by Al Maxey
Issue #768 -------
March 18, 2019
An idea, in the very highest sense of that
word, cannot be conveyed but by a symbol.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge [1772-1834]
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (quoted above), an English poet, philosopher and theologian, who helped establish the Romantic Movement in England, suggested that man's imagination, governed by sound reasoning, "gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths of which they are the conductors" [The Statesman's Manual]. The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) concurred, suggesting that "symbolic expression" was just one of many "different forms" by which truth might be realized and presented. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an American essayist, poet and philosopher, and one of the leaders of the Transcendentalist Movement, summed it up this way: "A good symbol is the best argument, and is a missionary to persuade thousands." These well-known and influential men, each in his own way, have noted the importance of symbols and symbolism to our greater comprehension and appreciation of Truth, regardless of what that Truth might be.
As most students of Scripture know only too well, these sacred writings are filled with symbols and emblems that foreshadow and prefigure much greater eternal realities. In speaking of the various rituals of the Old Covenant, the author of Hebrews reminds his readers that "the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities" (Hebrews 10:1). The apostle Paul echoed this truth, asserting that "these are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (Colossians 2:17). The sacrificial offerings of the ancient Jews pointed the way figuratively to that sacrificial Lamb of God who would offer up Himself as a "once for all" sacrifice for sin. The cup of wine we drink and the bread we break represent His blood and body, serving as reminders of His passion. Even the act of being immersed in water is merely a symbol of a far greater reality, and was never intended to be substantive in and of itself. Too often, however, those steeped in the shadows of their religious ceremonialism and ritualism conflate and confuse the shadows with the substance, and in so doing miss the true meaning of which these symbols are simply reflective. This leads to an elevation of the shadow over the substance, and, as a result, what was given to us as a helpful symbol quickly devolves into a hardened sacrament.
There are even times in Scripture where we seem to find symbols of symbols, and this is especially seen, in our present dispensation, in the Lord's Supper and baptism in water (the two evidentiary acts of faith that are most abused and misused by those who have embraced the theology of sacramentalism). When we make these acts (partaking of the bread and wine; being immersed in water) the very means of imparting divine grace, we have invested them with a power and purpose they were never designed to possess. Baptism, for example, is no longer seen as a reflection and reenactment of the reality of our redemption by grace through faith; instead, it becomes the very means by which one acquires that redemption. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. The shadow usurps the substance, and the mere symbol overshadows the eternal reality. We then search the Scriptures looking for validation of these elevated shadows, and grasp at any passage that even remotely hints at such validation. One of the passages favored by the sacramentalists is found in the first of Paul's preserved epistles to the church in Corinth. "For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, English Standard Version). Later in this same chapter, Paul links the manna and water provided by God in the wilderness with the cup and the bread of the Lord's Supper (vs. 16f). Symbols of symbols. In this present study we will narrow our focus to the symbol of baptism in water, for Paul likens our "baptism into Christ" with the "baptism into Moses" experienced by the people of Israel as they left their Egyptian bondage and began their journey to the land of promise. Again, a symbol of a symbol.
"Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). What is Paul trying to say here? What is his message to the saints in Corinth? Is Paul in some way linking our present day baptism in water to the Israelites passing through the waters of the Red Sea? Is their symbol symbolic of our symbol? What truths would Paul have us grasp from his statement? Was he simply seeking to provide another proof-text for sacramentalists? Or, is there a deeper truth being revealed here that too many, blinded by sectarianism and sacramentalism, fail to perceive? It is important to our understanding of this statement by Paul that we do not isolate it from its context. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are not really the main focus of Paul in this chapter. Rather, Paul is warning the believers in Corinth not to make the same mistake the Israelites made after God called them to Himself at Mt. Sinai. He delivered them under the leadership of Moses, just as He delivers us today under the leadership of Christ. Though immersed into Moses, many turned away and died in the wilderness without gaining entrance into the promised land; just as many since have turned away, after immersion into Christ, and perished in the wilderness of this world without gaining entrance into that land of promise! "Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12). Paul is warning the brethren against the sin of religious arrogance. "We are the favored few; we shall never fall" is a prideful perspective and a deadly presumption. If we think we can compromise with the world in our spiritual journey, then we are just as self-deceived as the ancient Israelites were. They were called to/by God, but they turned elsewhere for their salvation, just as men today too often seek salvation in religious sacraments rather than in a personal Savior.
