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2. Baptism: Death, Burial, and the New Life

Chapter 2

Baptism: Death, Burial, and the New Life

Mark 8:35
Liverpool, England, 1975

If you try to save your life, you will lose it

Today we look at Mark 8:35 in which we find the striking words of the Lord Jesus which have everything to do with salvation:

“For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (RSV)

To understand what Jesus is saying here, let’s look at the two parts of the verse. In the first part, Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it.” In reading these words, bear in mind that there is no need to save your life unless it is being threatened by a mortal danger. When you see that your life is in danger of being lost, you will try to save it.

In this verse, “lose” is translated from the Greek word appolumi which is defined in the standard BDAG Greek-English lexicon as “perish, be ruined” (along with a few other related definitions). Even if we didn’t have this lexical information, it is clear enough from Jesus’ state­ment that to lose your life means to die. If you try to save your life, all your efforts will be in vain because you will lose it.

You are caught between two things. Whichever way you turn, you face the reality of death. If you try to save your life, you will die. If you make no effort to save your life, you will also die. As the English would say, you are caught in a cleft stick—a stick that divides into two—such that which­ever way you turn, you run into a difficulty. Death is a stark reality for everyone in this church and in the world, and it remains so even if you try to argue it away.

All the young people in this church will get old one day, and their hair will start graying. You cannot halt, much less reverse, this process, not even by plucking out the gray strands. You can dye your hair, but white hair will come out just the same, forcing you to re-dye your hair. The older people here used to have the nice hair that the younger ones have now, so if you take pride in the youth­ful­ness of your appear­ance, you had better get used to the fact that it won’t last for long.

The problem is not only with graying hair but the fact that you are day by day moving closer and closer to the pit of the grave. What can you do to avoid falling into the pit? Take lots of vitamins? By all means take vita­mins and health supplements. Or exercise every day. Or get plastic surgery for your wrin­kles. Yet all your efforts to keep a youthful look cannot save you from the pit of the grave. You are getting closer and closer to it, day by day, minute by minute.

Jesus teaches this truth as a matter of fact, for there is no escape from the onward march to the grave, the common destiny of humankind.

The next verse, Mark 8:36, even speaks of forfeiting your life: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (RSV). The word “forfeit” means to lose some­thing. Jesus is say­ing, “What is the point of gaining the whole world if your final destiny is a hole in the ground?” You may get rich from your bus­iness, but will that prolong your life by one minute? It is often the opposite: The more intensely you pursue riches, the faster the riches will push you to the hole. Getting a coll­ege degree won’t delay your march to the pit either. Some of us have studied so hard for multiple degrees that we may have shortened our lives by a couple of years.

Gain life through death, or death through death

On the spiritual plane, what can you do to save your soul? Give money to the poor? Attend church regularly? Jesus says, “Nothing will save your life, not even your efforts to save it. At the end you will lose your life despite all your efforts to save it. There is only one way to save your soul, and that is to lose your life.”

My preaching has never departed from this truth, that there is no way of saving your life apart from losing it. You will either gain life through death, or death through death. The choice is yours. And you have been given the privilege of having such a choice in the first place, thanks to God’s work in Christ. You can choose life through death, or death through death.

Jesus says, “If any man loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s, he will save it.” It doesn’t mean that we won’t die physically. We will all die physically, for death is the common destiny of human­kind. The Bible doesn’t say that we will be spared physical death on account of Jesus’ death for us. To the contrary, the Bible teaches the importance of dying on our part: we die with Christ, and live with him to God.

Some years ago, a Chinese philosopher and writer by the name of Lin Yutang—he is a friend of our family—wrote a book, The Importance of Living, which is mainly about Chinese philosophy. He had since become a Christ­ian, so he wrote another book called From Pagan to Christ. If he were to write another book, it might be titled The Importance of Dying.

I am concerned that many Christians don’t see the import­ance of dying. Paul is speaking to Christians when he says, “For you have died” (Col.3:3). In fact he says many similar things in his letters such as: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him.” (2Tim. 2:11) Here Paul sees death as an accomplished reality: If you “have died” with Christ, you will live with him. Paul even depicts his own death as crucifix­ion: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal.2:20). He consist­ently teaches that every true Christian has died with Christ, and now lives the new life.

First die, then be buried with Christ in baptism

In what sense has Paul died? In what sense have we died? Some have tried to explain away the force of Paul’s words with arguments that don’t stand up to examination. Some say that the very act of baptism itself constitutes death, but this teach­ing is dangerous for implying that bap­tism saves us. Some Christians have been baptized on that premise, but the Bible never says that we die by—or die in—the very act of baptism. Study God’s word care­fully, which is so precise that we must not depart from it by one iota.

At baptism, what happens is that you die with Christ and are buried with him. This is brought out in Romans 6:4 which says that “we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death”. Elsewhere Paul says:

... having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:12, ESV)

Death comes before burial. If you have not yet died, you will be buried alive! The Bible is precise in its sequence: To be buried with Christ in bap­tism, you must first die.

I say to those who have been baptized without having died first: your baptism has no validity because you cannot bury some­one who has not died. It would not be a real burial. It would be like covering a person with cemetery soil, only for him to climb out of the grave. God hadn’t resurrected him, but he climbed out of the grave. If he hasn’t died, how can he have the resurrection life? You cannot raise someone from the dead unless he is dead. Romans 6:5 says:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (RSV)

If you have died with Christ, you will be raised with him. But if you haven’t died, neither will you have the resurrection life. I fear that the church is full of people who have gone through a burial ceremony only to crawl out of the grave. After getting a baptismal wash, they stand up and proclaim, “Here I am, a Christian!”

