In the Great Commission, he instructed his disciples to "go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19, NLT).
Many Christian men and women are eager to learn more about their faith, though few blogs or other internet sources spend much time delving into the history of Christianity. Faith is a living thing that is no doubt important for the here and now, but faith can also be deepened by looking at how and why Christianity got to where it is today. A spiritual life can become all the more powerful when you find out why it is so meaningful to be baptized or how amazing it is that once a week you are able to commune with Jesus.
Anyone hoping to learn about Christianity and discover its essence will undoubtedly come face to face with two of its primary sacraments: baptism and communion. Among all the rituals and practices contained within the Christian Church, these two are rooted in the pages of Scripture and have persisted for nearly 2000 years. Though the expression of the Church has varied through different eras and cultures, these two rites have remained essentially the same.
Even with subtle variations in the techniques, there has been an unbroken chain of believers practicing baptism and communion from the time of Jesus right down to today. This makes baptism and communion two of the most identifiable traditions of the Church. Where did they originate? Why do we practice them the way we do? Understanding how they developed and have adapted will enable you to appreciate and celebrate them all the more.
Since its inception, the Christian Church has baptized its members as a sign of conversion. Billions of believers throughout the centuries have testified to their faith through this simple act. As a result, the sacrament of baptism has become intricately tied to Christianity.
While baptism as it is known today originated with the birth of the Christian faith, it is reminiscent of certain Jewish cleansing rituals that predated Christianity. In Old Testament times, converts to Judaism were required to undergo a purification and initiation rite. Leviticus 16 describes how priests themselves were expected to be symbolically cleansed by water before performing their priestly duties. Though not actually "baptisms", these rituals do hold similarities and highlight the priority of being cleansed.
At the birth of the New Testament era, John the Baptist emerged as a forerunner to Jesus. As a central part of his ministry, he performed a "baptism of repentance". Through this baptism, participants expressed a deep remorse for their sinfulness and a desire to be cleansed.
John's baptism, however, foreshadowed what was to come. Following the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, baptism took on a much deeper significance. As the Apostle Paul described in Romans 6, Christian believers were to be baptized into the death of Jesus and raised to new life. The act of going under the water represented the death of the old person (thus identifying with the Crucifixion), and the emergence from the water (or Resurrection) publicly testified to the new birth experienced through the grace of God.
Prior to his Ascension, Jesus mandated to his followers to continue the practice of baptism even as they spread his message around the world. In the Great Commission, he instructed his disciples to "go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19, NLT).
As the Christian Church took root, it began to systematize its practices. In keeping with John's baptism, some traditions required that participants to be fully immersed into the water. (The Greek word "baptizo" literally means "to immerse".) Other traditions, however, adopted the sprinkling or pouring of water as alternatives. Indeed, these options emerged early in Church history.
Within the first century of the Church, a handbook known as the Didache or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles was compiled, including sections pertaining to the ethics, rituals, and organization of the early Church. This treatise prescribed a period of fasting beforehand for both the baptism candidate and the baptizer, then gave the following instruction:
"Now about baptism: this is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then baptize in running water, 'in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.' If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times..."
(From The Didache, c. 60-100 AD)
Through the next two millennia, baptism would adopt many forms. While most traditions involve a variation of full immersion, pouring, or sprinkling, some sects choose not to use water at all. Instead, they consider baptism to be a spiritual act performed only by the Holy Spirit.
In some traditions, baptism is reserved only for those who have professed a personal faith in Jesus (i.e.. "believer's baptism"), whereas others practice the baptism of infants. (Particularly among many Reformation churches, the baptism of infants is not considered a valid option. Instead, these churches may perform "baby dedications" during which parents express their intent to raise their children according to Christian teachings with the hope that, someday, the children will adopt a personal faith in Jesus.)
Though specifics may vary, baptism continues to hold the same meaning it did for the Early Church. It is a physical act that identifies the candidate with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, "For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives" (Romans 6:4, NLT).
Most view baptism as a symbolic act, though some consider baptism to be the time when the person is truly regenerated and salvation occurs. Either way, baptism represents the washing away of sinfulness and the cleansing received through forgiveness and grace.
As described in Scripture, baptism is not intended to an optional activity. Rather, repentance and baptism are inseparably linked throughout the New Testament. Baptism is an initiation rite intended to be experienced by every follower of Jesus, regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, or geographic position.
Every convert, then, is expected to be baptized as a public declaration of his or her newfound faith. It not only represents an inward spiritual reality; it outwardly testifies to the work God has done. Considering this, baptism plays an important role in both personal discipleship and evangelism.
