Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Genesis 1:3 says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
The first thing God created, according to the creation poem in Genesis 1, was light. But something existed before light – water. God never spoke water into existence. Yet in the very first verses of scripture, God’s Spirit is there with the water.
Then in the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-7, God destroys the earth with water. After a very grim description of the carnage brought by the flood, Genesis 8:1 says, “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.”
That word wind is the same word as Spirit in Genesis 1:2. When the world was created, there was water and Spirit; when the world was created a second time after the flood, there was water and Spirit.
Fast-forward to Jesus sitting at the table with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that anyone who wishes to see the Kingdom of God must be “born again” (what a loaded phrase that has become!). Nicodemus protests: “How can I be born again when I’m a grown man? Can I enter into my mothers womb?” But Jesus tells him that if he really wants to see the Kingdom of God, he needs to be born of water and spirit.
Creation. The flood. Jesus.
In each story there are elements of both death and life; destruction and creation; chaos and order. And in each story there is water and there is Spirit.
In my heritage in Churches of Christ, we’ve often been guilty of reducing baptism to that thing we do to stay out of hell. That’s been our message to our children and to those with whom we share Jesus: get baptized or go to hell. But surely there’s something more to baptism than that. Surely it meant something more to Jesus.
In the broader narrative of scripture, water is used for three purposes that I’ll explain using the letter P:
Presence, Purification, and Preparation.
PRESENCE In the Hebrew scriptures, every time we see water, we see God. Again, consider creation and the flood, as well as Jesus’ baptism when God spoke from heaven. You should also read a really cool story in Ezekiel 47. Each time God’s presence is there with the water. So when we are baptized, we are drawn in to God’s presence.
PURIFICATION The Hebrew scriptures also teach that water is used for purification. The Law of Moses commanded the Israelites to wash with water when they were pronounced clean from infectious disease, or when they were about to eat, or when they entered the Temple to worship. Priests went through a rigorous washing ceremony before offering sacrifices on behalf of the people, and then again once the sacrifice was complete. And in the Christian scriptures, especially in Acts, we see baptism as a form of purification. Churches of Christ hold fast to Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the forgiveness of sins.”
PREPARATION If a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he had to do three things: 1) be circumcised, 2) seven days later be baptized, and 3) offer a sacrifice as an act of worship to God. Baptism purified the Gentile in order that their worship might be acceptable to God. It was an act of preparation for worship. When Jesus was baptized, he was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. His baptism prepared him for that act of worship, and it also launched him into his earthly ministry. In the same way, it prepares us to be what Paul calls living sacrifices.
Now, back to Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus said that to see the Kingdom of God we must be born of water and Spirit. We must be drawn into the presence of God, purified of our sin, and prepared for a life of worship. What, exactly, is the Kingdom of God? Jesus said it’s everywhere, it’s all around us, it’s among us, it’s within us (Luke 17:7). He also said it’s like a woman who lost a coin, swept her house until she found it, then called her neighbors over for a party because she found something so precious (Luke 15). It’s also like a man walking through a field who stumbles upon a treasure. He runs home, sells all his possessions, and buys the field (Matthew 13:44).
In other words, the Kingdom of God has no border, it has no definition. It is both here and now, and also in the age to come. More importantly, the Kingdom of God is worth everything you have! There’s nothing on earth greater than life in the Kingdom. And we enter into this Kingdom through a mysterious act of worship called baptism – through water and Spirit – because, from the very beginning of time, those have been the ingredients for a true, God-breathed life.
Isn’t that a better story than, “be baptized or go to hell?”