It’s an expensive-looking indoor pool, like you might see in a movie: crystalline, surrounded by sandy terracotta tiles and lit under studio-quality down lights. It’s the kind of pool a powerful person jumps into after a long day of trading on the stock exchange. It’s the kind of pool many people dream about but could never enjoy. It’s the kind of pool a very wealthy person owns. But something’s different.
For a start, there are musicians playing in the corner – a worship team, in fact. That’s unusual. Also, everybody seems to be dressed the same: simple black T-shirts with three bold symbols in white: a cross, an equals sign and a heart. As the musicians – a keyboardist and a vocalist – sing their song, a group of about thirty people mill about the edge of this luxury pool in what is obviously some kind of mansion. Some hug, some chat, some sing, some simply sit waiting. As the camera pans across the group, an athletic young man stands near the steps at the water’s edge. We see someone else already in the pool, waiting; a microphone is held down in front of him so he can speak. Suddenly the young man on the edge gingerly steps into the water as the people behind him – friends and family – applaud and cheer. Now he is given the microphone, so he can say something. “Jesus é amor não tem explicação. Basta crer nele, basta acreditar e sentir o Espírito Santo,” he beams in Portuguese. Roughly translated: Jesus’ love has no explanation. Just believe in Him, just believe and feel the Holy Spirit.
Then two men are standing alongside him, with a woman in the water as well. She’s his wife. They place their hands on him, lower him into the water and bring him back up. He’s just been baptized, just like three thousand people were baptized on the day of Pentecost, just like an Ethiopian official was baptized on the road to Gaza, just like Saul the murderer was baptized in Damascus, just like a repentant jailer and his whole family were baptized in Philippi, and just like millions upon millions of followers of Jesus have done for the last two thousand years. His wife, crying, embraces him. He gives a triumphant fist pump into the air, and then lays his head on his wife’s shoulder. They weep together.
His name is Roberto Firmino, and he is one of the goal-poaching superstars of Liverpool Football Club, arguably the best club team in the world right now. In the water with him is the team’s goalkeeper, fellow Brazilian Alisson Becker. Firmino posts the baptism footage, 57 seconds long, to his Instagram feed, where four million people view it. As the clip fades to black, a portion of Mark 16:16 fills the screen: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved…”
(Watch the Instagram Clip here)
If you understand anything about the English Premier League, and global football in general, you’ll know that many religious gestures are found on and off the field. They’re tolerated but not encouraged because, in all honesty, football is the true religion. The multimillionaire stars are quite literally worshipped. Songs are sung about them. Their stats are obsessed over. The moods of millions upon millions of fans are directly affected by how well they perform. TV channels, websites, social media feeds, radio stations and print magazines discuss them endlessly. And so a player himself may be religious, but the outward expression of his faith is tolerated only in small, vague doses: an angel tattoo, a sign of the cross made over the chest, two fingers pointed to the heavens after a goal. But a full-on, public, unashamed New Testament baptism posted to one of the world’s biggest media-sharing platforms? Firmino and Alisson aren’t second-string reserves, or former players who feel brave now that the heat of public scrutiny is behind them; they are at the top of their game, and there they are – not only proudly standing in a pool and declaring an allegiance to Jesus, but posting it online so that as many people as possible can see it. That’s not normal.
So what exactly is going on here?
Well, for one thing, it would seem to be a sign of a genuine conversion. Responding to the gospel involves not only a private revelation inside a person’s heart, but also a public acknowledgment that they have become a new person. Being born again requires not only sincere repentance but a bold declaration of allegiance. Many of the baptisms that I have been part of have taken place at a small pool created by a rocky enclosure on a beach in the city where I live. On a summer day the place is filled with people, and I’ve watched friends proudly pray, worship and celebrate a new life coming out of the water, no matter who is watching. In many countries where the gospel is actively suppressed, you may be targeted upon a declaration of faith in Jesus, but your life actually becomes endangered when you enter the waters of baptism because you have taken a physical, unambiguous stance. These two Premier League footballers are loved and celebrated, not persecuted, but the fact remains that they’ve publicly done something that polarizes many people and has the potential to create enemies who were once friends. That requires true and uncompromising faith.
I believe that there’s also a bigger picture for us to take note of, and it’s something that shows us the way the world is heading.
Roughly speaking, Christians seem to divide into two camps when it comes to how the world is going to play out before Jesus returns. The beliefs aren’t based on a highly developed eschatology, but more on a feeling brought about by a combination of what the Bible says and what popular leaders preach. The first camp sees the world around it getting worse and worse, and understands that the true church is being whittled down until only those who are truly prepared to follow Jesus remain. This view is perfectly legitimate and grounded in reality: Jesus spoke alarmingly about the final days, the deception of many and the love of most growing cold. But this truth can quickly morph into a circle-the-wagons-and-stock-the-nuclear-bunker mentality. It’s all getting irretrievably worse, a person thinks, so hold on for dear life and consider most other people – including many Christians – with skepticism, as those who’ve been deceived. That’s one view.
The other view occupies the opposite end of the spectrum: God’s people are the head, not the tail. We’ve been given dominion on this earth, and we’re going to rise to the top of all sectors of society in order to get this world ready for Jesus’ return. In this view different sectors of society are like mountains, and we’re meant to scale their summits. The world may have lost its way, but the people of God are going to rise up in dominion, take control and bring godliness onto this earth. We’re going to see Christians getting to the top, a person thinks, and exerting influence in spheres like education, government, media, arts and entertainment and business. Of course, there are already many believers in these sectors who are bringing godliness into their places of influence, but how do you balance such an all-conquering view with the fact that Jesus said the world would hate His followers? If the first camp is too much doom and gloom, then the second one is an overreaching expectation of societal triumph.
No, I see something different, and I believe that a sign like a global football star being publicly baptized by his teammate points us towards what we can expect to see in these last days.
I believe we’re going to see days of unprecedented evil, rebellion and disorder, but also unprecedented signs of God’s power, grace and redemption right alongside it.
Finding signs of increasing evil is not hard. It makes its way into our car radios, our news websites, our social media feeds and our casual conversations. Day by day, there is so much to be genuinely alarmed about that it can feel overwhelming. “The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honoured among men,” wrote David in Psalm 12:8, and surely this has never been more true in human history. The true church is indeed being whittled down; foundational doctrines are collapsing one on top of another, like a line of dominos. The Word of God is suppressed, oppressed, neglected, ridiculed, ignored. Things that were unthinkable to say just a few years ago are being proclaimed brashly and without fear of consequence. We are being told what we are allowed to say, to think, to believe. Being a Christian is not socially beneficial at all – it’s gone from being aspirational to being quaint to being dangerous. Articles and interviews about abandoning Christianity abound in the media, enticing those who doubt to throw away their confidence. Being an apostate is a badge of honour, not shame. Make no mistake: Open, blatant evil is on the increase, and will continue to rise as Jesus’ return draws nearer. He repeatedly said that it would happen, and there’s no way around the inevitable.
But that’s not all. That’s never been all.
In John 5:17, Jesus made a definitive statement: “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” God told the prophet Joel that He would pour out His Spirit, and that prophecy, dreams and visions would be unleashed. Peter remembered and proclaimed that message on the day of Pentecost, and the truth is that God is still at work, moving across the earth. We hear snatches of rumours of awakenings in nations that are hostile to the gospel; we read testimonies about people being born again; and every now and then some prominent person, some improbable person, some Justin Bieber or Kanye West stands up in front of the flashing bulbs of the world’s media and says: I’ve genuinely met this man Jesus who died for the sins of the world, and I’ve been changed.
We’re going to see more of this in these last days. We’re going to open websites and read news of wickedness that can hardly be imagined, but also see powerful, public signs of redemption that could not have been invented. They’ll be happening side by side. Great deception and great deliverance; great trials and great triumphs; great sickness and great salvation. God is always at work. And the last time I checked, He’s still sovereign over everything in creation. May these profound moments of grace in the midst of the chaos remind us of the true reality.
In the last five or so seconds of Roberto Firmino’s Instagram clip, he’s draped in a white towel and leans into the hug of a loved one next to the pool. There’s a look on his face – I think it’s peace. He’s at peace. This millionaire sportsman with the world literally at his feet; this public figure onto whom millions of young fans project their hopes and dreams; this footballer who will spend years receiving cheers and jeers, tackles, taunts and temptations; this man who will face ups and downs and have to live by his Christian conviction imperfectly and under a microscope very few people understand. In the clip, he’s at peace. He’s at peace because he’s found something. Someone. He’s essentially just a talented guy who kicks a sphere around a rectangular patch of grass for ninety minutes, but he’s also more: He’s a sign to us. A sign of what God is doing on this earth in the midst of the madness, and what He still plans to do.
INSTAGRAM CLIP: https://www.instagram.com/p/B7WCbhRF-FZ/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shaun played punk rock for a living, then worked for a chicken company, then wrote for adverts. Now he’s one of the full-time pastors in Oxygen Life Church. He has a lovely wife, Sammy Jane, and they have a daughter, Gracie. You can follow him on Facebook.
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