Baptism from Above or Below?

Christ Covenant Church
Rev. Marq Toombs
14 October 2018
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost / Ordinary Time

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Sermon:  — Luke 20:1-9

And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words. One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Intro – Funny and Weird Baptism Stories

The Biblical-Theological Story

In this story, Jesus was confronted by the religious leaders (who were jealous of him and troubled by his popularity). They demanded to know who authorized him

(1) to drive out of the temple those who were selling animals for sacrifices, and

(2) to teach daily in the temple.

One reason they confronted Jesus is that he had poked and prodded them ever since he arrived at Jerusalem.

In Luke 13:31 some Pharisees warned Jesus that King Herod wanted to kill him. And yet, he called Herod a sly fox and said he must go up to Jerusalem anyway. Why?

Jesus came to “pick a fight” (so to speak) with the religious leaders.

Jesus drew them offsides by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, by driving out sellers at the temple, and by teaching and preaching at the temple.

When they couldn’t bear it anymore they came after Jesus, but he was fearless.

He turned the tables and put the onus on them. Instead of answering their question, he posed an important question of his own.

“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?”

This question is far more important and incisive than it seems. It cuts through the fat and hits the bone — and they knew it.

It’s been a few weeks since we heard the story of John’s baptism in Luke 3. I won’t re-preach that sermon here, but I do want to refresh your memory about that story.

Remember, the religious leaders asked John, “Are you the Christ?”

Christ means Anointed One. It’s a simple way of saying Are you the Prophet-King-Priest that God promised to send us?

Something about John made them think he might be the Christ. What was it?

Three things: The place where he baptized, the reason he baptized, and the way he baptized.

John baptized people at the Jordan River — the same place where Joshua and the priests led Israel to cross over from the wasteland into the promise land (Joshua 3). It was the same place where Elijah the prophet had crossed the river before he was taken away into heaven by a whirlwind in chariots of fire (2 Kings 2:6-12).

John baptized with water to proclaim the good news of forgiveness of sins, to call people to turn from sin and trust the Lord, and to prepare the way for the Lord.

John baptized people the same way the priests before him baptized by sprinkling and pouring water on God’s people. As we have seen before, the Scriptures describe priestly baptisms — also known as ceremonial washings and ritual cleansings (see Mark 7:4, 8; Heb. 6:1; 9:10) — as washings by sprinkling or pouring.

Now, the OT Scriptures also tell us that this is how the Christ was going to baptize his people, save his people from their sins, and set them apart for God’s own possession.

He was going to do that by sprinkling or pouring water on his people.

God said in Isaiah 52:12 —

As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
so shall he sprinkle many nations.

And God said in Ezekiel 36:24-26  —

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean … And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

But that’s not all.

God also said in Isaiah 44:3 –

I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.

God’s people are the dry and thirsty land; God’s Spirit is the water and blessing poured out on them.

And God said in Joel 2:28–29

And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters…your old…and your young…
Even on the male and female servants in those days
I will pour out my Spirit.

The fact that John the Baptizer was a priest, who came preaching God’s word and performing a water rite (baptizing with water) by sprinkling and pouring, clearly shows that his baptism was from above not below.

[[ Note: This helps explain why — for 1500 years — sprinkling and pouring were the most common modes of Christian baptism. Immersing did not become a common of mode of baptism until the Radical Reformers rose up after the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. They held to baptism for believers only by immersion only — as do their baptistic descendents. ]]

And yet, the religious leaders were not convinced or persuaded.

Ironically, once upon a time, these same religious leaders wondered if John might be the Christ!

That was so three years ago — before John was arrested, imprisoned, and executed. The times have changed.

Here they called a timeout, huddled up, kicked around reply options, and hashed out the implications of each one.

You can see the back and forth in the text.

After a brief time-out, they give their answer: We don’t know.

The religious leaders were not interested in discovering the truth about baptism, they were interested in preserving their lives and toeing the party line.

They lied through their crooked teeth in order to save their stiff necks.

In other words, they were cowards and unbelievers.

Cowards because they feared the people so much they refused to act on their convictions as religious leaders.

Unbelievers because they refused to believe John or receive his baptism. They would not repent and believe the gospel.

In the end, since they would not answer Jesus’ question, he would not answer theirs.

But we know that like John’s baptism, Jesus’ authority came from heaven!

That was then,
This is now.

Existential Connections

The question Jesus posed in his day can be used to help us grapple with the doctrine of baptism in our own day.

As you know professing Christians are always discussing and debating baptism. It is not uncommon for Christians to wonder in their hearts which baptism counts, takes, or matters.

When candidates come before our Theological Examination Committee, we ask them all kinds of thought-provoking questions about baptism such as these:

Is immersion necessary or required by God? (Answer: No. While baptism by immersion is valid, it is irregular from a biblical perspective. Baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling.)

Is Mormon baptism a valid Christian baptism? (Answer: No — They are not even Christians. Example: They do not hold to the historic orthodox faith as expressed in the ecumenical creeds regarding the nature of Jesus Christ.)

