If you’ve been around Christian churches for a while, you’ve probably heard the saying baptism is an outward sign of your inward faith.I remember being told this as a young believer. Short theological tweetables like this can be helpful, but they rarely do justice to the richness of the doctrines they define. Indeed, baptism is a sign of something, but Scripture doesn’t primarily call it a sign of our faith. Whether you believe in the baptism of infants or think that baptism should be withheld until a person makes a profession of faith, here are three Old Testament pictures that help us understand, according to the Bible,what baptism is a sign of.
Baptism is a Sign of New Creation (Gen. 1:1-2; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17, Jn. 3:5).
The Old Testament prophets were well aware of how sin had ravaged God’s people and planet. They spoke of a coming new creation that would involve the whole earth (Isa 65:17). The church is the beginning of this new creation according to the apostle Paul, who said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Interestingly, the first creation involved water and the Spirit. Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Insofar as baptism involves water and the Spirit, it is a sign of the new creative work of God. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). Your baptism, along with every other baptism, is a picture of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come!
Baptism is a Sign of Judgment (Genesis 6; cf. 1 Pet. 3:19-21).
Because of the sinfulness of mankind, God spoke to Noah, saying, “I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die” (Gen 6:17). The waters of the flood purified the earth, but this cleansing was nothing less than divine judgment. Baptismal waters are a picture of death, and this is why Paul could say, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Peter draws a direct line of analogy between the flood and baptism in 1 Peter 3, where after describing the waters in Noah’s day, he said, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v.21). Praise be to God; we don’t go into the treacherous baptismal waters to stay, but we’re led through them in Christ!
Baptism is a Sign of Deliverance (Exodus 14; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-5).
Baptism is a picture ofsalvation through judgment. Just as Noah and his family were delivered through the flood water, the children of Israel were delivered from the Egyptian army through the Red Sea. The magnificent scene is recounted for us in Exodus 14: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the seaon dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (vs. 21-22). Many years later, the apostle Paul called this event a type of baptism: “our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:1-2). Baptism is a sign of being delivered through the waters of death and coming out on dry land.
It’s important to note that these events—new creation, judgment, and deliverance—are all the works of God. The beauty of baptism is that it actually points us away from ourselves, what we do, and onto the Creator-Judge who delivers us out of the sea of death and iniquity. How does he do this? Well, Jesus Christ went down into the sea of our sins and conquered them when he rose from the dead. When we are baptized today it is a sign of our union with him; we have been delivered through death in his death and raised with him to new life (Rom 6:4). In Jesus, we are new creations, and our baptisms are a sign of that reality!
If you’ve been baptized but no longer go to church, take a minute to think about what your baptism signified. Whether you’d call yourself a believer today or not, God has marked you with his saving sign and calls you to look beyond the sign to the one to whom it points: Jesus. Jesus is ushering in a new creation, and he has taken upon himself the judgment you deserve because of sin. By faith in him, he takes you by the hand and delivers you out of the flood of wrongdoing. Hear God’s word speaking to you in your baptism and let it lead you back to Christ, back to the body of believers that you’ve been distant from. Experience, perhaps for the first time, the grace of God to you in baptism, and let it flood you today.