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Last week I taught on Act 6 in God’s Drama: The Holy Spirit in & through the Reconciled & Reconciling Church – described in the Book of Acts. Paul called this “the message and ministry of reconciliation” given to us in Messiah (2 Cor 5:18-20), to reconcile people to God, and thus to oneself, others, & creation. This was made real in the Early Church by water baptism. The key to reconciliation and baptism is transformed identity.
Jesus’ Baptism in water
The Early Church got their understanding and practice of water baptism – by Messiah’s Co-Mission in Matt 28:18-20 – from Jesus’ own baptism. The key issue in both baptisms was identity. By choosing to be baptised Jesus identified himself with ALL sinners. As he stood in the water of John’s ‘baptism of repentance’ (Matt 3:13-17) he had no sins of his own to confess – as the only sinless One he confessed our sin on our behalf. Immersed into the waters, he symbolised he would willingly die our death in our place to wash away and bury our life of sin. His coming up out of water symbolised he would rise again. It was Jesus’ public act of obedience of his discipleship to God – that he willingly gave his life in faith to the Father, for HIS purpose. The Father then ‘tore’ the heavens open (Mk 1:10 cf. 15:38) and sent the empowering Spirit of Love on him, and publicly affirmed his identity: “YOU are my Son, my Beloved (Greek Agapetos), with whom I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). This was Jesus’ identity, Beloved Son of God, from which he lived his life, did his ministry, fulfilling the Father’s call of reconciliation in the world.
Believers Baptism and change of identity
Early Christian baptism was not a ‘baptism of repentance’, but a ‘baptism confirming repentance and faith in Jesus’. When people put their faith in Jesus, saying ‘yes’ to following him, they were asked to express that publicly – to witness to Jesus – by being baptised in water for all to see. Thus baptism is our first act of obedience as a disciple of Christ. Standing in the water, we identify with Messiah (the only Righteous Saviour of the world), symbolising our death in/with him on the cross – we die to our sin (Rom 6:3-14). Immersed beneath the waters, we symbolise our burial with Christ. Or past life of sin is buried, together with whatever identity that defined us in THAT life. Raised up out of the water, we symbolise our resurrection in/with Christ to a new life in God, to a new identity in Messiah. The early Christians then laid hands on the baptised believer to impart the empowering Spirit of Love, affirming them in the new identity, conferred on them by the Father in the open heavens. I’m sure they looked up expecting the heavens to open, a dove to come down, a voice to speak, saying, “Gilli, YOU are my daughter… Alexander, YOU are my son… My Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Our new identity is Beloved Child of God, from which we live our new life in Christ, do our ministry with and for him, and fulfil his plan of reconciliation in the world.
Early Church Baptismal Confession
New Testament scholars, like Richard Longenecker, say that Paul incorporated an Early Church liturgical baptismal confession into his first letter, Gal 3:27-29 (the italics): “In Messiah Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Messiah have clothed yourselves with Messiah. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Messiah Jesus. If you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:27-29). By baptism into Christ we “clothe” ourselves with Christ; i.e. we put off our old identity/labels/past life, and put on a new identity in Christ: Beloved Child of God. Standing in the water, the early followers of Jesus would say out loud to all witnessing their baptism, “By my faith in Yeshuah I am no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. I’m now one in Messiah’s Body.” It meant that they became – and we become – Abraham’s seed/offspring, inheriting all the promises, fulfilling God’s call to reconcile all the scattered families/nations of the earth as per Gen 12:1f.
Paul picks this up in another letter, 2 Cor 5:15-20, “Messiah died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” We don’t look at people anymore through worldly labels and identities; e.g. we knew Jesus as the thirty-year-old Jewish Rabbi-Prophet, but no longer so – he’s now the Risen Lord reconciling the world to God. So, putting our faith into Jesus means we died to ourselves in his death, and we live for him via his resurrection. We become a new creation. Our old identities and labels fall away, everything becomes new: Child of God. And so we become God’s co-workers, given “the message and ministry of reconciliation”, reconciling the world to God in Messiah. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace-makers (Shalom-makers, reconcilers), for they will be called the children of God!” (Matt 5:9). Thus the essence and basis of ALL reconciliation – with God, ourselves, others, and creation – is transformed identity in Christ. The essence of that, in turn, is LOVE: “His banner over me is Love” (Songs 2:4). So Paul says, “Imitate God as his beloved (Agapetos) children: live a life of love just as Jesus loved us and gave himself up for us…” (Eph 5:1-2), and, “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all” (2 Cor 5:14).
The Gospel Mandate of Reconciliation
Richard Longenecker shows how radical this Early Church baptismal confession was in Palestine and the Roman Empire. The confession went directly against the dominant consciousness of the day, undermining and challenging it, witnessing to an alternative way of personhood, identity, and societal living. Every day the Greek men prayed a set prayer: “Thanks be to God that I was born a human being and not a beast, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian.” Likewise, Jewish men prayed the Berakot daily, “Blessed be the Lord God that he did not make me a Gentile (dog), nor a boor (a slave or peasant), and nor a woman.” What prejudice – reinforced daily! Jesus’ followers were specific and subversive, clever and courageous, in their choice of their confession: neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. It went against the Greco-Roman and Jewish mindset, calling the world to a new way of being, relating and living, witnessing to God’s one reconciled family on earth!
Therefore, this Early Church baptismal confession became what we can call The Gospel Mandate of Reconciliation through transformed identity:
· “Neither Jew nor Gentile” – The Racial/Cultural mandate, healing racism
· “Neither slave nor free” – The Social/Economic mandate, healing classism
· “Neither male nor female – The Gender/Sexual mandate, healing sexism
In South African followers of Jesus should be baptised by publicly confessing, “In Christ I’m no longer Black nor White, Indian nor Coloured, rich nor poor, male nor female – I’m now God’s Beloved Child, part of the One New Humanity – the Body of Christ!”
 His Word Biblical Commentary on Galatians, and his New Testament Social Ethics for Today.