Do you recall the part in Jesus’ model prayer where he said, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” Simple words. Easily etched into our minds. Profound words too. Etching God’s will on our hearts. “On earth as it is in heaven!” Have you ever thought of baptism as a contact point where heaven meets earth? Actually, in a real way, Christian baptism is where heaven meets earth.
Some people are baptized to follow a family’s religious tradition. Others do so to join a Christian community. Some are convinced that it is a guarantee of God’s favor and a step toward heaven. Most who become Christians take on the symbol of baptism as a badge of their faith. For such of us who made a verbal profession, even with a deep heartfelt commitment to believe in Jesus Christ, baptism is often an emotionally moving event.
Baptism is a sign from the heavenly One and a seal on the earthly one
You know what? Baptism can be all those things. Yet it is not merely those things. Baptism is so rich in meaning and so powerful in force that all those good things mentioned above are almost too light when compared to the heaviness of baptism’s heavenliness. Here is why: baptism is a sign from the heavenly One and a seal on the earthly one.
1 Baptism is a sign from the heavenly One
A sign points to something else that is more profound than the sign itself. It can be like the stop sign that points to the concept of stopping before entering into an intersection. It could be a heart sign meaning there is love at some level. Thousands of years before Jesus gave us the new baptism we celebrate today God had given other signs to point people to him, his promises and his work.
Think about this: whenever God engaged his creation and his people it was the intersection of God’s will from heaven to earth, often followed by a sign pointing to what God said and did.
God repeatedly said he would be the God of his people and his people would belong exclusively to him (Gen. 17:7; Ex. 6:7; Lev. 26:12, etc.). In fact, all that he is, all that he said, and all that he did for his people is wrapped up in the biblical word, “covenant,” which is code for “I pledge to be your God and you will be my people, and I’ll make it happen!” (Jer. 32:38)
2 There is an obstacle to baptism
However, to make that happen God had to bring rebellious sinners into a right relationship with him. His people must be like him in his perfection and purity. As you probably know, God created Adam and Eve of such pure material they could freely engage him (Gen. 1-2). However, when they crossed the line, defying and rebelling against him, their nature changed so that they could no longer handle being in God’s holy presence (Gen. 3). There is something about God's unique and indescribable nature that if you do not have a compatible nature you burn up. Think of the angel with a fiery sword guarding the Garden of Eden, the burning bush, or Isaiah’s encounter with God. Think of a lightning strike. The bad news is that our impurity as sin-infested, rebellious creatures causes us to fry in God’s presence. The good news is that God has done something to change our nature!
For centuries, God has told people about his brilliant and blazing holiness - greater than a million suns. Actually, it would be far easier for us as sinners to walk through our sun than to walk into God’s presence. Yet, he proved his resolve to lavish his deepest love on people who betrayed him. We do not have the ability to clean ourselves of the impurity that makes us burn. Only God can do it.
3 God redeems his people to overcome the obstacle
The pattern revealed in the Bible has been that God performs an act of redemption and reconciliation, and then gives these people a heavenly sign of that act. It was always something very earthy, simple, or ordinary packed with meaning that’s very profound and extra-ordinary. Like placing fur coats on Adam and Eve, creating the rainbow for Noah and his descendants, or commanding Abraham to circumcise his male children (Genesis 17).
These earthly elements seemed so basic. However, those who had true faith understood the mystery of those signs’ heavenly meaning: God is our God and we are his people. He made a promise. From heaven, he slowly worked out that promise through time until it is complete. Those tangible, earthy signs point to God’s promise and power that he is bringing heaven to earth in order to bring the earthly to heaven (check out Romans 4:11). His redemptive plan and work fulfilled his promise to overcome that major obstacle.
4 Baptism is related to those old signs
What do those old covenant signs have to do with baptism? All those signs indicated that in order for God to redeem and reconcile a people it would take the ultimate course. To get a new nature requires melting away the old with its impurities and reforming it into a new, compatible one.
