by Jonny Atkinson
Why do we baptize believers by immersion in water? Is it because Philip took the Eunuch “down into the water” (Acts 8:38) or because John baptized in places where the water was “plentiful” (John 3:23)? Is it because baptizō means to dip or immerse, or because the Greek preposition eis means “into” indicating that the Eunuch went into the water?
I believe that one of the primary reasons the new covenant sign is baptism by immersion in water is because passing through water as a sign of passing through death to life runs throughout the entire Bible.
Immersion is Deadly1
Soon after creation2 during the days of Noah, mankind’s evil had become too much (Gen 6:5). So God punished the world. And he did so by immersing the world under water, killing everything that had the breath of life (Gen 7:22).
When Pharaoh tried to stifle the growing population of Israelites, he immersed all the newborn boys into the waters of the Nile river, drowning them (Ex 1:22).
When the Egyptians chased after the emancipated Israelites through the Red Sea, God killed Pharaoh and his army by immersing them under the waters (Ex 14:28, Ex 15:4).3
When Jonah disobeyed God and jumped aboard a ship to Tarshish, God sent a storm whipping up the waters to crash against the boat (Jonah 1:4). Once the sailors realized Jonah was to blame for the storm, they justly threw Jonah overboard, immersing him into the water (Jonah 1:15).
When we plunge someone under water at baptism we are symbolizing the reality that they justly deserve to die, immersed in water, for their sin (Rom 3:23). The real question is: why do we bring them back up again?
The Free Gift of God is Eternal Life…in the Promised (Dry) Land
When the whole world was destroyed, Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Gen 6:8) and was brought through the waters of death in an ark (Gen 7:15-16). God then blew (Gen 8:1) the waters back to their place, and Noah and his family stepped safely out of the ark onto the dry land (Gen 8:13-19).
When Pharaoh killed the Israelite boys, Moses’ life was spared as he was brought through the waters in the ark-basket his mother had made (Ex 2:3). He came safely out on the other side as Pharaoh’s daughter lifted him out and set him on the dry land (Ex 2:10).
When fleeing the Egyptian army, the Israelites passed through the middle of the waters of the Red Sea (Ex 14:22), safely arriving at the dry land on the other side (Ex 14:29).
A generation later, Joshua led them through the middle of the fast-flowing waters of the Jordan River, safely onto the dry shores of the Promised Land (Joshua 3:19).
While Jonah sunk into the deep, the Lord caused a whale to swallow up Jonah and then spit him onto the dry land, safely on the other side (Jonah 2:10).4
When we baptize someone by immersion in water, we bring them back up out of the water to symbolize that they have passed safely from death to life (1 Peter 3:20-21).
But what an audacious act (Proverbs 17:15)! What gives us any authority to baptize and declare that sinners have passed through death unto life?
One day during his earthly ministry, Jesus slept in the stern of the boat, just like Jonah, when a violent storm came upon the lake of Galilee. The disciples, fearing they would die in the water, roused Jesus, just as the sailors had done to Jonah. However, death wouldn’t claim any life this time. No-one was justly thrown into the sea to die. Jesus, the Lord of life, saved his people by merely telling the deadly waters to be still (Mark 4:35-41).
When asked for a sign by the Pharisees, Jesus retorted that they would have no sign except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights, Jesus would lie in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights (Matt 12:38-40). Jesus was saying that his death would be like an immersion under water, and his resurrection would be like passing through water. Jesus said as much when he described his impending death as a baptism (Luke 12:50).
Jesus died. But he passed through death onto the dry land when He rose again and safely stepped out of the tomb (Luke 24:4-8). It is only because we who have been born again have been baptized with Jesus in His death (Rom 6:3) can we be sure that we will also be raised like Him (Rom 6:5, Col 2:12).
Because Jesus died, our sin has been nailed to the cross (Col 2:14), or as Micah says, our sins—not we—have been cast in the sea (Micah 7:19).