I say to those who are contemplating baptism: Whatever you do, don’t get baptized until you know what it means to die. The church already has too many false Christians, and doesn’t need any more, especially those who dishonor the name of God and of the church throughout the world.

Yesterday I read a letter that a man had written to his daughter in Liverpool. The father, a non-Christian, said things which echo with my heart. He said to her, “Don’t be one of those superficial Christians who have the outward appearance but no inner substance. The world is full of them!” How right he was! He himself didn’t want to become a Christian or his daughter to become a Christian because the church is full of this kind of Christian. Again I say to you who are thinking of baptism: Whatever you do, don’t get baptized until you know what it means to die.

No resurrection life unless you have died

When Jesus speaks of death, and when Paul says “you have died,” what kind of death are they talking about? A pretend death as in children’s games? “Bang! You shot me, I’m dead!” Some Christians view their death as a pretend death, taking “consider yourselves dead” (Romans 6:11) to mean a symbolic death, not a real death.

But you will never experience the resurrection life or God’s eternal life until you have died in the biblical sense. The Bible does not teach an imaginary or a pretend death, or that baptism is just a ritual in which you dive into the water, come out, and you are saved!

Baptism is the outward expression of an inward transaction that takes place before baptism. Without that transaction, your bap­tism will have no validity whatsoever. Baptism is not some kind of rite that saves you when you walk into the magical water and come out saying, “I am saved!” We are not here to play games with God in the matter of salvation, and God is not here to play games with us.

The Lord’s statement in Mark 8:35 is so important that it occurs five times in the first three gospels alone. Jesus repeats this statement to drill it into our minds. It occurs twice in Matthew (10:39; 16:25), twice in Luke (9:24; 17:33), and once in Mark (8:35), with a parallel in John 12:25. Mark 8:35 is so import­ant that it bears repeating:

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35, RSV)

Jesus and Paul both teach, using different metaphors, that when we die with Christ, this death is a real death and not a figment of our ima­ginat­ion. Many Christians think that because Christ died for us, there is nothing more for us to do. If this is your understand­ing of the matter, then you are still thinking of your dying as some­thing imaginary. But in the Bible, the death is real. Christians often quote Paul without under­stand­ing what he means when he says: “I have been crucified with Christ (perfect tense); it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal.2:20)

A few chapters later, Paul goes on to say, “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal.6:14, RSV). Paul is dead to the world, and the world is dead to Paul. Do these words mean anything to you? Not until you understand what dying means in everyday life.

You may ask, “Will this death erase my personality, making me a puppet?” If you think like that, it means that you don’t under­stand what dying means. If you have died with Christ and have been raised with him, you would not have asked such a question, for you would be living in the power of the new life. Your thinking will have been changed by “the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The new person has a new mind, the mind of Christ.

Paul says that our “old self” was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). In the Greek, the term is literally “old man”. The old man who is enslaved to sin has died. It doesn’t mean that our old nature has been eradi­cated, for the old nature is embedded in the flesh which is still in my body: “Nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). Insofar as we still have flesh in this age, we need to continually put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit of God, and not live according to the flesh (Romans 8:13).

Death is not merely martyrdom

We now conclude the vital matter of dying with Christ, being buried with him in baptism, and becoming a new person. I hope that you will take this message to heart because it pertains to your salvat­ion. Don’t let Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35 go past you at the cost of your eternal life.

When Jesus says that those who lose their lives for his sake and the gospel’s sake will be saved, he is not just talking about a martyr’s death. In most countries today, few Christians will ever get a chance to be mar­tyred or to stand before a firing squad. If martyrdom is Jesus’ main point, then few will be saved. Will we go up and down England, north to south, looking for someone who is will­ing to shoot us?

Jesus is not just talking of martyrdom. In fact it is usually easier to die a martyr’s death than to live as a true Christian. The Christian life is much hard­er than a quick death by a bullet. Those who have died for Christ in their daily lives have died more truly than anyone who gets shot for Christ in a moment of hot blood.

We can experience death as an everyday reality. Let’s use the illustration of physical death. Physical death can happen to anyone, suddenly. One day you may fall asleep and not wake up. If you die tonight, what will happen to your family? To your job? Who will inherit your house and car? What will happen to your business? If you are dead, you are no longer concerned about these things, for death severs your ties to them.

Right now you are still living in the world, so what is your attit­ude towards your car or your family if you have died with Christ? If you have died with Christ, do you still long for praise from men? Do worldly ambitions mean much to you?

If you have died with Christ, the evidence of this death will be seen in your thinking, your conduct, your speech, and your whole life direction. There is nothing imaginary about dying. Paul says, “I have been crucified to the world” (Gal.6:14). You are dead to the world through the cross of Christ. You regard the world as a dead man would. You are in the world, “yet not of the world” (John 17:14), for you are born from above.

It takes faith to turn your back on the world. Saving faith is not just believing in this or that doctrine, but something that is seen in a new life in which you die to the world, and experience Jesus’ resurrection by God’s power.

Have you experienced God’s resurrection power? Have you been raised with Christ? Or is it just fiction to you? Brothers and sisters, if you have not experienced this as a living reality, you are still in your sins: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Cor.15:17). If Christ has not been raised by God, we cannot be raised with him, and we are dead in our sins. Have you truly died? Only then will you know what it means to live.

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church