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The Ancient Roots of Baptism

A sermon on Belgic Confession Article 34 / 1 Peter 3.18-22; Leviticus 12

by Tim Gallant

Beloved family of Jesus Christ,

Last week, we began to look at the sacraments together. We noted that they are powerful signs which point us to Jesus Christ, who is presented in them. But now we must go further and look at these signs individually, and this evening, we begin our look at baptism.

A correct handling of Scripture very often centers upon understanding the issue of what is new and what is old and how these two, the old and the new, relate to one another. Another way of saying that is that the Bible tells us a story. The fact that it is a story - one story - reminds us that there is a unity, a coherence, to what the Bible presents to us. And on the other hand, the fact that it is a story, an account of things that happen over time - that reminds us that we can't just treat the Bible as a collection of timeless truths. In order to recognize the unity properly, we also must recognize the development, the newness that comes about as God walks with His people through history.

Over the next two weeks, I am going to try to engage in a bit of that exercise as we study baptism. We will see that Christian baptism unites us to the history of God's acts. And we are going to consider the old and the new: Tonight, we are going to look at the ancient roots of Christian baptism; and then next week, Lord willing, we will look at the newness of Christian baptism.

As we consider the ancient roots of Christian baptism this evening, we will see these ancient roots, in both the events of the Old Testament, and then as well in the rites or rituals of the Old Testament.

1. First then, Christian baptism has ancient roots in the events of the Old Testament. Now, this way of framing things is already a surprise to some Christians. They think of baptism as something brand new in the New Testament. They do not see it having ancient roots, and that is part and parcel of a broader view regarding the Church, that it is something radically different from everything that came before. God had a people, Israel, in the Old Testament, and that people has virtually no relationship to the people He has in the New Testament, the Church.

I wish to show this evening that that sort of mindset is all wrong. We cannot go into a discussion of who the people of God are in the Old and New Testaments, since that would take us far afield from our purpose this evening. But I am going to focus upon the fact that Christian baptism is introduced as part of the big story, and is recognizable as such. It is not some brand new thing that pops out of nowhere. Nor is it something borrowed from some obscure practice that a few Jews may or may not have been doing in the first century. It is an ancient practice with ancient roots, and those roots are biblical; they are part of the grand story of God.

Christian baptism has ancient roots in the events of the Old Testament. Our passage this evening points us to one of those events. It connects Christian baptism to the great flood at the time of Noah. Verse 20 says that "a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water."

Now, that is an interesting way of putting things. We probably look at the flood as a situation in which Noah and his family were saved from the water, not through it. But Peter makes a connection between baptism and the flood; he has the gall to say that "baptism saves" - something that most of us would not dare to say, I suspect - and therefore the idea is that we are saved through baptism, so that is parallel to Noah and his family being saved through the water of the flood.

But how can this be? The answer is that salvation, or deliverance, involves God creating and maintaining a people for Himself. If you study Genesis 6, you will find that the clear distinction that God had placed between the line of the godly - the line of Seth - and the line of the wicked - that is, the line of Cain - had been virtually lost. The sons of God married the daughters of men, and the very existence of the people of God was threatened severely.

So when God sends a flood and destroys everybody but one family, He is also providing the route to a new creation; He is providing a way to maintain His people. And therefore, Noah and his family were not only saved from water, by means of the ark; they were saved through water. It was through a great watery "baptism" that God brought them through to a new creation as a people for Himself.

There we have one biblical event involving water, and as we have seen, Peter links Christian baptism to it. To put it another way: the flood was a baptism for Noah and his family.

The New Testament points to other biblical events as baptismal, as well. Recently, we had a sermon based on 1 Corinthians 10. I'm going to go back there right now and read 1 Corinthians 10.1-4:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.

Here we see language that belongs to the new covenant sacraments being applied to events from the Old Testament. In verse 6, Paul says the whole of this story is one of "example," or more literally, of pattern, or type. What is a type? It provides a matrix that determines the pattern and shape of later events. It's like if you have a fiberglass mold, and you pour something into it, the shape of the final product is determined by the mold.

In context, Paul is thus saying that the shape for new covenant believers, the shape of salvation and judgment, of sacramental blessing and responsibility, is determined by the pattern laid out in the events that have gone before. Israel was baptized into Moses; Israel partook of spiritual food and drink; so too we are baptized into Christ, our covenant head, and partake of spiritual food and drink. Our pattern is borrowed; baptism is borrowed.

So we have seen that baptism has ancient roots in the events of the Old Testament. The connection is made explicit in these two passages we have looked at, 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 10, but if we were to work carefully through the Old Testament, we would find other, parallel events that also fit the same pattern. In short, baptism is old and its meaning is dictated and shaped by those original events.

If that is the case, we need to pause and think about that meaning just a bit more. What happened at the Flood? What happened at the Red Sea?

As I already indicated, the Flood separated God's people from the wicked and brought them on their way to a new creation. And something similar can be said regarding the Red Sea, as well. Why did the children of Israel cross the Red Sea? They were escaping Pharaoh. God took them through the Sea, and that was the way in which He forever put the Egyptians behind them - it was on that day that God told Israel, "You will never see these Egyptians again."