There is an element of accountability that comes with baptism, too. As the candidate publicly expresses his or her intent to follow Jesus throughout life, other believers come around to offer support and encouragement. Because the act is not performed in private, the likelihood that the person will simply walk away from faith is diminished.
The ritual of baptism, regardless of the variations, has been a unifying feature of the Christian Church. Believers throughout the centuries and around the world have been united through this simple act. Church buildings, rivers, lakes, backyard pools, and even bathtubs have each provided venues for baptisms to take place, and in each case the act represents a life-altering decision that will have repercussions into eternity.
The practice of Communion is perhaps the most meaningful and time-honored tradition within the Christian Church. Throughout the past 2000 years, it has been practiced and celebrated by Christians in all parts of the world. It is a common ritual that binds all Christians together. Fulton J. Sheen once said that, "The highest unity in the Divine order is the unity of the soul and Christ in communion."
Also known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist, the sacrament of Communion is based on the last supper Jesus ate with his followers before the Crucifixion. During that meal, Jesus took the unleavened bread (representing his body) and his cup of wine (representing his blood) and used them to explain to his disciples the events that were about to unfold. Jesus would die on a cross in order to exchange their sinfulness for forgiveness and eternal life.
As Jesus handed the bread and wine around the table, he explained the sacrifice he was about to make. He then told his followers to repeat the ceremony regularly, though the disciples did not fully grasp its significance at the time.
Following the Crucifixion, the celebration of Communion became a central expression of worship among Christ-followers. That maintains that status today. Through the years, however, the sacrament has assumed various forms. Specifically, the elements used and how they are handled has varied from era to era and from church to church.
Jesus originally instituted Communion during the Jewish Passover meal, during which only unleavened bread would have been used. He used the unleavened bread that would have been available on the table to represent his body.
He then handed around a cup of wine. Wine was a customary drink for Jews to have during their meal, so it would have been readily available, too. The early Christians essentially continued to serve Communion just as Jesus had done. But as the Church became established and began to expand throughout the Roman Empire (and beyond), the practice began to evolve.
The Western Church continued to use a cup of wine, but developed a stylized wafer to replace the unleavened bread. The Eastern Church, on the other hand, started using leavened bread, or bread with yeast. The rationale was that the leavened bread represented the new life that Jesus offered.
During the Middle Ages, the Church began to limit those who could participate in Communion. Spurred on by the Apostle Paul's warning not to take part in Communion in a disrespectful or irreverent way, the Church leaders began to partake in Communion while the congregation watched as spectators.
This became a major issue of the Protestant Reformation. The reformers demanded that the privilege of participating in Communion be offered again to all Christians. While the Catholic Church continued to restrict Communion to only the leadership, the newly formed Protestant churches offered Communion to all believers by handing around a single cup of wine and distributing leavened bread.
During in the 1800s, Protestant churches became increasingly concerned about the impact of Communion on recovering alcoholics. With the growing number of alcoholics that were being reached and brought into the Church, it did not seem appropriate to be serving an alcoholic wine. Nor was alcohol considered suitable for children.
So an alternative was sought. Since wine was the fermented juice from grapes, several Protestants began to experiment with ways to prevent the fermentation process. In 1869, Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch--a Methodist dentist--discovered a method to preserve grape juice in its unfermented state. Welch's Grape Juice--now a popular commercial product--was introduced as an alternative to Communion wine.
At this point, a single cup was still being used and handed around to all the participants during the serving of Communion. While this was not viewed as a major problem in small groups, it became increasingly obvious that it was not a sanitary practice for larger gatherings. With an increased understanding regarding the spread of germs and diseases, Protestant churches were forced to reexamine how Communion was being served. As a result, small individual Communion cups were developed and distributed in trays so that all the participants could have their own.
Today, two millennia since Jesus first introduced the practice, the message of Communion remains the same. The practice still calls to mind the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross and the resulting forgiveness and life being offered to all his followers.
But the elements of Communion and the method of serving them varies. Some churches serve all those present, some serve only the members, and some restrict Communion to the leadership. Some churches use wine, some use grape juice, and some offer both. Some churches use a single cup while others use individual communion cups. Some churches use unleavened matzo bread, some use pita, some use wafers, and some serve cubes of leavened bread. Sometimes the elements are served separately, and sometimes the bread is dipped into the juice or wine.
Considering that Jesus simply used the items that were at hand, it would seem that the exact elements are not critical. The significance of Communion lies in the message, not the items used. While the methods and elements may vary, the meaning is unchanged. It is a reminder for all believers about the core of their Christian faith.
Both these sacraments are essential components of the Faith, having been instituted by Jesus himself. As believers everywhere continue the practices, they look forward to the day their faith is fully realized and they stand in the presence of Jesus.