In our Christian walk we are called to remain focused on our blood-bought relationship with the Father through the atoning act of His Son and the ongoing guidance of the indwelling Spirit. Too easily, however, our focus shifts and our faith falters. We focus on the shadows, and lose sight of the substance. Paul was warning the Corinthians: "Don't find your security in the ceremonies of religion. Find it instead in the Living God Himself. To illustrate the folly of trusting in the ceremonies of religion to protect a Christian from temptation, Paul reaches back to the early history of Israel for an illustration" [Dr. Kenneth L. Chafin, The Communicator's Commentary: 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 124]. If we today seek to place our trust in baptism, or any other so-called sacrament, rather than in the Lord, we run the risk of perishing short of the land of promise! Paul is not talking about baptism in water in this passage, nor is he making the Lord's Supper the focus of his message. These are incidental at best to his purpose. He was urging the disciples in Corinth to follow a Person, not bow before a pattern. That urging is still needed today. "To say that these incidents mystically foreshadowed the 'sacraments of the Christian Church,' or that they are 'a standing testimony to the importance of the Christian sacraments as necessary to the membership of Christ,' or to attempt to gather from them definite teaching as to the mode and order of those sacraments, is to subordinate the inner truth and meaning of the subject to the mere accidental form. We take these incidents as typical of principles rather than ordinances, of living truths rather than of the ritual forms in which those truths may be embodied" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 19, p. 351].
"We regard this statement ('all were baptized into Moses') as referring to nothing in Christian baptism beyond the essential idea and principle of it. As a formal rite, there was nothing in the experience of the Israelites in coming out of Egypt that bears the remotest resemblance to it, and it is a waste of ingenuity to attempt to find out such a resemblance" [ibid]. The writer goes on to explain that baptism in water (both for the Israelites or for us today in this new dispensation) is simply "a sign, a pledge, the avowal of faith" [ibid]. "The analogy does not consist in moisture, in getting wet. It is rather a matter of sharing the destiny of a leader" [Dr. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 221]. God had raised up a deliverer for His people who were in bondage. That deliverer was Moses. Thus, deliverance was to be found in union with that God-ordained deliverer. They were immersed into a life-altering union with the one God raised to lead them to their homeland; their destiny was tied intimately with his. This immersion was typified, it was reflected symbolically, in the covering of the cloud and sea, just as the propitiatory act of our Redeemer, in the shedding of His blood, is typified and symbolized today, at least in part, in the action of being immersed/covered in water. Neither the water, nor the act itself, however, is what saves. Salvation is not secured by a WHAT, but in a WHO. That was true with the deliverance of the Israelites, and it is equally true for us today.
Sadly, there have always been some who believe that the act of baptism itself is what actually acquires salvation. Thus, the people of Israel were not under the leadership of Moses, they were not united in purpose with him, they were not saved from their bondage UNTIL they passed through the waters of the sea and walked under the cloud, or so their theory suggests. One of the leaders in Churches of Christ, Jimmy Allen, stated, "The Hebrews were saved from Egypt the day (emphasis his) they crossed the sea" [Survey of 1 Corinthians, p. 116]. This author then states that "the crossing of the sea" was a type corresponding to "one's baptism in water at which time he receives the benefits of Christ's death and is saved from all past sins" [ibid, p. 117]. Yes, declares Matthew Henry (1662-1714), "They had sacraments like ours" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. "The cloud and the sea were types of the New Testament sacrament of Baptism. ... God, through Baptism, delivers us from the power of Satan and transfers us into His kingdom, to be His free, blessed children forever" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the NT, vol. 2, p. 133]. Another source spoke of the death of Jesus Christ and His resurrection, and then stated that "baptism is the application of that divine act to an individual. ... We come nearest to grasping the Pauline teaching when we view baptism as a sacrament" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 350]. Really?!
