New bottles for new wine – Christ and the Pharisees
Jesus was teaching during a meal, at which were present publicans, blatant sinners, Pharisees, and disciples of John.
Likely prompted by the presence of John’s disciples, whose baptism Jesus respected, the Pharisees present asked
“Why will ye not receive us with our baptism, seeing we keep the whole law?
But Jesus said unto them, Ye keep not the law. If ye had kept the law, ye would have received me, for I am he who gave the law.
I receive not you with your baptism, because it profiteth you nothing, for when that which is new is come, the old is ready to be put away.
For no man putteth a piece of new cloth on an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up, taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse.
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles, else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish, but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” (Joseph Smith translation of KJV Matthew 9)
Jesus had something pure and good to offer them. He was offering a new covenant, and an invitation to enter the kingdom of God. He described the terms of that covenant in the Sermon on the Mount: humility, repentance, and obedience to his commandments, in exchange for being grafted into God’s family and kingdom, knowing God personally, and eternal life. He repeated the same teachings at other times to ensure all audiences understood the covenant he offered (Luke 6, 3 Nephi 12-15).
He likens this offer to a piece of new cloth, and to new wine. Just as it is not fit to sew new cloth onto a worn-out garment, nor to put new wine into an old wineskins, what Jesus was offering could not simply be grafted on to the Pharisees’ existing religious structure, doctrine, traditions, and rites. These things were corrupted enough to be fully incompatible with his gospel, and any attempt to force his message into or onto them would shatter the container, tear the fabric, and allow the truth (the new wine and new fabric) to be lost in the process. Accepting what Jesus was offering, and in turn being accepted of him, would require accepting rebaptism.
Though they claimed to “keep the whole law”, their concepts of “law” and of “keeping” were both incorrect. The primary evidence for that incorrectness was that they had not accepted Jesus’ ministry. Their rebaptism should have been a sign of the necessary repentance: a willingness to “become as a little child”, acknowledging they know nothing and that their obedience was not correct, and allowing God to rebuild their understanding of eternal truth from the foundation.
Most of the Pharisees, and most of the inhabitants of Judea, were likely not aware of the true magnitude and nature of the events playing out around them. They may have heard of John the Baptist, and perhaps some had heard of Jesus; but without paying extremely close attention to what was taught by those men they could not have known that the “kingdom” of the Jews had already been overthrown, that a new covenant was offered, and that the required sign of their acceptance of the offer was rebaptism.
A new covenant offered – Joseph Smith and the Nephites
Joseph Smith received similar questions in the weeks after the organization of the Church of Christ, as people who had previously been baptized in other denominations desired to join the Church without rebaptism. On April 16, 1830, the Lord responded to these questions:
A commandment unto the church of Christ which was established in these last days AD 1830, on the 4th month and the 6th day of the month, which is called April: Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing, and this is a new and everlasting covenant. Wherefore, although a man should be baptized a hundred times it availeth him nothing, for ye cannot enter in at strait gate by the law of Moses, neither by your dead works, for it is because of your dead works that I have caused this last covenant and this church to be built up unto me. Wherefore enter ye in at the at gate as I have commanded and seek not to counsel your God.
When God sends a messenger to renew his command to repent of dead works and false traditions and to be baptized, baptism is the appropriate sign of repentance. It signals that you are willing to enter into a covenant with God to be obedient to all the commandments he has given, and that he will give you (Mosiah 5:5).
Even Joseph and the others present on April 6th were rebaptized on that day to honor the new beginning marked by the Church’s formal organization, though most or all of them had been properly baptized before that (DHC 1:77).
When Christ offers a new covenant, or reestablishes an old covenant, baptism is the appropriate sign of acceptance even when a valid baptism has been performed before.
For instance, at least some of those present at Bountiful for Christ’s ministry beginning in 3 Nephi 11 had previously received or administered authorized baptisms under the previous covenant (3 Nephi 7:23-26). Those previous baptisms included rebaptisms of people who had lapsed from religious observance in the previous several years (3 Nephi 6:14). Even for these people, the rule among the Nephites was that “there were none who were brought unto repentance who were not baptized with water” (3 Nephi 7:24). Thus, when Christ offered the new covenant at Bountiful, and renewed his commandment for all to repent and be baptized, some of those present could have received at least two authorized baptisms before. Though they had been baptized, and their sins remitted, and they had receive the Holy Ghost, the people at Bountiful accepted Jesus’ offer by being baptized again, and their choice was honored by the outpouring of the Holy Ghost and unspeakable revelations (3 Nephi 19:11-12; 3 Nephi 26:17). The process of authorization to perform baptisms was also made new (3 Nephi 11:21-22).
Personal renewal – Nauvoo and now
Baptism is also the sign revealed by God by which a person can renew their personal relationship with God when they feel it is needed. Brigham Young recalled his joy when Joseph told him of the revelation he had received, which included both permission to be rebaptized personally and for the dead:
I know that in my traveling and preaching, many a time, I have stopped by beautiful streams of clear, pure water, and have said to myself, “How delightful it would be to me to go into this, to be baptized for the remission of my sins.” When I got home Joseph told me it was my privilege. At this time came a revelation, that the Saints could be baptized and rebaptized when they chose, and then that we could be baptized for our dear friends. (JoD 18:241).
