Let’s nail our colours to the mast in baptism

The term ‘Nailing your colours to the mast’ has its roots in the Battle of Camperdown, fought on 11 October 1797 between the British and Dutch ships as part of the French Revolutionary Wars. The British fleet was led by HMS Venerable, the flagship of Admiral Adam Duncan. Initially the battle didn’t go well for the English. The mainmast of Duncan’s vessel was struck and the admiral’s blue ensign (‘colours’) was brought down. Realising that this could be interpreted as a sign of surrender, Jack Crawford, a 22-year-old sailor stepped forward. Despite being under intense gunfire, he climbed what was left of the mast and nailed the colours back to where they were visible everybody. The act proved crucial in the battle and Duncan’s forces were eventually victorious. Crawford returned home to a hero’s welcome and was given a silver medal and a government pension of £30 per year!

Crawford had guts – and so too had Jesus, when at his trial he “in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession” (1 Tim 6.13). Had Jesus ‘played his cards right’, he could have provided Pilate with an excuse to set him free. But Jesus refused to back down, even when the odds were stacked unfairly against him. When Pilate asked, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (John 18.33), Jesus did not deny that he was the Messiah, God’s Son. He stood his ground – in Paul’s words, he “made the good confession”. Or as we could say, he ‘nailed his colours to the mast’.

In terms of this series on worship, what is significant is that Timothy too “made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim.6.12). Some have suggested that the reference here is Timothy’s general witness to Jesus   – but the past tense (Greek aorist) Paul used suggests that he had in mind a particular occasion. Others have suggested that the reference is to Timothy’s ‘ordination’, – but there is no evidence that at that time the ‘ordinand’ had to make a solemn confession of faith in Jesus. Yet another suggestion is that the reference is to Timothy’s appearance before a magistrate in a court of law, but this could scarcely be described as a summons “to eternal life”. The most natural suggestion is that Paul was referring to Timothy’s baptism, for in the early church this was the moment when Christians confessed their faith “in the presence of many witnesses” and in so doing so sealed their “call to eternal life”. It is true that the word ‘baptism’ does not feature, but the parallelism between “you made the good confession” and “the eternal life to which you were called” shows that this confession was made by Timothy at the beginning of his Christian life, and as a result the general scholarly consensus is that baptism is in view. In the early church baptism was the moment when new Christians confessed their faith for all to see. It was then that ‘they nailed their colours to the mast’.

Today, not just in Baptist churches, but in many other churches too (including Anglican churches who are increasingly welcoming people who have not been christened as a child but who have come to faith) are seeing people confessing their faith in baptism. Baptism is the moment when we ‘come out of the closet’ and confess Jesus for all to see.

Baptism is the time when we confess Jesus “in the presence of many witnesses”. I shall never forget one lady who asked me if she could be baptised privately, on a Sunday afternoon, when nobody else was around. But baptism is not a private act – it is a public act – and the more public the better. When I was minister of a local church, I used to encourage baptismal candidates to bring along as many friends and relatives as possible to their baptism. For baptism is the moment for nailing our colours to the mast. This is the moment for telling the world that we belong to Jesus

Strange as it may seem to some in other churches, in many Baptist churches people “make the good confession” three times on the day of their baptism.

  • First, within the service but before they are baptised, candidates normally give a short testimony, when we speak of what Jesus means to us.
  • Then, in the pool, they confess their faith a second time, when in response to the question “Do you profess repentance toward God and faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord”, they say “I do”
  • Thirdly, they confess their faith in the actual act of baptism. For when in baptism “they are “buried with him [Christ] in baptism, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6.4). they are in effect saying as they go under the water, ‘Yes Lord, you died for me’, and as they come up out of the water they are in effect saying ‘Yes Lord, you rose for me’. And in identifying themselves with the Lord who died and rose, they are in effect resolving to die to self and to live for Christ alone.

Not that Baptists have always understood Scripture aright.  In the past at least, there has been a strange reluctance to accept that here in 1 Tim 6.12 Paul speaks of baptism as being the moment when we take hold of God’s gift of eternal life. Many Baptists prefer to see baptism as simply an act of obedience to the Great Commission (Matt 28.19, 20). They prefer to understand baptism as an ‘ordinance’ of the church (something laid down Christ) rather than a ‘sacrament’ of the church (‘an outward sign of an inward grace’). As a result they feel uncomfortable with Scriptures like Tit 3.5 (God “saved us… through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”) and 1 Pet 3.21 (“Baptism…. now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience”). Clearly the mere act of being immersed (or sprinkled) does not save: it is the faith which is enacted in baptism which saves.

Although baptism was not a major issue when Paul was writing to Timothy, nonetheless he refers to baptism both here in 1 Tim 6.12 as also in 2 Tim 2.11-13. Baptism remains a great opportunity to ‘nail our colours to the mast’ and in this way proclaim that Jesus is Lord – Lord not just of our lives or indeed of his church, but also Lord of the world.

One comment

  1. So thankful for your father’s book “Baptism Today & Tomorrow “ when a young (19) theological student in Queensland back in 1966.

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