Bound for the Promised Land
And just as Joshua led Israel through the Jordan River into the promised land where they would live with God, Jesus also went through the Jordan River (Matt 3:13) indicating he would lead his people through the waters of death to the presence of the Father (Heb 10:19-20).
Today we sojourn, looking forward to stepping safely onto the dry shores of the Immanuel’s land (Rev 21:3). And in that land God will not only wipe away every tear and death be no more (Rev 21:4), but the seas that have caused so much death will also be no more (Rev 21:1).5
To baptize is to proclaim the old old story, that by God’s grace, sinners have passed through death to life.
1. At creation, in Genesis chapter one verse two we read about the state of things before God formed everything into the world we now know. The world at that time was chaotic and in disorder. It was formless and empty (Gen 1:2). There was darkness over the deep.
This “deep” is the place where the turbulent creation waters were kept. In the Bible water is often the place of evil, the place of death. For example, the four terrifying beasts in Daniel’s vision came out of the sea (Dan 7:2), and Leviathan, that twisting serpent, that great sea monster (Isa 27:1) makes “the deep boil like a pot” (Job 41:31).
2. A case can also be made for life coming through deadly water even at creation.
After separating light from darkness (Gen 1:4), God separated the waters above the earth and the waters below the earth by establishing the heavens (Gen 1:7). He then further separated the waters below the earth, by allowing the dry land to appear (Gen 1:9-10). In other words, as mountain peaks rose up and land appeared, it came through the water. Putting the chaotic waters in their place was necessary for life to exist. The turbulent waters of the deep needed to be contained for living things—including, most importantly, His image-bearers—to inhabit the dry land without fear of death by water (Gen 1:24-28).
Creation is poetically described as when the Lord “drew a circle on the face of the deep…established the fountains of the deep” and “assigned to the sea its limit so that the waters might not transgress his command” (Prov 8:22-31). He “shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and prescribed limits for it…and said…‘here shall your proud waves be stayed’” (Job 38:4-11). The Psalmist also sings to the Creator who “puts the deeps in storehouses” (Ps 33:7).
3. The Song of Sea, which Israel sang to recount this deliverance, mentioned the waters of the deep killing the Egyptians (Ex 15:4-10). Later singers describe how the Lord worked salvation for his people when he “divided the sea” and “crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Ps 74:12-17) and led his people “through the deep as through a desert” (Ps 106:7-12).
4. It wasn’t just Jonah who was saved but also the sailors. And salvation leads to singing, as the psalmist recounts the experience of the sailors who “went down to the sea in ships” but encountered “the stormy wind which lifted up the waves of the sea…They cried to the Lord in their trouble” and “He made the storm be still” (Ps 107:23-32).
5. John Bunyan presents death metaphorically as crossing the river to enter life in his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress (191–195):
Now I further saw, that betwixt them and the gate was a river; but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went with them said, “You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.”
Then I saw in my dream that Christian was in thought awhile. To whom also Hopeful added these words, “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.” And, with that, Christian brake out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see Him again; and He tells me, ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.'” Then they both took courage; and the enemy was, after that, as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian, therefore, presently found ground to stand upon; and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over.
Now, upon the bank of the river, on the other side, they saw the two Shining Men again, who there waited for them. Wherefore, being come out of the river, they saluted them, saying, “We are heavenly spirits, sent forth to help those that shall be heirs of salvation.”
The talk they had with the Shining Ones, was about the glory of the place; who told them that the beauty and glory of it were such as could not be put into words. “There,” said they, “is the Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, and the spirits of good men made perfect. You are going now,” said they, “to the Paradise of God, wherein you shall see the tree of life, and eat of the never-fading fruits thereof; and when you come there, you shall have white robes given you, and your walk and talk shall be every day with the King, even all the days of an eternal life. There you shall not see again such things as you saw when you were in the lower region upon the earth; to wit, sorrow, sickness, affliction, and death; ‘for the former things are passed away.’