Baptism in the Bible’s Story, Pt. 2

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By Nathan Pickup

The discussion of whether baptism is “essential” for entering God’s covenant community must take into account the entire biblical story rather than isolated proof-texts. These discussions would benefit from an understanding of typology, the study of purposeful patterns in the biblical story that achieve fulfillment in some person, event, or thing at a later stage in salvation history. 1 Peter 3:18-22 illustrates this by revealing that baptism had been typologically foreshadowed in Noah’s salvation via water during the flood. Another event that serves as a pattern pointing to baptism is the Exodus.

red sea crossingIn 1 Corinthians 10:1-11, Paul speaks of the Israelites who left Egypt being “baptized into Moses” before their journey to the Promised Land. We know Paul is interpreting the Exodus events typologically for two reasons: one, Paul calls the Exodus events “types” for new covenant experiences (v. 6), and two, he says the Israelites of the Exodus ate and drank the same spiritual food and drink as his audience of Corinthian Christians (the food and drink being Christ)—thus drawing a direct parallel between the two peoples of the two covenants.[1] For Paul, the old covenant experiences of Israel aren’t just moralizing lessons, but are divinely engineered patterns that pointed to the new covenant experiences of the Church (the Israel of God in Jesus Christ). These typological connections are the reason for Paul’s astonishing claim that the recording of the Exodus events wasn’t ultimately for ancient Israel’s benefit; they were actually recorded for the benefit of the new covenant Church, “on whom the end of the ages has come” (v. 11). The Exodus event of leaving slavery by passing through the water of the Red Sea and the cloud (which Paul says was baptism, v. 2), and eating and drinking from their provider (Christ, v. 4) typologically points to God’s new covenant people leaving slavery by passing through the waters of baptism, and eating and drinking from their provider (Christ) on their way to the Promised Land.

But how is the Red Sea crossing a pattern pointing to baptism? The Red Sea crossing was the act when God’s people permanently escaped their slavery to Pharaoh and became a free people belonging to God.[2] This is exactly the language used by New Testament authors to describe humanity’s current condition and the salvation through Christ. As humans, we are enslaved to the devil and death (Heb. 2:14-15). Baptism is the powerful act of leaving our slavery to death and passing through the water into freedom in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:1-23, esp. vv. 6-7). Thus, in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul is revealing that the Red Sea crossing was a baptismal act that was purposefully engineered by God to point to the new covenant deliverance from slavery to death—a deliverance that occurs when we pass through the water to be God’s free covenant people.

This passing through water is an intrinsic part of the story of Yahweh’s redeemed people, and this is evident when we follow Paul’s example and look at the biblical story as a whole. Like Paul, we should recognize a purposeful correspondence orchestrated by God between the “baptism” of old covenant Israel and the baptism of new covenant Israel, the Church. Since the Red Sea crossing and baptism are inextricably linked in the biblical story, then to argue that a person is rescued from slavery to death before the waters of baptism is equivalent to saying the Israelites were rescued from slavery to Pharaoh before the Red Sea crossing. This view clearly dismisses the apostle Paul’s typological understanding of baptism and his exegesis of the Exodus narrative, and also fails to place the act of baptism in the larger context of redemptive history.Miriam

Regardless of whether we’re speaking of the old or new covenant, Israel is a people led by God through water to escape slavery. Those denying baptism’s role in becoming a member of Yahweh’s Israel are ignoring the typology within the complete story of the Bible and, even worse, are actually seeking to alter that story. From our brief analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-22 (in my previous article) and 1 Corinthians 10:1-11, we can see baptism as a deliverance from judgment and an escape from slavery that God has been illustrating throughout the story of His Israel. It is common for baptism to be presented as nothing more than one of five “acts” that must be performed to accept salvation, a presentation I have utilized in the past. But baptism is so much more than that—it is a conscientious participation in the long and continuing line of God’s mighty acts of deliverance for His people. In short, baptism is a participation in the story of God’s Israel.


[1] Some may argue against this reading since Paul doesn’t specifically use the word “type.” But this is the result of our English translations, for Paul uses the word typos in verse 6 in describing these events as “types” for Christian experiences. See the discussion of the passage in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard Hays, pp. 95-102. It must also be said that a New Testament author’s use of typology is not limited solely to those instances in which he actually uses the word typos; nor, we must admit, that the word typos necessarily means the author is thinking typologically. One must look for the concept of typology, not merely the word itself, and the concept is clearly present in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11.

[2] Note that Israel’s victory song (Ex. 15:1-21) is not sung as they are leaving Egypt, but only after Israel has passed through the water of the Red Sea.