An Oft Overlooked Baptismal Context

by Barry Newton
Graciously, we smile and endure what comes next. Having heard our uncle’s story or grandpa’s tale so many times before, we could finish it for him without hardly thinking.
If in this specific recounting of the comedy, heroism or irony, a key word happens to be omitted, we can both appreciate this particular version of the story as well as know where that significant word could have been inserted.

In a similar fashion, familiarity with the apostle Paul’s teachings on baptism would suggest that, on at least one occasion, Paul described the moment of baptism without actually mentioning it. Ironically in our post-Zwinglian context, this oft overlooked baptismal context is inappropriately used to counter the New Testament’s baptismal teaching! Before we consider this overlooked baptismal context, we first need to refresh our thinking about how Paul thought about baptism.

What metaphors, function and descriptive language filled Paul’s heart when he thought about baptism? If we allow what his amanuensis’ pen scribbled in Romans 6, Colossians 2:11-3:1 and Galatians 3:26-27 to inform our understanding, then a kaleidoscope of intertwined ideas emerge characterized by the themes of faith, transformation, forgiveness, death and life, burial and resurrection.

The gospel which Paul acknowledged involved a call to sinners to rely upon Christ in order to be set free from sin. This trusting in Christ burst forth as sinners whole-heartedly obeyed that form of teaching, namely baptism, which would set them free from their sins. Saving faith thus involved relying upon Christ by being baptized.

Regarding the baptismal form, for Paul the recipient of baptism was to be “buried” and then “raised.” The burial mode coincides nicely with one of baptism’s functional aspects, namely death.

In being buried, the immersed was supposed to be making the commitment to be crucified with Christ thereby dying to serving sin. Simply put, through baptism the spiritually dead were committing to die to their previous sinful ways.

Conversely, when Paul thought of someone being raised from the water, he envisioned the work of God enabling a resurrection paralleling Christ’s own resurrection. Just as God’s transforming power had been at work infusing life into Jesus’ corpse, so too, by grace, God’s power surgically released the spiritually dead from being dead in sin to cause them to become alive whereby they could be raised up with Christ.

Ephesians 1:19-2:9 succinctly joins many of these ideas associated with baptism without ever specifically mentioning this burial in water. This text, closely echoing Colossians 2:11-13, asserts that when those who are dead in sin express their faith in Christ, God’s power raises them up to become alive with Christ. For Paul, these ideas were intrinsically tied with baptism.

Hopefully we will be as familiar with Paul’s teachings on a great many subjects as we are with our relatives’ well-worn epic tales of comedy, heroism and irony.

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