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One afternoon this past May, spiffed up in our best suits, my nephew and I stood in the lobby of a large event center in the Midwest. Somewhere in a distant room his fiancée was slipping into a beautiful wedding dress.

Two groups of people were streaming through the lobby—the wedding guests who were packing the hall where in a few minutes I would preside at the ceremony, and little clusters of university students and their parents who were bound for a graduation gathering at another location in the center.

As I reflected on these two groups, it occurred to me that they illustrate the two main ways most people think about baptism. Some think it’s like a graduation, a recognition for a completed course of study. Other people—and I belong to this group—know that baptism isn’t a graduation, nor is it a magic spell or good-luck charm to ward off evil and guarantee salvation. Rather, baptism is like a wedding. Several times in both Testaments, God very clearly speaks of Himself as the Groom and His believers as the bride (Isaiah 62:5; Revelation 19:7).

When my wife, Shelley, and I were married, it certainly wasn’t a graduation, because neither of us had any experience whatsoever in being married to each other or to anyone else. What we did have was love and an earnest commitment to join our lives together until death. My sweetheart and I have been married for 35 years—and we still haven’t “graduated”!

If you’ve been thinking about seeking baptism, I have some helpful Bible suggestions.

Learn how important baptism is to Jesus

Before He performed His first miracle or taught His first parable, Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3). Second Peter 2:22 says He never sinned, and He was already in a closer-than-marriage “Trinity relationship” with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ was baptized, not for His own salvation, but as an example to us.

Jesus Himself presided at baptismal services, though He wisely allowed His disciples to do the actual baptizing (John 4:1, 2). Otherwise, those who were baptized by Him might boast that being immersed by the Son of God made their Christianity more pure than other people’s.

Before He ascended to heaven, Jesus spoke His “Great Commission,” commanding His disciples to go into all the world, and He combined baptizing with making disciples and teaching (Matthew 28:18–20). A month and a half later, 3,000 people were baptized on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), a number that later swelled to 5,000 (Acts 4:4) and beyond.

Learn what baptism really means

Saul of Tarsus was one of the New Testament’s most influential converts, and shortly after he met Jesus in a dramatic vision on the road to Damascus, he was baptized (Acts 9:17–18). Soon he became known as Paul, and in Romans 6 he explains exactly what this ceremony signifies. “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:3–5, NKJV).

Paul made two main points.

Baptism means that Jesus lets me experience His death. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and since all have sinned (Romans 3:23), you and I and every other human being deserve death. Fortunately, Jesus died in our place, and now He asks us to participate symbolically in His death through baptism. That’s why Paul said that “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3).

Baptism means that Jesus raises me to a new life. If you ask Him, the Holy Spirit will change your motives so that you will truly follow Him into a new life where you become less and less selfish and more and more like Him. That’s what Paul had in mind when he went on to say that “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (verse 4).

Baptism also means that you have repented of your sins. Peter told the crowd listening to him preach on the Day of Pentecost, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Learn what should happen before you’re baptized

Baptism should happen after you express belief in Jesus. Paul cast a demon out of a fortune-telling slave girl in the town of Philippi, which got him and his companion Silas into trouble with the girl’s owners: they took the two preachers to court. The judge had the apostles thrown into prison! But they didn’t let that unfortunate turn of events discourage them. To the contrary, they sang songs of praise to God in their prison cell, turning their imprisonment into a midnight evangelistic concert!

Suddenly a powerful earthquake jolted the prison doors open, and all the inmates’ chains were loosened. The jailer, who was personally responsible for prison security and would have been executed for letting the prisoners escape, was about to commit suicide, but Paul stopped him.

The jailer must have been listening carefully to all the gospel music, because he sensed that he needed what Paul had. Here’s how the Bible describes the jailer’s response: “And he [the jailer] brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized” (Acts 16:30–33).

Did you spot another qualification for being baptized? Baptism should happen after God’s Word has been explained to you. While talking to the jailer, Paul first shared the “word of the Lord” more fully and only then were the jailer and his family baptized. Paul was simply following Jesus’ Great Commission advices to not only baptize but to teach and make disciples.

Other Bible baptisms show the importance of gaining some Bible knowledge before being baptized. The Ethiopian treasurer (Acts 8:28) was reading Isaiah as he traveled home from Jerusalem, and he needed the final understanding that Jesus was the Messiah. Then he was ready to be baptized. The same was true of the 3,000 devout Bible-believing Jews who were baptized on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:2).

Decide to be baptized soon

Have you been pondering whether to be baptized? After you’ve fulfilled the above conditions, don’t delay! Acts 22:16 says, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

Just like my nephew and his new bride, and just like my wife and me, your joy in Jesus will grow as the years go by. So don’t put it off!

How to Prepare for Baptism

by Maylan Schurch
From the October 2013 Signs