Just today I became aware of an article at Biblical Archaeology Report titled, “Gallio: An Archaeology Biography.” It is brief, fascinating account of a Roman proconsul named Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus. Why is he important? Well, this is the Gallio before whom Paul appeared as recorded in Acts 18:12-16. Read this article. I think you’ll be surprised and pleased by a helpful example of how extra-biblical sources can illuminate our study of God’s Word.
Recently I finished watching a short but fascinating documentary titled “Galileo’s Moon” (Spoiler Alert: What follows will spill the beans, but viewing the show is worth your time nonetheless). It tells the story of a manuscript of Galileo Galilei’s book Siderus Nuncius (originally published in 1610) that hit the rare book market in 2005.
Siderus Nuncius, which described Galileo’s observations of the heavens, became a paradigm-shifting work when it offered evidence for Nicolai Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe. The copy that appeared in 2005 underwent intense scientific scrutiny before being pronounced an authentic, early version of the work, and thus exceedingly rare. It’s estimated value ran to $10 million dollars.
Now, as you might expect, all was not as it seemed. The gist of the story is that nine years later, in 2014, a skeptical and observant historian reexamined the manuscript. His investigation, subsequently confirmed by others, proved the copy was in fact a fraud; a clever, excellent, deceptive, and highly believable fraud. Prior to 2014, most rare book dealers believed it impossible to create successful forgeries of books from the 17thcentury. After 2014, that false hope came tumbling down.
What’s particularly fascinating about the documentary is that the forger turns out to be a well-known former Italian government official who, at the time of filming, is serving a seven-year term of house arrest for other crimes. The man in question makes no attempt to hide or deny his efforts to deceive with the copy of Siderus Nuncius. In fact, he unabashedly delights in his work, relishing his long success at hoodwinking top experts in the world of rare books. He even describes in detail how he produced the forgery. At one point he speaks of needing to “distract one’s eyes from the print,” in other words, giving examiners something so remarkable that they would miss other tell-tale signs of fraud. This led him to include certain features in the book, including a forgery of Galileo’s own signature. In the words of the man himself, “It’s like with a magician. When he comes on stage the magician gives the audience something to see in order cover up his own tricks.” This charlatan goes on to justify his work by putting the blame on others: “But I didn’t create a fake Nuncius. I created a different Nuncius…The problem is the fake historians who did not recognize that it was a reproduction.”
As I watched this story unfold, and especially as I listened to the forger himself, I found myself struck by profound biblical parallels. Here I’m thinking especially of Satan, the great deceiver, the chief opposer of God and the enemy of God’s people. Satan is a wicked being whose goal, since at least Genesis 3, has been to supplant God and destroy his works, particularly his beloved humanity. Satan’s primary weapon is deceit; deceit used to entice human beings into sinful rebellion against God. Since the beginning of human sin with Adam and Eve in the Garden, we have been culpable and willing suckers for Satan’s wiles. Scripture speaks of Satan masquerading as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). That is to say, Satan’s deceptions look good, they look believable, enticing, and worthy of attention, despite being in reality wicked, corrupted, worthless, and deadly. Paul refers to this satanic masquerade when he speaks of false apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 (NASB): “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.” Satan and his schemes hold out what looks attractive and captivating in order to “distract one’s eyes from the [corrupted] print.” He is like the magician who “…gives the audience something to see in order cover up his own tricks.”
The degree of Satanic deception – that is already underway and will only grow with intensity as God’s plan unfolds – appears with startling clarity in the Apostle John’s Apocalypse, or Revelation. There, in chapters 12, 13, and 16 we read of remarkable satanic activity carried out by the dragon (Satan himself), the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth (perhaps the false prophet of Revelation 16:13). What Satan and his side-kicks accomplish in these chapters hinges on his ability to deceive human beings who hate God and are eager to be deceived. The elaborateness, extent, and effects of this deception campaign are stunning. In short, all but a select few willingly fall prey to the charade, not realizing they do so to their damnation. It’s no wonder that the Spirit through John warns this in Revelation 13:8-9 (NASB): “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear.” Speaking in Matthew 24 of the same timeframe and the same satanic deceptions, Jesus says, “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Matthew 24:23-28, NASB). The upshot of Jesus’ words is this: “I’ve warned you in advance, don’t be deceived!”
