The First Baptism


We noted in the last post that many cultures use water as a means to spiritual renewal.  While infusing the physical with spiritual meanings is not unique to Christianity alone, Christianity grounds and develops this meaning more deeply into its narrative than any other culture, religion, or philosophy. Before we even look at immersion in the New Testament, there are some foundational narratives to be appreciated.

A Corrupted World

The first narrative of immersion in the Bible starts in Genesis 6.  “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen. 6:11-12).

This “corruption” is the opposite of what God saw in Genesis 1:31 “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” The life and health of the pure world God created in the beginning had been polluted.  While I believe that God is concerned that we take care of the physical environment we live in, what is far more important is our spiritual pollution.  The debauched, vice-ridden world of Genesis 6 was a spiritual filth above all else.

Cleansing the Corrupted World

So what is God going to do with this corrupted, filthy world?  He’s going to give it a bath.  He’s going to cleanse the world of the grime that clings to it, and the worst of this grime is corrupted mankind itself.

God proceeds to immerse the world in water: “The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered. The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered. All flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and all mankind; of all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, died.” (Gen. 7:19-22).

Everything is completely submerged.  The immersion is meant as an undoing of creation.  The birds, cattle and beasts that God had made in the beginning are destroyed, instead of created.  The immersion of the world is also the death of the world.


However, God doesn’t destroy for the sake of destruction.  In fact, he’s only destroying the filth.  It’s the same earth after the flood, but it’s a transformed earth.  The death of the world as Noah knew it led to a pure, re-created world.

The post-flood narrative is a creation narrative. “But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided” (Gen. 8:1).

The word for “wind” is the same Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach).  During the original creation, the world was full of water and a “ruach” was involved in removing the waters to create a habitable place for man. “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).  Water, spirit, and creation go together.

After the water is cleared away, the earth populated with animals and man (Gen. 8:15-19), just as happened in the first creation. The cycles and seasons of the earth that were created in Gen. 1:14-15, are given again in 8:22 “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night Shall not cease.” After the world is habitable and ready for life, Noah receives the same instruction as Adam in Gen. 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 9:7). To fill out the narrative cycle, Noah is also in charge of a garden (Gen. 9:20), is ashamed of nakedness after sin (9:22-23), and there is a curse given (9:25).

Again, the flood story is a creation narrative.  Out of the chaos and disorder of corrupted humanity, God creates a pure world in which man can have dominion and live with God.

Reliving the Flood Narrative

The flood story gives us three main elements: corruption, cleansing with water, and re-creation. These are the same exact elements involved in Christian conversion. “But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:20-24).

How is our corrupted man put away and renewed in the spirit?  Through the demonstration of faith by immersion into water. “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.”

Every Christian baptism is a reenactment of the flood story.  The flood narrative demonstrates how all of God’s people are re-created.  The apostle Peter says “the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:20-21). 

We cannot go back and live during the time of Noah.  We cannot see the world completely cleansed of its moral and spiritual filth, but we can be cleansed and re-created just like the world of Noah’s day.

Everybody Has Baptism Stories


Baptism stories aren’t unique to the Bible.  The use of water for cleansing and renewal is a consistent theme in many stories throughout the world.  I’d like to eventually explain why Christian baptism is unique, more powerful and more meaningful than any other baptism stories, but before we get into Christian baptism, I think it’s best that we realize other worldviews have their own version of the same thing.  They just might not refer to it as baptism. By appreciating these other baptism stories, we can appreciate that the Bible’s baptism stories are not detached from the world we live in.  Nor is baptism is simply a sterile formula that needs to be checked off a Christianity “to-do list.”  It’s a powerful, universally recognized interaction with reality.

Baptism stories

The Jungle

In Upton Sinclair’s famous novel “The Jungle,” Jurgis, a Lithuanian immigrant, comes to America seeking freedom and wealth.  What he finds is despair and poverty.  After being beaten down by the system, having lost his wife and only child, and unable to find decent employment, Jurgis decides to run away from that life and from the city.  He hops on the nearest train and heads into the country.  The further he gets from the stench of the city, the more renewed he feels and the more distant his painful past becomes.  One of the plights of Jurgis’ poverty was that he had not fully bathed in months.  After alighting from the train, he comes a cross a flowing river, and seizes the opportunity.  The bath he takes, however, is not simply a way of getting clean.  It’s a way of renewing his life and starting fresh.  He has left his old life behind, and now wanders off with not only a clean body, but a new mindset entirely.  He’s going to survive at any cost.  Jurgis has been “baptized,” and starts living with a new perspective, forgetting the life he left behind.


Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Castaway” lives a life surrounded by water that changes his entire view of the world.  When he comes back to civilization, he’s a different man.  His time surrounded by water separates his old life from his new one.


We find another baptism story in the novel Siddhartha, Herman Hesse’s story about life through the eyes of Buddhism.  While Siddhartha has several moments of growth during his life, it is at the river that he becomes a new person.  Having spent his life “seeking,” Siddhartha becomes hopeless and looks into the river, wishing to drown himself in it.  At this point, he has a spiritual “awakening” that actually leads to a deep slumber by the river.  The text says, “But he had come to his sense by a river, under a coconut tree, with the sacred word om on his lips, whereupon he had fallen asleep.  And now he had awakened and was looking at the world as a new man.”  Death and new life given through the river: a Buddhist baptism.


You might object to these examples as being written by authors in a Judeo-Christian culture, and therefore these authors had already been exposed to baptism.  However, we know that even before Christian baptism, water was used as a form of religious purification.  Speaking on baptism in the early 3rd century, Tertullian writes, “But you will tell me that peoples without the slightest understanding of spiritual things attribute power to their images of gods through the same efficacy in water. These, however, deceive themselves, since the water they use is bereft of spiritual power. For they are initiated into certain sacred rites by a bath, those of some Isis or Mithras; even their very gods they exalt with washings. Indeed, it is a universal custom to carry water round estates, houses, temples and whole cities, for their purification by sprinkling. It is true that at the celebrations in honour of Apollo and those held at Pelusium, worshippers are dipped, and they have the effrontery to declare that their object is rebirth and an escape from punishment for their broken oaths. Likewise among the men of old, whoever had stained himself with homicide, sought out waters of cleansing power.”  While Tertullian is defending Christian baptism here, he is foreseeing an objection that a pagan might make: water used for spiritual cleansing isn’t unique to Christianity.

There are a plethora of other examples of baptism in the ancient world, the modern, and in other cultures.  The physical cleansing power of water easily lends itself to spiritual metaphor for a new life, even outside of the Bible.  It doesn’t take a Christian to feel like a “new person” after having a nice long shower.

Why do non-Christian baptism stories matter?

It’s important to recognize the universal appreciation for the spiritually renewing powers of water because it gives Christianity a bridge into other cultures and viewpoints.  The person who objects that baptism is merely an ancient outdated Christian ritual may think differently once they recognize the powerful forms of baptism that are alive and well today.  Even a self-proclaimed Christian may come to recognize the power of baptism in this way.  Once we’ve laid the foundation of spiritual cleansing through water, we can then examine why the Christian version is the best version, and the true version, of this powerful symbol.

I Can Believe My Eyes

faith knowledge

Christopher Hitchens once said, “It’s called faith because it’s not knowledge.”  As far as I can tell, this statement fundamentally misunderstands how knowledge and faith are tied together.

Everything we know and think is based on faith.  How do you know who your biological parents are? How do you know when you were born?  How do you know that George Washington was the first president of the United States?  We often refer to these things as facts, but if we think about it the things we call “facts” are based on trusting what others have told us.  I can’t prove scientifically that I was born in Chicago.  I consider it a fact because I trust my parents. If I had reason to distrust my parents, I could look at my birth certificate, which would mean that instead of trusting my parents, I would be trusting a doctor who signed the certificate saying he witnessed my birth in that particular location.  Even if I saw the birth certificate, I would have to trust that the person who gave it to me didn’t forge the certificate.  This could go on ad infinitum, but you get the point.

Even scientific “facts” are based on trust.  I trust that it’s unwise to shoot a canister of propane, not because I’ve seen it explode myself, but because other people have told me that the result would be an explosion.  I don’t have to perform every scientific experiment ever done in order to trust that certain facts of science are true.  I trust the people who have done the experiments before me.

“Well,” you might reply, “what about the things I’ve witnessed firsthand?  I can know things for a fact if I’ve seen them for myself.”  Yes, we can know things by seeing them firsthand, but even that is a matter of trust.  How do I know that I’m not dreaming?  How do I know that my eyes are relaying things as they really are?  When something seemingly unbelievable is happening in front of us we say “I can’t believe my eyes,” and that’s not just a figure of speech.  We truly are unsure sometimes that the things we’re witnessing really happened (i.e. 9/11).  So when we see something that seems “unbelievable” we actually are trusting that our senses aren’t fooling us.

We can go even further back and ask whether we can even trust that we’re thinking!  Descartes figured that the one thing he could trust was that he was thinking, thus “I think, therefore I am.”  Some philosophers, however, don’t even trust that statement.  This has to end at some point.  A person may tell you that they don’t trust in reality, but if you ask them to jump off a ten story building, you’ll quickly find out that they do trust their senses and the thoughts behind them.

Those truly who can’t trust anything, even their own senses, are literally insane.  The paranoid-schizophrenic is unable to trust his own mind, and therefore can’t distinguish between reality and dreams.  I realize there are many factors that cause mental disorders, and I’m not claiming that the mentally ill are willfully distrustful, or that it’s their own fault that they have issues.  I’m simply saying that they illustrate what a complete breakdown of trust looks like, whatever the cause.

Why does any of this matter?  Because religious people are often presented as having “faith,” whereas those without religion supposedly don’t trust.  They know.  The fact is that we all trust in order to know.  Faith (trust) is the foundation for everything we do, which the Christian should not find surprising.  The only question is where our faith ultimately rests.

My knowledge of the world is grounded in God because I trust the testimony of the apostles that Jesus was raised from the dead.  They have proved themselves trustworthy by the integrity of their lives and the consistency of their message.

Any other view of the world is also based on faith in a group of people.  Naturalists (often referred to flatly as scientists) believe in views that are espoused by a group of men that went before them.  A scientist isn’t required to repeat every experiment ever performed in order to “see it for himself” (see third paragraph above^^).  There simply is no view of the world that doesn’t ultimately rest on faith in what other people have told us.

There’s another major element of faith that I’ve left out of this discussion, and that is faith that looks toward the future (Hebrews 11 faith).  It is based on knowledge of past events, but it is not knowledge strictly speaking.  That’s a post for another time, but it’s worth mentioning for clarification.

In the quest for knowledge the atheist, scientist, Muslim, and Christian all require a backwards-looking faith.  The question, again, is which group of people have proven to be the most trustworthy?  I’ll stick with the apostles.

For further reading on this issue:



(Warning: This post contains “insider” language in reference to non-institutional churches of Christ.  However, a lack of familiarity with the terms used will not hinder general comprehension of this post.)

As I explained in a previous post, we all seem to crave deeper meaning than our current culture seems to offer.  The feeling that we live with bare “laws” and formulas of the world has left us begging for something more meaningful.  I argued that deeper meaning should be found in the church through the Word of God.

However, the way we feel about the ghosttown world we live in often carries over to our view of the church.  Just as the scientific definition of a tree is not very meaningful or inspiring, neither is a scientific explanation of God’s Word.  Many Christians feel that the church is something that should be full of life and meaning but has too often been stripped down into a code.  It seems that God sent Christ in order to give us “five acts of worship,” and “five steps to salvation,” and another formula (command, example, necessary inference) to get to these steps.  Now that we’ve stripped the message of 66 books of the Bible down to a few simple formulas, all we have to do is preserve those formulas and we’ll be good to go.  And so we ask, “are these “handy” formulas really the hidden riches of meaning that Christ came to tell us about?” (Col. 2:3).

There is nothing more repulsive than a sterile code, and many Christians are claustrophobic about being trapped in a sanitized box of Christianity for the rest of their lives.  Surely God has something more meaningful to offer than this, even in this world.

Let me say in defense of the aforementioned “formulas” that they’re not inherently wrong.  They are generally true to scripture, although the Bible never explicitly refers to “five acts of worship.”  Furthermore, it’s okay to see the Bible as containing authoritative patterns.  In fact, it’s impossible NOT to look at the Bible and see a pattern.  The only way we understand anything at all is through pattern recognition.  You read this sentence by pattern recognition.  Don’t let someone tell you that seeing a pattern in the Bible is wrong.  Jesus didn’t die to free us from patterns.  He gave us the pattern of the cross, or to use a more palatable word, the story of the cross, and stories are meaningful patterns.  Anyone that tries to accuse a Christian of “patternism” must do so by using a pattern of their own.  They are simply using a pattern that rejects all patterns, which is self-contradictory.

Also, I must say that I’ve never met one person who would actually say that “five acts,” and “five steps” are all that we need.  Every Christian I’ve ever met (even the seemingly “Pharisaical”) believes that the heart must be involved and that our lives outside the assembly are just as important.  What we are really frustrated with is primarily a feeling and atmosphere.  We live and breath the air of our culture that views the world as a scientific ghosttown stripped of meaning, which appears to have infected the atmosphere of the church at some level.  And the atmosphere matters.

Hence the appeal of the “house church” movement.  It’s not intended by most as a rejection of the Bible or authority, but a rejection of the atmosphere of a ghosttown church.  At its heart, It is an attempt to re-infuse the church with relevant meaning, although I’m sure it has its own self-righteous members just as “traditional” congregations do.

The solution to a sterilized view of the church, however, is not to banish an organized understanding of scripture or to just shout “grace” and “love” (two words that are often thrown around without any clear definition).  Nor is the solution to simply preach harder the “five acts,” and the “five steps.”  The solution is to dig deeper.  By the sweat of our brow the Bible will bear fruit for us.

God does not give arbitrary patterns.  Yet that’s what our “five acts” often feel like when we preach them for their own sake.  They represent the most bare understanding of worship.  We believe that songs, prayers and other acts of worship should be deeply meaningful, but the formula seems to have stripped away their life.  The “five acts” aren’t enough if they are left in their bare form.  A skeleton is necessary for a body, but it must be given flesh and breath to become meaningful.  Bare skeletons are haunting and repulsive, and that’s why some people run away from the church.  Yet if we are skeptical of biblical patterns because they’ve come across as bare, meaningless, scientific descriptions, then we must learn to infuse them with greater meaning, not simply discard them.  The solution is not to throw away the skeleton, although we are allowed to examine whether our skeleton has extra or missing parts.

If we’re able to breathe life into these bones, then not only should our understanding of worship become deeper, but our understanding of the world will be enriched as well.  In some future posts, I’ll attempt to illustrate more specifically how we might breathe life into our understanding of worship and salvation through the stories of the Bible.

As a final disclaimer, none of this is to say that I believe all churches are dead and formulaic.  I believe most churches are alive and striving to grow in comprehension, understanding, and practice in many ways.  But I do believe there is a generic atmosphere at some level that should be addressed.  This is simply my attempt to describe what might hinder our growth in the current church culture, and offer a perspective on past it.

Lifted Up


Admit it.  You like getting some recognition for the good things you do.  A little praise can go a long way in boosting our esteem.  No one likes to feel that they’ve added no value to the world (sadly, those who truly feel they have no value to add often commit suicide).  That’s not to say you are a vain person who seeks attention, but it is within all of us to need affirmation, and affirmation is a form of glorification. We have a desire for glorification, and that drive isn’t inherently wrong (Jn. 7:18).

God’s goal since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden has been to exalt mankind to our proper place in the cosmos.  We often refer to Adam and Eve’s sin as “the fall,” and rightfully so.  We fell from our glorious, valuable place by trying to usurp God’s place in the world.  Since then we’ve been concerned with regaining that glory, but without God we seek it in a very different, selfish way that can’t transcend the world.  Is it now even possible for us to be glorified?  If so, how?

Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die. The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:27-34).

We cannot lift ourselves up.  We must be exalted through Christ.  Any other effort at glorification leaves us stuck on the earthly plane only.

I recently explored how the “Son of Man” in Daniel 7 represents true humanity in its rightful, glorified place in the cosmos.  Jesus appropriates the term “Son of Man” because he himself is the representative of the new humanity.  Paul affirms Jesus’ representative role for humanity, but in different terms.  Paul describes  Jesus as a “new Adam.”  Adam is also representative of the human race, but in its fallen form (Rom. 5:17).  As Adam represents mankind’s fallen nature, Jesus represents its exalted form.

Given Jesus is representative, his exaltation is therefore a new pattern for all humans who wish to be a part of the glorified humanity.  We don’t have to live Adam’s story anymore.  And what does the new story of exalted humanity look like?  Crucifixion.

It appears that one of the many reasons God chose to have Jesus crucified was to illustrate mankind’s exalted place in the order of the cosmos.  I’ve noted in recent posts that humans are supposed to be above the world, yet below heaven.  Man’s place is in between.  Humanity connects the two realms, since humans are both heavenly (spiritual) and earthly (physical).  We are conduits made to be a living connection between the two realms, but before Jesus came we had lost our connection to the heavenly realm.  The cross represents the path to mankind’s re-exaltation to its proper place.  What happens when Jesus is lifted up on the cross?  He is physically placed in between heaven and earth in all his glory, where mankind belongs!

This is, of course, the last way we would expect exaltation.  The glory of the new humanity looks like a shamed and powerless person.  More than just torture, the Romans displayed their enemies and criminals on a cross in public as a symbol of their own power and glory.  Their ability to strip power and glory from others supposedly displayed how glorious and powerful they were.  But God turned the message of the cross upside down by using it as a symbol of his power and glory through a new humanity.  The man on the cross is the most powerful and glorious, exalted above the earth.