While we do not have the text of the revelation, we do have Joseph’s instructions on the topic in the Times and Seasons of 7 April, 1842:
Baptisms for the dead, and for the healing of the body must be in the font, those coming into the church and those rebaptized may be done in the river.
William Huntington Sr.’s autobiography contains a record of Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon being baptized according to that order “for the remission of their sins” on 11 April, 1841, which gives us a recorded count of at least three valid recorded baptisms for Joseph Smith by that date.
Baptisms of Latter-day Saints for the renewal of covenant were common in the decades following, and are referenced in many journals, diaries, and biographies. It was accepted by them as the order of God instituted for the renewal of their covenants. Members sought rebaptism at times of transition or induction into new aspects of their religion. Rebaptisms were performed upon arrival to the Salt Lake Valley, during the attempted “Mormon Reformation” of 1856-1857, when called to colonizing missions outside of Salt Lake, when called to participate in a United Order effort, when being ordained to a new office, to prepare for marriage, or to prepare to enter the Temple.
It became gradually less common by the end of the 19th century and was phased out as an official Church function during Joseph F. Smith’s administration. In the meantime, the non-scriptural teaching that the sacramental bread and wine renew our covenants had become widespread enough that the weekly sacrament was thought sufficient to provide renewal. It is unclear where this teaching began. The earliest record I have found of it is a second-hand quotation of a statement of Brigham Young found in The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.112: “The bread and cup [are for] a renewal of their covenants.” Elder Neil L. Andersen recently acknowledged in an April 2015 leadership training that this doctrine, though now universally thought of as orthodox, was not scriptural and should not be the primary instruction regarding the sacrament among Latter-day Saints. To preserve a record, here is what he said:
“The title ‘renewing our baptismal covenants’ is not found in the scriptures. It is not inappropriate. Many of you [gesturing to audience of Seventies and Auxiliary leaders] have used it in talks. We [gesturing to other apostles sitting on the stand behind him] have used it in talks, but it is not something that is used in the scriptures. And it can’t be the keynote of what we say about the sacrament.
Though not encouraged or recorded in any way by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, baptisms for renewal of covenant are no less a revealed practice now than they were in 1841. After May 15, 1829 ministers authorized to baptize will always be found as long as the Earth stands. You may stop by beautiful streams of clear, pure water, and have said to yourself as Brigham Young did, “How delightful it would be to me to go into this, to be baptized for the remission of my sins.” You may be as happy as he to learn that God has revealed that it is our privilege, and has never rescinded that privilege.
You may also hear a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” inviting you to repent. That voice may invite you to carefully study the revelations of God in scripture, and to compare them to your own religion with newly opened eyes. You may recognize that your religious beliefs are so interwoven with the traditions of men that they have become like an old garment. You may feel the need to become as a little child, allowing your heart to become soft and your mind fully open, prepared to reconsider even your most cherished beliefs and exchange them at once for something true. Baptism is the sign instituted by God for this repentance and recommitment. It was the practice among the Nephites (3 Nephi 7:23), and we have been commanded to do as the Book of Mormon teaches (D&C 84:57-58). When you hear that voice crying, and it is now crying, repent of your sins and be baptized as a sign of that repentance. Your old traditions and practices cannot contain the new covenant offered, any more than cracked wineskins can contain new wine.
I wish I could plead with the Judeans at the time of John and Jesus. The best I can do is to say to you what I would say to them:
Listen carefully now, at this moment. Pay close attention, or you will fail to see the seismic shift that is happening. Events that look small, insignificant, and unimportant may be pivotal in the history of the world. When you hear and see, fight through the offense you take at the words of these wild men. Fight against the fear you feel and the threat you perceive in their message. Fight through your distaste for the cadence of their voice and the style of their writing. Become now as a little child. I know their message contradicts much of what you know; Carefully weigh the message against the scriptures and you will find a burst of light. I know the message seems to set you at variance with your religious leaders and with your fellow members; but through it God can fill you with love for those people and allow you to better serve and minister to them. I know those who claim to have received these messengers are often foolish and unwise, and lack any good fruit; Don’t do as those followers do; instead, hear the voice of the spirit and bring forth fruit yourself: fruit meet for repentance.
Kingdoms have been overthrown in silence, and nations have been disowned by God without feeling that the world had shifted under their feet. You think you have a protected status as God’s covenant people, but today you have no more standing before God than the stones on the ground around you, of which God can raise up all the covenant people he needs. It is terrifying to think of yourself naked and unprotected before God, but you must acknowledge your nakedness before he can clothe you with his glory. Allow these messengers to inform you of your exposure. See your own nakedness, and allow God to clothe you as you would clothe an infant. And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things.