As you read the words of Revelation and Matthew’s gospel, note who it is that sees through Satan’s scheme and avoids falling prey to his trap. It is those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. It is the elect (Note: One point of Matthew 24 is that the elect will not be misled by the appearance of a false Christ). It is bonified followers of Jesus Christ, people saved from God’s wrath and enslavement to sin by grace through faith. It is people chosen by God in eternity past for salvation, predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). It is people who obey the Gospel, confess their sin, repent, and receive the free gift of eternal life offered to them in Jesus’ name. It is people whose lives are being transformed from the wicked idolatry of self to the holy worship of God. Over such as these, Satan’s deceptive power fails. Why? The answer is simple: They know the real thing. They know the real Jesus. They see through Satan’s lie because it cannot ultimately replace truth, no matter how well he may mimic reality for a time. The knowledge these “elect” have of the real thing flows from their heart-centered knowledge of God’s Word. It is the Word of Christ that teaches them about the reality of Christ, thereby inoculating them against the damnable lie of Satan. Consider John 10:3-5, which tells us that Jesus’ sheep (his people, the “elect”) hear his voice as he calls them by name to lead them out: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5). Or consider also Psalm 119:11: Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against you.” It is the heart-centered adherence to the Word of God that protects Jesus’ sheep against the deceptive and deadly predations of the satanic wolf.
I’ll move toward a close by briefly mentioning one way I’ve encountered Satan’s work to deceive, his magician’s sleight of hand, his forger’s touch, just in the last few days. On Tuesday I received an email from the principal of my daughter’s high school announcing an upcoming presentation during all freshmen physical education classes. The anticipated event, put on by the Santa Cruz Diversity Center, will cover “an introduction to gender diversity, supporting friends and peers, as well as resources in the community.” That kind of language, in this part of the country, in 2019, should raise warning flags for anyone who holds to a biblical ethic of sexuality and gender. Not surprisingly, after doing some online research into the Santa Cruz Diversity Center, I discovered an organization committed to what Al Mohler describes as the “sexual revolution.” The Diversity Center’s mission is to “…advocate for, support, and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community…”. It exists to “advance the causes and priorities of the lesbian and gay community in Santa Cruz County,” to “[advance] social justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning individuals and their allies in Santa Cruz County, California.” In short, the Center exists to normalize that which is antithetical to God; that which offends his holiness; that which our Creator says leads only to pain, destruction, and suffering. And it will do so by taking that agenda into a public high school under the innocuous sounding banner of “an introduction to gender diversity, supporting friends and peers, as well as resources in the community.” This is darkness masquerading as light. It is Satan’s slight-of-hand to distract attention with what looks good while he wreaks utter destruction. Oh, may the elect of God stand fast in God’s Word and not be deceived!
I have one final point to make, and it’s an important one in light of my last paragraph. The final point is simply this: Those people who work Satan’s deception – even willingly and culpably – are not to be attacked, hated, or ostracized, but loved, prayed for, pursued, and pitied. The personnel of the Santa Cruz Diversity Center are not my enemies. Satan is. The people who will accomplish this assembly are sinners who need a Savior, just like I need a Savior. They are folks who need to know the beauty of their Creator and hear the liberating news of the Gospel. They need to come out of the shadows and into the light. I share with them a common history of rebellion against God (think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:11), and I have a message of salvation they desperately need to hear. It’s time to leave the chintzy magic show and enjoy winsome reality.
In the last few years particularly, I’ve enjoyed “studying” (I use that term loosely) the Bible’s archeological, geographical, and cultural background…the story behind the story in a sense. Particularly in the realm of biblical archeology, we live in rich times. The discipline of archeology is a relatively new area of academic study. It’s origins, at least in terms of a growing and established branch of scholarly inquiry, lie in the mid-1800’s, with it’s coming-of-age in the early-to-mid 1900’s. As archeology in general became a “thing,” so also did biblical archeology – meaning, the study of what remains of the places, people, and cultures we encounter in Scripture. The purpose of biblical archeology is not to prove the Bible – as if God’s Word needed proving – though it certainly provides a powerful apologetic in addressing biblical skeptics. Rather, biblical archeology (together with the related study of geography and cultures) helps to enrichen our understanding of the Bible; to deepen our appreciation for Scripture’s details, its texture, its context, its truth; and even to enhance our ability to rightly interpret God’s Word. I’m convinced that the discipline of biblical archeology, when rightly approached, is one of Jesus’ good gifts to his church.
