Baptism has been a source of debate for centuries among followers of Jesus. So what does the Bible have to say about baptism? What is the meaning of baptism in the Bible?
To get a better understanding of the word baptism in the Bible, we need to trace a design pattern that runs throughout the Bible. Design patterns are repeated images, ideas, or events that weave through different stories in the biblical story. They are the main way that the biblical authors unify the hundreds of stories in the Bible. And every pattern develops a core theme that leads to Jesus.
The design pattern that we’re going to trace here is the pattern of God providing salvation for his people through the waters. This theme of salvation through the waters leads up to the stories of Jesus’ baptism and the development of baptism in early Christianity.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The Pattern Begins
Genesis 1 gives us a fundamental portrait of the world. God brings order to chaos by acts of separating. On page one of the Hebrew Bible, God’s Spirit hovers over the dark, cosmic waters of “wild and waste” (Hebrew, tohu va vohu) that make life and human communities impossible. God separates the dark chaotic waters, and he creates a space where life can flourish (Genesis 1:1-2).
God’s work begins with multiple acts of separating. He separates the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:3-5), the waters above from the waters below (1:6-8), and the seas from the dry land by gathering the waters together. Dry land (including Eden) emerges from the chaotic waters. By bringing the place of life up out of these chaotic waters, God brings humanity into a new world.
But in Genesis 3, humanity unleashes chaos back into the world, and what we begin to see is a replaying of the pattern of God separating the waters. However, instead of creating order through acts of separating, we now see God rescuing a remnant to pass through the waters. This remnant will now emerge out the other side to inhabit a new creation.
The pattern begins with God’s purpose, but once humanity disrupts this purpose, the pattern becomes an act of rescue.
The Pattern in the Hebrew Bible
The pattern of God providing salvation for his people through the waters reappears with the chaotic waters of the flood narrative in Genesis 6-8. The flood is presented as a state of “de-creation.” The springs of the cosmic deep water (Heb. tehom) split (Heb. baqa), and the windows of the heavens are opened, reversing days two and three of creation (Genesis 7:11). Every being is wiped away from the face of the earth, undoing all the inhabitants from days five and six of creation (Genesis 7:22-23).
But God remembers Noah (8:1), and he rescues a remnant—Noah and his family—through the waters. Noah and his family are saved through the chaotic waters and step onto dry land to begin a “humanity 2.0” in a new creation.
We see this pattern again in one of the most famous stories in the Bible: the Exodus.
In the book of Exodus, we are introduced to Moses, who is delivered through the waters of death in an ark and into the house of Pharaoh (Exodus 2). (Note: The Hebrew word ta-va [ark] is only used here and in the story of Noah!) Later in the narrative, God remembers his covenant with the family of Abraham and appoints Moses to deliver Israel—his “son”—out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 4:22-23). God saves his chosen people from Egypt by leading them through the waters of the Red Sea and onto dry land (Exodus 14:16). The Israelites are delivered from slavery and death through the waters and to Mount Sinai, where they are invited to become God's representatives to the nations.
The pattern picks up again 40 years after the Exodus. The Israelites have wandered in the desert, and now the new generation is preparing to enter the promised land. The Israelites spend the night at the Jordan River before finally entering the land.
Even though the Israelites are not in danger, we still see the “salvation template,” or pattern, playing out. God brings the people out of the wilderness and they, once again, cross through the waters to the place that God has prepared for them.
The priests are instructed to carry the ark of the covenant across the Jordan River (Joshua 3:2-4). As the priestly representatives, they enter into the waters first, and what is true of them becomes true of the rest who follow. As the priests’ feet touch the river, the waters of the Jordan “stood in a single heap,” and the Israelites cross the river on dry ground.
Isaiah the prophet also uses the metaphor of life emerging from chaos waters, but he does so in a way that links this imagery to a future rescue from exile by a messianic king. Years later in Israel’s story, after failed monarchs and divided kingdoms, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a future promise in the midst of destruction and exile (Isaiah 11). He said that there would come a day when a new king from David’s line would be endowed by the Spirit to bring justice to the poor (11:1-5).
And the pattern picks up in verse 10 where we read, “the root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples, and the nations will seek him out, and his resting place will be glory.” The image is of a king from the line of David, the Messiah, a root that is somehow standing and to whom all the nations are moving toward.
The pattern emerges further in the following verses, where vocabulary from the Exodus and flood narratives reappears.
