Ordinances are rituals. In some churches, they’re elaborate. Donning resplendent robes, officiants preside over communion with gold dishes and cups and use baptismal fonts hewn from marble.
Other churches adopt a minimalist approach: unadorned communion supplies of wood or ceramic and baptisms performed anywhere there’s water: lakes, pools, even bathtubs.
Although their styles vary, most churches agree on the indispensability of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper because these rituals trace back to the life and teachings of Jesus.
Over the objections of John the Baptist, Christ submitted to water baptism.
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented. 16As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” – Matthew 3:13-17
And prior to His arrest, the last supper Jesus ate with His disciples became the basis of the Lord’s Supper which Christians practice.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ 23Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them.” – Mark 14:22-24
Christ exemplified the ordinances, but He also expected them to be conducted by His followers.
Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” – Matthew 28:18-20
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
But I understand why some Christians either devalue the ordinances or dispense with them altogether. Since the work of Jesus Christ suffices for our salvation, they argue that we have no need for symbolic rituals. Human efforts, including religious works, cannot supplement what the Lord has accomplished by His death and resurrection. Indeed, they often end up competing with God’s grace in Christ.
“And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” – Romans 11:6
Why then did Jesus institute eucharist and baptism? What purpose do they serve in the Spirit-filled life of the believer?
They connect us to a God who thinks and acts ritually.
Although the Lord rejects empty ceremonies, He does not oppose rituals themselves. In fact, rituals are baked into the created order.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11
The Almighty never tires, but He ceased from His labor of creation to teach us that we need to take regular breaks. Work isn’t evil (even if sometimes it feels that way!), but working non-stop harms our physical and psychological health and damages our relationship with God.
So the ritual of Sabbath-keeping is built into creation and codified in the law of Moses.
But aren’t New Testament believers liberated from the requirements of the Old Testament? Yes, but not in the way that some Christians suppose.
Here’s what Jesus had to say on the subject:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” – Matthew 5:17-18
Jesus ties together creation and law as the objects of His redemptive intentions. As His disciples, we enjoy the fulfillment He provides. Ours is not an obligation, but an invitation to honor Jesus for what He has done on our behalf. We now have the freedom to celebrate the rituals Christ ordains–baptism and the Lord’s Supper–because these point to His sacrifice for us.
Rituals, whether ordained for Israel or the Church, cannot substitute for the saving sacrifice of Christ. But they can convey the meaning of Jesus’ work for the world.
So however you choose to celebrate the ordinances, make sure that you keep Christ as the focus.
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” – Colossians 2:16-17