I completely reject the theological perspective that baptism in water is a sacrament. This act, though an important symbol of a greater reality (just as the bread and wine are in the Lord's Supper), is NOT the precise split-second that God bestows salvation. We are saved by grace through faith ... period. The apostle "Paul's comment about Israel being 'baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea' actually is quite illuminating once one resists the temptation to suppose the apostle is referring to some literal rite" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 148]. As noted earlier in this study, we too frequently search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations, rather than a Redeemer; we peruse them for patterns, rather than a Person; we seek out sacraments, when the Scriptures simply show forth the Savior (John 5:39-40)! May the Lord help us all to open our eyes and lift our gaze. We just may find the view far more gratifying!
From a Reader in Missouri:
I would like to order a signed copy of your book on baptism: "Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice." My check is enclosed. I really look forward to seeing the progression of your thoughts over the years on this subject. Thank you.
From a Reader in North Carolina:
Hey brother, I'm behind in my reading, and so I'm catching up on your Reflections. I just read your article "The Outcome of Your Faith: Simon Peter's Salvation Perspective" (Reflections #766). This one has left me in tears. I really don't know what else to say about it. To hear afresh these words of the apostle Peter has truly blessed my heart. It reminds me of the old hymn: "Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life!" I appreciate you, brother!
From a Ministry Leader in Alabama:
Dear Brother Al, Your Reflections are a real blessing to me! Although your name was familiar to me, and has been for a number of years, it wasn't until I saw your postings on the "Church of Christ Facebook" site that I began to pay attention. I am now just beginning to explore your exciting and adventurous Reflections. It looks like I'll be adding your web site to my list of "The Best of the Best Web Sites" on my own page at Simple Life Truths under the tab "Coming Soon." I anticipate much good reading on your own web site as we seem to have much in common in our adventure of faith. All God's blessings to you, Shelly, and to the rest of yours.
From a Reader in New Mexico:
Brother Al, It is good to know you are still working to save the lost. It has been a number of years since I worshipped there with you, but I am doing well and living in Albuquerque. Al, I felt the need, for some reason, to reach out and say that I did not agree with your interpretation of Genesis 11:4 in your article "A People of Purified Lips: Zephaniah's Babel-Reversal Prophecy" (Reflections #767). Your implication was that the purpose of the people was to "elevate themselves to 'god status'." Since these are all Noah's descendants, then they are family. And what family does not have a strong desire to be together? Thus, due to their size, they needed to build a great city so they could all live together and "not be scattered over the surface of the earth." Certainly, since all men sin, I am not implying there was no corruption. However, I don't think it was the main driver in the story of Babel. We are all created in the image of God, and He put in us a desire to create and do great things. Sometimes that desire can be misguided, but I do not think the goal of the people building the tower was to "perpetrate evil." I think the tower of Babel is one of the most fascinating and mysterious stories in the Bible, and it gives us insight into the character of God that we do not really find anywhere else. God confounded the people because if "nothing was impossible for man" then man would not call upon the Lord, and God wanted us to call upon Him. Anyway, just know that I appreciate the work you are doing, and I also agree with almost everything you teach.
The Babel narrative is most certainly fascinating on a number of levels, and it has been the topic of much discussion and debate for centuries. There is clearly no universal agreement among biblical scholars as to precisely why God considered their endeavors to be contrary to His will, thus causing Him to take the action against them that He did. Some have suggested that a prideful spirit may possibly be perceived in this narrative which may have prompted the actions of these people; a very real danger that led God to allow the apostle Paul's "thorn in the flesh," by the way, as Paul himself admits ("to keep me from exalting myself" - 2 Corinthians 12:7). Could this have been the case among the people of Babel as well? If they were elevating themselves rather than God, then the tower may very well have been perceived by God as a visible representation of that prideful, self-elevating disposition: a disposition that would only expand exponentially among a people of common language and purpose. It is in this sense that some feel these people sought (whether they consciously realized it or not), through their self-exaltation, a "god-like status" for themselves. After all, did not Satan tempt Adam and Eve with the same thing? -- "The serpent said to the woman, 'You surely shall not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'" (Genesis 3:4-5). Mankind has long sought "god-like status" (and not in a good sense). I will readily admit, however, that there is much in this account we simply don't know, for the background information is too sparse and sketchy. -- Al Maxey
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