If we want to share in Christ’s glory, we must share in his story as well: “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one” (Jn. 17:22).  We are invited to partake of Jesus’ glory by partaking of the cross ourselves (Mt. 16:24).

Jesus’ crucifixion is a story we never would have guessed on our own.  By the grace of God we now know that our path to glory looks completely backwards.  Anyone wishing to partake of the new glorious humanity must do so in the same way Jesus did.  The Son of Man (i.e. humanity) is the most valuable part of God’s creation and he’s shown us the way to be glorified again.  Praise God!



Madonna’s recent song “Ghosttown” expresses life in a cold, fallen world.  While I can’t speak to the intentions behind her lyrics, it’s clear from popular culture that ghosttown is an apt description of the world we live in.  The popularity of dystopian movies such as The Hunger Games, and the Divergent series attest to how the world feels to us today.  They are set in grand societies that have fallen in some way.  The glory of western civilization since the Renaissance with all it’s art, literature, and advances in understanding has run its course, and the advances of science aren’t really enough to overcome this feeling.  We live in the decay and ruins of a once meaningful world.

The current reign of Scientism has helped turn the world into a ghosttown.  We’ve looked at the world and dissected it until it died.  There is no longer any deep meaning in the nature we look at.  There are only things, not meanings.  We’re too smart to believe in the seemingly enchanted world of the ancients.  They foolishly ascribed spiritual meaning to the world we live in.  We know better now.  Trees are just trees, and water is just H2O, nothing more.  Now that our belief in a meaningful natural world has been sucked dry, we live in a ghosttown, a world whose meanings have crumbled.  We get a glimpse of those meanings sometimes, just like we get a glimpse of the former beauty of the Parthenon by its ruins, but it’s only a glimpse.

So how can we thrive in this ghosttown of a world we live in?  Find the best person you can hold onto and create a world with them, according to Madonna’s lyrics.  Even if the cold world crumbles around us at least we’ll have our own little world together.  This is actually a step in the right direction, since people are the most meaningful part of creation, and it’s certainly a romantic idea, but ultimately it’s only a weak hope.  What if I never find someone to hold onto while the world crumbles?  What if the person I hold onto dies, or even worse, what if they desert me?  Then we’re left in a ghosttown all alone until we become ghosts ourselves.  We need the world itself to be meaningful.

Christians living in a world that has been disenchanted by science and stripped of greater meaning must learn, therefore, to re-infuse things with meaning.  Psalm 19:1-3 says “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard.”  The world is infused with meaning that tells us about God.  This is more than a simple “intelligent design” argument.  The earth around is is full of parables given by God for us to learn and express.

Notice, of course, that the earth has no actual words.  Christians give voice to the world’s deeper meanings through parables, just like their teacher.  By becoming astute readers of God’s Word, we also become astute readers of the world, humanity, and nature.  The wisdom that comes from God fills the world with potential meaning, and our job is to till the soil and cultivate that meaning.

A strictly rational explanation of the world we live in will not do anymore.  Purely logical explanations come across as formulas, and barren formulas are what created the ghosttown world we live in to begin with.  This isn’t to say that Christians should discard reason.  Things should still make sense, but pure logic becomes sterile if it’s not infused with meaning.

The ability to use knowledge in a meaningful way requires wisdom.  A Christian should be able to take the disenchanted ruins of the cold world we live in and resurrect them with meaning by transforming those ruins through the word of God.  A tree doesn’t have to be simply “a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground” (Google’s dictionary).  It is also a parable about the righteous life, or transient life, or many other things.  God didn’t put trees in the world arbitrarily, or simply for our dissecting, but for our growth in wisdom and understanding.  Of course, secular artists have seen nature in a meaningful way without Christ, but ultimately, it is up to the church to show how the deepest and truest meanings reside in Christ alone “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

The ghosttown we currently live in has already started to be infused with meaning again through Jesus Christ.  Human life without God is cold, sterile, and meaningless, but Jesus came and re-infused us with meaning and purpose.  It is the Christian’s job to continue that re-infusion.  If Christians will learn to create a meaningful view of the world in their communities, those seeking after meaning will be able to find it and have hope beyond the “ghosttown.”

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her,
And happy are all who hold her fast.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,
By understanding He established the heavens.
By His knowledge the deeps were broken up
And the skies drip with dew.
My son, let them not vanish from your sight;
Keep sound wisdom and discretion,
So they will be life to your soul
And adornment to your neck.” (Proverbs 3:18-22)