Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, August 16, 2018
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A Baptism of Good News

 

Mark 1:4-11 and Acts 19:1-7

 In Acts 19, we find a rather strange story.  Paul is visiting the city of Ephesus on the western coast of what is today called Turkey.  This is his second visit to Ephesus.  The first was short, and this one is long, about three years, probably the longest visit Paul made to any city in his ministry.  

 Now just before this, in chapter 18, we hear about Apollos.  Apollos was a traveling Jewish preacher who preached the baptism of John and told people to look forward to the coming Messiah.  But he didn’t know who the Messiah was until he met two Christians from Rome named Priscilla and Aquila, and then he began to preach Christ.

 These Ephesian believers seem to be of the same spiritual lineage as Apollos.  They only know John’s baptism, and they are looking forward to the coming of Messiah.  That might seem odd because this is at least twenty years after the ministry of Jesus.  Paul, because he was in tune with the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit, could sense that there was something missing here.  They seem to be “believers,” but they don’t exactly believe in Jesus.  This tells us that there were Jewish people in Ephesus, and probably all throughout the Roman world, who still looked to John the Baptist, even 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection.  

 John was certainly an important figure.  He was the first prophet who had come to the Hebrew people in 400 years.  He was a dramatic figure who preached a powerful and moving message.  He told people plainly not to look to him but to look to the one who was to come after him.  But some looked to him nonetheless.  

 Since all Jewish people, regardless of where they lived, were required to make at least one pilgrimage to Jerusalem in their lives, some of them had the chance to hear John and take his message back with them to their own synagogue.  Ephesus had a large Jewish population, and some of them saw John, not as a predecessor to the Messiah, but as an alternative to Christ, or even as the Messiah himself.  

 The problem is that they have still not heard “good news.”  John’s ministry was not good news.  His ministry was to prepare people to hear and receive good news.  He even said as much himself.  He told people to turn from sin and turn to God.  That is repentance.  Repentance is expressed in the New Testament by the Greek word

METANOEO, and in the Old Testament by the Hebrew word SHUV.  Both mean the same thing:  To turn around, to stop going in one direction and start going a different one.

 John freely said, “I only baptize you with water.”  John’s baptism was just an outward display of an inward desire to turn from sin and turn to God.  It lacked the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to make that change happen.  That would have to wait for the one to come after John.

 Now even John’s message and baptism were controversial in the minds of first century Hebrew people.  In their way of thinking, they were THE covenant people.  They were “saved” by virtue of their birth, provided they made at least reasonable efforts to keep the Law.  The only people who were “baptized” in first century Judaism were Gentiles, outsiders, who wanted to come into the covenant people.  John’s message was offensive to this mindset by basically saying to the “already saved by their birth” people, “That’s not enough. You must also make a personal decision.”  It shook people up.  It shook them out of a spiritual lethargy and complacency, which is what John was supposed to do, as the predecessor to the Messiah.  

 But by itself, John’s message was not “good news.”  A commitment to turn from sin and turn to God isn’t much good without the power of God to do that very thing.  

 Jesus’ baptism is good news, because baptism into Jesus Christ is baptism by water and the Spirit.  It is not just an outward display of desire to be free from sin.  It is also the inward transformation by God’s grace to make desire into reality.  

These two baptisms represent two different ways of coming before God.  John’s baptism represents the way of effort or “works.”  It represents an awareness of God’s holiness and our sinfulness and a desire to “do better.”  But Jesus’ baptism offers us a way of grace.  God’s grace is at work in baptism.  

First there is God’s prevenient grace, the grace of God that leads us to Jesus.  Then there is God’s justifying grace, the grace of God that by the sacrifice of Christ covers over our sins and removes our guilt when we trust in him.  And finally, there is the transforming or sanctifying grace of God that works in our lives not only to free us from the guilt of sin, but also from the power of sin.  It renews us in the image of Christ, so that we have the ability to turn away from sin.  

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