“And it will come about on the day, the Lord will again use his arm a second time, to purchase the remainder (Heb. she’ar) of his people which remains (she’ar) in Assyria, Egypt, Patros, Cush, Elam, Babylon, and the islands of the sea. And he will lift up a banner to the nations, and gather the scattered ones of Israel, and he will regather the dispersed ones of Judah… And there will be a highway for the remainder (she’ar) of his people who remain (she’ar) from Assyria, just as there was for Israel on the day he came up from the land of Egypt.” (11:11-12, 16)
The Lord “using his arm” is a phrase seen earlier to describe God’s use of his power on behalf of Israel, particularly during the Exodus story (Deuteronomy 26:8). Isaiah is alluding to a new Exodus and a new remnant.
The word remainder (or remnant) recalls the story of Noah. Noah and his family are the rescued remnant floating among the chaotic waters. Similarly, the Israelites in exile are a remnant that is “floating” out in the sea of Assyria, Egypt, Patros, Cush, Elam, Babylon, and the islands of the sea. All of these nations are like the chaotic waters. The concept of waters actually becomes a metaphor for enemies throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms (see Psalm 18:15-17).
The biblical echoes of rescue through water continue in the book of Isaiah. God will use his arm—like in the Exodus—to lift up a banner to the nations, the king from the line of David. And the remnant will come from among the nations, passing through the waters. And there will be a safe passageway for the remnant, just like there was for Israel on the day they came up from the land of Egypt.
Isaiah is using this story in an analogous way to say that God will rescue his scattered nation of Israel from the “chaotic waters” of exile among the nations. The remnant will be rescued from exile and they will sing a new song of salvation (Isaiah 12:2b and Exodus 15:2).
The Pattern in the New Testament
John the Baptist
In the New Testament, the pattern of salvation through the waters begins with a man named John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is a prophet who fulfills the prophetic announcement of Israel’s restoration (Isaiah 40:1-5; Matthew 3:1-4). And we are told that John is proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, calling for repentance, and baptizing Israelites from Jerusalem and the surrounding regions in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:5-6).
This is a very intentional prophetic act. John is having the people pass through the waters to renew their commitment to the God of Israel. Just as the Israelites were led through the waters of the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership (Joshua 3:2-4), the people were once again going through the waters of the Jordan with another prophetic leader and ushering in the fulfillment of Israel’s new restoration and deliverance (Isaiah 11:15, 43:2, 43:16-17, 44:27-28, 50:2, 51:9-11). It’s another replaying of the Exodus. As they pass through the waters, they repent of Israel's faithlessness and covenantal compromise and prepare to be the new Israel that God is going to form when the promised Messiah arrives.
Each Gospel account highlights the story of Jesus going down to the Jordan River to be baptized. In Jesus’ baptism, he goes into the waters and back out again (Mark 1:9-11).
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him; and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.”
Immediately, the pattern reemerges through Mark’s language “in the Jordan,” alluding to the story in Joshua (Joshua 3-4). “Out of the water” echoes back to the pattern of “through the waters” (Exodus 14:29). The heavens “open” or “split” open—referring back to the acts of separation at creation and the floodgates of the skies opening in the story of Noah (Genesis 1:6-8, 7:11). The “Spirit like a dove” descends upon Jesus, again pointing back to the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation and Noah sending out a dove after the flood (Genesis 1:2, 8:8). And God’s words to Jesus, “You are my beloved son,” echo his words to Moses in reference to the Israelites (Exodus 4:22-23).
This isn’t by accident. The biblical authors are continuing to weave key threads and theological themes together that are developed from the beginning of the story to its end.
New Testament Authors
God announces that Jesus is his son who will rescue the world from the chaos of human evil and violence by going into death and out the other side. This is why baptism became such a big deal for Jesus’ followers.
The New Testament authors understood the meaning of baptism against the background of these major redemptive historical events in the Hebrew Bible. Paul links baptism with the Exodus story (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), and Peter refers to Noah and his family being “brought safely through water” in the ark, connecting this to baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21).
Baptism in the Bible expresses an identification with Christ’s death and resurrection—the old self was crucified with Christ (through the waters of death), and now followers of Jesus have risen with him in “newness of life” (Romans 6:3-11).
Some followers of Jesus are baptized by immersion, and others are sprinkled with water. Some people are baptized as adults and others as infants, and some people are baptized as infants and as adults.
In all cases, the meaning of baptism is about participating in this ancient biblical pattern of going through the waters of death and following Jesus out the other side and into the new creation.
This blog post is the second entry in our "Life of the Church” series. Next up, we will focus on teaching through words and signs, tracing this practice throughout the whole story of the Bible.