Lecture 3A - The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism
Dr. Kim Riddlebarger
A. The case for infant baptism grows directly out of how one reads the bible. It is often argued by those who deny the practice of paedobaptism [infant baptism] that there is a not a single text anywhere in Scripture which explicitly commands or demonstrates the practice of infant baptism. In a qualified sense this is true. But this does not mean that infant baptism is unbiblical. While there is not an explicit command in Scripture to baptize the infant children of believers in the New Testament, I will argue that infant baptism is indeed biblical because the New Testament stands in direct continuity to the Old, as we have labored to establish. Thus if baptism replaces circumcision as the sign and seal of the one covenant of grace (promised to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ) then the case for infant baptism can be clearly demonstrated from a number of texts, since while the sign may change, there is no biblical evidence that the thing signified changes. Take, for instance, the household baptisms which are mentioned throughout the New Testament (The households of Lydia--Acts 16:15; the Philippian Jailer--Acts 16:31; and Stephanus--1 Corinthians 1:16). Would the Jewish authors of the New Testament believe that children were now excluded from membership in the covenant of promise, when all of them, no doubt, circumcised their own children according to the command to Abraham (Genesis 17:23 ff)? How does the coming of Christ, as the mediator of a new and better covenant (Hebrews 7:22; 8:13), demonstrate that the children of believers, who were included under the covenant of promise made with Abraham, were now excluded under a new and better covenant with Jesus as the promised mediator? This is especially problematic when we stop and simply take a look at how our Lord himself regarded children (see Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17) Thus it is the Baptist who must demonstrate from Scripture that children are excluded from the covenant and its sign and seal, and not the paedobaptist who must demonstrate that they are included--though we have already done this, and will continue to do so in great detail throughout these lectures. It is the Baptist, who must demonstrate that when the sign changes from circumcision to baptism, so also the thing signified by the sacrament changes.
B. An illustration may help. When one puts a jigsaw puzzle together, one may not find a single piece of the puzzle which, when viewed in isolation, gives any indication whatsoever of what the completed picture will look like when all of the pieces are put together correctly. Infant baptism is "proved" from Scripture by putting all of the pieces of Scripture together, even though no single piece contains an explicit command to baptize infants. But if this does not satisfy consider the following: There is one clear instance where non-paedobaptists do this same thing without question. How many of you are Seventh-Day Adventists, or worship on Saturday? There is no explicit command to worship on Sunday [the first day of the week] in the New Testament. We worship on Sunday, in part, because such appears to be not only a valid inference from all of the Biblical data, but such is also clearly the practice of the apostolic church. When we put all the biblical pieces together--none of which on an individual basis command that Christians worship on the first day of the week-- it is clear by inference that Christians are to worship on the first day of the week as a celebration of the resurrection. This is one clear instance of a Christian practice with near universal acceptance, based upon an inference drawn from putting the individual pieces together, apart from an explicit command to do so. The case for infant baptism is of the same kind and weight.
C. To make the case for infant baptism, I will proceed (first), by looking at circumcision in some detail, and then, (second), move on to treat the baptism of John and Jesus, before (third), turning to the subject Christian baptism. Last, I will summarize the overall case for infant baptism, including biblical, theological and historical points.
II. The meaning of circumcision
A. Much of the case for infant baptism grows directly out of how we understand circumcision. Indeed, as I will argue in this following section, circumcision with both its oath-curse of malediction and its emphasis upon consecration, clearly points ahead to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the promised mediator of the Abrahamic covenant. Blood and knife rituals point forward to the cross. By taking a look at the meaning of circumcision we will not only see the redemptive-historic connection to baptism, but we also establish the continuity between the two, as ordeal-rituals through which the people of God must pass to enter into the blessings of the covenant. This makes a strong case for paedobaptism.
B. The oath of malediction in Genesis 17 -- "I will be your God"
* Much of the following comes from Meredith Kline's By Oath Consigned.
1. The covenant structure itself serves as an important background in understanding circumcision. "Genesis 17 contains the record of the institution of circumcision as a sign of God's covenant with Abraham and his house. This chapter is not, like the Decalogue or Deuteronomy, the text of a treaty but an historical narrative describing the ratification ceremony of the covenant. The narrative, however, consists largely of the word that God spoke to Abraham on that occasion, and those words comprise the standard elements found in ancient vassal treaties" [Kline, BOC, 39]. Here the great king, YHWH himself imposes the conditions of the treaty upon his vassal, Abraham, including sanctions of blessing and curse.
