christ—there is a paradox, a tension, to our lives. While on the one hand our perfected humanity is hidden with Christ in God, on the other this perfection is being worked into us daily as we live and walk in obedience to the Spirit. We are fully justified in Jesus but are daily being sanctified—we walk by faith, not by sight. We do not always see in ourselves or others the perfection which is ours even now in Christ.
Our focus is so often on moral perfection. This was the struggle in my early years as a Christian. But this is not God’s focus. He has already resolved the issue of moral perfection in Jesus. What he is working on now is our faith in Jesus Christ, our personal walk with him in the Spirit.
In Christ we are caught up into the inner life of the Trinity, of the Father, Son, and Spirit as they exist in perichoretic love and unity. We were created to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Christ this is who we are as God’s adopted children. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the giving of the Spirit, Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, enabling us to participate as God’s creatures in true union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, and in union and communion with one another, expressed most fully within the body of Christ, the church.
What before was a fear and anxiety-ridden struggle to attain a tiny measure of God’s favor has been replaced in our lives by a grace-based relationship filled with God’s love, humor, compassion and understanding. All of life is holy now, blessed by and healed by the presence and power of God through Jesus in the Spirit. Our lives are a participation in the perfect relationship Jesus has with our Father and his perfect expression of love for Abba and for others in the Spirit.
We don’t have to beg God for the least bit of his attention. No, he anticipates and looks forward to our encounters, for Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, bringing us into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We feel his pleasure as we pray and sense his joy in our everyday life. We know his presence and sense his comfort when we grieve or go through painful experiences—he shares all of life with us. Whatever evil we may encounter in this world, we find he is already at work within it to redeem, restore and renew. And whatever praise or prayer or gift of obedience we bring—it is already perfected in Jesus.
We do not need to spend all our time in abjection or slavish attention, but rather in real moment-by-moment relationship, in the true love, humility and service which come in a complete dependence on God, knowing and accepting our need for Jesus, and rejoicing in the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives. We can live our lives in joy, drinking in of the blessings God richly showers upon us for our enjoyment—the beauty of a new spring day, the glory of a mountain vista, the pleasure of a pet’s affection, and the ecstasy of an intimate relationship with a spouse. In moments of sorrow or struggle, we can rest in his arms, trusting he is holding us and helping us through them, working all things for our best benefit.
What God has given us is true participation in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba. We have a loving, adoring, compassionate Father who has done everything necessary for us to have a personal, intimate relationship with him and to share in what he is doing in this world to bring the fullness of his kingdom into every area of our existence. We get to share in Christ’s mission by the Spirit through prayer, loving others, resisting evil, and caring for God’s creation. All of these are a true participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of which baptism is the initial step and our weekly communion the ongoing sacrament.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you for allowing us to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his life in the Spirit, symbolically showing our participation through baptism and our sharing in the bread and the wine. May you finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,…” Colossians 2:6 NASB
By Linda Rex
BAPTISM OF THE LORD—I was reflecting back this morning to a sunny summer day in southern California, June 1st of 1980, when we parked the car and walked up the hill to the Loma D. Armstrong Center on what was then the Ambassador College campus. My mom and I found our way to the downstairs pool—I had never realized there was one in the basement of the building. It was on this day that I went under the water and rose again to my new life in Jesus Christ, having been baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
My baptism was not after some significant epiphany in my life, like it is for many people. It was more a realization that it was the next appropriate step in my walk with God—one that I hadn’t really given much thought to until a friend asked me why I hadn’t been baptized yet. My response was—I didn’t know. I just hadn’t given it a thought. When I seriously thought about it, I realized that years before I had committed myself to Christ and this life, had been living in repentance, but was not permitted to be baptized because of my age. Now, as an adult, it needed to be done, so I did it.
This is one reason I believe that baptizing children can be appropriate. The other is the understanding I have come to that our baptism, at whatever age, is a participation in Jesus’ fully sufficient baptism. It was for our sakes that Jesus was baptized for the remission of sins, since he had no sins to be baptized for.
The Holy Spirit brings us to the place where we begin to see the reality of who we are—Christ’s, and that in his death and resurrection he has washed our sins away and given us new life. So we participate in his death and resurrection through baptism, understanding and believing Jesus died our death and rose again, bearing all humanity with him in his new life, and in his ascension into the presence of the Father.
There is something about the sacrament of baptism which made a difference in my life. After the baptism, the minister laid his hands on me and anointed me, praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Truth be told, the Spirit must have already been at work with me to have brought me to this place, but back then we believed that the Spirit was with us, but not in us until after this prayer.
Since then we have seen that the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh. It isn’t whether or not he is present but rather our participation in what God is doing in us and with us by his Spirit that is at stake here. What I do know is that after my baptism and the laying on of hands, the Word of God began to make sense to me in a way it never did before. I began to understand things I hadn’t understood before. And my relationship with God became deeper than it ever was before. I found myself on a journey with Jesus, who became more and more real to me as time went on.
My simple obedience to the command “repent and be baptized” brought me into a new place in my relationship with God. I began to recognize the power of God at work in my life beginning to transform me. My relationships began to be healthier. I began to see ways in which I needed to change—and miracle of miracles, God changed me!
This was no magic bullet, though. The act of baptism doesn’t make everything in life wonderful and perfect. Rather, it is more likely to bring us to a place of crisis—what was before has ended and God is at work making all things new. We begin to experience the fire of God’s love, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. We begin to experience the reality of our renewal into the image of the resurrected Christ. There, by necessity, is a change in one’s life and in one’s being. There is death which comes before resurrection. Some things just need to die and be buried.
Jesus talked to his disciples about taking up one’s cross and following him. That’s the part no one wants to hear about. This means there are some things we have to give up or quit, some relationships which may need to end or be altered, and some changes we may need to make when we follow Christ. When Christ died his death, all of our sinful humanity died with him—that means what is of sin is dead and buried with him. The struggle we face is letting it lie there dead. We seem to prefer living like zombies rather than living as newly born children of God.
But the good news is that we do have new life in Christ, and our failures, flaws and imperfections are covered by his blood. We have Christ living his life in us by the Holy Spirit, transforming our hearts by faith. The Spirit creates in us a desire to do the right thing when faced with temptation to do what is sinful. We participate in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his heavenly Father, understanding by the Spirit we are Abba’s beloved adopted children. The Spirit in us and with us draws us into spiritual community where we participate with Christ by the Spirit in relationships with others of like mind in the body of Christ.
Baptism is our one-time entry into our participation in Christ, while our ongoing participation is through the sacrament of communion, or eucharist. At Good News Fellowship, we obey Jesus’ command to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection in an ongoing way by participating in communion on a weekly basis. As we eat the bread and drink the wine or juice, we are reminded anew of how Christ stood in our stead and on our behalf, his life for our life, and we are thankful. This is God’s great gift to us—new life in his Son Jesus Christ by the Spirit, and the first steps of repentance and faith and baptism enable us to unwrap and enjoy this precious gift.
If you are interested in being baptized, please feel free to contact me. I would love to talk with you about baptism, repentance, and faith, and how you are included in God’s love and life in and through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for standing in our stead and on our behalf, even when it comes to repentance, faith, and baptism. It is in you that we place our trust. Lord, remind us anew of the reality that we died with Christ, and we rose with Christ, and we share in his glory, both now and forever. In your Name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ ” Luke 3:16-17 NASB
by Linda Rex
At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in Grace Communion International have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)
So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?”
This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.
So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.
Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.
In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.
This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.
But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.
This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.
As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.
The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:
Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.
But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.
It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.
My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”
The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.
When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.
Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV