Genesis 1:6-9 begins the story. At first, God created light. Then He separated the waters. Then he gathered the waters below the expanse together and from their midst He caused the dry land to come forth. In a very real sense, the world was born through water.
Then in Genesis 6-9, God decided to remake the world. How did He do it? He sent forth water, immersed the world in water, and then let the waters subside. The world was born again, if you will, through water. At the same time, Noah and his family were also born again through water. They were saved from the perverse generation that surrounded them by water. Their new lives began after they came through the water.
Moses followed this pattern with his life. He was born and then hidden in the water in Exodus 2:3 in an ark made of bulrushes. Yes, the word for “basket” in Exodus is the same as for Noah’s boat in Genesis. Moses’ infancy at once reaches back and calls to mind the reborn world, but also looks forward to the birth of national Israel.
The Israelites left Egypt following the death of the firstborn in Exodus 12. In Exodus 14, they came to the shore of the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army brought up the rear and the people were trapped. However, God divided the waters and Israel walked on the dry land that appeared (reminiscent of the dry land appearing in the birth of the world). The nation of Israel left their slavery and were reborn a nation as they walked between those waters. I Corinthians 10:2 even calls it a baptism.
This whole scenario was replayed when Joshua led the people across the Jordan in Joshua 3:14-17. The waters backed up and the people crossed on dry land, reminding and replaying their birth as a nation through water.
Is it any surprise then that when John the Baptist came on the scene folks had to travel out to the Jordan to hear him and heard the message of baptism in water (Matthew 3:6)? I don’t think it surprised the Jews at all. Birth and rebirth through water had been part of their stories since the beginning.
We should not be surprised either. When Jesus told Nicodemus that we had to be born again by water and the Spirit in John 3:5, the concept was not new. When Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2:38, the Jews never thought, “Oh no, this is works salvation.” Rather, they simply saw a parallel to all that had gone before. Birth, rebirth, regeneration, new creation takes place through water. It had always been so and God’s use of it again made perfect sense.
When we read the whole story of the Bible, we see that baptism is not just some arbitrary command once John came on the scene and then taken up by Jesus. Rather, it is the fulfillment of all that has gone on before. We shouldn’t be surprised. We should simply obey and pass the message on to others.