Baptism as Symbol

Baptism as Symbol

BAPTISM: What God Has Done
Text: Colossians 2:8-14; Romans 6:3-4

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. ~Colossians 2:8-14

Today we are starting a new series that I think will be very significant for us. I recognize that it sounds like (and is!) a pretty theological topic and to spend six weeks on it seems like we are going to wade into some pretty deep theological waters. Indeed we will! But this is not an exercise in abstract theology, but an exploration of something that I think will be at once both at the core of our faith and immediately applicable to our daily life.  So yes… BAPTISM.

I think for many people it is that thing you do, depending on your religious tradition, either when a new baby is born or when a young person comes to faith. There are variables, too, as to amount of water and method of interacting with it (i.e., sprinkling, pouring, dunking); but it is my hope to go much deeper than that. I also intend to dig the biblical MEANING of baptism long before we ever get to the METHOD of baptism; and I think you will find that whether one practices infant baptism or believer’s baptism that both share a wealth of biblical meaning.

So today we are going to focus on one piece of the meaning of baptism, and it is just one piece. We will not come close to exhausting or understanding the meaning today, but this will be an important part. Today we are going to focus on baptism as a symbol and sign of what God has done.

I will offer a brief word about SYMBOL and SIGN, terms we will continue to hear and use over the next six weeks.  A SYMBOL is something that represents something else, and is usually a kind of “shorthand” for something more complex and complicated. Think of mathematical symbols like the ‘plus’ or ‘equals’ symbols. They represent a set of rules that govern how numbers or sets interact with each other. You have to be taught what they mean, but they are very handy in quickly representing something that would be much more lengthy to explain in words.  Or think about the handy little man or woman graphic on a restroom door. Those are not actual people, but symbolize actual people – the kind who might need to use a restroom!

A SIGN is similar to a symbol, but functions somewhat differently. Rather than representing something more complex or complicated, a sign points to something else (usually more complex or complicated). So a street sign, like the one that says “Rea Rd.” out on the corner points to or marks the existence of the actual Rea Road. It is not the road, but points to it. A stop sign points to an action: “Stop right here.” Now just to complicate things – but this may help in thinking about baptism – sometimes something is a symbol and a sign at the same time! A stop sign is a great example: the eight-sided red sign with the white border is a symbol for “Stop!” It would actually function without the word “Stop” on it because the red octagon is a symbol for stop allowing it to still function as a sign that marks where to stop. In fact, many signs that we think of make use of symbols to save space. All that is to say that one aspect of baptism is to serve as a SYMBOL and SIGN of something more complex and more complicated, something that is not baptism itself, but somewhere else. And baptism not only represents that as a symbol; it points to it as a sign.

Sometimes symbols can represent more than one thing. Consider the “at symbol”: it can represent “at” or “around.” Historically, it has been used in finance to mean “at the rate of.” And more recently, with the widespread use of the Internet, it is used in e-mail addresses to indicate what e-mail service one uses, like It also is used by some other online programs to direct communication to or at someone, like “Hey @gspcrobert, what are you doing today?” [Twitter, Facebook]

Likewise, baptism represents a number of things in the Bible, not because it is multi-purpose like the “at sign,” but because it symbolizes and points to such a wealth of meaning and action. Let’s look at some of the things baptism symbolizes and I think that all will become more clear. Then we will end with the one most significant thing that it points to: what God has done.

Water Symbolizes Death (Judgment)

First, water symbolizes death. Too much water can destroy as well as drown you. This symbolism is played out in the great “water-judgments” of the Old Testament, most notably the Flood in Genesis 7, the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14, or for that matter the hurling of Jonah into the sea in Jonah 1. For all the wonderful and life-giving things water can do, it can also be destructive and death-dealing, and God explicitly used water to judge the unrighteousness and sin of humanity in those two events.

In the days of Noah the world had become exceedingly wicked, so God determined to judge the wickedness of the world by sending a Flood. In Exodus 14, after defying God successive times through the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh finally let God’s people go from slavery, but then changed his mind again and pursued them. After parting the waters for Israel to escape, God caused the waters to close in on the Egyptian army in judgment of Pharaoh. In Jonah, after fleeing God and bringing God’s wrath on the ship headed for Tarshish, the sailors threw Jonah overboard to face God’s judgment in the waters of the sea.

In the New Testament, Peter makes an explicit connection between the judgment (and deliverance) of Noah at the Flood and the judgment and salvation in Christ symbolized by baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-21).

Baptism also symbolizes death, because that is ordinarily the result of God’s judgment. That’s why we heard in our call to worship that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death…. We have been buried with Him through baptism into death…” (Romans 6:3-4)  That’s why we heard in our first scripture reading from Colossians 2 that we have been “buried with Him in baptism…” (v. 12)  Why did Christ die? Why was he buried? It was because he bore the full weight of God’s judgment against human sin and unrighteousness.

Just as in the Old Testament water-judgments against sin and unrighteousness, so baptism symbolizes God’s judgment upon Jesus Christ, resulting in death and burial. And it does not just symbolize past judgment in the Old Testament or upon Jesus, but coming judgment at the hands of the righteous one. So, Jesus speaks of the coming judgment in Luke 17 and says, “Just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man…” (Luke 17:26) Jesus’ judgment of humanity is linked to baptism and to the water judgments of old.

If for no other reason than this, we should take baptism very, very seriously, for it represents the righteous judgment of God and that judgment’s consequence: death.

