A Twilight Musing
by Elton Higgs
We’re all familiar with the first baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist, who had to be assured that it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized, in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Jesus set the pattern of baptism as a mark of the beginning of the Life that God gives, and a special manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit after His baptism was seen as it descended “like a dove” and came “to rest on Him” (v. 16). That was followed by a heavenly voice saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (v. 17), archetypically reflecting our purity before God as we begin our walk with Him.
But Jesus spoke of a second baptism that He had to undergo, concerning which He was anxious, even while He recognized its necessity: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:49-50). He mentioned this baptism again when He responded to James’ and John’s request to have special seats of honor beside Jesus when He comes into His kingdom. Jesus answered,
You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. (Mk. 10:38-40)
This passage establishes a link between Jesus’ second baptism and the cup of suffering that He prayed fervently to be delivered from in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:39-46). Obviously, Jesus saw His coming suffering as a second kind of baptism, and when we couple this with statements in the epistles about not only the inevitability but the appropriateness of suffering by followers of Jesus, we see that we, too, must expect to go through a second baptism.
John the Baptist seems to be contrasting the two baptisms when he says of Jesus, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12). I take the reference to the baptism in the Holy Spirit to be the water baptism that Peter promised his hearers in Acts 2:38 would be accompanied by “the gift of the Holy Spirit”; and the baptism in fire to be the second baptism, the suffering that purifies and tempers and makes stronger the character of Christians. Submitting to the first baptism is cause for rejoicing and praising God, and new Christians are often appropriately exuberant, feeling the reality of having been cleansed from all sin. But just as Jesus had to go through a second and very different baptism before His walk on this earth was done, so we who follow Him must embrace the baptism of suffering that brings us to maturity in Christ.
Jesus tried to instruct His Twelve Disciples about what lay ahead for Him (and them), but they were obtuse and spiritually insensitive.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:31-33)
Believers often share Peter’s resistance to the progression from the joy of the first baptism to the second baptism of mature suffering. It’s significant that later on, after many years of leadership in the early church, Peter speaks with great perceptiveness about the fire of the second baptism: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (I Pet. 4:12-14).
So, just as Jesus experienced His first baptism and the accompanying endowment of the Holy Spirit as the beginning of a new life of service and ministry, so we who confess faith in Him experience the rite of baptism and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as a joyful entry into our new life with God. But God also calls us to share His Son’s experience of the second baptism, which is the necessary entrance into the completion of God’s purposes for our lives on earth. Jesus told His disciples that they would suffer with Him (“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” [Jn. 15:20]), and those who preached the Gospel afterward also made clear that confessing Christ and being baptized in water will eventually, as the believer matures, lead to a second baptism of suffering. Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17). And again: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).
What a pregnant clause, “It has been granted to you.” The gift of suffering in the likeness of Christ is as much a manifestation of God’s grace as the gifts of eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we received in our first baptism as new believers. The second baptism in the fire of trial is redemptive rather than destructive only because our Savior has been there before us and sanctified our suffering. He was willing to be born in the flesh so that He could be anointed in power in His first baptism; and He was willing to submit to the “second baptism” of innocent suffering and death for the sake of all mankind. It is following his path from baptism in water to baptism in fire that marks us as fully redeemed children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ.