Baptism in the Bible’s Story, Pt. 1

Nathan Pickup

In discussing God’s word with fellow believers, I rarely find that they interpret the Bible as a comprehensive story. Rather than putting biblical books, passages, and concepts within the context of the Bible’s overarching narrative, many (again, this is my personal experience) use the Bible as a collection of proof-texts to wield in defense of their personal views. This becomes apparent in discussions I’ve had or witnessed regarding baptism. Often discussions around baptism revert to one side using passages like Acts 2:38 to “prove” baptism’s essential nature, while the other side immediately counters with passages like Ephesians 2:8 to “prove” we are saved solely by faith. One crucial element missing from these discussions is the placement of baptism in the context of the entire biblical story. Once we do this, baptism’s meaning and significance should become clearer to both sides of the “baptism debate.”baptism

Understanding baptism’s role in God’s story requires an understanding of typology. Typology is the study of purposeful patterns in the biblical story that point to a greater reality in some person, event, or thing at a later stage in salvation history. The “type” is the previous pattern, while the “antitype” is the later counterpart or fulfillment. Once the antitype is revealed, it gives the previous type(s) new meaning since we can then see how God had been providentially pointing to the antitype all along. For example, in Hebrews 8:1-6 the author claims the old covenant tabernacle and high priesthood were patterns deliberately pointing to the better reality of Jesus’ high priestly ministry within the “true tabernacle” of heaven. In this use of typology, the author of Hebrews is saying that the tabernacle and high priesthood were purposefully engineered by God in order to teach those in the new covenant age about Christ’s heavenly ministry.

New Testament authors reveal that living in this new covenant age gives us the privilege of seeing in retrospect how God has been deliberately establishing patterns in salvation history—how he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). While we wait for the ultimate ending to God’s story, we can now see how certain old covenant elements were designed to point towards superior new covenant fulfillments. Examples of New Testament authors revealing this privilege are the typological treatment of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7 and Paul’s typological interpretation of Adam in Romans 5. But what about baptism? Is baptism the superior fulfillment of previous patterns in salvation history? The New Testament itself answers this question with a resounding, “yes.”ark

In 1 Peter 3:18-22, Peter describes the flood and Noah’s salvation through water as a pattern pointing to baptism. He doesn’t expound on this understanding of the flood in a lengthy discourse, but he does clearly state how the flood pointed typologically to baptism: just as Noah and his family were brought safely through God’s judgment via water, baptism is also a salvation from God’s judgment via water. Peter is saying that the salvation through water of Noah and his family (the type) was purposefully orchestrated by God to typologically correspond to baptism (the antitype)—a correspondence we have the privilege of recognizing by living in the new covenant age. This portion of Peter’s letter should not be reduced to a mere proof-text containing the words “baptism now saves you” (important as those words may be), but must be recognized as a profound theological glimpse into God’s purposeful actions in history to point to greater spiritual truths—in this case, the spiritual truth of God saving certain human beings from His judgment by water.[1] This salvation through water is an intrinsic part of God’s rescuing of mankind from judgment, which is evident when we follow Peter’s example and look at the biblical story as a whole. Since the flood is inextricably linked to baptism, then arguing that a person is saved from God’s judgment before being brought safely through the waters of baptism is equivalent to saying Noah and his family were brought safely through God’s judgment before the waters came upon the earth. This view clearly dismisses the apostle Peter’s typological understanding of baptism and his exegesis of the flood narrative, and also fails to place the act of baptism in the larger context of salvation history.

In my next article I’ll examine another act of God that was designed to point to baptism. But Peter’s exegesis of the flood illustrates that our own conception and presentation of baptism must go deeper than a rote citation of go-to proof-texts. If we look at the entire biblical story, as Peter did, we will see how God has orchestrated the pattern of passing through water as a salvation from His judgment.


 

[1] Someone may counter that the flood waters were not a means of salvation but were the means of God’s judgment. But Peter’s focus on Noah being saved by the water (revealed by his words “brought safely through water”) doesn’t contradict this point, but is complimentary to it. Water was certainly the means of judgment that cleansed the earth of its pollution of sin, but it was also the means by which a few were brought safely through God’s judgment to a renewed creation.

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