Immersing People in God
The first time I heard this concept it blew my mind. I heard it again today and it blew my mind again. Let’s look at a well-known passage:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18b-20)
Particularly those in evangelistic groups are well familiar with this text. They are Jesus’ last recorded words before his ascension according to Matthew and they are the final point of Matthew, leaving the ending of the story open to his disciples (which includes up to us). It is generally called The Great Commission. One of my other pet peeves with how this text is often used is that it is used to encourage making converts, but it actually says disciples – if you’re interested in this idea more, check out Dallas Willard’s book The Great Omission. Another big Anabaptist theme from here is that it says we are to baptize disciples, which would imply that somebody would have to be old enough to decide to be a disciple. Neither are my main point today, though. Instead I want to provide an alternate interpretation to the meaning of the command to go baptize these new disciples.
My point point of reflection today is this: the word “baptize” comes from a Greek word meaning “immerse”. Take a second to ponder what that could mean for some of our big texts about baptism. Now you could look at this at a simply ritualistic level as another way of arguing for immersion (usually synonymous with adult) baptism. By definition, the word baptism means immersion, so not immersing seems to be missing the point. But let’s try something deeper than that.
Let’s rewrite that command, changing the word baptism to its root:
go and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
You might also need to remember here that in ancient cultures, particularly ancient near eastern cultures, somebody’s name was more than just an arbitrary identifier. It was who you are, the core of your being. It is about what defines your entire life. That is why so many people had their names changed within the Bible – because their defining characteristics had changed. So to pray in Jesus’ name, for example, means that we are to pray as Jesus would, for the things that Jesus would, not just to tag “in Jesus’ name” on the end as a magic formula for more likely success. So we could paraphrase some of that section as well: “the identify of…”, “the being of…”, “the life of…”
Imagine if we translated this text as a command to make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Doesn’t that feel so much more different than saying baptize? Baptism has taken on strictly religious ritual tones now, so we often overlook that part of the command. For those who argue for infant baptism, you baptize them and then try to get them to be disciples when they grow up. For those who argue for believer’s baptism, it is a symbol of the commitment already made. Either way, it is basically a ritual with little to do with the process of discipleship. Doesn’t mean the ritual is bad, but I’m not convinced that was really the main point.
What if baptizing was actually part of the process of discipleship as this text would imply if translated this alternate way? What if what Jesus is saying here is how to go about making disciples? Instead of go and make disciples THEN baptize them, as the Anabaptists would typically read it, what about go and make disciples BY baptizing/immersing them? People become disciples by becoming immersed in God. Not by hearing the right facts. Not by being persuaded by the right apologetics. Those things are frequently useful to break down other barriers of missing knowledge or false intellectual objections, so still important. But what if how we were told to make disciples is actually by so ridiculously flooding them with the love of God that they can’t help but want to experience that themselves?
Many other texts reference being the body of Christ or the ambassadors of Christ. That is the same kind of language of representing Christ or being part of Christ. It isn’t a brand new idea in general in the New Testament. It isn’t even a new idea in the Old Testament; there is lots about standing out against the other nations with their purity. But there really is something powerful about the term “immersing”. We are not to just convert people, not even just to teach them the right doctrine and right ethics. No, we are to immerse people in God’s life, God’s freedom, God’s love, God’s grace, God’s joy, and God’s peace.