Back in the early 1980s I was the pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in the small town of Alvarado, Texas. Alvarado is on Interstate 35-W about 30 miles south of Fort Worth (Interstate 35-E goes through Dallas).
During the time I was pastor of the Alvarado church; an elderly woman contacted me one day and asked whether I would study the Bible with her. Her name has long since faded from my memory, so I’ll call her Margaret. Margaret said she would like to be baptized before she died, and she asked whether I would perform the service. Of course, I agreed, and we met a number of times to study the Bible and prepare her for baptism. I explained to her God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, why Adventists observe the Sabbath on Saturday, and numerous other teachings in the Bible.
And, of course, we studied about baptism. I explained to Margaret that baptism itself doesn’t change us. It’s an expression of a change that we’ve already experienced—our “death” to our pre-Christian way of life and our “resurrection” to a new way of life in Christ. That’s how Paul explained it in Romans 6:4: “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
I also called Margaret’s attention to an important statement about baptism that Jesus made in a conversation He had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He began by explaining to Nicodemus the importance of what the Bible calls the “new birth.” Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).
Nicodemus took Jesus literally, and he said, What! “Surely [a man] cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (verse 4).
Jesus was very patient with Nicodemus. He said, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (verse 5).
Jesus’ statement that a person needs to be “born of water” can be understood as a reference to baptism, but even more important, water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. For example, in the very next chapter of John, Jesus was sitting on the edge of Jacob’s well in Samaria, and he asked a Samaritan woman who came to the well for a drink of water. The woman expressed surprise at Jesus’ request, because back then the Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies. Then Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
The “living water” that Jesus spoke about was another reference to conversion. So when Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born of water, he made a dual reference to both baptism and the new birth.
Jesus also told Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of God he would have to be born of “the Spirit” (John 3:5). This is another play on words, because in the Greek language, which is the language of the New Testament, the word pneuma means both “wind” and “spirit.”
So when Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, He actually used two words that referred to conversion: water and wind. And this is the same thing as the rising to “a new life”—the converted life—that Paul said baptism represents.
So while baptism itself doesn’t change people, it’s a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who does change us on the inside and starts us on that new way of life.
I explained all of this to Margaret, and she said, Yes, she wanted to be baptized.
Now, there’s one other thing you need to know about Margaret: she was an invalid who could barely walk—crawl would probably be a more accurate word. Whenever I rang Margaret’s doorbell, I knew I would have to wait several minutes for her to slowly get out of bed, steady herself on her walker, and shuffle her way to the door, dragging her oxygen tank behind her. Once inside, I would follow her as she slowly shuffled back to her bedroom and got into bed. I gave Margaret all of her Bible studies as I sat on a chair beside her bed. Margaret had a sharp mind. She was a good student, and it was a pleasure studying with her.
It seemed to me, however, that it would be very difficult for Margaret to be baptized. In our church, as in many churches that baptize by immersion, baptismal candidates had to walk up several steps to the edge of the baptistry and down even more steps into the water. Margaret could barely walk with the aid of a walker. How could she ever get up and down those steps twice—once to get into the baptistry and again a few minutes later to get out?
I called Margaret’s attention to the story of the thief on the cross who asked Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). It would obviously have been impossible for the thief to come down from his cross and be baptized. Nevertheless, Jesus promised him that he would be with Him “in paradise” (verse 43).
“So, Margaret,” I said, “given your condition, I would be perfectly glad to take you into the membership of the Alvarado Adventist church on your profession of faith in Jesus rather than your actual baptism.”
I’ll never forget Margaret’s response. She said, “Pastor, if I die in that baptistry, I’m going to be baptized!”
I said, “OK,” and we set the date for her baptism.
The deacons filled the baptistry with water the Friday night before, and the next morning two or three extra deaconesses were on hand to help Margaret into her baptismal robe and up the steps to the edge of the baptistry. I met her at the top of the steps and helped her down into the water. I introduced Margaret to the congregation, and then I raised my hand and said, “Margaret, because of your love for Jesus, your desire to serve Him the rest of your life on this earth, and your desire to spend eternity with Him in heaven, I now baptize you ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ ” (Matthew 28:19). Then I lowered her gently into the water and back up again.
I helped Margaret back up the steps and handed her over to the deaconesses, who, after easing her down the steps on the other side, helped her dry off and change into the dry clothes she’d brought along.
I was very pleased with Margaret’s strong desire to be baptized in spite of her handicap, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened the following Sabbath morning: Margaret came to church—and she wasn’t carrying her oxygen or using her walker. In fact, she was walking quite normally!
I exclaimed, “Margaret, what happened? Where’s your oxygen? How come you aren’t using your walker?”
She said, “Pastor, something happened in that baptistry last Sabbath. I could feel it when I came up out of the water. I went to see my doctor this week, and he said it’s a miracle. I was healed of my infirmity in that baptistry last Sabbath!” Margaret died a few years later, but until shortly before her death she came to church faithfully every Sabbath, and I never saw her use her oxygen or her walker again.
I conducted many baptisms during the years that I was a pastor, and I’ve conducted a few since becoming the editor of Signs of the Times®. But that Sabbath morning in Alvarado, Texas, when I baptized Margaret, is the only time I’ve seen an actual miracle happen in the baptistry. Or is it? Actually, every baptism is a miracle—the miracle of a changed life that’s dedicated to serving Jesus in this life and spending eternity with Him in the next.