By of way of a tangible example, let me share with you just one of the awesome findings of twentieth-century archeological related to Scripture. Do you have any idea where to find the oldest sample of written Scripture extant today? Some might quickly think of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls – the hoard of ancient biblical and extra-biblical manuscripts discovered in the desert alongside the Dead Sea beginning in the latter half of the 1940’s. But even the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls do not preserve the oldest example of written Scripture we possess. Older still are two small artifacts known as the Ketef Hinnom Scrolls (Note: I was reminded recently of both of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Ketef Hinnom Scrolls while watching the first half of a documentary titled, Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy). The Ketef Hinnom Scrolls are two small silver strips originally worn around the neck as an amulet. They were discovered at a burial site in the Hinnom Valley (which runs on the southwest and west of ancient Jerusalem) in 1979, but date originally to the 600’s B.C. A version of these words from Numbers 6 appear etched into the silver: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Today you can see the scrolls on display at the Israel Museum located in Jerusalem.
There are many big thoughts about God that we might think prompted by these small, diminutive artifacts. Not the least is this: Our faith is gloriously old, because our God is eternal! He is the Ancient of Days(Daniel 7:9). Since the beginning of creation, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the covenant-keeping God of Israel, God who became man in Jesus Christ, has never lacked worshippers. Who knows whether or not the bearer of the Ketef Hinnom Scrolls was a true God-fearer, but the words he or she bore around their neck proclaimed truth that has not tarnished with age. Indeed, it has only become all the richer as the Word in flesh lived, died, was resurrected in victory, and ascended to the right hand of the Father! Praise God for a small, beautiful trinket dug out the ground four decades ago!
Good morning all! Just a brief post today in order to appreciate these wonderful words from J.I. Packer:
“Holiness is a matter of being Jesus’s disciple, of listening to his word and obeying his commands, of loving and adoring him as one’s Redeemer, of seeking to please him and honor him as one’s Master, and so of making ready for the day when we shall see him and be with him forever…This Jesus-centeredness is the basic form of Christian holiness, and it is to this that the Spirit leads us all in his sanctifying work. The holiest Christians are not those most concerned about holiness as such, but those whose minds and hearts and goals and purposes and love and hope are most fully focused on our Lord Jesus Christ (emphasis mine).” – taken from Keep In Step With The Spirit (Baker Books, 2005), 134.
(Like the last post, this one also relates to two recent sermons at Felton Bible Church, Felton, CA on July 7th and July 14th. You can listen to both sermons here.)
I’d like to build a lifeline for you…a lifeline for me. I’d like to lay down a trail of breadcrumbs out of lost wandering in a deadly forest, and into joyful life in a picturesque valley. I’d like to illuminate the road away from hypocrisy and on to Christ.
Recently in our study of Luke we addressed the dark picture of religious hypocrisy found in Luke 11:37-53. We considered nine marks of the religious hypocrite, the final of which is exasperated and violent opposition to Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of the second sermon from this passage I suggested that the antidote to religious hypocrisy is holy fear; it is the soul-captivating, person-liberating fear of our Holy God. Such, I think, is the answer of Luke 12:4-5 to the religious hypocrisy of Luke 11:37-53.
Of course, once we mention the fear of God, our very next question ought to be, “So what is that? And how does it relate to Christ?” After all, Luke’s Gospel is all about the Gospel Kingdom of God centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is all about entering into real life by coming into God’s kingdom as a disciple of the Messiah. So, what is the fear of God, and how does it bring us to Jesus himself and therefore into God’s kingdom?
Let’s try and answer that question by turning to the lifeline…the trail of breadcrumbs…the road from hypocrisy to Christ. Hypocrisy is our starting point – the first link in our chain (if there are no others then we have no chain), the first crumb on the trail (if it’s all we have, we’ll starve), the first step on the road (if we don’t walk on, we won’t arrive anywhere). It’s a place of death and starvation. We saw hypocrisy clearly in Luke 11:37-53, so there’s no need to belabor the point here. Instead, let’s hopefully look forward and move on from this place of duplicity.
