When I first saw the word for this week, I immediately thought of lyrics from two of my favorite country songs (I know I'm probably almost completely alone in that, but to each his own, and in this case country music is my "own"). The two songs are "Baptism" by Kenny Chesney and Randy Travis, and "Muddy Water" by Trace Adkins. All three of those men have their own well-documented past struggles with alcohol and/or drugs. Regardless of where they currently are spiritually (which only God can judge), the lyrics to these two songs about baptism are an accurate representation of both the outward act and the inward experience of baptism. In "Baptism", they sing "down with the old man, up with the new...I felt like a newborn baby cradled up in the arms of the Lord". In "Muddy Water", he sings "it's a long way away from my hometown, but there's a man in me I need to drown". Most of us probably think of baptism as a pleasant, joyous occasion. It is right to view it this way because it usually comes with some sort of verbal confession, is likely preceded by a time of praise and worship, is done in the presence of close friends and family members, and is followed by food and fellowship. That all sounds pretty joyous to me! However, this is only describing the outward act that is done with water.
The true baptism that occurs in the heart and life of the believer rarely feels like a joyous experience. As the lyrics of those two songs tell us, we have to go "down with the old" before we can come "up with the new". Something "needs to be drowned" before we can experience a rebirth. This makes me think of something one of my best friends pointed out to me about a Biblical story we all learned about as kids. In talking about the great flood, which only Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons wives out of the whole human race survived, my friend pointed out to me the fact that God BAPTIZED the whole earth! He saw the wickedness of men that had infiltrated the perfect earth He had created and "the Lord was grieved and his heart was filled with pain" (Genesis 6:6). So, His response was to cause the very first baptism - one that included the whole earth! I'm fairly certain that neither seeing the wickedness nor responding to it was a pleasant experience for God. But He knew what needed to be done. He knew that simply adding more people to the mix would only allow more souls to be influenced by the existing worldwide epidemic of sin. So the flood wasn't just one of God's options; it was His ONLY option, considering He wasn't going to take free will away from us but also wasn't going to allow our wicked choices to destroy everyone and everything He created. Once the unpleasant experience of ridding the world of all of the old junk was complete, the road to spiritual regeneration was paved.
And so it is with us. Too many Christians have attempted to do what is logically and spiritually impossible. They have gone through the public ritual of water baptism, and then have tried to add the "new" to their lives without getting rid of the "old". Scripture declares that this cannot happen. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:24). In other words, the disease of willful sin and disobedience that has infected us all must be drowned before we can move forward with the abundant life that following Jesus brings.
I believe that this is why John the Baptist makes the distinction between baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11). One is an outward act that can be performed by anyone and received by anyone, regardless of the true condition of their hearts. But the baptism by Holy Spirit and fire can only be performed by God Himself, and can only be received by those whose hearts are truly repentant. Church denominations have debated for centuries the "correct" methods and ages for baptism, but the sad thing is that all of them have mostly missed the point. True baptism (the ridding of the old and refilling with the new) is done by the Holy Spirit in our hearts. How and when that happens can only be determined by the One who sent us His Holy Spirit - Jesus! It may not be a pleasant experience to go through, but the reward on the other side makes it all worth it. Let us remember that God promised to never again "baptize" the earth by water (and I'd say He has kept that promise considering we are way more wicked now than in Adam and Eve's day). But He WILL "baptize" it with fire. "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:15). The revelation of John (aka the Book of Revelation) clearly shows us that the purpose for this "baptism" will be to have a new earth where God can dwell with those who have already been baptized by the Holy Spirit. While going through the experience of being baptized by the Holy Spirit may not always be a pleasant one for us, it sure beats the heck out of the alternative!!