Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Is the Water Magic?”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

(1 Corinthians 1.21-25)

Even among those willing to believe in the “foolishness” of salvation through a crucified Christ, there is a feeling that the command to “Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Ac 2.38) is just too silly to accept.  After all,

by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

(Ephesians 2.8-9)

The argument is that baptism must not be necessary, because to say otherwise is to say that one can earn salvation through the act of baptism.  Alarmingly, this conclusion would require us to ignore many other things God said, including through Paul himself, and including in the same letter!  Describing how Christ cleanses his Bride, Paul wrote,

...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

(Ephesians 5.25-28)

Lest we misunderstand his meaning there, the same letter also prominently features baptism alongside other pillars of the faith.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

(Ephesians 4.4-6)

And yet…well, it does seem awfully silly, doesn’t it?  If all that is required in order to be freed from sin is to take a bath, shouldn’t that problem pretty much take care of itself, for most people?  We’re dealing with deep, metaphysical catastrophes here, and the answer is supposed to be found in the most abundant physical substance on the face of the earth?  Is the water magic, or something?

Well, it is silly and contrived.  In fact, that’s part of the point.  When the Israelites were freed from their Egyptian enslavers and guided by God into the wilderness, he led them in one direction, then directed Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp” by the Red Sea (Ex 14.2).  He did this because the Egyptians were chasing them down, to bring them back under the yoke of slavery.  By all earthly logic, it would have made more sense to lead Israel by the straightest possible path, with an escape route available.  Yet this is not what God did.  He deliberately positioned them between the hammer of Pharaoh’s army and the anvil of the Red Sea, with nowhere to flee.  When the frightened Israelites cried out in despair, God answered, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward” (14.15).

Forward?  There was nowhere to go, unless he meant for the Israelites to walk directly into the sea!  As it turns out, that’s exactly what God meant.

…the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

(Exodus 14.21-22)

It’s no accident that God rescued Israel by sending them through the sea, and using it to destroy the enslaving enemy, who followed them into the waters and “went down into the depths like a stone” (15.5).  This was just as silly and contrived as his commandment to be baptized in the name of his Son.  Yet, did the Israelites claim to have earned their freedom?  Were they so arrogant as to say they were saved by their works, in walking along the path God provided them?  Even more ridiculous, would it be reasonable for them to conclude that the waters of the Red Sea possessed some magical power to rescue Israelites but destroy Egyptians?

The Israelites did not earn this salvation by their righteousness or labor.  Nor were they saved by the skillful application of water’s inherent properties.  They were saved “according to [God’s] own mercy” (Ti 3.5), when they walked by faith down the path he provided them against all human expectation or reason—by grace, through faith.

This is more than a curious coincidence.  Paul writes that the Israelites “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1Co 10.1-2).  It’s just one of many instances of foreshadowing in the story of ancient Israel.  “Now these things took place as examples for us” (v6), so that we could learn from their mistakes and triumphs, as well as from God’s character and methods.  “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Co 2.17).  It’s not about your righteousness, or your works, or the water.  It’s about “the obedience of faith” (Ro 1.5).

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

(Romans 16.25-27)

Jeremy Nettles