The second and third links in our life-line – crumbs on the trail, steps on the road – are “fear” and “delight”. Which of the two precedes the other? I don’t know. They’re so interconnected as to be almost one and the same. The solution to hypocrisy is fear (Luke 12), and fear necessitates delight. How do we know this? Psalm 112:1 (NASB) says, “Praise the Lord! How blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in His commandments.” There is a revealing parallelism in this verse. Notice how the second part of the verse explains the first. Who is the man who fears the LORD? It is he (or she) who greatly delights in his commandments. The mark of fear is delight! The converse is also true. The person who greatly delights in God’s commandments is someone, by definition, who fears Yahweh. Fear and delight are two sides of the same coin. These two words together, as a pair, describe a right relationship of man to God. When we don’t delight in God’s commandments (and none of us do by nature), we do not fear him. While this reality holds true, our relationship with God is broken, to our damnation. In contrast, when we fear God we also necessarily delight in his commandments. This is the place of joy in which our God-intended relationship with our Creator is restored, and eternal life exists, never to depart.
I need to segue here for just a moment to Psalm 119. It is an absolutely stunning piece of literature, the depths of which I have barely touched in my own reading and meditation. You may know that Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem in Hebrew. Did you also know that it uses “law” or “commandment” sorts of words over 180 times? Recently I counted all the instances in Psalm 119 (in the NASB translation) of the following words (or their plural form): “commandment,” “judgment,” “law,” “ordinance,” “precept,” “statute,” “testimony,” and “way” (in reference to God’s ways). I came up with 184 occurrences in 179 verses. The Psalmist is in holy ecstasy as he considers these “legal” things of God. You get the sense that God’s commands, his judgments, his law, his ordinances, his precepts, his statutes, his testimonies, his ways, are not merely something to conform oneself to as a matter of good behavior or good-citizen living (in the way we might obey the laws of our municipality, state, or country). Rather, they are the essence of life itself, because they are the expression of God himself! They are the life of God communicated to man. They are something to savor, to taste, to enjoy, to hunger after, to delight in(and yes, if this language sounds “John Piper-ish” that’s no mistake). Do you want to know what it looks like to fear God? Read Psalm 119. Do you want to know what it looks like to delight in God’s commandments? Read Psalm 119.
(Side Note: Consider what this means about our view of Scripture. Properly speaking, the “Law” is the Torah, the five books of Moses that are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But, more broadly, the “Law” is the entire Old Testament revelation. In the final analysis, we find God’s commands, judgments, law, ordinances, precepts, statutes, and ways described for us in the totality of the Bible. So, in a manner of speaking, the whole of Scripture is the essence of life itself, because it is the expression of God himself. The Bible is interwoven with the life of God communicated to man. I say this with care, because it’s important that we not confuse the written text of the Bible with God in his being. In other words, the Bible is not God and God is not the Bible. But, that said, for us humans there is an inextricable tie between the words we read on the pages of Scripture and the very life of God. No wonder Paul could write in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture is “God-breathed.”)
Finally, we arrive at the last crumb in our trail (indeed, the feast itself), the final link in our chain, the concluding step on our journey, namely Jesus Christ. Here again I’ll return to Psalm 119. As I read through it recently I was struck by this thought: Jesus is the fulfillment of Psalm 119. He actually lived, experienced, and felt from the heart what the Psalmist expresses (excepting Psalm 119:176a). In fact, I think Psalm 119 describes Jesus’ own human longing after, striving for, yearning for, and utterly enjoying God’s commandments, his judgments, his law, his ordinances, his precepts, his statutes, his testimonies, and his ways. Jesus is the quintessential God-fearer. He is the example of what it means to delight in Yahweh himself by delighting in Yahweh’s commands. But, he is also more than that. He is, in fact, our essential representative in terms of fear and delight. Why? Because none of us, in ourselves alone, fear God…and none of us, in ourselves alone, actually delight in God. In other words, Psalm 119 only becomes true of us (and it must become true of us, if we are to leave deadly hypocrisy behind) in Christ!
I could go on, but perhaps this is sufficient to make clear the lifeline I began with…the trail of breadcrumbs from hypocrisy to Christ…the steps out of the forest and into the valley. We begin with hypocrisy. Hypocrisy’s solution is fearful delight. And fearful delight becomes our reality in Christ!
This blog post relates to two sermons from Luke 11:37-54, intended for Jesus’ people gathered as Felton Bible Church (FBC). One was preached last week, the other is planned for tomorrow. If you’d like, you can access both sermons via the FBC website.
