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8. Baptism and Freedom: Let My People Go!

Chapter 8

Baptism and Freedom: 
“Let My People Go!”

1Corinthians 10:1-2; Exodus 14

One word that captures the meaning of baptism

What is baptism all about? Can we sum it up in one word? There is one word I would like you to take home with you after the baptism today, a word that you will always remember every time you see a baptism. What word might that be?

One of the greatest events in biblical history is the Exodus from Egypt, in which about two million peo­ple left Egypt. This number is estimated from Exodus 12:37, which speaks of 600,000 men in the exodus, not counting women and children.

That is almost the popul­a­tion of Montreal [in the 1980s]. Imag­ine that you’re standing on top of Montreal’s Mount Royal and looking down on the city stretched out to the north, south, east, and west. Then imagine two million leaving Montreal, making it a ghost town. It would be disastrous for Canada if a tenth of its population moves out of an economically significant city. That would give you an idea of the scale of the Exodus: two million on the move. In one stroke, Egypt lost a large part of its population and workforce.

The most famous statement to emerge from the Exodus event is Let My people go (Exodus 5:1; 7:16; 8:1,20,21; 9:1,13; 10:3,4). You don’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to have heard the famous words, “Let My people go!”

You might say, “That’s four words, not one. Three too many!” Well, we can distill the whole statement into one word: freedom. The Bible in general, and Exodus in particular, is about freedom. I would like the word “freedom” to stick in your minds because freedom is some­thing that is even more important than physical life.

People seek freedom above all else

After the Berlin Wall was built, many people risked their lives, some even losing their lives, in their attempts to breach the wall. They felt that life on their side of the wall was not worth living, so it was “freedom or death”.

What kind of freedom were they seeking? Were they starving to death in East Berlin? No, they had enough to eat. They might not have luxury food but they weren’t dying of starvation.

So you ask them, “What’s the problem? You’ve got food to eat, clothes to wear, and sufficient heating in winter. What else do you want?”

“We want free­dom!”

“Okay, but if you escape to West Berlin, you might not get much there either. Who will guarantee you a job? In East Berlin, the government guaran­tees you a job, but not in West Berlin. But if you are willing to give up food and security for free­dom, that’s your choice, but it doesn’t make much sense to me.”

Yet the people wanted to flee to West Berlin. To them, freedom has everything to do with the meaning of life.

What about those who already live in West Berlin? If you ask them, “Do you have enough food, clothes, and money?” the answer would probably be, “Yes, more than enough. We are a rich society.”

“Then you must be content with life.”

“No we’re not.”

Don’t be surprised by this answer. It is not entirely fictitious. Many years ago I came out of China and went to Switzerland, one of the richest countries in the world. I asked the people there, “Switzerland has a high quality of life. You must be a happy people.” To my surprise, the general answer was:

“No we’re not.”

“Really? I just came out of Communist China where everyone wants to leave the country, even fleeing to Hong Kong which doesn’t match Switzerland’s quality of life. Everyone wants to move to Hong Kong even if means living in a hut on the hillside. Yet you’re not content in Switzerland?”

“No we’re not.”

How can people not be content in a rich country? The reason is that life is more than food and cloth­ing. But what is that “more”?

Freedom from sin

If you don’t care much for freedom, I have no message for you today, and you have wasted your time in coming to church. But if you want freedom, the Bible has some­thing to tell you. The Lord Jesus says that “life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Mt.6:25; Lk.12:23). What is that “more”?

Having food and clothing means nothing if you don’t have free­dom. You might say that you already have freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to vote. I am not talking about that kind of freedom, but freedom from sin, freedom from a bondage that is suffocating you. You are jealous of someone and that jealousy is destroying you. You envy some­one at work, and that envy is poisoning your heart. The bondage of sin is as destructive as any other bondage, for if you are living under it, sin will destroy you. You are in bondage to the forces that push­ you from every direction. Your job pushes you around, your boss pushes you around, your peers push you around, your office brings many temptations into your life. If day by day you are desperate to please the people around you, to live up to their expectations, do you have true free­dom?

Freedom. Think about it when you go to bed and when you wake up. Think of the meaning of life. Think of what you are studying or work­ing for. If you don’t want to think on these things, I have no message for you. The Bible speaks only to those who think about life. If you ease your mind with alcohol, or escape from reality with entertain­ment, that is fine, but the gospel will have nothing to say to you. But if life means more than food and clothing to you, then the Bible has a message for you.

In the early days of communist China, most people still had suff­ic­ient food and clothes. They weren’t star­ving to death. Yet many were willing to swim in shark‑infested waters to reach Hong Kong, and some didn’t make it. But for them it is freedom or death!

