From the Old Testament to the Cross: How God has Used Baptism to Save His People

While teaching on the subject of Bible baptism is largely done through the commands, examples, and inferences found in the New Testament, the Old Testament is where we witness both symbolic and practical examples of baptism. Simply put, the Old Testament points to Jesus as the culmination of redemptive history and baptism as integral as it has always been to salvation by God’s hand. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul observes that God has acted, and that “this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth” (NLT). In Galatians 4:4, the apostle has the same view in mind: “But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law” (NLT). Hebrews 1:1 also highlights the climactic arrival of the Son of God: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (NIV).

The teaching of baptism in the Old Testament is a forerunner of instruction regarding the same in the new. What we see in the Old Testament is what scholars refer to as “typological structures.” They are “types” that have a corresponding practical application in the New.  In other words, the Scriptures begin with glimpses of Christ before His arrival on the scene and add contour and color to the portrait of the coming Messiah in the New Testament. Over time, such glimpses of grace in the grand stories of the Old Testament provide a preview of “coming attractions” in the New, so to speak.

One prominent symbolic picture repeated in the Old Testament is regarding baptism. As Peter observes in his first epistle, water baptism which “saves” is very similar to Noah and his life-saving ark (1 Pet. 3:20). According to 1 Peter, water baptism begins not at the waters of Aenon (John 3:23), but in Scripture’s opening chapters. In Genesis 6, God tells Noah that humanity’s sin has reached a critical mass (v. 5) and that he plans to destroy the world with water. In that trial by water, God promises to save Noah and his family. This is the origin of baptism.

Next, the people of Israel are baptized into the salvation brought about by Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). Moses himself undergoes a baptism of sorts when he’s placed into the Nile as an infant (a place of death) and rescued miraculously through Pharaoh’s own daughter (Ex. 2). Harkening back to Noah’s baptism, the basket Moses is placed in is actually an “ark” of protection, and salvation. Eighty years later, when God saves the nation, he does so both by substituting a lamb for the firstborn of Israel but also by parting the Red Sea. Paul later calls this event Moses’s “baptism” (1 Cor. 10:2), and, like Noah’s ark, it provides a picture of the salvation ultimately found in Christ.

Between these two “baptisms” in the Old Testament, Moses’s baptism is greater than Noah’s, for it saves more than a few family members. Moses’s baptism saves the whole nation of Israel. While Noah boarded the ark before the waters came (Gen. 7), Moses’s waters stood ready to swallow Israel as Pharaoh’s armies chased them. With Israel fearing for its life, God commands Moses to raise his staff, that he might part the waters and provide salvation (Ex. 14:10–16). After their safe passage, Moses pulls back his hand as the waters cover the Egyptians’ heads (v. 26). In this dramatic narrative, it’s plain to see how the importance and value of baptism in the stories of the Old Testament have enhanced the more specific teaching in the New about it.

Noah, Moses, Joshua, and even the prophet Jonah are all examples of how the symbolic baptism necessary for deliverance, and salvation, points to a greater, more profound, literal baptism in the New. These were a mere shadow of the baptism commanded in the New Testament (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, 1 Peter 3:21, Galatians 3:26-27). Like the priests in the Jordan, Jesus will insert himself into the stream of God’s wrath and save the sinner through baptism. Like Jonah, Jesus will volunteer himself to be swallowed in the earth, so that he might rise to save the nations. Jesus himself was baptized by John to serve as an example, and after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, burial in water (baptism) was commanded and practiced in the name, and by the authority of Jesus himself (Matthew 28:18-20). Paul challenges all believers…“Have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives” (Romans 6:3-4, NLT).

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