Born of Water: Baptism as a Story that Defines Us, Part 1

Over the next few days, I’m going to post some new material written for the new edition of Born of Water.

BaptismofJesus2Most Americans have a Western mindset, born of the Enlightenment and, long before that, the Greek philosophers. We think in terms of propositional truths. We’re all lawyers and scientists. What is true is that which can be stated in a simple, declaratory sentence and tested by logic and experience.

The Jews of biblical times, however, had an Eastern mindset. They thought much more in terms of story and narrative. Hence, their greatest teacher famously taught using parables. He even used his own life as the largest of canvases on which to paint his lessons.

When we Westerners confront a parable of Jesus, we insist on extracting a moral or lesson or principle – ripping the lesson out of its narrative. And that’s not wrong. It just limits what we can learn. Easterners, however, see the story as the moral, and so they seek to live in the story.

To a Westerner, the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance – that is, a time of remembering the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. To an Easterner, the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance – that is, a time of joining the apostles at the table with Jesus, a time of becoming one with our spiritual ancestors – sitting at the table with Jesus and either betraying him, denying him, or joining him on the cross.

Johnny Cash’s “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” is a hymn that beautifully captures the idea:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh were you there when they crucified my Lord?
(Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble)
Tremble
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed Him to the cross?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the cross?
(Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble)
Tremble
Were you there when they nailed Him to the cross?

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
(Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble)
Tremble
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?

Well, were you there when the stone was rolled away?
Were you there when the stone was rolled away?
(Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble)
Tremble
Were you there when the stone was rolled away?

The Jews of biblical times were defined by two major stories: Abraham and the Exodus. Ask a Jew of Jesus’ day who he is, and he’d say something like, “A son of Abraham.” To Western ears, this sounds like genetics, but to a First Century Jew, this was a claim to a unique relationship with God defined by a covenant to credit faith in God as righteousness. The children of Abraham were God’s chosen people, his elect, his bride, his cherished possession, and beneficiaries of God’s promises.

Ask the same Jew whether he and his people had been defeated by the Romans, and he’d declare that God himself had freed the Jews from slavery – and they are slaves of no man.

(John 8:31-33 ESV) So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Amazing! The Jews were under the brutal, totalitarian rule of an occupying army: the Romans. They’d been defeated in battle and were unwillingly paying tribute to a foreign nation that garrisoned troops throughout their country to suppress revolt. And yet they claimed to already be free because they were children of Abraham and God had freed them from Egypt 1,500 years earlier! Our stories define us.

Jesus disagreed –

(John 8:34-45 ESV) Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.”

Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.”

They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father – even God.”

42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”

Wow! Jesus reframes the worldview of his Jewish audience in a radical way. He declares their true father to be the devil – and calls them liars and murderers – because they are slaves – slaves to sin – as evidenced by their inability to see YHWH in Jesus. If they were true sons of Abraham, they’d do Abraham’s works – including recognizing the voice of YHWH when they hear it. The fact that they do not recognize YHWH when he appears to them in the flesh and speaks to them demonstrates that they are not who they think they are. Not at all. Abraham believed the word of God. Jesus’ audience did not.

When God invited the Gentiles into Christianity, this created a story problem. The Jews who’d accepted Jesus still thought of themselves as sons of Abraham, freed by God from Egyptian slavery – and now followers of the Messiah and Son of God: Jesus. But what would be the story of the Gentiles who entered the Kingdom? What narrative would they share with their Jewish brothers and sisters? How could they become a single people, one nation, a unified kingdom without a shared story?

And so God gave Christians – both Jews and Gentiles – a common story: baptism.

(1 Cor 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.

Paul says that baptism is for a Christian what the Exodus was for the Jews. Christians pass through the waters of baptism to escape slavery to sin just as the Jews passed through the waters of the Red Sea to escape Egyptian slavery.

Christians are sustained by God by the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper – symbolic of the body of Jesus provided by God for our sakes – just as the Jews were sustained by food and drink provided by God to sustain them in their journey through the desert.

From this shared story, Paul concludes,

(1 Cor. 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.

In 1 Cor, Paul is dealing with a highly divided congregation, disputing over, among many other things, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In chapter 11, they were divided by economic status, with the Lord’s Supper and love feast[1] shared unequally between the rich and poor.

And so in chapter 12, Paul explains that our common story – our shared baptismal experience – proves that we are a single body. The fact that both slave and free church members were baptized means that we were all freed together from the slavery that matters most: slavery to sin. The fact that Jews and Gentiles were baptized together means that we must eat at a common table – the Lord’s table – even if it means giving up meat sacrificed to idols (the subject of chapters 8 – 10) – so we come together as equals defined by a common story. If we don’t share our food and drink, if we divide over gifts, if we treat each other rudely, we aren’t just sinning, we’re denying our baptisms into Jesus.

Paul reasons from baptism – a shared experience and story – to conclusions about how his readers should see themselves, not just in relationship with God but in their relationships with each other. The equality of all Christians before God and to each other is shown by our equal sharing of the baptismal experience.

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[1] The early church ate a common meal together, called the “love feast” or agapē. See, for example, Jude 12, 2 Pet 2:13, Gal 2:12, 1 Cor 5:11. It appears that the Lord’s Supper was taken as a part of this common meal. Acts 2:42-46, 20:6-11, and especially 1 Cor 11:17-34.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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