Jesus: Baptism Is Death

What is there about baptism that lends it to being used as a figure for death?

Circumcision was an illustration of our inability to save ourselves. We need God to save us. We need bloodshed to save us. We need a new (circumcised) heart. We need a new life. Only God gives new life, true faith, the Savior, and salvation. Baptism illustrates those very same truths. We do not baptize ourselves. It is done to us.

 

In Luke 12:50, as part of a wide-ranging discourse with strong eschatological overtones, our Lord Jesus characterizes his coming death in a striking way. He said, “But I have a baptism with which to be baptized and how I constrained until it has been finished” (βάπτισμα δὲ ἔχω βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ πῶς συνέχομαι ἕως ὅτου τελεσθῇ). He was speaking figuratively of his coming suffering and death. What is particularly notable here is that he chose the imagery of baptism with which to characterize his approaching suffering and death.

Why would he do this? What is there about baptism that lends it to being used as a figure for death? First, we should see that this is part of an ancient pattern. Baptism is the New Testament sign and seal of initiation into the visible covenant community. It’s precursor was circumcision, which was a bloody initiation into the visible people. It was a ritual death. When Abraham was circumcised as an old man, he was as good as dead. When his sons and those males in his household were circumcised they were “cut off” from their old life and into the covenant people outwardly. In Abraham’s case, we know that he believed before he was circumcised. Genesis 15:6 says that “Abraham believed God and it credited to him for righteousness.” Paul appeals to this very text to ground his doctrine in Romans 4 that Abraham is the Father of all the Gentiles, i.e., the uncircumcised, who believe (because Abraham was a Gentile when he believed) and all the Jews, i.e., the circumcised, who believe in Jesus. It is the ground of his doctrine that acceptance with God (justification) is by grace alone (sola fide), through faith alone (sola gratia) and not by works or even by cooperation with grace.

Circumcision was an illustration of our inability to save ourselves. We need God to save us. We need bloodshed to save us. We need a new (circumcised) heart. We need a new life. Only God gives new life, true faith, the Savior, and salvation.

Baptism illustrates those very same truths. We do not baptize ourselves. It is done to us. We do not want to press the grammar of Luke 12:50 too far but it is worth noting that Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which I am to be baptized… ” The verb “to be baptized” is in the passive voice. It is something to be done to him. John the Baptist baptized him and inaugurated his 3 years of ministry. That ministry will end with a baptism. The former in water, the latter in blood, on the cross. Both are deaths. The first baptism was an identification with the death to come. The last is the reality, the death itself, which must be completed to the end.

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