You’ve heard it before: “A text without a context is a pretext.” Meaning, you can make the Bible conform to almost any preconception you have. This is no different from other areas of inquiry. Elementary science teachers report that most children are told by adults that the “sun is rising and setting,” giving them an image of a sun that moves around the earth. In school, students are told by teachers (years after they have already formed their own mental model of how things work) that the earth rotates around the sun. Students are then faced with the difficult task of deleting a mental image that makes sense to them, based on their own observations, and replacing it with a model that is not as intuitively acceptable. This task is not trivial, for students must undo a whole mental framework of knowledge that they have used to understand the world. The same is true when we come to the Scriptures.
Last week I was treated to a living example of such preconceptions regarding baptism. (Perhaps the reason I could see it so clearly is that I too suffered from the same preconceptions decades ago.) It began with a question: “Why do you baptize infants?” The questioner followed up with this statement: “When the Bible never mentions the baptism of infants, instead it only refers to believers being baptized.”
Before I sought to answer the question I asked for some background. It turns out that the questioner had grown up in a church where only non-infants were baptized. This insight was added, “We only baptized people who reached the age of accountability and who could profess Christ for themselves.” Moreover, the questioner had spent much of her adult life married to a minister who only baptized believers.
So, quickly I could see that I was dealing with a person who was steeped in her views. There was a good chance that her question was more of a challenge than a solicitation of information, or a desire to learn. However, I detected an openness to learn, so I proceeded with a three-part answer.
First, biblically, I pointed out that the New Testament writers were recording first generation encounters with Christ and the Gospel. Though Jesus spoke of children, and on occasion held them in His arms, all of the first disciples and those to whom they ministered were adults. Thus, it stands to reason that it was adults in the first century who were being baptized. Moreover, I noted that in at least five places in the New Testament an individual is noted as having been baptized along with his/her whole household. Now the world “household” had a specific meaning in antiquity. It meant the composite of all the family, the servants, and in some cases, any economic dependants. Clearly infants and children were a part of a household.
Second, I pointed out that historically Roman persecution of Christians throughout the first three centuries extended to infants and children. Indeed, baptismal records found in the catacombs of Rome include the names of all who had been baptized, including children. I also noted that for the first 15 centuries of the Christian Church the baptism of infants was the normal practice of the church. No one questioned its veracity until the rising of the heretical Anabaptists in 1525.
Third, I noted that theologically infant baptism is a clear picture of sola gratia (grace alone). In infant baptism there’s no work that the infant does. There’s no assent on the part of the baptized. All that is done is done for him/her without any additions; just like divine grace is imparted to every child of wrath (Eph. 2:3) with his/her help or facilitation.
The immediate result of my ten-minute tutorial was silence, followed by, “I just don’t think it’s biblical to baptize infants.” “Oh, well,” I thought, “Maybe the sun does rotate around the earth!”
I say all this because this Sunday, the final week of the “MOVE” series, brings us to John 3:1-21, another text that’s often held hostage to preconceptions and assumptions. Is there any more popular biblical citation than John 3:16? But what’s it mean? How does it fit with the preceding encounter of Nicodemus and Jesus? Who is the “whosoever”? How does one believe given Jesus’ assessment of the human condition in verse 3? How does the concluding statement in verse 21 square with verse 16? I would venture to say that in the whole Bible no verse is more misrepresented or made a pretext than John 3:16. Here, as in every other text we’ve examined as part of this series, “the in”, “the up”, and “the out” begin and end in God’s sovereign grace.
In preparation for Sunday’s message: “Nick at Night,” you may wish to consider the following:
1. Who is Nicodemus?
2. What does his name mean?
3. What are the similarities and differences between Zacchaeus and Nicodemus?
4. Why does Nicodemus come to Jesus at night?
5. What is his view of Jesus?
6. What is the significance of “truly, truly” in verse 3? Why does Jesus’ response appear to be a non sequitur?
7. Why does Jesus analogize salvation to natural birth?
8. How is verse 8 a flashback to Genesis 1? What parallels does Jesus see physical creation and spiritual regeneration?
9. Who are the “whosoever” in verse 16?
10. How is salvation a total work of God? (See verse 21)
11. How does every godly “move” flow from His work?
See you Sunday!