Brothers and Sisters,
During our consideration of Luke 11:37-54, I mentioned to you a book authored by Mark Dever (currently serving as senior pastor for Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.) titled, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. In his book, Dever articulates “nine marks” that characterize a healthy local congregation. He’s clear to point out that these are not the only nine marks of a healthy church, but rather a select few that many churches miss or set aside. I’ve read much (perhaps most) of Dever’s book by this point and affirm the importance of each mark. Let me briefly review them for you (Note: The page numbers indicate a reference to Nine Marks):
Mark #1: Expositional Preaching – Expositional preaching is the regular proclamation of God’s Word, the Bible. Such preaching seeks to explain the text and to apply it to life in a manner aimed at the transformation of hearts and lives into Christlikeness. It is preaching that responds to Scripture itself, and not to the whim of a preacher (pg. 44-45). Dever writes, “The first mark of healthy church is expositional preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow” (pg. 42-43).
Mark #2: Biblical Theology – Biblical theology refers to an understanding of God, his ways, and his works that is shaped by the unfolding of Scripture, especially in its grand storyline (pg. 67). Dever says this, “One of the chief marks of a healthy church is a biblical understanding of God in his character and his ways with us” (pg. 68).
Mark #3: The Gospel – As we’ve preached through Luke, I’ve referred often to the “Gospel Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God that Jesus came to inaugurate stands on the Gospel – the good news of God glorified in his work to save us from sin and judgment, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. As followers of Christ, we are “Gospel people.”
Mark #4: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion – Conversion is the move from death to life that happens when our hearts turn to Jesus in obedience to the Gospel. There’s so much to say here! I’ll just let Dever’s words suffice for the moment: “Conversion includes both the change of the heart toward God that is repentance, and the belief and trust in Christ and his Word that is faith” (pg. 111).
Mark #5: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism – Evangelism is the joy-driven, love-motivated effort of Jesus’ people to tell others the Gospel message we have believed (pg. 136, 140). It is not first a matter of “technique,” but faithfulness (pg. 134). Dever quotes the following sentence from John Cheesman’s The Grace of God in the Gospel: “To evangelize is to declare on the authority of God what he has done to save sinners, to warn men of their lost condition, to direct them to repent, and to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Dever, 136).
Mark #6: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership – Dever defines the church, according to the New Testament, as, “a local collection of people committed to Christ, to regularly assemble and have his Word preached and obeyed, including Christ’s commands to baptize and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper” (pg. 157). Church membership is the vehicle through which an individual believer associates themselves with a local expression of Christ’s body. Membership “puts into practice what the Bible teaches about the self-conscious commitments that should exist within a church – the commitments between an individual Christian, his or her pastors, and a defined gathering of Christians” (pg. 160).
Mark #7: Biblical Church Discipline – Church discipline, broadly speaking, describes all that we do to help each other walk faithfully after Jesus. Dever helpfully writes, “Without hesitation, we should all admit our need for discipline, for shaping. None of us are perfect, finished projects” (pg. 182). At times, exercising discipline means dealing publicly with the sin of those who will not receive correction and repent. Discipline, done well, is always an act of love, and it should always come with a heart for another’s obedience to Jesus and fellowship with his body.
Mark #8: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth – The point here is not first a question of numbers but a question of maturity. A healthy church longs to see people growing into the likeness of Jesus, maturing in their faith – “The New Testament idea of growth involves not just more people, but people who are growing up, maturing, and deepening in the faith” (pg. 213).
Mark #9: Biblical Church Leadership – Finally, a healthy church is one led according to Jesus’ design for church leadership. Leadership in the church begins with Jesus; it takes seriously the God-given authority of the congregation itself (what Dever describes as the “congregational context” to leadership in the church – see pg. 232); and it is especially exercised by qualified men who serve as faithful elders (pastors, overseers) of Jesus’ sheep.
I’m convinced that pursuing these nine marks of a healthy church will, by God’s grace, help preserve us from expressing the nine marks of religious hypocrisy we’ve seen in Luke 11:37-54. Why do we want to flee hypocrisy? Because we love the Lord Jesus…and we want to glorify him from a heart (individual and collective) of integrity! May God find us faithful to do so!
A week ago Sunday one of the budding young men in our body asked me an astute question (put here in my words): “Why should someone abstain (‘fast’) from communion before receiving baptism?” I so appreciate his inquiry! Let me take just a moment and briefly outline why I think it is wise, and even necessary, for baptism to precede communion in the life of a Christian.
