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.