Water Symbolizes Washing (Forgiveness)

BUT, that is not the end of the symbolism or of God’s dealings with humanity. The Good News that we celebrate is that God has not abandoned us to sin, but has come to us with help and hope. That hope is forgiveness, and is a second symbolism to be found in the water of baptism.  In fact, that may be the first attribute of water that one thinks of. Water washes things clean. And so it is that the water of baptism symbolizes the forgiveness of God, the washing or cleansing of sin that we might be “clean” before Him.

So we read in John 1:29, in the context of THE baptism (of Jesus by John the Baptist), that John names Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In Acts 2:38-42 we read of the massive response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and Peter’s invitation and challenge to “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” In Acts 22:16, just after Paul’s conversion, a man named Ananias said to him, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

The water of baptism symbolizes washing or cleansing, and so represents not only the judgment of God, but also the mercy of God in forgiving sin.

Water Symbolizes Life (Resurrection)

A third symbol found in the water of baptism is that of life, and by extension, resurrection. This, too, is an expected meaning for water since we need it to live and thrive. How can it be that baptismal water symbolizes both judgment-death and resurrection-life? Let’s go back to the same water-judgments I’ve already mentioned. It was all I could do not to point out the double-symbol in the midst of those stories!

In the water-judgment of the Flood, God showed mercy and had a plan of salvation. There was one “righteous man” left on the earth in Noah and God spoke His Word to Noah to build an Ark, which served as a merciful refuge – a salvation – from the judgment and death of the Flood. Noah and his family were delivered THROUGH the waters in God’s mercy. And so, I previously mentioned Peter, who makes a connection between baptism and the Flood. He writes in 1 Peter 3:21 that baptism corresponds to the ark that brought Noah’s family safely through the water. (He also mentions the cleansing nature of baptism, hitting all three symbols – judgment, cleansing, and deliverance in one passage.)

In the parting of the Red Sea, not only was the Red Sea a water-judgment on the Egyptians, it was also deliverance for the Israelites, literally salvation from death and slavery toward life and the covenant Promised Land. If you remember our series on Jonah, those waters were waters of judgment, but God also provided salvation through the great fish that swallowed Jonah. Again, God’s mercy was found in the midst of His righteous judgment.

And so, our Call to Worship in Romans 6:3-4 not only links baptism to Christ’s death and burial, but also Christ’s resurrection from the dead and our new life. Likewise, our first scripture reading from Colossians 2:8-14 not only speaks of being “buried with Him in baptism” but also being “raised up with Him.”

Water Symbolizes Spirit (the promised Holy Spirit)

Finally, the water of baptism is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In fact, throughout the Old and New Testament times, water represented God’s Holy Spirit. And so it was on the last day of the great feast in John 7, when the priest stood before the people and poured water from a pitcher into a font to symbolize God’s promise to one day send His Holy Spirit on the people, that Jesus stood up and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)

John the Baptist linked his water-baptism to Jesus’ Holy Spirit baptism when he baptized Jesus in John 1:29-34. On the day of Pentecost, Peter called for those listening to him to be baptized, not only for forgiveness – the washing of sin – but also as a sign of receiving the Holy Spirit.

All that is to say that the water of baptism also represents the promises of God, fulfilled at Pentecost, fulfilled daily in the Spirit-indwelled lives of believers, and held in hope for that day when Jesus returns.

Baptismal Water Signifies What God Has Done (judge, forgive, save, remain)

So baptism and specifically the water of baptism is a rich SYMBOL that points to four things (at least!): death, washing, life, and spirit. In addition to all that, baptism is more than a symbol; it is also a SIGN. It doesn’t just represent abstract death, washing, life, and spirit; it POINTS TO God’s judgment, forgiveness, salvation, and promised faithfulness. The water of baptism doesn’t do those things; it doesn’t even generically symbolize those things. It specifically points to the God of history who has acted toward humanity in those ways, most specifically in and through Jesus Christ.

And so when we baptize and when we witness baptism, we are being directed to God and what God has done. It should be slightly terrifying that we are invoking the righteous judgment of God; but it should be even more humbling and comforting that we are directed to the Good News of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ.

This is why I say that baptism is not just an abstract theological topic. It is, in a compact and evocative symbol and sign, the very Gospel story. It is the declaration of all that is wrong with humanity and all that God has done to rescue us. It is like being able to take the whole long, rich story of scripture and squeeze it into one symbol and sign (though it turns out there are TWO such symbols and signs which we call the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion). Think about the Lincoln Memorial or the American flag or the image of the cross. Each one evokes (or SHOULD evoke) a long, rich story of action, emotion, history, and influence. That’s why we’ve put a cross up for the first Sunday of talking about Baptism. It symbolizes such rich and critical aspects of God’s story and it points to the God who acted.

Whether you are pondering your own baptism or witnessing another, or even if you see the font as visible reminder of its purpose, I hope you will more deeply associate the water of baptism with all that God has done through Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.

Next week we will see that not only does baptism serve as a SIGN pointing to what God has done, but it also serves as a SIGN pointing to WHO WE ARE in Christ. Amen.

Music Used

  • We Know that Christ is Raised (ENGELBERG)
  • What the Lord Has Done in Me (Morgan/Hillsong)
  • CHOIR: Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) (from Gospel Mass, Robert Ray)
  • Redeemed (Cowart/Weaver)
  • Marvelous Light (Hall)