I’ve started a series on the sacraments at church. The first class was on baptism in preparation for baptizing three members (which we did yesterday). One of the things I wanted to focus on, and which I believe will be a major focus of the entire series, is that the sacraments are about what God has done, is doing, and will do. God should be the focus. Scott Hahn has noted that when God cuts covenant he marks it with physical signs (e.g., a rainbow, circumcision, blood). The sacraments, Hahn says, are physical signs of God’s covenant. I agree.
When I spoke on baptism the other night I noted the many “types” and “shadows” that appear in the Old Testament. There is the Spirit hovering over the waters when God begins to create. The death/new life of the flood. The deliverance from bondage/sin as Israel passes through the Red Sea. The entry into God’s promises as they pass through the Jordan. And while not quite so obvious, the end game of Israel’s “new exodus,” which in the Prophets takes up the language of the exodus from Egypt, to include plenty of talk about water.
But as I recounted this information I asked the congregation to remember the word “recapitulation.” These important events of salvation history were all recapped in Jesus’ own baptism. To start, why would Jesus, who was without sin, need to be baptized? John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. But Jesus said that it was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus is the representative Israel, and more fundamentally, the last Adam. Where they failed Jesus succeeded. Matthew recounts Jesus’ baptism thusly:
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
We have the creation recapped in the Spirit descending over the water. We have the death/new life of the flood recapped in the dove imagery. The identification of Jesus as God’s Son recalls the identification of Israel as God’s son when he called for their exodus from Egypt. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, which was passed through to enter into the Promised Land. These are not subtle allusions and I don’t think they were meant to be.
But armed with this knowledge I asked if we should view the events of Israel’s history as “types” and “shadows” of baptism (well aware that Peter calls the flood a type of the baptism that now saves)—with the understanding that types and shadows point to a greater reality—or view baptism as an event that recalls God’s saving acts throughout history? I prefer the latter. It’s not that baptism is a greater reality, but rather baptism is a recapitulation of an already great reality, namely the salvation of God. On this understanding it isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) controversial to say that “baptism saves.”