For Adam and Eve to receive fur coats to cover their naked shame, animals had to die. The coats were symbolic signs telling that their old dying natures needed death so that new living natures would give them life and that their unrighteous natures would be changed to righteous ones.
Humankind could not make things right with God. In fact, the vast majority refused to do so and things became so wicked on earth that God had to wipe it clean using a catastrophic decontamination process (Gen. 6-9). Only Noah and his family were spared because they believed in God's threat and the promise. The rainbow sign showed that to be in God’s presence one’s sinful impurities must be cleansed. Wash the old to be dried in the new. Oh, and by the way, this washing ceremony was repeated many times in different ways in the Old Testament. They are called “washings” but the ancient word is the same word from which we get “baptism” (Deut. 30:6; Isa. 52:1; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:25-26; Ez. 44:7-9; Hebrews).
After Noah, God called Abraham, not because he was good enough, but because God’s love chose to make him, his family and descendants a special people. Abraham heard God’s voice and believed in what God was saying, yet he was helpless to do anything to leave his rebel world and polluted flesh and be as pure and holy like God. So, this loving God made a contractual promise with Abraham to have a redeemed and reconciled people (you’ve got to read Genesis 12-17). The ancient contract was not on paper but made by a ceremony. The sign would be circumcision. For us, that’s a strange thing but in that ancient culture, the life-giving organ was akin to the life-sustaining organ of the heart. This very painful, bloody sign taught it takes cutting away what is unclean in order to be made clean (Deut. 30:6; Isa. 52:1; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:25-26; Ez. 44:7-9). The point was - surgery is needed to cut out the tumor of sin so the person can be made well again; and only God can perform that (Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:10; 1 Pet. 2:9ff).
Faith in God's mercy and grace, trust in his redemptive work, and active belief in his promises brings about the necessary heart and status change. Once a person is well again, God begins the lifelong process of making her or him less like the old, unclean, sinful person and more like the perfect, holy person of heaven. Heaven on earth. Check out Paul's explanation about this in Ephesians 1:1-11 and 2:1-18.
Let’s summarize here
God gave certain signs to point to his promise and his acts of redemption to make certain people pure enough to be with him. It takes death to bring life, washing to be clean, and surgery to make well. Only the God of heaven can make that happen to people on earth. Those signs were then placed on those people like seals (think badge, branding or tattoo). More on that in Part Two: Baptism is a seal on the earthly one.
What does all this have to do with today’s water baptism? When the God of the heavens became the Man of earth he did so to accomplish all those old promises. Jesus, the God-Man, was perfectly pure. He could complete the Covenant. He started his work in the wilderness, that place where Adam was sent (check out John 4 as a reversed reenactment of Genesis 1-3). Jesus worked back toward God and the Garden (the picture of the Garden of Gethsemane). To take his people all the way to God, he became the sacrifice whose death and resurrection gives us new life and clothes us with righteousness.
Jesus went through the Jewish washing ceremony. Not that he needed it. He did it for his people because that baptism indicated a repenting from sin to a sacredness we need (Mark 1:4; 16:16). His washing makes clean those who believe in him (Acts 22:16).
Jesus also completes the surgery we need to take out the tumor of sin. He had no sin but as he hung dying upon the cross to pay the penalty for our sin notice that his heart was cut to the core. His surgery gives us a new heart. Jesus is the perfect intersection of heaven and earth.
Since all those old signs were going to be completely fulfilled by Jesus, he gave his new people a new sign of a different baptism. Aren’t you glad about that? It’s a simple, earthy sign filled with rich and heavenly meaning: God loves you and performed incredible works to fulfill his promise that he would be your God and you would be his people (Rom. 6; Col. 2:11-12). Baptism turns your eyes to Jesus who made it all happen. It speaks deeply of what it took for God to make you righteous, clean, and well. It’s the symbol of that glorious intersection of heaven and earth, of bringing heaven to earth.