Peter J. Leithart
The gospel begins with John preaching baptism and ends with Jesus commanding baptism. For two millennia, baptism has been the effective symbol of our incorporation into the body of Christ. Why water?
The Bible’s basic answer is: The new creation is signified by water because the first creation came through water. Genesis 1 describes creation as a hydraulics project. Yahweh creates an empty void, a “deep” of waters, what Tertullian called the Spirit’s “throne” and “chariot.” The Creator hauls water to the sky and sets a firmament-dam to separate waters above and below, divides the waters below to expose dry land, and summons the first living souls to fill the sea. God is himself a “fountain of living water” (Jer. 2:13). Naturally, his creation is born of water and Spirit.
Each zone of creation has a unique form of water. Before heaven’s throne is a sea of glass like crystal (Rev. 4:6). Land is crossed by rivers and dappled with lakes. Oceans cover 70 percent of Earth’s surface, and water flows in a vast network of underground channels and lakes. From top to bottom, the cosmos is Waterworld. Nunquam sine aqua Christus, says Tertullian. “Christ is never without water.” We may also say: Nunquam sine aqua creatio.
Water is life. Without the right water in the right proportions, earth would still be “formless and void.”
Without water, we are formless and void. We’re roughly 60 percent water, nearly as liquid as Earth. Your brain is more than half water. Digestive juices—saliva, bile, mucus—are mostly water, and intercellular and extra-cellular exchanges take place through water. Blood is mostly water, as are semen and breast milk. Masaru Emoto asks, Where would we be if water were not a nearly universal solvent? Answer: In the hospital or dead. We’re microcosms, small waterworlds. Can baptism mean anything less than “new creation” and “new life”?
Water is not merely the source of biological life, but also the source of abundant life in society. Paradise was a “well-watered place” (Gen. 13:10), irrigated by a river that split into four. Channeled, fresh, living water gives life. Rivers make land fruitful, set boundaries between peoples or join them as liquid roads. Rivers reconcile water with land to meet human needs. Every Israelite aspires to erect a little Eden, fruitful as a tree by a rippling stream. Rivers are battle-scars, gifts from Yahweh, who “cleaved the earth with rivers” (Hab. 3:9). When Yahweh strikes, springs spout from dry ground. His spear-thrusts open wounds in the earth, like the wound of the Last Adam whose side pours out water and blood. Civilizations arise on the shores of rivers, lakes, seas, or man-made reservoirs and aqueducts. The Nile makes Egypt, the Indus makes India, the Tigris and Euphrates form Meso-potamia, the land between the rivers, and the land of promise stretches from the River to the Sea, with a river at the center, gladdening the city of God (Psa. 46:4). When Israel is obedient, prosperity flows like a river and blessing softens the earth and soaks plowed ground. Land is founded on the sea, inhabited land on rivers. Thales was right: Water is at the base of everything!
For Israel, the sea is a different story. Israel’s enemies often come from the sea (Philistines, Sidonians), flooding Israel like the wave of a tsunami. Israel’s heroes are landlubbers—shepherds, not sailors. Israel has no Ulysses, Jason, or Aeneas. One of its most famous sailors, Jonah, ends up overboard. Even the lake of Galilee is too threatening to attempt a crossing. Only Yahweh commands the ocean, the true storm God. He destroys the first world with water and inundates Egypt’s river-world with plagues of water, blood, and ice.
Jesus lives in a different Waterworld. He doesn’t shrink from the sea. He chooses Galilean fishermen, not Galilean shepherds.
As Yahweh incarnate, Jesus strides the sea. So does Peter. He doesn’t get far, but for a few moments he shares Jesus’s mastery of the deep. What will happen when his faith grows? Acts tells the rest of the story. Paul can’t stay off boats, and tales of shipwreck spice up his late-night yarns. Israel’s rivers gave them passage to other lands, but the sea is the church’s whale-road to the four ends of the earth. Baptism is the sign of the church’s extended mission to the roiling Gentile sea.
Baptism says “new creation.” It proclaims the reconciliation of heaven and earth. Sons of Adam, we are of earth, barren in our sin, but baptism falls on us as a heavenly shower. At the font, we die to the old creation and rise in the new. By baptism, Tertullian says, man is “being restored to God, to the likeness of him who had been aforetime in God’s image.” As God’s Word and Wind sculpted creation from the deep, so the Spirit hovers over the font to shape new creatures. We are born again of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) in the regenerating bath of holy baptism (Tit. 3:5). We undergo a sea-change, transfigured to something rich and strange.
Peter J. Leithart is an author, minister, and theologian, currently serving as president of the Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama.
This essay is excerpted with permission from Baptism: A Guide to Life from Death, published by Lexham Press, and was originally published online at First Things.