Why are some Christians willing to give up a prosper­ous future in the world for the sake of Christ? Because they see something that is more valuable than food and clothing: free­dom. You may have good food, nice clothes, and lots of money, but if you don’t have freedom, it is as if you have nothing. How many plates of food can you eat, how many pieces of clothes can you put on? Some spend half their lives eating, the other half dieting.

God calls you to be free

The apostle Paul says to the Corinthians:

I want you to know, breth­ren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. (1Corinthians 10:1-2, RSV)

This passage may seem hard to understand but it has a simple message for us. Paul is referring to the story in Exodus 14 of the parting of the Red Sea and Egypt’s pursuit of Israel after Israel had left Egypt. Before all this happened, the Israelites were still living in Egypt and were longing for freed­om. So Moses on behalf of God said to Pharaoh, king of Egypt: Let my people go.

But when the Israelites finally left Egypt, the Egyptian army with its mighty chariots pursued them right up to Israel’s encamp­ment by the sea. The Israelites found themselves in a precarious sandwiched situation: the sea in front, the Egyptian army behind.

The Israelites saw the approaching army, and great fear fell on them. They cried out to God, and then complained to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilder­ness?” (v.11). Yahweh then told Moses to lift up his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea to divide it (v.16). The angel of God then moved from his position in front of the Israelites to a position behind them, with a similar move­ment carried out by the pillar of cloud which now stood between the Israelites and the Egypt­ians (vv.19-20). This pillar was the one that guided the Israelites, being a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21).

Those of you who have watched the film The Ten Command­ments would know what happened next. God set His people free. Our God is a God who wants freedom for you, freedom for me, freedom for us to live a life that has meaning and purpose.

Does your life have meaning and purpose? If you are a non-Christian, are you content with your life as it is today?

Long ago when I was a non-Christian, I would often think about the meaning of life. I was very ambitious and aimed for the best in every­thing. But I would still ask, What is it all for? Where does it lead to? I had to concede that it was going nowhere, for all will come to nothing. Without true freedom, we will live in meaningless­ness. Life with­out God will forever be meaning­less. And the way to be satisfied with a life without God is: Just don’t think about it. Don’t think about death. But we will all die sooner or later even if we don’t think about it. And who knows what awaits us on the other side?

The gospel is for those who have the courage and honesty to see the real­ity of life, to admit that it is ephemeral, and to say, “Let me assess my situ­ation.” The gospel is for those who want to be set free.

True freedom comes from the power of resurrection

As you watch these dear ones being baptized, you will soon under­stand their reasons for choosing to be baptized. It is to be free from sin, free from the power of death, free from the utter meaningless­ness of this life. Without God, this life will end six feet under. If you are happy with that conclusion to your life, then the gospel has nothing to say to you.

But if you are not content to conclude your life in a hole in the ground some 10 or 20 or 50 years from now, but want true freedom, then the gos­pel has something to offer you more than wishful think­ing. But if death is the only certainty in life, we will have to accept it courageously.

When these dear ones are baptized, they won’t remain in the water any more than Jesus remained in the tomb. God raised Jesus from the dead, and likewise these dear ones will rise from the water into newness of life, into a freedom that belongs to the children of God.

I have experienced that freedom, which is why I now speak to you with conviction. Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). If I hadn’t experienced this freedom but am still living in bondage, then I would say to Jesus, “You are talking non­sense because I am not free.” But because I have exper­ienced that freedom, I proclaim this truth to you with confidence and certainty.

I could have pursued a secular career. I don’t think I would do any worse than you in your ca­reers. My re­cord isn’t bad, even in the world. Why then have I, like many others, turned my back on the world? Because I know that the world cannot give you true freedom when life ends in the ground. Our future will end right there. But when I discovered that Jesus rose from the dead to give us a new kind of freedom—the resurrection life—my life was transformed.

I am experiencing the liberating power of the resurrec­tion right now and not in some airy‑fairy future. If we don’t experience God’s power now, how can we be sure that it will work in the future? We could be dreaming for nothing. But I know that the resurrection power is real. And so does everyone who fulfills these words of the Lord Jesus: “Let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt.16:24; Mk.8:34; Lk.9:23). These dear ones who will be baptized today will experi­ence that freedom and power.

It takes power to be free from bondage. That is true even in the secular world. Literal poverty becomes a bondage when society lacks the means and determination to solve certain social prob­lems. But true freedom is ultim­ately not about physical power but the power that mat­ters: ­spiritual power. That is the kind of power that can break the bondage of sin.

The great powers of this world will pass away. Empires have come and gone. You too will pass away because your power is nothing on the grand scale of eternity. But God’s power never passes away but will abide forever.

When you see these dear ones go into the water and rise again, remem­ber that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal.5:1). Every time you witness a bap­tism in the future, think again of this truth: It is for freedom that God has set us free through Jesus Christ. Do you have this freedom?

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church