2. The relationship of Genesis 17 to the previous Covenant given in Genesis 15 is seen through the institution of the sacrament of circumcision, and this relationship is important to clarify for a number of reasons. As Kline points out, "although the account in Genesis 17 does not include the customary prologue, the somewhat earlier covenant revelation to Abraham recorded in Genesis 15 contains a Decalogue-like combination of titulature and history: `I am the Lord who brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees' (v. 7)....Corresponding to the usual preamble with its introduction of the speaker is the Lord's declaration to Abraham: `I am God Almighty' ( v. 1b). Prominently featured are the stipulations of this covenant...[including] a general statement of the nature of the covenantal relationship: Yahweh will be a God to Abraham and his descendants (v. 7) and Abraham is to walk before him true loyalty (v. 1c). The special obligation laid upon the covenant servants is that of circumcision (vv. 9-14). The communal performance of this rite on that very day served to consummate the ratifactory proceedings of this particular covenantal engagement (vv. 23-27). But the obligation of circumcision was to continue beyond that day as a permanent duty of the Abrahamic community....In short, the transaction recorded in Genesis 17 may be identified as a covenant of the vassal type, an administration of the lordship of the covenant Giver, binding his servant to himself in consecrated service under dual sanctions, blessing and curse" [Kline, BOC, 40-41].
Once again, it is God who swears the oath, "I am your God," meaning that this is a covenant of promise. This is certainly how Paul interpreted this event (Galatians 3:16). Notice, too, that circumcision is commanded by the Lord to ratify the covenant made with Abraham and all of his descendants after him, including all of the children of Abraham's family, as well as all of those in the household, including servants. Those who reject the sign and seal of the promise are cut-off and come under the curse, since "they broke God's covenant" (Genesis 17:14). Thus the sign and seal [the cutting of flesh] of the promise [the thing signified] is to be given to all the children of the promise.
This point is very important in establishing the unity of the administration of the one covenant of grace [contra the so-called "New Covenant Baptists" and the dispensationalists] as it progressively unfolds throughout the entire period between the giving of the covenant with Abraham as recorded in Genesis 15-17, and its fulfillment with the coming of the promised seed, Jesus Christ, as set out by Paul (Galatians 3:7-9; Romans 4:11-12).
a. While there is clearly discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, as we have seen, the author of Hebrews locates this discontinuity in the nature of redemptive history itself since biblical history moves from type and shadow to promise and fulfillment. The discontinuity is between the covenant made with Moses [the so-called Old Covenant] and the covenant of promise made with Abraham, and as such does not indicate discontinuity within the covenant of promise itself between an "old covenant of promise," and a "new covenant of promise." Since Biblical revelation is progressive, the so-called Old Covenant [which as we have seen was made with Moses and in which the people swore the oath-- meaning that this is a covenant of law, not promise--(Exodus 24:3; 7)] is a type and shadow of the coming of Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant. Once Christ has come, the Old Covenant with Moses is now obsolete and has done its work, which is to drive us to Christ and expose and excite our sin, as well as to reveal to us the rule of gratitude. Of course, the promises in Christ as the final prophet, priest and king are superior to the promises found in Moses, who was only a type of Christ, and who himself needed a redeemer. This is where we find the discontinuity.
b. But if we argue that the New Covenant is "a brand new covenant which totally replaces the Old Covenant" and has a "totally regenerate membership," as some Reformed Baptists have done [Unpublished paper, "What is New Covenant Theology," --note that both points will be shown to be unbiblical and problematic], what do we do with the fact that the New Covenant is, in fact, not the replacement of the Old Covenant made with Moses per se, but the fulfillment of the promises made by God himself to Abraham, and cited by Paul as fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:15 ff; Romans 4:13 ff). The law covenant with Moses, therefore, becomes obsolete with the coming of Christ, which is the fulfillment of the promise of a seed made to Abraham! Clearly the Old Covenant [the Sinai Covenant, made with Moses, in which the people of God swear the oath] occupies a limited role in the total history of the panorama of redemption. But to argue that the New Covenant is not rooted in the one unfolding covenant of grace first made with Abraham and which is fulfilled in Christ is to do great damage to the unity of Scripture and to the arguments raised by Paul, who on at least two occasions makes exactly this point (see Galatians 3:17-18, as but one example).
