Why is baptism all about water?
Christians get baptised to identify themselves with the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ. Being plunged into water is a powerful sign of being washed and made clean and holy before God, and is a visible expression of an invisible process taking place in our hearts and minds. But why water? And why did John the Baptist’s ministry take place in the River Jordan? To answer these questions we are going to take a whistle-stop journey from creation to present day as we discover how water plays a vital role as a metaphor in the mission and purpose of God in the world.
At the beginning of Genesis we read this: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Now, because water is not solid, is shifting, and can be untamable, wild, and dangerous, water, in ancient times represented chaos, and God began to bring order out of this chaos through wonderful acts of creation. God made human beings in his image — to be like God — to be creative too, and very early on in the history of humanity, God commissioned us to be co-creators with him in the world. Our job was and is to use our God-given creativity to bring order out of the chaos in the world — chaos in people’s lives, chaos in our bodies, chaos in our relationships, chaos in the environment, and so on. This, if you will, is the mission of God in the world, to bring order out of chaos, and that chaos is represented by water.
Over time, God eventually formed a community to be his special representatives to the rest of the world, that the world might know that God is God, and the Bible is the wonderful collection of books that records the interactions and relationship between this people and their God — their ups and downs, successes and failures, hopes and dreams, as they gradually began to understand the character and nature of God. At a vital part in the story of the formation of this community, they found themselves in bondage to the Egyptians, and they escaped through the Red Sea — through water. This miraculous act of God entered the collective consciousness of the community and was remembered in their writings, songs, and prayers. It served as a powerful symbol that they were saved, literally, through the waters of chaos — the chaos of dictatorship and enslavement. It also served as a reminder to them to be, as God’s representatives to the world, bringers of order out of chaos in people’s lives, relationships, and in the environment.
Another key part of the story of these people, known as Israelites, was when they crossed the river Jordan to enter what they dubbed The Promised Land. This hotly contested piece of land was at the crossroads of the world, and if you wished to influence the entire known world at that time, then it was the best place to be. The people of God crossed the Jordan in a way reminiscent of their escape from Egypt, and water, representing chaos, had come to represent the gods of other nations, such as Baal, the god of water. The crossing of the waters of the river Jordan was again, a reminder of God’s mission in the world and the role that they had to play.
After centuries of formation, we skip forward to the point where the community were expecting a special envoy from God, called the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah), who would come and establish God’s kingdom here on earth. John the Baptist, a famous figure, began to tell the people that the arrival of the Anointed One was imminent, and to prepare themselves the people were baptised by John in the river Jordan — the same river the community had crossed all those years ago. They were again aligning themselves with the mission and purpose of God in the world.
The Anointed One did emerge from this community, and we know him as Jesus Christ. He, himself, went to John for baptism, not as a sign that he needed to be cleaned, but because he too was identifying himself with the mission and purpose of God. Two special things happened at Jesus’ baptism: God the father spoke and Jesus was empowered with God’s Holy Spirit. From this point on Jesus began his ministry to make it clear that God’s special community would be expanded, and that God would welcome, accept, and include anyone that responded to the free gift of love and grace offered through Jesus.
Water featured many times in the ministry of Jesus, for example, we have all no doubt heard of Jesus turning water into wine, or walking on water, and now you know why these acts were so symbolic! On one occasion he asked one of his disciples, Peter, to get out of the boat and join him on the water, a powerful, physical demonstration of how God’s plan had never changed and that he wanted his followers to join with him in his mission in the world to bring order out of chaos. Peter began to sink and Jesus grabbed hold of him — a reminder that in order to fulfil his calling he needed to stay connected to God.
And so, this is why, when we become Christians we get baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. We get plunged in and out of water and are aligning ourselves with the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ and of God. We are made clean and holy, and out of the chaos of this world, God makes us his new creations. The water is a symbol that echoes right back through history and to before the creation of the world.
Today, if you have been baptised, may you remember that you have aligned yourself with the mission of Jesus Christ and of God — to be his representative — to use your God-given creativity to bring order out of chaos in people’s lives, relationships, and in the world.