When reading any passage in the Bible it is a good idea to engage one’s curiosity about what one is reading. For instance, in Mk 11:28-30 Jesus asks the question, “Was baptism of John of God or of men?” Most of us just read straight through, assuming the answer to be yes, of course.
Seldom does it occur to us to wonder how one would know that John’s baptism was legitimately from God. For instance, what examples of baptism might there have been in the Old Testament? It turns out that there are no direct references to baptism in the Old Testament. So how would we know?
While there is no direct reference to baptism, there are clues in the New Testament about events that prefigured baptism. One clue comes from the ministry of John the Baptist. Mk. 1:4-11 describes how Judeans and Jerusalemites go to the Jordan river to be baptized by John.
Why the Jordan River? A very significant event in Israelite history involving the Jordan River occurs in Joshua 4:18-24. In a story very much like the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites enter the Promised Land by walking across the riverbed of the Jordan River during its highest flow. As they enter the water, the upstream flow stops as though by an invisible dam, allowing them to cross on dry ground.
Baptism or immersion in the Jordan River would symbolize re-entry into the Promised and for those who repent. We might call it a symbolic re-boot of Israel, available only to those who repent of disobeying God. As such, it would have functioned as a prophetic sign that God was about to redeem His people and fulfill the promise of Deut. 30:1-6.
Writing from a somewhat later vantage point, the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 10:1-4 speaks about a baptism into Moses via the Red Sea. He sees the Red Sea crossing as a prefiguring of baptism into Jesus. As they crossed the Red Sea there was sea on both sides of them and a cloud overhead, suggesting a watery abyss through which they passed. (The Egyptian army, passing through the same water with a far different intent, did not fare so well.)
Paul goes on to point out that their “baptism” didn’t do them any good when they disobeyed God in the wilderness. Neither does ours when we deliberately disobey. He then says, “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (v. 12, NIV)
In 1 Pet. 3:18-22 Peter writes about how Noah’s family is saved by water. He explicitly states that the flood and the ark prefigured baptism into Jesus’ resurrection. This time everyone in the whole world passes through the water, but only faithful Noah and his family are saved. For Peter, baptism into Jesus not only saves life, it also functions as a pledge of remaining in a good conscience toward God by cleaning out the sinfulness in our lives. The context of this discussion is that we should be willing to suffer for doing good while avoiding doing evil.
In Rom. 6:1-14 Paul asks rhetorically whether we should sin more so that grace might increase. He answers by appealing to our baptism into Jesus’ death. Our baptism into His death symbolically frees us from slavery to sin. Death marks the end of most human obligations, such as marriage (“till death do us part”). Just as the original Israelites were baptized into freedom from Egyptian slavery at the Red Sea, so are we freed from slavery to sin.
As we rise out of the water, we symbolically participate in Jesus’ resurrection. Freed from the old obligations, we now enter into a life-debt to the one who saved us from death. We get to be free from sin before our physical death and we get to live as though we have endless tomorrows today. This means pioneering a sin-free existence now.
Paul also sees a connection between baptism and circumcision. In Col. 2:12 he claims that we are baptized into a “circumcision not made with hands.” This suggests that baptism is a sign of entering into the New Covenant, just as circumcision was a sign for Israelite men of being in the previous covenant.
When Jesus is baptized by John in Lk. 3:3-22 the Spirit visibly comes to Him and rests on Him. Filled with the Spirit, He goes into the wilderness to be tempted (4:1). John had predicted that the one who followed would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It would have been important for His disciples-to-be to see the Spirit upon Him in order to believe that He could immerse others in the Spirit.
The first instance of Spirit-baptism is usually thought to be Acts 2:38, where Peter tells those who witness their Spirit-filled preaching (on the day of Pentecost) what to do. Jesus had, however, already breathed the Spirit into them after His resurrection (John 20:22). He does not seem to have personally immersed His disciples in water, though John had already done so to them previously.
On a not-entirely unrelated note, His breathing the Spirit into them would remind the reader of Genesis 2:7, where God breathes life into the first man. According to Jesus these men are now empowered to extend this new life to their own subsequent disciples.
Acts 19:1-10 tells a story that indicates a distinction between baptism of John and baptism in the name of Jesus. A group of 12 men who had been baptized by John lived in Ephesus, and encountered Paul. When Paul finds out about their baptism, he asks if they had received the Holy Spirit. Upon their negative answer, he re-baptizes them in water and lays hands upon them. Upon hands being laid on them, they visibly and audibly manifest gifts of the Holy Spirit. (From this example we lay hands on people after their immersion as we pray for them to be given the Holy Spirit.)
Baptism is a very important rite of passage that contains a lot of symbolic meaning. It symbolizes leaving the slavery of sin (Egypt) behind and entry into the freedom of the Promised Land. It represents a movement from death to life, and from sin to rightness with God. It represents a cleansed conscience and a new way of living in accord with God’s will. It represents death to sin and a fresh start: a life in service to Jesus. It is a sign of being in covenant with Jesus Christ in a New Covenant that redeems His people from slavery to sin and death. It represents the believer’s participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is also a sign of faith in the saving activity of Jesus Christ, who has saved, is saving and will complete His saving work in the most appropriate time and manner.
In an important way, baptism is also a sign of Jesus’ faith in His church. It is both a great privilege and responsibility to offer citizenship in the Kingdom of God to new believers.
It should, therefore, not be entered into lightly, nor be offered to a new believer lightly. Count the cost. Be sure you can make a lifelong commitment to love and serve only God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Once you do, there is no turning back.