(1Co 12:13 ESV) 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
I interrupted the series on 1 Corinthians because I thought much of the material in Scot McKnight’s latest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church would give us a deeper grasp of chapters 12 and 13. They are speaking about the same things.
We in the Churches of Christ see 1 Cor 12:13 as a proof text on the necessity of water baptism. And while the verse unquestionably is important in understanding baptism, we really need to be able to read it in context for the point Paul was intending make.
Paul is referring back to 1 Cor 10 —
(1Co 10:1-4 ESV) For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
Just as all Israel was baptized into Moses as they passed through the Red Sea, we Christians were baptized into one body when we were converted to Christ.
When Israel passed through the sea, not only were they saved from Egypt, but they were also made into a separate nation, no longer ruled by Pharaoh but by God himself. And so they became a people traveling through the desert together toward the Promised Land.
God chosen someone through whom he would lead — Moses — and Moses appointed elders to serve as leaders among the people. Just so, God has chosen to lead his people today through Jesus, the Messiah, who also appoints subordinate officers — elders — to execute his instructions.
Because Israel was surrounded by desert and utterly reliant on God for food, water, defense, and direction, they became a united people. They become one — and Paul’s point is the unity that baptism brings and demonstrates and requires.
Hence, in the church there is no distinction between slave and free. After all, Israel was freed from slavery, and so are we. Nor is there a distinction between Jew and Greek. While Israel began ethnically pure, they soon began to incorporate non-Jews who saw the glory of God — beginning with Rahab the Canaanite prostitute.
all were made to drink of one Spirit
This is no easy passage. First, in the parallel in 1 Cor 10, the people drank of the Rock that was Christ himself. But they drank a “spiritual drink,” which Paul now says is the “one Spirit.”
Just as water is essential for life, and just as the water that sustained Israel in the desert came from God, just so, for the church, the Spirit is essential for life and sustains us by the hand of God.
The comparison of the Spirit to drink recalls the words of the Messiah in John 4, where he referred to the Spirit as “living water.” See also John 7:38-39. The language is borrowed from such texts as —
(Jer 2:12-13 ESV) 12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, 13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
(Jer 17:13 ESV) 13 O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.
Jeremiah calls the Lord a fountain of living water — and so Jesus and Paul declare that the Spirit is the living water pouring forth from the Lord.
We live in an age where water is abundant and cheap, but in the ancient world, water was precious — all the more so for Israel wandering in the desert. And we should think of the Spirit as Israel would have thought about water — not merely a necessity but a necessity for which they yearned and pleaded.
In the desert, water was only found from the Rock. If you were banned from the camp, you died of thirst. It’s not just that there is only one Spirit, but that only the Spirit sustains us to the end. Without the Spirit, we die — and we’re united because we must be in the camp, with each other, to have access to the Fountain.
Paul’s point, obviously, is the necessity of unity — but it’s deeper. We cannot allow the gifts given us by the life-sustaining Spirit to divide us. Where else can we go? What other camp is there? How can we survive in the desert alone?
The sad reality is that the modern church imagines that there is strength in division, that by being separated from each other, we are somehow better off. We’d rather separate ourselves from those not just like us than to remain close to the Fountain that sustains us.
Rather than seeing baptism and the Spirit as bringing us together as a matter of necessity, we allow these things to become sources of division. And that is the path to death in the desert.
As N. T. Wright explains,
Already we see something enormously important in terms of many subsequent debates, which have (in my view) gone off in the wrong direction by focusing at once on the relation between the rite of baptism and the individual who is baptized. Baptism is a community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him — or herself, but as a statement which says, ‘This is who we are.’
This does not exactly defuse all the anxieties of troubled Protestants when contemplating a physical event with supposed spiritual consequences, but it may suggest that the normal way of looking at ‘the problem’ is, at least, seeing things through the wrong end of the telescope. Baptism marks out this community, the messianic-monotheist, new-exodus, crucified-and-risen community, which like Israel of old then requires a commensurate way of life of its members.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 421–422.
The Pillar Commentary points out how the Greek emphasizes the resulting unity from baptism and the Spirit
In Greek the parallel between the lines referring to the body and the Spirit is at least as strong. Literally:
“We all into one body were baptized
and all one Spirit were given-to-drink.”
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 593.
So here’s the takeaway: as important as baptism is, when it becomes a source of division, rather than unity, we are teaching 1 Cor 12:13 wrongly. The point is unity — not that the Baptists are wrong.
Notice that the verbs are passive. We don’t achieve salvation by getting baptismal theology more right than the Baptists. Rather, we receive entry into the One Body when we receive baptism and the Spirit.
And if baptism means anything to us — we who so focus on the water — then we should demonstrate our understanding by our unity. Because when we divide, we show that we missed the point.