Water is the symbol of life and death.
Some symbols are hard to understand, some are arbitrary but this symbol has immediate and obvious impact – especially to a dry continent like Australia. It works as a symbol because it creates the reality that it symbolises.
Without water our country slowly dies in drought. And yet when the rains come, the rivers swell and the lakes turn from saltpans into inland seas. In next to no time the desert springs to life with luscious green vegetation, the lakes team with fish and the birds come from seemingly nowhere to nest in huge numbers.
But it is more than the countryside that needs water. We humans depend upon it for our very lives. We drink it to live. It is a constituent of all that we drink. Without it our thirst is painful and killing. With it we slake our thirst and revive our body.
Water is the symbol not only of life but also of cleanliness. For it is in water that we wash the grime of life off our bodies. So when we need to purify the defilement of our lives – water is again an obvious symbol to turn to. Just as it removes dirt from the body so it also symbolises washing dirt from our lives.
For the Bible writers, who knew that sin brings death, water is an obvious symbol of both cleansing and life. It is as we are washed clean from our sin that we are brought to new life. So John called on the people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). And Jesus offered the living water that would permanently satisfy as it springs up within a person to overflow in rivers of eternal life (John 4:14, 7:38).
But there is a dark side to water. It is the symbol not only of life but also of death. Not just in the absence of water but more specifically in the presence of too much water. For the water we drink to live can also be the water we drown in. The water that safely bore Noah’s ark drowned the rest of humanity. Many children’s books and play toys have been produced about Noah the patron saint of saving animals – but hardly any are about the judgement of God on a grievous and profoundly intractable evil humanity (Genesis 6:5-7). The same flood that brought death on all of humanity saved eight people. It is basically a symbol of judgement and condemnation (2 Peter 3:5-6). Yet it does have a salvation theme to it (2 Peter 2:9-10), which prefigures baptism (1 Peter 3:21).
Baptism is a gospel symbol because it symbolises both condemnation and salvation – both death and life. Jesus asked his disciples “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). And our Apostle asks: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4 cf. Colossians 2:12). So Peter writes “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21)
In baptism we are united to the death of Jesus that saves us. It is a powerful symbol of our condemnation and need of repentance. We are not baptized to testify to our belief, though it is a testimony to the fact that we are believers. We are baptized in repentance that we may find the forgiveness of God in the death of Jesus on our behalf. It is not the water that cleanses us – it only removes dirt from the body – but what baptism symbolises, namely the appeal for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus, which saves us.
Christian disagreements about baptism, are usually about the symbol of baptism rather than the reality it symbolises. Questions of how much water, at what age and who does the baptizing generally miss the point. Water is the great symbol of cleansing and life though death. It is the great symbol of the gospel.