So it was deliverance and separation from the wicked. But just as with the flood, it also had to do with new creation. The baptism in the sea was a point of transition between Egypt and the Promised Land. It's true that Israel didn't cross the Sea and immediately end up in Canaan. They still had to go through the wilderness. Yet it is also interesting that when they did arrive at Canaan, what did they have to do? They had to have another "baptism." They crossed Jordan, just as they had crossed the Red Sea.

So, how does all this set a pattern for Christian baptism? First, and I have been hammering on this repeatedly, and do again now: baptism is God's act. The sending of the flood and the passage through it was God's gift. The pushing of Israel to a place of being trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptians - Israel did not choose that; that was a path taken by Moses as he was led by God. And then the passage through the Red Sea was also God's act.

Meaning, again, baptism is God's gift. That is one reason for Peter's strangely strong language here in verse 21, when he says that baptism saves. He isn't saying baptism is some magical thing; he is saying that it is God's action, and that action is powerful on behalf of His people.

And then, further, baptism marks us out from the world. It doesn't make us better than other people. Passing through the Red Sea didn't make the Israelites better than the Egyptians. But nonetheless, it marked them out and separated them from the Egyptians, and was the decisive act of judgment, because the same water that saved them drowned the Egyptians.

And that means that baptism, precisely as God's act, places a responsibility upon us. It marks us out as those who belong to God. It puts a mandate on us that does not allow us to live in Egypt. It puts a claim upon us that as God's rescued people, we are to be holy to Him.

2. Okay, so Christian baptism has ancient roots in the events of the Old Testament. But also, Christian baptism has ancient roots in the rites - or the rituals - of the Old Testament. Speaking of the tabernacle, Hebrews 9.9-10 says,

It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience - concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.

I've drawn attention to that phrase various washings. The Greek word for "washings" there is baptismois - "baptisms." That's right, the law had all sorts of baptisms. Christian baptism is closely related to them.

Now, this may puzzle you, in terms of Article 34 in our Confession. Because, as we read, the last section of this article ties baptism to circumcision. So which is it?

The answer is "both." In Colossians 2.11-12, Paul says this:

In Him - that is, in Christ - you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

There is certainly enough in those two verses to occupy our entire time this evening, but I cannot do that; we will soon need to wrap up. So I'm going to give you a very short capsule view of what I believe Colossians 2.11-12 is saying. Paul is arguing why the Colossians do not need to be circumcised. The reason is that they have already been circumcised in the circumcision of Christ. The circumcision of Christ in this context does not refer first of all to the event that took place when He was eight days old; rather, it refers to Christ's death on the cross, and that is why Paul connects it to being "buried with Him in baptism." Paul is saying that the circumcision we have is Christ's death, and we are made partakers of that in baptism. So the shorthand would be: baptism comes in place of circumcision.

So we have these two Old Testament rites which provide ancient roots for Christian baptism. The question is: what on earth do they have to do with one another?

As it turns out, they have a great deal to do with one another. We obviously cannot go through these texts here, but in the law, circumcision is discussed in Leviticus 12. Leviticus 12 stands in the middle of a discussion of cleanness and uncleanness according to the law, which begins in chapter 11 and stretches through chapter 15. And that big section is where we have the most references to the "various baptisms" referred to by Hebrews 9.10.

The point of Leviticus 12 is that when a woman gives birth, she is unclean and the child is unclean. What does that point to? It points to the corruption that has fallen upon the human race. David, in his great confession in Psalm 51.5 says, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me."

In other words, there is no "time of innocence" in any absolute sense. Infants are more innocent in comparison to those who have hardened themselves in active sin - but they are not innocent. They are stained; they partake of the death wrought by Adam's sin.

This death threatens life, apart from God's grace. But in Leviticus 12, God's grace is seen in His provision for cleansing. In the case of the infant male, he is circumcised. That makes him ritually clean. In the case of an infant female, since she cannot be circumcised, we read in Leviticus 12 that the mother has twice as long of a period of purification, so that her daughter is cleansed through her.

How then does this relate to the "various baptisms" that we read about in Leviticus? The rituals involved with these baptisms were designed to restore the Israelite to the state of purity he had when he was circumcised, or in the case of the female, the state of purity she had when her mother was purified for her. Circumcision was the entry into purity, which referred to access to God's presence. And when that access was hindered through various means, such as sin or ritual defilement - contact with death, for example - it had to be regained through a ritual that usually involved baptism. So the long and short of it is that what circumcision provided at the beginning - purification that provided access to God - baptism restored, when necessary.

Now let us come back to baptism and what it means for us. It is very obvious that there are some differences, but let's not focus on those for the moment; we will be looking at the newness of Christian baptism next week. But what pattern does this circumcision/baptism combination establish for Christian baptism?

First, it reminds us that without God's intervention, we are impure and ineligible to have access to God, to fellowship with Him. We need Him to intervene.

Second, in baptism, God really does intervene and invite us to have fellowship with Himself. Baptism is an invitation; it is God saying to us, "Come to Me; I have made the way."

The ancient roots of baptism in the long story of God with His people are a comfort to us, congregation. They remind us of His faithfulness, which has been rock-steady from generation to generation. In baptism, we are assured that the God of Noah, the God of Abraham, the God of Moses and David and all those ancient saints - this God is our dwelling place, and He cleanses us that we may fellowship and commune with Him. What a joy it is to know that God is our Rock.


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