Is rebaptism ever necessary? (Answer: It depends. If a person was “baptized” in a sect or cult, and/or with an element other than water, and/or without the triune name of God — Yes. But, technically, that is not a re-baptism.)

Is Roman Catholic baptism a valid Christian baptism? (Answer: Yes. Even though some other doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic faith are not valid or true, RC baptism is administered by an ordained minister, with water, in the Name of the triune God.)

Is sprinkling three times in the triune name of God permissible? (Answer: Yes. BUt not required.)

Is it proper for an unordained person — like a friend or family member — to administer baptism? (Answer: No. It is highly irregular and improper. Such practices should not be encouraged. As the Scriptures teach, only properly ordained ministers of the word administered baptism. See the Book of Acts for many examples.)

Is a person automatically born again and saved the moment they are baptized? (Answer: No. A person is born again from above whenever the Spirit determines to give them new birth, new heart, and new life. This may happen before, during, or after baptism. The Spirit blows when and where he pleases.)

Is baptism a sinner’s / man’s pledge and promise to God or is it God’s pledge and promise to a sinner / man? (Answer: Baptism is God’s promise and pledge to us. Christian baptism is top down, not bottom up.)

Is immersion a regular mode of baptism? (Answer: Contrary to popular evangelical opinion, immersion is an irregular mode of baptism from a biblical-theological point of view. The scriptures describe baptism as a sprinkling or pouring not a dipping or plunging; a washing from above, not below.)

Is infant-baptism biblical? (Answer: Yes. The apostles administered baptism to whole households/families according to the covenant household principle established by God in Christ.)

That might seem like straining out gnats to you, but you ask the same kinds of questions in your own way.

Is my baptism by immersion in the Church of Christ valid? (Answer: Yes — more than likely. Still, it is something worth exploring and evaluating with your pastor and elders.)

Is God mad at me for getting baptized two or three times? (Answer: No. But don’t do it again. Once was enough for him. Assuming it was Christian baptism, God got it right even if you didn’t. There is one baptism.)

Is my baptism by sprinkling in the Roman Catholic Church legit? (Answer: Yes — more than likely. See the question about RC baptism above. Still, it is something worth exploring and evaluating with your pastor and elders.)

Is it necessary for me to get re-baptized in the Presbyterian Church? (Answer: No! Re-baptizing baptized Christians is an odious offense to the gospel and totally unnecessary, unless you were “baptized” — (1) in a sect or cult, (2) or with an element other than water, (3) without the Name of the triune, (4) or by someone un-authorized to administer baptism. (Or some combination of the four.)

Is the baptism of “X” Christian group [ Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic ] right or wrong, valid or invalid, regular or irregular? (Answer: See below.)

And so it goes.

We all want to know if the baptism we received — wherever we received it and whoever administered it — is from God or man, heaven or earth, above or below.

One generic way to answer that question is like this:

If a baptism is administered according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the Name of the triune God, with water, in the context of a true Christian church (not a cult or sect), by a minister lawfully ordained, then that baptism is a valid baptism, from God not man, from heaven not earth, from above not below.

Here’s a better and easier way to answer questions concerning baptism:

If a baptism is administered top-down* by sprinkling or pouring as God’s pledge and promise to man, it is a legitimate baptism from heaven.

If it is administered bottom-up* by immersion as man’s pledge and promise to God, it is an irregular (yet valid) baptism.

If it is administered as a re-baptism — by any mode — it is an illegitimate baptism from men, not God.

Just say “No!” to Anabaptists (rebaptizers) and their insistence on believer-immersion only. They dogmatically elevate their narrow (sectarian) mode of baptism above the broader (catholic) meaning of Christian baptism.

*The baptismal water literally comes from the above. The baptismal water literally comes from below.

(Note: Here, I am presenting the rule of Christian baptism. While there might be, due to extenuating circumstances, exceptions to the rule, exceptions must never be allowed to supplant and/or take the place of the rule.)

A Sad Baptism Story

[Omitted here]

Why do I share this sad story with you?

Because I want to help you stay away from that situation, or situations like it.

Because I want you to know the truth about Jesus Christ and your baptism and be content with it.

WSC — Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19), signifies and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s (Acts 2:28-42; 22:16Rom 6:4Gal 3:271 Pet 3:21)

Because I want you to know that Jesus Christ is more than enough for you. There will never be a need for you or your children to get “re-baptized.” Even if you feel like you got it wrong, you must trust that God got it right. We walk by faith not by feelings.

Because I want you to improve upon your baptism, as the Westminster Confession says:

“The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others,

+ by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein;  

+ by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of the Baptism and our engagements;

+ by growing up to the assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that Sacrament;

+ by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace;

+ and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”

Col. 2:11-12; Rom. 6:4, 6, 11; Rom. 6:3-5; 1 Cor. 1:11-13; Rom. 6:2-3; Rom. 4:11-12; 1 Pet. 3:21; Rom. 6:3-5; Gal. 3:26-27; Rom. 6:22; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:13, 25-27.