Many thanks to the elders for allowing me, once again, to lead this time of instruction as we prepare to celebrate the sacrament of baptism.
As you may recall if you were here a couple of years ago for my daughter Trinity’s baptism, I spoke last time about the continuity of the covenant as portrayed in the image of the Vine; from the Psalms and Prophets, through the New Testament, and down to the present. We looked at how the Vine is a metaphor of Israel and the church; sometimes prospering and sometimes languishing, sometimes bearing fruit and sometimes barren, occasionally being pruned and in some cases having new branches grafted in… but always the same Vine.
Throughout the Scriptures the Holy Spirit makes frequent use of recurring images like that of the Vine. And of course, as Paul says to the church at Rome; “…Such things were written for our learning.” So today, in keeping with this idea of recurring themes in Biblical imagery, I’d like to look at the specific element proscribed for baptism: the water.
Now, if I were to ask you why God chose water as the element for baptism, what would be your response?
I think the first thing that comes to mind for most of us would be that the water of baptism is intended to make us think of “washing”; cleansing us from the “dirtiness” of sin. And this is quite correct as we see from passages like Acts 22:16, in which Paul recounts the story of his baptism by Ananias, “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”
Unfortunately, however, an all too common tendency is to stop there: baptism equals cleansing. But if we take a step back to look at the larger picture of the Scriptural narrative, there are at least four other common metaphorical uses of water that are highly instructive on the meaning of baptism.
So having acknowledged that the picture of cleansing or washing is one of the key components of water baptism, let’s simply ask the question; what else is water good for? ...Well certainly for drinking! The Bible is filled with references to the water of life, living water, and as Psalm 36 calls it, the fountain of life. Verses 7-9 of that Psalm say, “How excellent [is] thy lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee [is] the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.” Later, in the New Testament, Jesus tells the woman at the well that the water of life is the only water that can truly satisfy. And while some might argue that baptism isn’t in view in either of these passages, I would reply that baptism is closely associated with salvation throughout the scriptures, as in the Great Commission passages of Matthew and Mark; “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing…”
I’ll come back to the relationship between baptism and salvation in a moment, but first I’d like to point out that water is also commonly used to illustrate healing. We see this in the Old Testament when the prophet Elisha has Naaman of Syria wash in the river Jordan to be healed of his leprosy, and Jesus heals a blind man by having him wash in the pool of Siloam. But my favorite passage on waters of healing comes from Ezekiel 47, and ties in closely with the “water of life” passages that we’ve already discussed. In this passage Ezekiel is being shown a vision of the temple, with water flowing from under the threshold. And as you may recall, he ventures out into the water and finds it getting deeper and deeper; first covering his ankles, then his knees and waist as he moves away from the temple, and finally it becomes a “river that could not be crossed.” But listen now as I read verses 8 and 9, “…These waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: [which being] brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, [that] every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.” The Amazon River provides a remarkable demonstration of what this passage would look like if applied to nature. Many of you are probably aware that the Amazon is the most voluminous river in the world, depositing over 11 million cubic feet of water into the Atlantic Ocean every second during the rainy season. What you probably didn’t know is that this massive outflow of freshwater makes the waters of the surrounding Atlantic drinkable well beyond sight of the South American coastline, and has notable impact on ocean salinity more than 300 miles from shore! Even so the healing water of the gospel goes out into the world, purifying the very oceans and bringing life to all with whom it comes in contact.
So we’ve seen that water is used in Scripture for cleansing, for satisfying thirst, and as a means of healing; but we also find that water is frequently used to mark out boundaries, or as a mark of identification. God marks the borders of Abram’s inheritance with an outline of rivers in Genesis 15, and Paul tells the church at Corinth that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” in their passage through the Red Sea. But perhaps most notable is Paul’s observation in Galatians 3:27 that “…As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” In other words, as surely as an inauguration makes an ordinary citizen a public official or a wedding ceremony makes a husband of a bachelor, baptism stamps us with the covenant identity of Christ’s church and entitles us to all the blessings (and curses) that go along with that status. Like a badge or a uniform, water baptism marks us as Christ’s.
This ties closely to the final point I’d like to make, which is that scripture teaches us that water saves. Usually when we read about the global flood that made Noah famous, we immediately think of all the death and destruction that it caused; but Peter looks at it from a different angle. Listen as I read from 1 Peter 3:20, “…The longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, wherein a few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” Rather than focus on the watery judgment that God sent on a sinful world, Peter notes that without the water Noah’s ark wouldn’t have floated at all; and everyone, the entire human race would have died! Instead God, in His mercy and patience, waited to send the flood until Noah had finished preparing a way of escape.
But what really wreaks havoc with our theological categories is the next verse. Let me start in 1 Peter 3:20 again, and read through verse 21, “…The longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, wherein a few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto [even] baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:” Did you catch that? "Baptism doth also now save us…" But lest you should think that either Peter or I are hinting at baptismal regeneration, note the second part of the verse; “…Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh [which I think refers to the actual rite of water baptism], but the answer of a good conscience toward God…” This is what the Reformers referred to as “Improving upon your baptism.” Which simply means that rather than making baptism an excuse to live as we please (some kind of eternal “Get out of jail free” card), we should be constantly striving to live in a manner worthy of the cleansing, thirst-quenching, healing, marking, and salvation of which our baptism speaks! And in this sense, baptism can and does save us from the temptation to live contrary to that covenant identity.
All of this should lead us to conclude that baptism is God’s grace put on magnificent display for us. Not so much a “means of grace” like some kind of faucet through which grace flows; but God’s grace manifested here and now before our eyes.
So as you bear witness to Jackson’s baptism today (whose name, appropriately, means “God has shown grace”), call to mind your own baptism. And listen as I close with Paul’s charge from Ephesians 4:1-6, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. [There is] one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who [is] above all, and through all, and in you all.”
Let us pray.
Our God and Father, thank You for the extravagant grace You have extended to us in baptism, and by inviting us to commune at Your table as children of the King. Thank You for my son Jackson. Cause him to seek you with his whole heart, to exercise diligence to make his calling and election sure, and to glory in grinding the serpent’s head under his heel! Fill him with Your Spirit and grant him many opportunities to show Your grace to others, even as it has already been shown to him. And may his and our every thought show plainly that we have been cleansed, and our spiritual thirst quenched by the waters of baptism. May our every word extend the healing influence of the gospel’s living water from the river to the ends of the earth, and every action testify that we bear in our bodies the mark of the Lord Jesus. And may our constant goal be to show forth the salvation of our God, until the earth is as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the only true source of living water, and Amen.
5 years ago