Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Note from Class: Baptism's Old Testament backgrounds

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who by understanding made the heavens,
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
and made Israel pass through the midst of it;

it is he who rescued us from all our foes,
he who gives food to all,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
(Psalm 136 ESV)

Over the last several weeks, we have been diving deep into the Old Testament background of baptism. We started knee-deep in the muddy water of the Jordan River with John the Baptist, and, diving down as far down as we could, we felt the squishy, dark silt of creation at the bottom.

Do you recall the symbols we looked at?

  • The black water of chaos
  • The authoritative word of God
  • The birdlike (dove-like) wind-wings of the Spirit blowing back the waters, making order from chaos
  • The dry land appearing
  • A change from one thing to another

Moving forward through the great story of the Bible, we found those symbols again and again. We found them in Noah's ark. We found them in the Exodus of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, and we saw them again as Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land God promised.

Israel became a people when the crossed those waters: the Red Sea and the Jordan. They left Egypt terrified as escaped slaves, but they walked onto the opposite bank of the Jordan River a unified, hopeful people.

John's baptism was a call to redo that. John was saying "Come to the Jordan again. Go into the water confessing your sins and come out of the water true Israelites again."

"But after me," said John,"is one more powerful than I who will baptize you with the Spirit and with fire." Just as Israel crossed the Red Sea from Egypt into the wilderness and then crossed the Jordan from the wilderness into the promised land, so there were two crossings to make: John's, "a baptism of repentance," and Jesus's, "a baptism of the Spirit." One leap on two legs.

Three of the gospels record Jesus's baptism.

"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11 ESV)

All of our symbols are there, even the dry land. Theologians for hundreds of years have equated the body of Jesus with the emergence of the dry land of a new creation.

For you see, what we are talking about is creation: the creation of the earth; a second creation with Noah; a re-creation of a royal people from base slavery; and, through Jesus's life, death, and resurrection, a new creation. "According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13 ESV).

Baptism = creation. To go into the water is to go back into chaos and death. To come out is to be created anew (resurrection).

Baptism is an act of God accomplished in the power-working of the Spirit according to his word.

So consider your baptisms, friends. You have gone into the water. And, with Christ, in the power of the Spirit, you have come out. You were slaves to sin and to the powers of this age. But now you are delivered onto the dry land of the promised land, you are citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Listen in on the apostle Paul as he talks about this with the Christian community of the Roman town of Colossae:

"Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." (Colossians 3:5-11 ESV)

And finally, I quote the German reformer Martin Luther, "A Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued."

Remember your baptism, friends. Remember your baptism. "For his steadfast love endures forever."

I can't believe I forgot this, but it is so important!


Creation is a plural thing. The Israelites walked as a people into the promised land. We are baptized into the body of Christ, that is, into the church--a community. (The root word "church" is the Greek word for a community of people, εκκλησια.)

This is why baptism has throughout church history been the sign (sacrament) that joined people to the church.

Justin Martyr, a church father who lived in Judea in AD 100-165, described baptism in the early church:

"Those who believe what we teach is true and who give assurance of their ability to live according to that teaching are taught to ask God’s forgiveness for their sins by prayer and fasting, and we pray and fast with them. We then lead them to a place where there is water and they are reborn in the same way as we were reborn; that is to say, they are washed in the water in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the whole universe, of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit."

Baptism creates community: it restores the one baptized to fellowship with the community of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it joins the one baptized to fellowship with the community of the church, the people of God.