The Lord Jesus gave his people two sacred ceremonies, Baptism
and the the Lord’s Supper or Communion. These rites are called ‘ordinances’
because they have been ordained, or commanded, by the Lord; some Christians also
call them sacraments.
Baptism and Communion are not human traditions. The Lord
himself instituted Communion during the last supper, and commanded us to do the
same until he returns (1 Cor 11:23-26). Also, before he ascended to heaven,
Jesus commanded the apostles to preach the gospel everywhere and to baptise all
who believe; he promised his presence until the church’s mission is fulfilled at
‘the end of the age’ (Matt 28:18-20; Mark 16:15, 16).
Who should be baptized? The proper candidates for baptism
are believers, as the Lord himself instructed: ‘Go therefore and make disciples
of all the nations, baptizing them...’ (that is, the disciples); and
again, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who
believes and is baptized...’
The biblical sequence of events is as follows: (1) the
proclamation of the gospel message, (2) personal faith in the Lord Jesus, and
(3) baptism. This is the consistent pattern in every case of baptism recorded in
the Acts of the Apostles. For instance, we read that ‘Crispus, the ruler of the
synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the
Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized’ (Acts 18:8). We would be wise
to follow the biblical model.
What about the infants of believing parents? Should they be
baptized just as the Jews circumcised their children? Infant baptism was
introduced early in the history of the church and it is now practiced in several
Christian denominations. However there is no biblical warrant for this
tradition. We would expect the Lord to give instructions on the baptism of
infants if he so intended, just as he commanded the Jews to circumcise their
children in the Old Testament. He did not, and we would be prudent not to go
beyond what is written.
It is argued that when whole ‘households’ received baptism,
infants may have been baptized with the rest of the family (Acts 16:15, 33;
18:8; 1 Cor 1:16). This argument cannot be conclusive because it is based on
silence -- infants are not explicitly mentioned. Moreover, we are given the
reason why the whole family was baptised. ‘And immediately he and all his family
were baptized…and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household’
(Acts 16:33, 34). All were baptised because all believed!
What is the meaning of baptism? Baptism is God’s sign to
the new disciple of his fellowship with Christ in his death, burial, and
resurrection (Rom 6:3, 4, 5; Col 2:12), and of remission of sins (Acts 2:38;
22:16). It is a sign (symbol, picture) because it shows spiritual realities by
means of physical elements and actions (immersion in water).
Being the initiation rite, baptism is mentioned in the
context of salvation, as we would expect (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). However
we will be mistaken to think of baptism, rather than repentance and faith, as
the ‘means’ of salvation. The Bible teaches clearly that people are saved
through faith without or before water baptism.
Abraham was justified by faith. ‘Abraham believed God, and it
was accounted to him for righteousness.’ He was justified before he ever
received the sign of circumcision. Abraham ‘received the sign of circumcision, a
seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised,
that he might be the father of all those who believe’ (Rom 4:3, 11). All are
justified like Abraham – by faith, not by an external rite, whether circumcision
in the Old Testament or baptism in the New.
Cornelius was saved by faith. The apostle Peter did not
baptize Cornelius and his family to save them; he knew that God had already
accepted them and purified their heart by faith. ‘So God, who knows the heart,
acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made
no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith’ (Acts
15:8). Therefore he argued, ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be
baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ (Acts 10:47).
Their experience was by no means an exceptional case; rather,
according to the apostle Peter, it is the norm and pattern for everyone: ‘We
believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in
the same manner as they’ (Acts 15:11). Baptism shows forth, but does not
achieve, what is already accomplished by faith.
What is the proper mode of baptism? Baptism should be
administered by the immersion of the believer in water, in the name of the
Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for baptism simply means to
immerse, to plunge. Thus, the rite symbolizes the believer’s death and burial
with Christ, and his rising up to a new life. Immersion in water also pictures
the complete spiritual cleansing of the believer.
In the Lord’s Supper, the disciples share the holy bread and
wine in commemoration of Christ, to proclaim his death, and as a sign of their
communion with the Lord and with one another. It is called: (1) Eucharist, or
thanksgiving (Matt 26:26, 27); (2) the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table (1 Cor
11:20; 10:21); (3) Communion (1 Cor 10:16, 17); and (4) the Breaking of Bread
(Matt 26:26, 27; Acts 2:42).
Communion is essentially a memorial, or a remembrance,
of Christ our Lord. Twice he told us, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me’ (1 Cor
11:24, 25). Having completed his mission on earth, the Lord ascended bodily in
heaven, and we are now waiting for his glorious return. Until then, he gave the
Lord’s Table to his church on earth as a perpetual reminder of our Redeemer and
his love for us.
How should we understand Jesus’ words: ‘This is My
body...this is My blood’? The bread is not a body nor is the wine blood; the
sacred elements represent Jesus’ body and blood. If I show you a picture,
saying, ‘This is my father’ -- the natural meaning is simply, ‘This
represents my father.’ Similarly, the bread and wine are sacred symbols of
the body and blood of Jesus, or, in his own words, ‘a remembrance’ of him.
The bread and wine do not change after consecration; the
bread remains bread, and the wine remains wine (1 Cor 11:26-28; Matt 26:26).
However since they are sacred symbols of the body and blood of Jesus, we ought
to participate in the Supper with reverence. If we partake in an unworthy
manner, we will dishonour the body and blood of Jesus represented in the
elements (see 1 Cor 11:27-29).
Communion is also a proclamation of the Lord’s death.
‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s
death till He comes’ (1 Cor 11:26). The sacrifice of Christ is announced in the
church by the Word (in preaching, Bible reading, song and prayer), and
especially during Communion. When we share and eat the bread, and drink the
wine, we show how ‘the Word was made flesh’, gave himself for us, and shed his
blood for our redemption. ‘Take, eat this is My body which is broken for
you...This cup is the new covenant in My blood.’
Jesus completed the sacrifice by which he accomplished our
redemption. ‘But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever,
sat down at the right hand of God’ (Heb 10:12). We should not conceive of the
Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice for sin. Rather it is a showing forth of the
finished, perfect and once-for-all sacrifice of the cross. Today ‘there is no
longer an offering for sin’ (Heb 10:18).
Finally, the Lord’s Table is a family meal, a fellowship or
communion. We express our unity in Christ by sharing the same bread. ‘For
we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one
bread’ (1 Cor 10:17). We are united together because we are united to Christ.
Means of Grace
The ordinances are means of grace because through them the
Lord blesses his people. We should not think that the blessings come
automatically simply by taking part in the rite. Just like the Word of God, the
ordinances communicates God’s redeeming love to his people. The Word is not
profitable unless it is mixed with faith in those who hear it (Heb 4:2); even
so, the ordinances are only profitable to those who participate with a believing
and obedient attitude.
How is God’s grace received in baptism and how does it change
the believers’ lives? The application of water has no virtue to change a person.
Rather baptism transforms their lives by their faithful obedience, as they learn
to count themselves dead to sin and alive in Christ, rejecting sin, pursuing
righteousness in the service of God. Similarly, the Lord’s Supper gives us the
opportunity to examine ourselves before God, and to renew our gratitude, love
and commitment to Christ who gave himself for us.