The final two lessons look at two important symbols of new life in Jesus. We begin with water baptism.
The focus verses come from Matthew 28:19-20:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
We know from earlier in the Gospels that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and here we see that Jesus wants this practice to continue in his community.
To help us understand what baptism means, we begin with . . .
The background of water baptism: The Red Sea crossing
To get at the symbolism of water baptism we need to understand, first of all, that in Hebrew thought the deep waters are evil. They are about judgment and death, for instance with Noah (Also, Psalm 104:5-9; Psalm 69:15). And although this may seem strange to us, they are often personified as a sea-serpent (variously called Leviathan, Yamm or Rahab, as we will see).
Well, as the Israelites tried to escape Egypt and as Pharaoh’s army came to kill them – the waters of the Red Sea blocked Israel and they were about to be judged and destroyed. God acted, however. He defeated the waters. He divided the sea, making a path for Israel, and then destroyed Pharaoh with the waters.
Here is where the sea-serpent language comes in. Isaiah 51:9-10, speaking of the Red Sea crossing, says, “ . . . Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?”
Psalm 74:13-14, also talking about the Red Sea crossing says, “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons of the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”
God acted to save his people. He made a way for his people to pass through the waters. And then five things happen that show us the symbolic meaning of such water crossings in Scripture:
1. Israel left behind their old lives in Egypt. They had already begun this process in coming to the Red Sea, but they completed it because of what God did.
2. Israel was set free from judgment and destruction. They went through the waters safely to the other side.
3. All Israel had a Spirit experience and rejoiced at new life – Isaiah 63:11; Exodus 15:1-21. On the other shore, the sang prophetic songs.
4. Israel became a new people. They were no longer a ragtag group of slaves anymore. They became the people of God.
5. They committed to follow the Mosaic Law. After they came out of the waters, they traveled to Mt Sinai to receive God’s Law, which gave order to their new life as a people.
Now we need to see that . . .
There is a connection between this Red Sea crossing and Christian baptism
It is a historical-prophetic connection. Remember that after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they went on to fail in their commitment to God in the wilderness. So that generation of Israelites never crossed into the promised land.
Thus when Joshua entered the promised land with the next generation they crossed through “the waters” again – the Jordan river. The waters upstream were stopped and they walked through it on dry ground (Joshua 3). This was a reenactment of the Red Sea crossing. God was symbolically reconstituting Israel after their failure in the wilderness.
And then, low and behold, John the Baptist comes baptizing people in the Jordan river. The symbolism is there to be seen. He is, like Joshua, calling for Israel to be reconstituted, to be made new. In other words, John the Baptist was reenacting Joshua’s reenactment of the Red Sea crossing.
All we need to do, then, is recognize that Jesus continued John’s baptismal practices, and we have an unbroken chain back to the Red Sea crossing:
- Jesus and Christian baptism
- John the Baptist and the Jordan river
- Joshua and the Jordan river
- Moses and the Red Sea
This is the essential component that helps us to understand . . .
What Christian water baptism means
We also are confronted by “the deep waters.” Like we saw before, these have to do with judgment and death, for our sin. And like with Israel, there is a sea-serpent (Leviathan, Rahab). Satan is the sea serpent who seeks to destroy us. (In fact, this connection is explicitly made in Revelation 12:9; 20:2).
And so, like Israel, we may seek new life and freedom, but “the waters” block us from moving forward. But God intervenes; God acts through Jesus to defeat “the waters.” Because of God’s love for us in Jesus, now there is a way for us to cross through the waters to the other side and find new life. And this is what water baptism pictures symbolically.
This can be spelled out, once again with five themes:
1. When we come to the waters of baptism – we portray that we have left behind our old life through repentance. Just like Israel left Egypt behind, so we leave our old, sinful life behind. This is the commitment that we publicly testify to in baptism.
This connection between baptism and repentance shows up in the New Testament: John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water for repentance . . ..” – Matthew 3:11. Peter said on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ . . .” – Acts 2:38.
2. When we go through the waters of baptism – we acknowledge that we are free and forgiven. Just like with Israel and “the waters,” or judgment and death cannot harm us anymore. Our sins are forgiven (or washed away). They have no claim on us; they can’t touch us anymore. That’s why we can go through the waters and not be harmed. By going through the waters we testify that God has forgiven us. We have received God’s mercy and grace.
This connection between baptism and forgiveness shows up in the New Testament: Once again, Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” – Acts 2:38.
3. As we come up out of the water “on the other shore,” as it were, – we acknowledge that we have received new life through the Spirit. Just like when Israel came up on the other shore and they had a Spirit experience, so we testify that we have received new life by the Spirit.
This connection between baptism and new life by the Spirit shows up in the New Testament: John said that when Jesus came, he would baptize with the Holy Spirit – Matthew 3:11. This connects water baptism with new life by the Spirit, or Spirit baptism. Baptism is also associated with receiving the Spirit in Acts 2:38. Peter says, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
4. When we come up out of the waters – we acknowledge that we are now a part of God’s new people. Just as Israel became a new people, we show that we have left the world behind and we are now a part of the church.
This connection between baptism and joining God’s people shows up in the New Testament: Luke says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls”- Acts 2:41. They were added to the fellowship of believers there in the local church of Jerusalem. Everyone knew they were a part now.
5. When we come up out of the waters – we acknowledge our commitment to follow Jesus. Just as Israel went on to Sinai and committed to obey God, we show our commitment to a new way of life; to doing God’s will from now on.
This connection between baptism and commitment to righteousness shows up in the New Testament: Jesus talks about this, in our focus verse, “ . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” – Matthew 28:19-20. Baptism is connected to obedience to everything that Jesus teaches.
When we accept baptism this is what we proclaim symbolically to all who see. That these five components of salvation in Jesus are true in our lives.
The sum of it all
Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection as a baptism. For instance in Mark 10:38, speaking of the cross, he said, “Are you able . . . be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And this helps us to summarize the meaning of baptism: water baptism is a symbol of death and resurrection.
Jesus went down into and through the waters of judgment and death – the cross. And he was raised up to new life on the other side – resurrection. And He calls us to take up our cross and lose our lives, in order to gain our lives – Mark 8:34-35. Verse 35 says, “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
So, water baptism is about dying to your old life in order to be raised up to new life through what Jesus has done.
It has to do with all that we have talked about with regard to dying to our earthly life in repentance and laying aside the ways of the world and sin. And it has to do with being raised to a new life of righteousness, prayer, study of Scripture, trust in God, joining a new community, finding a new life focus of serving God, a new courage to suffer, a new strength to endure testing and a new hope in Jesus’ return and the resurrection.