Our Lord Jesus gave us two sacraments, two sacred rituals that highlight the gospel in a visible and tangible way. The first of these sacraments is baptism. When the water of baptism is sprinkled or poured on a person, this is clearly a symbolic action. It is a sign and seal of a spiritual reality. We will take three lessons to explore the symbolism of baptism: first, the symbolism of washing; second, the symbolism of burial and resurrection; and third, we explore the connection between baptism and circumcision as signs of God’s covenant.
In this lesson, then, we consider baptism as an outward washing that symbolises how we are washed with Christ’s blood and Spirit.
1. Our spiritual washing
2. The symbolism of baptism
3. A source of comfort
1. Our spiritual washing
Why do we need to wash? Because we are dirty.
Baptism is a washing for anyone who joins the church of Jesus. Why do we need it? Because all of us are dirty, in a profound way, unless God takes care of it.
We all understand that baptism is not about outward dirt. There is something else that is wrong with us, wrong on the inside, and it needs to be scrubbed away. That something is our sin. Sin is like a filthy stain that makes us ugly, an impurity of my soul (q&a 69). Every time a child is baptised, we remind ourselves of the truth that
we and our children are conceived and born in sin
and therefore by nature children of wrath, …
The immersion in or sprinkling with water signifies
the impurity of our souls,
so that we may detest ourselves,
humble ourselves before God,
and seek our cleansing and salvation outside of ourselves.
Baptism is a humbling ritual. It says: “The way I am naturally, I am not right. By God’s standards, much is wrong with me. I am dirty with sin. Too unholy for a life with my holy Creator. I deserve God’s anger. There is nothing I can do about it. The mud of sin is all over me, and I certainly am not able to get it off me on my own.”
What we need, more than anything, is the removal of our sin, of our guilt, of our infinite debt to God, of our filthy unholiness. The Bible uses different terms for this: a covering of our sin, or atonement; but it especially uses the language of cleaning and purging. In the words of Psalm 51:7-9, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean, wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Blot out all my iniquity.”
The Christian gospel is good news, because it tells us that we can be made clean. God himself washes us. He does that through the Lord Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. A short way of saying that is: the blood of Jesus washes us. For instance, in 1 John 1:7 the Bible says: “If we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son washes us from all sin.” And Eph. 5:25 summarises Jesus’ relationship with the church as follows: “he 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 splendour.”
To be a Christian means to recognise our need for spiritual washing and cleansing, and then receiving that washing from the Lord Jesus, in faith. The catechism explains what that means in q&a 70: To be washed with Christ’s blood means to receive forgiveness of sins from God, through grace, because of Christ’s blood, poured out for us in his sacrifice on the cross.
There are many ways we can think and speak about our salvation. One important understanding is that it is like a washing, a cleaning. Our sin makes us really dirty; and only the death of Jesus, the Son of God, has the power to deal with it. Christians are people who have their sins removed in the only way possible. Through the sacrifice of Jesus. His sacrifice of blood is the only way in which we can be spiritually clean.
2. The symbolism of baptism
Baptism shows this cleaning and washing in a ritual way. In 1 Peter 3:21, Peter says that baptism is not about the removal of dirt from the body but about having a good conscience, that is, knowing that God saves us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It compares baptism with the time of the Flood, when the whole world drowned in water because of its sin; only the believing Noah was rescued, brought safely through the water of judgement to a new world and a new life. That is what happens to us as believers: our baptism is a water symbolism of our salvation.
Baptism rituals are old. In the Old Testament, we don’t really read the word “baptism”, but the idea is clearly there. The worship at the Tabernacle and Temple involved much water and many washings. Especially the priests, who spent time with God on behalf of the people, had to wash their bodies and clothes often. There was a special washbasin between the altar and holy place, to make sure they worked with clean hands. The meaning of these washings was clear: even the ordained priests were sinners serving a holy God. They could only do so because the Lord took care of their sins and made them holy and clean.
Later in the Old Testament period, outsiders would sometimes join the community of worshippers. They were called proselytes. One step in being a proselyte was to undergo a baptism, a ritual washing. All that belonged to the old, unbelieving identity had to be rinsed away, as it were. All pollution of false worship and paganism had to be removed.
