What is the meaning and significance of baptism? Whilst there are many potential answers to this question, in this piece I intend to explore the relationship between the rite of baptism and the theme of new creation.
Creation through Water
In the beginning, God created the world, forming it through water by the Spirit (Genesis 1:2). This water then became the backdrop against which the remaining acts of creation occurred. First God shone light into the darkness of the waters (day one), then he created a firmament to separate the waters (day two), then he called the land forth from the waters (day three), and so on. In the words of the apostle Peter:
“For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.” (2 Peter 3:5-6)
So God created the world by water and then destroyed that same world by water at the flood. Washing with water is therefore a means of both creation and of renewal (new creation). But what could an initiation rite like baptism have to do with a cosmic event like the flood or the creation of the world?
A New World
In the apostle Peter’s first new testament letter, he directly associates baptism with the flood. He writes the following:
“in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, 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 3:20b-21)
To understand how the different themes relate to one another in this passage, it helps to compare with the flood story in Genesis 6-9. The notion of an “appeal to God for a good conscience” is a reference to the sacrificial offering of Noah after the flood, which God delights in, promising never to flood the earth again (Genesis 8:20-22). In baptism, just as in sacrifice, the believer is presented before God as a pleasing aroma in his sight.
Then there is the reference to being “saved through water”. Noah and his family are saved through water not in the sense of a bodily washing (“removal of dirt from the body”), but in the sense that they are brought out of a world plagued by sin and death and into a new world, a new covenant. This is a salvation through the agency of water, in putting to death the old creation and bringing the righteous safely into a new creation.
A New Kingdom
Another passage which is related to this theme is Colossians 2:11-12.
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
“Circumcision” here does not denote a sort of internal transformation of the heart, but a cutting off of a person from the old creation, that they might be partakers of a new creation. The context of the passage concerns the victory of Christ over the powers of evil, and the believer’s incorporation into that victory (v10, 15) through baptism. Now that the old “rulers and authorities” have been overthrown, a new kingdom has been established, and we are partakers of that new kingdom.
The “body of the flesh” is another way of speaking about the old world, the world which Christ overcame by his death and resurrection. In baptism, the believer is said to be buried with Christ and raised up with him, dying to the old world and being raised up into the new world to share in the victory of Christ. All of this is accomplished through the faithfulness of God, who raised Jesus from the dead.
A New Family
Another passage to consider is Romans 6:3-4.
“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 walk in newness of life.”
In the passage just preceding this one (Romans 5:12-21), we have just learnt that death came through Adam to the whole human race. We have also learnt that by the death of Jesus Christ, the sin of Adam is overcome leading to “justification and life for all men” (Romans 5:18). Paul has not forgotten these themes as he moves into the next section of his letter. He views baptism as a definitive act in which the believer dies with Christ and leaves his Adamic identity behind, becoming united with Jesus instead.
In other words, the believer has ceased to be a member of the old family of Adam and become a member of a new family, with Jesus as its head. And a new family means a new way of living. As a member of this new family, the believer is expected to “walk in newness of life”, no longer living a life dominated by sin, but instead living a life worthy of Christ.
So we see then that in baptism a believer is portrayed as leaving behind the old creation, the old identity, the old family and embracing a new one. We receive a new name, being baptized into the name of Jesus Christ, into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And as a member of this new family, as a representative of Christ, we are expected to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, to put aside old habits and embrace a new way of living.
as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in
him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in
thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)
 The reference to a “circumcision made without hands” is an allusion to Daniel 2:31-45, in which the prophet sees a vision of “a stone cut out by no human hand” (v34) which smashes to pieces a giant statue. The vision represents the kingdom of God having victory over the kingdoms of the world.