The cruciform shape of baptism

Series on baptism

We spent time last week looking at baptism and how it symbolically portrays the story of how God saves us. We got help in understanding this by looking back to several Old Testament water-crossing events, which also tell stories of salvation through water. For instance, Noah and the flood – the story of the salvation of humanity. And especially the crossing of the Red Sea – the story of Israel’s salvation from Egypt.

But my point today is that all of these stories of salvation are figures, types and foreshadowings. As I said before they are background. They look forward beyond themselves to another story; to the water crossing of all water crossings; to the story of salvation. And it is this that I want us to focus on, because this gives us further understanding into the meaning of water baptism.

Turn with me to the story of –

Jesus’ water baptism

Matthew 3:13-17 – 13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

John is hesitant to baptize Jesus because his baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus has no sin. So, John is saying, why should I baptize you? I need your baptism of the Spirit! But Jesus insists, because this becomes an opportunity for John to fulfill his purpose to reveal Jesus as the Messiah and for Jesus to begin his ministry as the Messiah.

16And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Here is the five-fold pattern of Jesus’ water baptism:

1. When Jesus comes to the waters, he portrays that he is leaving behind his normal life to take up his ministry and calling.

2. By going through the waters he portrays that he is (already) free from sin and the powers of evil. With us baptism pictures our being forgiven and set free. For Jesus it’s simply a testimony to his freedom and sinlessness. God confirms this when he says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” There is no sin here. He doesn’t have to be saved, he is the Savior.

3. When he comes up out of the waters the Spirit comes as a dove upon him (think Noah). This is to anoint him to fulfill his mission. And of course this is where we get the word Messiah, or Christ, both of which mean “the anointed one.”

4. When he comes up out of the waters he is revealed as the new Israel; the leader of the remnant of the people of God, that John has gathered. He is identified as God’s son, a phrase that can refer to Israel in the Old Testament (Hosea 11:1; 1 Chronicles 22:10 describes the king/Messiah in these terms). Finally, a faithful Israel has come to fulfill God’s purposes.

5. After he comes up out of the waters he goes on into the desert (like Israel) where he shows his commitment to obey God. Right? Just after this Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).

So this is an important water crossing, but this isn’t the story we’re looking for! This is a significant story, but it, like all the others, only points ahead to the real story; to Jesus’ real baptism. No, the story of salvation that we are looking for; the water crossing of all water crossings is the cross and resurrection of Jesus. So let’s look now at –

Jesus’ death and resurrection as a baptism

  • In Mark 10:38, speaking of his death Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He calls his death a baptism.
  • In Luke 12:50, again, speaking of his death, he says,  “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 9:31 – “exodus”)
  • In a similar vein, in Matthew 12:39-40 Jesus says his death will be like Jonah’s water crossing. The story of Jonah is a classic water crossing. And Jesus makes this connection.

That he would use this “waters,” “baptism” language should not surprise us, when we think of what the waters mean: distress, testing, judgment, death. This certainly fits his cross experience.

Let’s look briefly now at Jesus’ death and resurrection as a water crossing:

  • The waters – Satan, judgment & Death – overtook Jesus, killing him. He was dead.
  • But God acted. These powers had no right to touch Jesus, he was sinless. So God intervened on behalf of the innocent Jesus.

1. Jesus leaves behind this world, the old creation that is passing away.

2. Jesus is set free from the powers of judgment and death; he passes through the waters.

3. Jesus is resurrected to new life by the Spirit. He has a new resurrection body.

4. Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity. The first born from the dead and the first fruits of many more to come (1 Corinthians 15:22-23; Colossians 1:18.)

5. Jesus rules in righteousness at the right hand of God. He works to subject the powers, until finally death is overcome. And then he will hand the kingdom over to God (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Now let’s make the connection between –

Jesus’ cross baptism and water baptism

Again, my point in all of this is to show that Jesus’ cross baptism is not just another water crossing, it is the water crossing of all water crossings. And as such it affects how we think about Christian water baptism. Baptism now has a cruciform shape. It is cross shaped.

This shows up clearly in Paul. When Paul talks about Christian water baptism, it is always in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection (In fact, Jesus’ water baptism is nowhere referenced in relation to our Christian water baptism).

Romans 6:2-7 – “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”

Let me show you two ways that water baptism is cruciform from this passage. Water baptism symbolically portrays our death and resurrection. Or in other words the five themes of water baptism can be summarized by the cruciform rubric of death and resurrection.

 Let’s look at this in our text. The theme of  1. leaving behind/repentance matches – “we who died to sin” – v. 2. The theme of 2. set free/forgiven lines up with – “For one who has died has been set free from sin” – v. 7. This is about our death to the old.

The next three themes have to with resurrection to new life. 3. New life, 4. part of a new people and 5. a new way of living in obedience to God is described by Paul in the phrase – “newness of life” – v. 4. As well as the various references to resurrection.

So the five themes are cruciform. To pass through the waters, put simply, is to die and then be raised to new life.

Second, water baptism symbolically portrays our dying and rising with Jesus. First, we go with him through his death:

  • “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” – v. 4
  • “We know that our old self was crucified with him” – v. 6

 Then we are raised to new life with him:

  • Just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . we too” are raised – v. 4
  • We are “united with him in a resurrection like his” – v. 5

With regard to the symbolic meaning of baptism, we are not just going through the waters; we are going through the waters of Jesus’ cross baptism. In our water baptism we reenact, as it were, Jesus’ cross baptism.

What does it all mean?

It means that baptism is a cruciform marker. Those who receive it are marked by the cross of Jesus. It’s as if it is branded on our forehead. And we are now to live cruciform lives.

This is a life that is characterized by our dying and being raised. We die to sin and to the world and are empowered to live new lives of righteousness by the Spirit. We deny ourselves; our comfort our self-centeredness and are empowered to love others by the Spirit. We lay down our lives for others and we find true life in God.

Jesus’ story is now our story, and we are to live this way every day, on his behalf and for those who don’t know him. And we do this until we literally die and then when Jesus returns we are literally resurrected.

This is what our baptism was about. And that is what our lives are to be about.

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