Jesus is the goal of redemptive history. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul observes that God has “[made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him.” In Galatians 4:4, Paul has the same eschatological view in mind: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son . . .” And Hebrews too observes the climactic arrival of the Son of God: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (1:1). In short, the apostles, as model interpreters, understand all redemptive history to be leading to Jesus.
Consequently, it is not surprising to find that the typological structures of the Old Testament escalate until they find their telos in Jesus. In other words, Scripture begins with glimpses of the pre-incarnate Christ and gradually adds contour and color to the biblical portrait of the coming Messiah.
Over time, such glimpses of grace are developed and made more concrete as the types (i.e., events, offices, and institutions of the Old Testament) repeat and escalate. One prominent event that is repeated in the Old Testament is that of “baptism.” As Peter observes in his first epistle, baptism corresponds (lit., is the antitype, or fulfillment) to Noah and his life-saving (make that humanity-saving) ark (1 Pet 3:20). It is this typological thread that I want to consider here. It is my aim to show that not only do Old Testament “types” prefigure Christ and his work of salvation, but they also grow in intensity and efficacy as the Incarnation of Christ nears.
Baptism in Typological Expression and Escalation
Baptism, as 1 Peter explains, begins not at the waters of Aenon (John 3:23), but in the opening chapters of the Bible. In Genesis 6, God intimates to Noah his plans to destroy the world. Humanity’s sin has reached a critical mass; “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (6:5), and thus God was going to destroy world with water. Nevertheless, in that trial by water, God was going to save Noah and his family.
This is the origin of baptism. It is the headwaters of every other baptismal font, and it is important to know that of all the baptisms, this one is the weakest. At first glance, it may seem to be the most prominent. After all, the waters engulfed the whole earth. However, when we consider that Noah’s ark only saved seven people—not including himself—we see just how weak this “baptism” was. It put in history the pattern of salvation through judgment, but it did little to effect salvation.
In a purely physical sense, it did spare the human race, but it had very little spiritual impact. As I argue in my dissertation, Noah functioned as a priest who mediated (and in a sense, still mediates) a non-salvific covenant for all people. Yet, as Genesis 9 shows, Noah’s covenant mediation was weak. Like Adam, he too fell naked because of the fruit of the vine. His sons inherent a mixed blessing—Shem is blessed; Ham is cursed; Japheth stands somewhere in between.
Noah’s trial by water gets baptism started, but as we will see, it is the weakest link in the typological chain.
Next, the people of Israel are baptized into the salvation mediated by Moses (1 Cor 10:2). Called by God, Moses himself undergoes a baptism of sorts when we was thrown into the Nile River (a place of death) and rescued miraculously by God through Pharaoh’s own daughter (see Exodus 2). Harkening back to Noah’s baptism, the basket Moses is placed in is actually an “ark” of refuge. Thus, Moses is making a linguistic connection between the two stories.
Eighty years later, when Yahweh saves the nation of Israel, he does so through the substitution of a lamb for the firstborn of Israel (an escalation of the substitution sacrifice found in Genesis 22) and the passage through the Red Sea. First Corinthians 10:2 calls this event Moses’ baptism and like Noah’s ark, it corresponds to the salvation ultimately found in Christ.
In redemptive history, it is a baptism that is greater than that of Noah, for it saves more than a handful of family members. The baptism of Moses saves the whole nation of Israel. At the same time, the event has a kind of intensity unmatched by the first flood. Whereas Noah boarded the ark before the waters came (Genesis 7). However, in the case of Moses, the waters stood ready to swallow them as the armies of Pharaoh rode towards them. With the cries of Israel fearing for their lives, God commanded Moses to raise his staff that he might part the waters and provide salvation (Exod 14:10–16). At the end of their safe passage, Moses pulled back his hand and the waters covered the heads of the Egyptians (v. 26). In this dramatic narrative, it is plain to see how the efficacy and intensity of baptism have escalated.
A generation later, Joshua has taken the place of Moses. While he does not measure up to Moses status as a prophet (see Exod 34:10–12), he too is called “the servant of the Lord” (24:29), an appellation used regularly of Moses (Deut 34:5; Josh 1:1, 2, 7, 13, etc.). In his quest to lead Israel into the Promised Land, Israel again finds itself blocked by raging waters, waters that are in fact in flood stage (Josh 3:15). Like Moses, Joshua receives his instruction: “command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan’” (v. 8). Joshua obeys. The priests enter the flood waters. The waters stand up in a heap (v. 13). And Israel is able to enter the Promised Land.
Like at the Red Sea, the leader of Israel leads God’s people through dangerous waters at the command of God. Only notice the escalation. This time instead of raising his staff. God asks the priests to stand in the middle of the water. In this way, the risk involved is greater, but so is the pay off. Instead of delivering Israel from Egypt, Joshua brings the children of God into the very land God had promised. Whereas, Moses had successfully brought Israel out of bondage, he could not bring the nation to dwell with God. Now, a new Moses (Joshua), completes the task, and by the same strategy—the next generation of Israel are saved by baptism.
