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Let's nail our colours to the mast - in baptism 

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. By Paul Beasley-Murray


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 (a 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 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, in many churches (including Anglican churches who are increasingly welcoming people who have not been christened as a child but who have come to faith) we are seeing people confessing their faith in baptism. Baptism in New Testament terms is the moment when we ‘come out of the closet’ and confess Jesus for all to see. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, in baptism we 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). Baptists would say that we 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.

1.In 50 Lessons in Ministry, I wrote: “Baptismal services provide great opportunities for Gospel preaching… Yet in my experience, these opportunities are not always grasped. In some churches the primary focus of a baptismal service is on those being baptised, with the result that the emphasis is on the call to discipleship rather than the call to repentance.” What do you think?

2.In Entering New Territory I quoted the Evangelical Anglican, Michael Green who expressed his willingness to give up infant baptism for one generation, if that were possible! He wrote: “It would clear the ground, and enable us to have a fresh start, with the sign of the covenant marking out believers and their children. For this is the only sort of infant baptism which can be justified from Scripture, or, for that matter, from the formularies of the Church of England.” How do you react? Would we as Baptists then insist that on ‘re-baptising’ such individuals?


Paul Beasley-Murray was ordained in 1970. He was Minister of Altrincham Baptist Church (1973 to 1986), Principal of Spurgeon’s College (1986 to 1992) and Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford (1993 to 2014).

He writes Church Matters, a weekly blog of resources for churches and ministers.

This is the fourth in a new series on Timothy. The others were entitled "Let's worship God""Let's pray for others" and "Let's read the scriptures". Access his full series on Timothy here

Image | Jametlene Reskp | Unsplash

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Baptist Times, 10/05/2021
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