We should begin by considering the nature of communion. What is communion? Communion, or the Lord’s supper, is a regular, symbolic, meaningful “meal” eaten by the church together “in remembrance” of the Lord Jesus Christ and his work on the cross (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It is the New Covenant expression of the Old Covenant Passover. It belongs to believers (the covenant people of God) and has no efficacy or impact for those who do not follow Jesus – except as a testimony to them of their need and a warning of their rebellion. I consider communion to be a means of grace among the body of believers. In other words, the Spirit uses communion to work things in us he will not do in other ways. In the best of circumstances, when we permit or invite someone to join us in communion we concurrently recognize that individual as a fellow disciple of Jesus.
With that understanding of communion as a background, consider how baptism functions in the life of a believer. You may recall some months ago when we addressed baptism during our Sunday morning sermon. On that occasion, I described the “what” of baptism in the following terms:
1) Christian baptism is a bodily act of worship, a symbolic washing with water that glorifies Jesus by identifying us with him; and it is an experience of joy in which we taste the love of God.
2) Baptism by water is a faith-driven, God-worked act of identification, whereby Jesus – through the ministry of his church – publicly marks-out those whom he has saved, and ushers them into a tangible experience of God’s love.
Baptism is something we (the church) do, through which Jesus marks an individual as his disciple, based on their confession of faith, indicative of God’s work to predestine, call, justify, and eventually glorify them (see Romans 8:29-30). Baptism does not save anyone. Rather, it acknowledges what has already taken place in the life of a person – namely their conversion from self to Christ; from sin to salvation; from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. A person may be saved (and often is) well before their baptism, but the confessionof that conversion – the public expression of their faith and obedience to Christ – is incomplete apart from baptism. The unbaptized person among us is someone we have not yet recognized in the fullness of a walk after Jesus. Of note, the Bible has no category (so to speak) for a persistently unbaptized follower of Jesus Christ. The New Testament assumes, and demonstrates repeatedly, that baptism is the normal expression of devotion to Jesus as his disciple.
Now, let me see if I can put these two concepts together – communion and baptism. Communion is a celebration that belongs to the church; a celebration in which the Spirit works and through which we affirm each other’s obedience to Jesus as his disciple. Does it make sense for us to recognize someone publicly, through communion, as a follower of Jesus apart from their own willingness to declare that faith (and the church’s willingness to affirm it) in baptism? If the confession of a person’s conversion (both by themselves and the body of Christ) is incomplete before baptism, why would we pre-emptively recognize that conversion by fellowshipping with someone in communion? Why would we encourage someone in their partial pursuit of Jesus by accepting them in communion before they are willing to follow him in baptism?
What I’ve outlined above is a brief theological defense for why believers should obey Jesus in baptism before celebrating him in communion. To this theological argument I might also add practical reasons of pastoral practice in a local church, one of which I’ll mention here. By encouraging baptism before communion, we help to guard the importance and sanctity of baptism. Particularly in the pragmatic, individualistic, consumeristic culture we inhabit – one that generally lacks edifying symbols of real substance and meaning – it’s easy for the church to slowly lose the importance of baptism. It’s easy for us to view baptism as an “if I feel like it” step of personal faith that I can take or leave, rather than a consequential step of obedience to Jesus that is centralto the Christian life. By encouraging (even requiring) one another to refrain from communion before baptism, we wisely exhort each other to obey Jesus in full; to offer up our bodies a living sacrifice to God, receiving from him the blessing that is baptism; baptism with its God-spoken, church-recognized affirmation that our faith is real and salvific in nature.
Just to demonstrate that what I’ve outlined here is not contrary to the practice of Jesus’ people through the ages, consider the early church. Everett Ferguson, writing in Church History: Volume One – From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, describes how the church approached baptism and the eucharist (what we call communion, or the “Lord’s supper”). While different churches in different places may have had somewhat different practices, here’s how Ferguson depicts the early church’s Sunday worship: “Perhaps by the end of the third century there was a separation of two parts of the service. The first part centered on instruction in the Word, to which all were welcome. The second part centered on the Lord’s supper, to which only baptized believers not under discipline were admitted” (Ferguson, 151). In short, what I’ve outlined above stands consistent with the practice of the church, or at least portions of the church, even in its earliest days.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! I hope this has proven helpful to you. It is, I trust, an effort toward biblical wisdom. There is no proof text of Scripture that demands what I’ve argued for. But, the flow of God’s Word, the examples we read of in the New Testament, and the longstanding historic practice of the church all combine to make the point.