Fast forward nearly a millennium and we arrive on the shores of the Mediterranean. Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, is given the task of preaching going to Nineveh and preaching repentance to the enemies of God (1:2). To feel the weight of this calling, consider going to Mecca and to preach repentance to leaders of ISIS. Such was his charge.
Reluctant to obey, Jonah goes in the opposite direction to Tarshish (1:3). While asleep on the boat, the Lord sends a storm and threatens to destroy the whole vessel (1:4). In the midst of God’s fury, Jonah confesses his rebellion and implores the sailors to throw him overboard (1:12, 15). They oblige and immediately the storm abates (1:15). The men are saved (and give homage to Yahweh, 1:16), and Jonah’s death is certain (to those on the boat, at least).
Jonah 2 continues the story from the belly of the fish. Jonah recounts how in the stormy waves, the waters engulfed him; the seaweed entangled him. In that casket with gills, he offered a prayer to God. Undeserved, God saved Jonah. What normally would mean the end of life (death by aquatic consumption) served to be the means of his deliverance. Three days later (1:17), his life was returned to him as the fish spit him out on dry ground (2:10).
In the midst of the drama, we can see another picture of baptism emerge. Like Moses and Joshua—the representative leaders of Israel—Jonah too occupies an office among God’s covenant people. As a prophet, his life does more than bring God’s word to the people of Israel. He embodies the nation of Israel. And his rebellion against God displays the attitudes of Israel in the days leading up to exile.
Still, his life, “death,” and “resurrection” do more than speak a word to ancient Israel. They also depict the kind of baptism that Jesus will undergo (Matthew 12:40). Following the trajectory of previous baptisms, Jonah’s baptism is both similar and different. It too displays the fury of God’s wrath, and the means of salvation a type of baptism—Jonah’s substitionary death spared the Gentile sailors and his preaching brought a whole city to repentance (Jonah 3).
Without getting into the details of what this repentance was, it is noteworthy that Jonah’s act of baptism was both more costly and more powerful than any previous baptism. In Noah, Moses, and Joshua, no one died. The people of Israel thought they were going to die; the priests in the Jordan River might have expected to die, but they didn’t. In Jonah’s case, he actually did die—or at least, he appeared to die to the sailors of the boat.
To us, who have the vantage of seeing the whole story, we can best assess his three-day fish ride as an act that looked like death. At the same time, his baptism effected a wave of repentance far larger than anything Israel had ever seen. For the nation of Israel, which was delivered from Egypt in Moses’ baptism, died in the Wilderness (Psalm 95). Likewise, the generation that took the land enjoyed the blessings therein, but nothing is said of a spirit of repentance. By escalation, the work that took place in Nineveh was far larger in its scope than any baptism to date—still it was only a shadow of the real thing.
Like Moses, Jesus experienced two baptisms. At the onset of his ministry, Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15) underwent the baptism of John (Matthew 3). This baptism identified him with the people of Israel and also functioned to put him back into the land—like Joshua who was entering the Promised Land, Jesus (as a New Joshua) was baptized by John, who was baptizing outside the Land, on the other side of the Jordan (John 1:28). Like Moses, this baptism was not so much for the salvation of his people. It was an identity-marker of his ministry.
Jesus’ second baptism is the one which all the others point. In Mark 10:39, in discussing with his disciples who is the greatest, he says to James and John: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” He implies in his language the baptism of his death (cf. Rom 6:4–6), the suffering that he has come to earth to embrace. He tells his followers that they too will suffer with him and for him, but not before he goes to the cross first. It is clear that in Jesus mind, baptism is an ordeal whereby he will put himself under the wrath of God.
Like Noah, his cross will become a refuge for all who seek rest in him. Like Moses’ staff, he will be lifted up, so as to deliver his people from impending death. Like the priests in the Jordan, he will insert himself into the very stream of God’s wrath. And like Jonah, Jesus will volunteer himself to be swallowed in the earth, so that he might save the nations. Indeed, in all of these ways Jesus fulfills and supersedes the previous examples of baptism.
Putting It All Together
With the full light of revelation, we can see how each of these previous baptisms foreshadow with increasing intensity and efficacy the cross of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this is the point to be made: it seems that the magnitude of the suffering in the Old Testament baptism does relate (in some unspecified way) to the magnitude of God’s mercy. As redemptive history progresses, the various types increase in passion (suffering) but also in the measure of their salvation–from Noah’s family, to the nation of Israel (Moses and Jonah), to the nations (Jonah). In each case, the baptism is physical, not spiritual, but that’s because none of them accomplish what Christ alone can.
Therefore, in Jesus’ case, since his sacrifice is offered with his own blood, his death has the power to not only procure forgiveness for all his people. It ensures that his message will reach his elect from every corner of the earth, the family of faith that he is saving from the coming wrath of God.
To this day, we still observe the powerful working of the cross of Christ, as it is reconciling all things (Col 1:20). And therefore, as we read the Old Testament, we must observe how God is preparing the way for his Son to come. And we must marvel at the wisdom and power of God to save us through Christ’s superlative baptism.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds