In baptism, water is NOT for you, it is against you!
In the serenity of a quiet chapel, the baptismal pool looks like a cleansing pond for the religious seeker. However, such a sanguine sentiment is deceiving, because as the Bible paints the scenery, baptismal waters run blood red. Unsure? Compare the historical account of the Red Sea (esp. Exod 14:30-31) with Paul’s description, the baptism of Moses (1 Cor 10:2).
In other words, the imagery of baptism is not simply a cleansing ablution for sins, it is a violent picture of death and resurrection. Thus, in baptism, water is not the instrument of salvation and cleansing, it is the instrument of judgment. Water is not what saves us. Instead, Jesus saves us from water. Baptism is the testimony to God for what he has already effected in our lives. As 1 Peter 3: 20 says, it is ‘an appeal to God for a good conscience.’
Now, with that said, it must be admitted that baptism has been portrayed in divergent ways and is explained alternatively by many different traditions, but it seems that to understand baptism rightly, we must start with the first baptism—Noah’s ‘baptism’ (Gen 6-9), for our baptism ‘corresponds’ to his (1 Pet 3:20). Moving from Genesis 6 onward, there is a common stream. From Noah until now, God’s people have been brought safely through water.
Noah and his family are the prototypical example, where Noah is a type of the greater savior, Jesus Christ, and his family picture all those who find safe passage through the judgment waters. Likewise, Moses was put into an ark, sent adrift in the bloody waters of the Nile which devoured many of his kinsman, and yet rescued from the waters when an Egyptian princess took pity on him (Exod 2). Later Moses led Israel through the Red Sea, waters that destroyed Pharaoh’s army and yet saved the people of YHWH.
The story of God parting the waters of judgment for his people is reduplicated as Joshua leads Israel into the promised land (Josh 3-4), while the Psalms recount the way God hears his people in the flood. Psalm 69:1-3 begins:
Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
Psalm 93:3-4 echoes:
The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea,
the Lord on high is mighty!
Against the backdrop of the ancient Near East where water was perceived as chaotic, unsettled, and evil, the home of the Leviathan and the sea monsters, God’s word shows that YHWH sits above the floods and promises to bring his people through the pernicious waves. In fact, as the Bible moves from Exodus to Exile, Isaiah recounts the way in which YHWH leads his people through the waters:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (43:1-3)
Still in the OT, Jonah is saved from the suffocating waters through his personal demise and resurrection, namely by being swallowed by a great fish and being spit out on dry ground again (1:17-2:10). Though it is easy to make Jonah’s demise dependent on the fish, it is really the waters that threaten his life (2:1-9). The fish is God’s means of protection for Jonah and the people of Nineveh. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord of salvation (2:9) to save him from the waters of destruction (2:3, 5).
And finally, in the NT, Jesus’ death and resurrection are explained by Jonah’s watery ordeal (Matt 12:38-41). Jesus himself undergoes a baptism in the wilderness to identify himself with his people (Matt 3:13-17), and describes his own death as a baptism he must undergo (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). Finally, the command to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a command for disciples to identify themselves with Jesus as the one who can make safe passage for them through the waters of baptism.
So, in looking across the pages of the Bible, we learn that the waters of baptism do not save us, rather God the Father through his Son Jesus Christ save us from the waters that threaten to suffocate us. In this way, Peter can write, “Eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:20-21).
Therefore, baptism is defined not by postapostolic practices, liturgical traditions, or misgivings about the meaning of baptism—though I do think it means, immerse—baptism is instead the singular experience of all people saved by God. It is our ‘one baptism’ (Eph 4:5). And it shows us that in baptism, the waters of God’s judgment rage against us, just like they did in the Flood, but that like Noah, we have a captain of our salvation who through blood, not water, made a way for us to find safe passage through judgment (cf Heb 10:19-25).
In the end, God’s word tells us that at the end of the age, the sea will give up there dead and that the sea will be no more, meaning that the chaotic, life-taking waters of this age will be no more. Only the waters of life will flow. This is our future hope, one that we anticipate with eagerness.
Today, however, the waters still churn and swallow up all those who clutch there own sinking boats. Life jackets and insurance packages won’t stand against the the tide of God’s coming judgment. Material things cannot keep us afloat; and faulty works-based religion won’t keep us safe. But there is a way. Jesus Christ, like Noah, has made an ark–not out of wood, but out of his one flesh– to save all those who look to him. And all those who look to him and make appeal to him for a good conscience will find salvation and safe passage through the water and the fire of God’s judgment. The water of baptism is not for us, but that’s okay, the Living Water is, if you will come to him.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss