I have a short list of things in the Bible that seem unusual to us today that need a context in order for us to understand.
1. The woman washing Jesus’ feet with a tear bottle (Luke 7)
Context: In the first century, tear bottles were sealed shut and kept prominently, then buried with you as a sign of how hard your life was. Some of the wealthier Romans would even hire mourners to cry and fill bottles. In death, there was finally peace. So when she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears she was giving up her hard earn right to be pitied, and in a sense was saying she had found the peace for which she longed.
2. Salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13-15)
Context: Salt was a precious commodity for money (Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt); it obviously also gave flavor to things which were otherwise bland. Pure salt never loses its flavor, but salt like the salt from the Dead Sea could, because the salt was impure. It was often then thrown on roads because it was useless except to be trampled on.
3. John records an interesting promise from God: “He who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.” (Revelation 3:12)
Context: At the time of the early church, Asclepius was the god of healing. In many cities were Asclepions, or hospitals. One daughter was Hygieia (hygiene) and another Panacea. They would only accept people they thought they could heal, then put an inscription on a tablet or a marble pillar that described the cures and the healed parts of the bodies. These were testimonies to the apparent power of the gods. John may well have been saying, “Your lives will show God to be the true healer, the Great Physician.”
I think baptism needs a similar context because it’s not something for which our culture has a shared story around which to unite. It’s a symbol that still haunts our culture – there are baptism scenes in the Matrix and the latest King Arthur movie – but it’s not embedded into our lives, and when we see it symbolized in our cultural stories there is only some vague sense of change, not a real concrete idea of what this means.
Then people come to church, and we say, “Hey, you know you are going to need to let someone dunk you under the water.” Hmmm…
The ancient world was full of ritual of baptism of water and blood, even among the pagans. No one needed an explanation about why one should be baptized when they joined a religious group. They grew up in a world that understood this was the public pledge of allegiance to that being which you worship. No one joining the church was surprised.
Over time, baptism become one of several sacraments that the Protestant churches practice. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward seal that reminds of what God has done and what God intends to do to help us grow in grace. (2 Peter 3:18; Titus 1:4)
- Sign: I’ve seen it compared to the Batsignal: by our participation we are sending a message to God: “We need you. We are in a situation in which we cannot succeed without your help.” Obviously, God is already there, but it’s a reminder to us.
- Seal: An ancient king would use a ring to put a seal on a glob of wax on an important letter as a way of saying to everyone who saw it, “Property of the King.” In observing sacraments, we publicly accept the seal of Jesus: “I am the property of Christ the King.”
Sacraments humble us by reminding us of our need for God, yet at the same time they encourage us by reminding us that God has placed His seal on us, and we are under His protection, guidance and Lordship. And when we ask God for help and accept his seal, that humility and surrender is fertile ground for God’s ongoing work of grace in our life.
I want to focus on baptism so that we understand the rich history of this sacramental symbol. To do that, I need to talk about a story involving water that began at the beginning of time and has been retold for all of human history.
Genesis 1, Creation
Jews were desert nomads; they were not at home on the water. And ancient cultural stories depicted the sea as a monstrous beast and a place where Baal would battle with Yam, the sea god (Yam is the Hebrew word for “sea”).
- Leviathan lives there (Job 9.13; Psalms 89.8-10; Isaiah 27.1)
- Those in distress feel like they are being drowned in deep water (Psalms 69.1,2; Lamentations 3.54)
- Being saved from an enemy is like being pulled out of the waters of death (Psalms 18.16)
The ocean before creation, the “tehom” or the deep, was unsettled and chaotic. Even the pagans thought that. It was to be feared. But out of the water of chaos and death and formlessness God brought life, and it’s good.
The Flood, Genesis 6-9 The same word used Genesis 1, “tehom,” refers to the waters of the deep that flooded the earth. Once again, on the other side of chaos and evil is new life. All ancient cultures recorded this. Peter late compared the water of baptism to the waters of the great flood that God used to save Noah and his family (1Peter 3:20 – 21)
"In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
The Exodus and Promised Land (Exodus 14)
“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. (1 Corinthians 10: 1-2)
Note here that they didn’t actually get wet as they passed through the waters that saved them; there was something about the experience of this ‘baptism’ that placed them into the life and legacy of Moses. I could also add here that under the covenant with Moses, baptismal ceremonies were a huge part of become ritually purified.
Jesus himself was baptized (Mark 1: 4-9)
“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Jesus Taught The Importance Of Baptism
Jesus then says to his disciples, “Go into all the world, preach the gospel, and baptize…” (Matthew 28:19-20) 
Paul commanded it. He wrote in Hebrews 10:22:
"Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water."
Paul also wrote that Jesus sanctified the church, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” (Ephesians 5:26). Note how one washed by water with the word. There is clearly something symbolic happening that is not connected to some specific magical property of the water itself.
The audience of Jesus’ time understood the story in which they were being asked to participate. God brings order from chaos, life from death, purity from dirtiness, and God illustrates this spiritual reality with an earthly metaphor His people understood.
Let's apply all this to today. What does it mean when we get baptized now?
1. It's a public testimony to our salvation. Baptism is not a marker that we have arrived spiritually and now worthy of being initiated into the kingdom because we are so awesome. It’s a public alliance with the only one who can and has saved us.
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)
2. It's a spiritual uniting with Christ into His death and resurrection.
“Remember that all we who are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ are baptized to die with him? We are buried with him by baptism, for to die, that likewise as Christ was raised up from death by the glory of the father, even so we also should walk in a new life. For if we are like him in death, even so must we be in the resurrection.” (Romans 6)
If we are going to walk in new life, we have to die first. In baptism, we see the death of the old as we go under the water, and the arrival of the new as we come up. Now we publicly bear the seal of Christ. (I wish there was someway we could stamp you when you come up: “Claimed by Jesus.”)
“We may never be martyrs but we can die to self, to sin, to the world, to our plans and ambitions. That is the significance of baptism; we died with Christ and rose to new life.” - Vance Havner
3. It's the beginning of a life-long immersion in Christ.
Historians have found a recipe for making pickles that dates back to 200 B.C. In order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be 'dipped' (bapto) into boiling water and then 'baptised' (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. The first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, takes longer, and produces a permanent change. Genuine baptism ‘pickles us’ into the life of Christ.
This, I think, is what we must remember. We don’t walk away from a sacramental moment and forget about it. They are moments that pledge our lives, and in that outward sign we have participated in the reality of an inward work of the Holy Spirit that is part of our life constantly.
We have publicly said, “I give myself to you,” and that means we are in a process by which God transforms us for the rest of our lives into the image of Christ.
Here, by the way is where the community aspect of baptism comes in. Baptism is more than just you and God; it’s a public and formal alliance with God’s people, specifically the church you are in.
- It’s an act that gives permission: “You may now hold me accountable as a child of God and a brother or sister in Christ.”
- It’s an act that states responsibility: “And now I must do the same for you.”
A FEW RECOMMENDED RESOURCES
“Water Baptism In The Early Church.” http://www.churchhistory101.com/feedback/water-baptism.php
“Sacraments” (Theopedia) http://www.theopedia.com/sacraments
“That Great Day” (Jonny Lang song)
“Water Grave” (Imperials song, but plenty of others sing it!)
“Baptism” (Randy Travis song)
 “Baptism: A Pre-Christian History.” http://www.bible.ca/ef/topical-baptism-a-prechristian-history.htm
 The Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:36-38) is a great example.