Part of an ongoing series on Baptism In Depth.
An important context for understanding what Baptism is and how the New Testament Church viewed it can be found in the Old Testament types (Greek τύποι, ‘examples’, ‘figures’) which New Testament authors saw to foreshadow Baptism. The two most important types for Baptism which the Apostles themselves understood are the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea with Moses, which St. Paul explores in 1 Corinthians 10:1–6, and the miraculous salvation of Noah and his family from the Great Flood, to which St. Peter alludes in 1 Peter 3:18–22.
Paul presents the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as a type of Christ’s salvation in several respects:
I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did.
Paul sees the manna, “bread from heaven,” and the water from the rock, as symbols of the Eucharist, the “supernatural food and drink” of Christ the Rock’s own Body and Blood (as Christ Himself illustrated in John 6:48–51). In the pillar of cloud which led the Israelites through the desert (Exodus 13:21–22) and the crossing of the Red Sea led by Moses (Exodus 14:15–31), he observes the basic elements of the Sacrament of Baptism — the Holy Spirit and water (cf. Titus 3:5). Paul sees that in their passage through the desert and through the sea, the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” — as in Christian Baptism, we are “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3). Just as in the exodus, the Israelites passed from bondage into the Old Covenant, and were bound to Moses and to the Law, so do we, through Baptism, pass from being dead in sin to new life in the New Covenant, and are incorporated into the Body of Christ. (Saint Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, The Navarre Bible [Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005], 83.) Baptism, therefore, is a passage, an entrance into the life of Christ. Paul similarly understands Baptism to be “the circumcision of Christ,” initiating us into the New Covenant of Christ as circumcision initiated the Jews into the Abrahamic covenant (Colossians 2:11–14).
Peter similarly understands Baptism to be a passage:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18–22)
Just as the Flood represented death for the great mass of sinful humanity, and Noah’s Ark provided safe passage and salvation for Noah and his family — so Baptism in water represents death to sin and burial with Christ (Romans 6:3-5), and through water we are saved. Baptism now saves us, not as a washing of literal dirt from our bodies, but as a deeper, spiritual cleansing (cf. Ephesians 5:25–27), and an appeal — Greek ἐπερώτημα, a question, request, appeal — but containing the idea of a pledge or commitment (literally συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, an appeal to God of or from a clean conscience). These verses may reference and quote from an early baptismal liturgy. (The Catholic Letters, The Navarre Bible [Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005], 85.)
The imagery represented by both of these types is clear: that of salvation from bondage and death, and a passage into a new life. Next time we will examine how Baptism was practiced in the life of the Early Church — and how this reflects the Apostles’ theological understanding of the Sacrament.