The Common Ground of Water: The Greater Story of the Great Commission

Baptism at Sea

Racial divides and cultural conflicts have been the cause of human tragedies around the world for millennia. Ethnic cleansing is but one horrific example of one group’s attempt to completely expunge another from the face of the earth. The root of such atrocities isn’t mere preference, not even prejudice, but what the Bible calls “partiality”, the looking down on one group while looking up to the other.[1] Taken to its extreme, mixed with fierce pride, hearts of people seethe with anger and resentment towards others. Devastation and destruction, enmity and hostility––sometimes raging for hundreds of years––are the results.

What is powerful enough to break down the entrenched barricades separating people, and at the same time build up strong bonds of commonalities and kinship? A key part of the answer is found in the Great Commission: love for the same Person, dedication to the same cause, and of all things, water, the ritual of going down into then coming up out of water. We call it baptism.

In the early days of the Christian faith there were groups of people who were once not on speaking terms. When Jesus said to his disciples in the Great Commission, “…baptizing them…” they didn’t immediately recognize the amazing phenomenon of what was about to take place. They were perhaps thinking of what baptism meant in their Jewish religion,[2] or perhaps they were thinking of John the Baptist’s baptism[3], but they didn’t know that there was an aspect of baptism that they had never before experienced: a unity among people by way of a common experience in water.[4]

God was going to use water baptism[5] as a way for converts from different classes and cultures to find each other while finding Christ.

How did that play out in those early days when Jesus and his resurrection were first proclaimed to the world? Here are just three examples.

  • Three thousand God-fearing Jews separated from one another because they lived in twelve different nations and spoke different languages were one day united in Christ through baptism.[6]
  • Samaritans––historically despised because of their mixed Jewish and Gentile blood––were baptized in the name of Jesus, the same way as were the “pure Jews” of Jerusalem who had also believed. [7]
  • The Ethiopian eunuch, a Gentile, (not liked by Jews) on his way back to Africa from Jerusalem was baptized by Philip, a Hellenistic Jew (the Jews who adopted parts of Greek culture in their lifestyle, thus, held at arms-length by Hebraic Jews).[8]

Our human nature is the same as people of the first century. Our people groups don’t like other people groups. Hispanics, whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Pakistanis, Americans…the list is long and complex…we’re all contaminated with the poison of partiality.

But, imagine a baptism service in which people that “your people” don’t like are being baptized along with you. How does that experience change your attitude and perspective?

Let’s take it further. Imagine hearing that a former arch enemy has been baptized. How do you feel about him now? Remember Saul, how he brutalized and terrorized Christians? All of a sudden, he was claiming publicly that he was one of them, a fervent follower of the same Jesus. Did Christians believe him? Many didn’t, that is, until he was baptized.[9] Without the testimony of water, they wouldn’t have believed his testimony of faith.

So there is a greater story behind the Great Commission, a meta-narrative of God bringing all the people together on the same common ground. Of course, it isn’t the ritual or practice of baptism, but rather what it means: our common faith in our same Savior, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ.

I wonder what it will be like talking one day to others from every nation, people group, tribe and language, listening to their stories of life on earth. I’ll want to ask them, “What was it like for you and your family and friends when you were baptized, the day that you told the world that you were following Jesus?” I’ll be in awe of the common ground we all had through water.

[1] James 2

[2] Washings in the Jewish religion were common, whether liturgical, or for physical sanctification, or symbolically of inner cleansing from sin (see Ezekiel 36:25 as an example of how God used the idea of washing with clean water for this purpose).

[3] John’s baptism was from heaven, Jesus said (Matthew 21:25). It was a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, meaning that a person who believed his message regarding the Messiah would be baptized as an acknowledgement of their belief and would have their sins forgiven. A turning from known sin and belief in the promised Messiah were affirmed in one public act of baptism.

[4] After Jesus’ death and resurrection, to be baptized in his name meant to be publicly identified with devotion to him and dedication to his followers, fellow members of the family of God.

[5] God also used a special Spirit baptism, unique only to this period of the Christian faith, to unite groups of people long separated by religious and cultural hostilities. (Acts 19:1-7)

[6] Acts 2:41

[7] Acts 8:16

[8] Acts 8:36-38

[9] Acts 22:16

Leave a Reply