This is why, when John the Baptist showed up at the Jordan river and started baptising, people understood what he meant. The holy kingdom of God is around the corner, and you don’t want him to condemn you for your sins. Therefore: “Repent!” The Bible says that John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3) If you went to get baptised, you were clearly saying: I have sins, I am guilty; but then also embracing the forgiveness of God. As John baptised, he made clear that the water ritual was not the endpoint, but the beginning of something: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Let your baptism be the beginning of a life dedicated to God, and away from sin.
The New Testament begins with this baptism of John, and it was remarkable how many people came to be baptised, recognising that though they were born as members of God’s special nation, they too needed spiritual cleansing. But John’s baptism was not quite the same as Christian baptism. It was a preparation. John himself said: “I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16) And one day, John looked up and saw Jesus walking toward him, and John said: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
When we are baptised, it is not just with the baptism of John, a sign of repentance; but we are baptised in the name of Jesus; in fact, we are baptised in the glorious name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The baptism in Jesus’ name shows that we receive cleansing from our sin by becoming one with our Lord. And we receive much more than a washing of sin, but also a baptism with the Holy Spirit—a topic for next time.
To summarise, the ritual of baptism is an old practice, to show that God provides spiritual cleansing. The ritual itself does not accomplish it. As q&a 72 says: this outward washing with water itself does not wash away sins. Only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins. But this reality is shown, in the way of sacrament, in the water that is sprinkled or poured on us in our baptism.
3. A source of comfort
Most of us were baptised as little children. We do not remember it. But we know that, at the very beginning of our life, the water ritual was applied to us. It was poured or sprinkled on our head, as a personal sign that God will wash us spiritually, that he will remove our sin, and give us the life of the Spirit.
It is therefore important to think back to your baptism, often. Remember that already as a little child, you were in need of cleansing—how much more today! But when you recognise your sin, your weakness, your inability to do what is right and holy, remember that you received the sacramental washing. That water proclaimed—and still proclaims—a deep reality: that God is there for you, more than willing to remove your sin. The blood of Jesus, which can wash away the darkest sins, is there for you.
So we may think of our baptism as a divine pledge and sign, says the catechism (q&a 73), as a personal assurance that we are as truly cleansed from our sins spiritually as we are bodily washed with water. There is no more powerful, personal gospel message than this: you have been baptised in the name of Jesus Christ; and therefore he will take care of you, even of your worst sins. All you need to do is trust in him, depend on him rather than on yourself.
Christian baptism is a lot of things. When we baptise a child, it is a family celebration, part of welcoming him or her into the world. Baptism is a sign of belonging, of covenant, as we will discuss later. But the basic meaning of baptism is washing and cleansing. It gently reminds us of the filthiness of sin, of our unholiness, and therefore of our need for the grace of forgiveness. But God doesn’t just show us the problem: in baptism he proclaims the problem together with its solution. The blood of Jesus washes away our sins. As surely as water touches the child’s forehead in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, so surely will Jesus’ blood cleanse the soul and remove sin. All we need to do is believe—rely on that blood of the Lamb, rather than on our own qualities and capabilities.
I encourage you: embrace your baptism, humbly but confidently. It is a sign of your washing and cleansing. In your baptism, God personally spoke to you and promised that he will remove your sin. Because of this, your faith does not need to be reluctant, tentative, uncertain. You may be confident that Jesus’ blood is there for you, and that he will make you clean and beautiful and holy.
- Why should our baptism make us humble?
- What does it mean to be “washed with Christ’s blood”?
- What kind of ritual washings were there in the Old Testament? What did they show?
- How was the baptism of Jesus different from that of John the Baptist?
- Why is it helpful to think back to your baptism?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Exodus 30:17-21. Why did the priests have to wash themselves so often?|
|Tuesday||Leviticus 16. Pay special attention to the symbolic use of blood and water in this ritual.|
|Wednesday||2 Kings 5:1-14. Was Naaman “baptised” in these events? What is the symbolism in his washing?|
|Thursday||Zechariah 3. Why did the high priest need cleansing?|
|Friday||John 13:1-11. Is this event related to Christian baptism? What did Jesus mean when he said: “You are clean?” (v. 10)|
|Saturday||Acts 19:1-7. How does Paul explain the difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism?|