The Reflection Series for this month is adapted from Reasoning the Rest, which you can read or download from the main menu. This month, we’re reflecting on water baptism. For the rest of the series, go here.
This week we’ll be thinking about global baptism as represented through the Exodus from Egypt and the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea. Three aspects of water help us to understand its significance in the gospel narrative: water removes what is corrupt, refills what is empty, and revitalizes what is dead.
In our second example of Biblical baptism, the persistent corruption of sin permeates not simply the world from a general perspective, but a specific nation, oppressing that nation through the direct, physical oppression of another. After a long recovery from and continued struggle with sin as described in the pages of Genesis through the Patriarchs of Israel, the Jewish people found themselves not simply warring against sin at a personal level but actually becoming enslaved by sin, embodied by the Egyptians and their oppressive regime of power and self-worship.
The story in itself is an awful chapter in Jewish history, where political and social oppression enslaved the Jewish people at the hands of the Egyptians. For us, the story represents the destructive, corrupting, enslaving power of sin, and in turn, the need for a water baptism from God in which the qualities present in the Flood were in effect once more.
Removes what is corrupt
The word “slavery” is for most synonymous with “corrupt.” In order to enslave another, or to justify slavery, one must possess a corrupt character. While much can be said and written about the corrupt nature of Egyptian Pharaoh worship or the social practices of ancient Egypt, in the presence of slavery there is little need to pile up reasons to make the argument that the Jewish people were firmly entrenched within a corrupt world. The slavery forced upon the Jewish people was heartless and cruel. The Jewish people were used for whatever muscle power they possessed and then discarded as easily as a used light bulb. To the Egyptians, the Jewish people were alive simply for the use of their bodies, aside from which they served no other purpose. In a similar way that slavery in the United States of America used and discarded millions of African Americans for their strength, so were the Jewish people used for the lavish building projects for which Egypt is now so famous.
Before the rise of Moses, the outlook of the Jewish people was completely hopeless. They felt helpless to affect change in their social and political status. They also felt abandoned and distant from the God of their forefathers and thus felt hopeless spiritually. The desire for freedom was alive in the hearts of the Israelites but the attainment of that freedom seemed impossibly out of reach, and thus useless to ponder. From this place of hopelessness and helplessness, God decided to bring forth Moses as his mediator and tool to bring about the salvation of Israel from the grip of Egypt. As detailed in the Book of Exodus, Moses confronted Pharaoh with the power and words of God and took the Israelites out of Egypt to the shores of the Red Sea.
At this moment, the Jewish people had seen the world beyond their slavery, revealing hope in a new life and a new creation as a nation. However, the threat of Egypt still remained and hopes of freedom began to waver as the Israelites saw the Pharaoh’s chariots swiftly approaching. There was hope, but there was also fear. What was needed was a conclusive cleansing of that corruption embodied by the Egyptians, and that cleansing came in the form of the miraculous Red Sea crossing. As the Israelites stepped onto the opposite shore of the Red Sea, the walls of water held in place for the purpose of rescuing the Jewish nation were let loose and the waters crashed violently onto the Egyptians. The Red Sea miracle ended the Egyptian threat of political and social oppression and revealed a clean beginning for the Jewish people to take hold of and fill with the glory and righteousness of the living God.
Refills what is empty
Just as the corrupt world of Noah’s day was in need of a Flood to complete cleansing from the destruction of sin at that time, upon being rescued from the hands of Egypt the Jewish people needed to fill what was at that time simply empty after years of slavery and years of silence in their relationship with God. After the high-octane drama of Exodus, the books that follow pale in comparison in regards to action and become progressively more tiresome with rules, restrictions and innocuous detail that cause many to abandon their “Read the Bible in One Year” plan.
While the steady stream of laws and contractual language can be a daunting burden to the drama-hungry reader, from the perspective of the Red Sea miracle as a baptism that Removes, Refills and Revitalizes, the shift in content becomes increasingly clear. At the point of liberation, the Jewish people had no central government, no central social structure, no central legal system and no direction. What they did have were miles and miles of open desert with little food and supplies to start new. What they needed was a miracle. But what they needed was essentially anything. From that point of nothingness, God established his authority as lawmaker, king and God, filling the void left by the Egyptian enslavement and the desolation of their nation through political and social oppression. For most people, especially in the modern West, it is assumed that there are laws in existence and authorities in place that can and will protect their freedoms, and that those authorities are involved in a system of checks and balances for the people. These laws and regulations that provide the freedom and liberty most of us are blessed to have are made up of thousands and thousands of lines of legal jargon that only a select group of lawyers and legislators are even aware of or understand. Like the fine print of a contract, which is there for a reason but overlooked by most people, the stage in the baptism of the Jewish nation following the physical liberation through the Red Sea miracle is where God filled that which was previously empty in the Jewish nation due to their enslavement. They had literally nothing. God gave them everything. With precision and accuracy, God gave the Jewish people no room to hold on to bad habits and removed the defense of ignorance concerning future transgressions. God gave them new life and gave them a new life in which to live.
Revitalizes what is dead
The final point arguing the need for baptism in the case of Israel is probably the easiest to make. In slavery, the Jewish people were literally dying due to abuse, with no life to live of their own with little reason to live it. Thus, if a person survived a day, that individual might question why they were kept alive, and if death would graciously accept them upon the following sunrise. Just as a person is spiritually dead in sin as a result of the fall, the Jewish people were literally alive in death as they were oppressed closer and closer to their ultimate death with each passing day. Without the baptism of the Red Sea, the Jewish people had no nation. The Jewish people were not a people. The Jewish people were destined to disappear, forgotten by the world, left to return to dust in unmarked graves for future generations to forget. Without the baptism of the Red Sea, there is no baptism of Jesus and there is no Christianity.
The story of the Jewish people’s oppression and enslavement, leading to their ultimate liberation and baptism in the Red Sea, comes to us today as a warning against the personal enslavement of sin and the oppressive power that it has on our lives, regardless of how unjust we view the oppression to be and no matter how hard we try to break the bond of our own imprisonment. What we learn from the Red Sea baptism is that it took God to intervene and save Israel, and it took God to rebuild what was being permanently erased. What we learn from the Red Sea baptism is also that God has given us not only a warning of sin in the Egyptian oppression but has also given us an invitation to liberation by the healing water of Jesus Christ and his permanent liberation from sin in his new covenant for a new life: alive in the spirit of God, destined for the Kingdom of Heaven.