3. It is very important to notice that suzerainty-vassal treaties contain the oath as well as the sanctions of blessing and curse, ratified in a ceremony on the occasion of "cutting" of the covenant itself. As Kline notes, "oath-curse was...practically synonymous with covenant [see Deuteronomy 29:8-29] and the substitution rites symbolizing the oath-curse coalesced with the rites which ratified the covenant....It is generally understood that a dismembering ritual like that described in Genesis 15 is to be explained by reference to the complex and ceremonies we have just described. But here, too, is the historical-juridical context for the understanding of the vassal covenant of Genesis 17 and, more particularly, for the interpretation of its cutting-off rite by which the covenant of Genesis 17 was `cut.' It means further that circumcision symbolized the oath-curse by which the Abrahamic community confessed themselves under the juridical authority and more precisely under the sword of God-Almighty" [Kline, BOC, 41-42]. This means that the ratification ceremony becomes quite important in its own right.
a. As Kline notes in his commentary on Genesis, "Covenants are ratified by oaths, the oath-curses being dramatized in symbolic rites (cf. Gen. 15:9 ff). A characteristic curse was that the cutting-off of the vassal to destruction and cutting-off his name and seed. Accompanying this was a knife rite. So circumcision was the knife rite by which the Abrahamic covenant was cut. [Verse 14] shows that it symbolized the curse of excision from the covenant community. More precisely, the circumcision of the male organ of generation symbolized the cutting-off of descendants. Yet as a sign of an oath acknowledging God's lordship, circumcision also signified consecration (cf. Rom. 4:11)" [Meredith Kline, "Genesis," in The New Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 96]. Thus circumcision includes the oath-curse as well as consecration. In this we see both elements of the covenant of promise, "I will be your God, [oath-curse] and you will be my people [consecration]."
b. This sword motif can be seen for instance in Joshua 5:13 ff., where the "commander of the army of the Lord" (v. 14), appears to Joshua as the leader of Israel after the people of God had wandered through the wilderness for an entire generation unable to enter the land because of disobedience. In a renewal of the covenant the he had sworn to his people, God commands Joshua to circumcise the entire nation which then celebrates the Passover. Here we have the people of God celebrating yet again both sacraments immediately before they enter into the promised land. These covenant renewal ceremonies appear throughout Old Testament revelation (see 2 Samuel 7, for example).
4. As Kline points out, what is suggested by "the broad structure of Genesis 17 is confirmed by the particulars about circumcision given in verses 9-14. Circumcision is called God's covenant, his covenant in the flesh of all his people (vv. 9, 10, 13). This identification of covenant with circumcision reminds us at once of the coalescence of the covenant with its oath-curse in the extra biblical treaties....The threat of the curse sanction sounds against the one who breaks the covenant by not obeying the command of circumcision: `(he) shall be cut off.' The use of the verb karat in this specific description of the curse clearly echoes the idiom of cutting a covenant (karat berit), and it is an unmistakable allusion to the nature of the rite of circumcision. So in this, the primary passage for the interpretation of circumcision, the general and specific considerations unitedly point to the conclusion that circumcision was the sign of the oath-curse of the covenant ratification. In the cutting off of the foreskin the judgement of excision from the covenant relationship was symbolized"[Kline, BOC, 43]. Thus to be circumcised is to be under God's sovereign authority, to confess loyalty to him, and the sign itself points to the judgement of God, either upon the coming covenant mediator if the covenant is kept, or upon the violator if the covenant is broken.
B. Circumcision as a sign of consecration-- "You will be my people"
1. It is important to note that circumcision not only includes the oath-curse [the picture of the cutting off of those who break God's covenant by refusing to take the sign of that covenant], but also includes the blessing of God, clearly seen in the consecration of the vassal to the great king. Throughout the whole Old Testament discussion of circumcision we not only have the gospel in type and shadow, but we have the Biblical-historical context by which we make sense of baptism under the New Covenant. This covenantal consecration is totally gracious, and is fulfilled in what Paul calls the "circumcision of [by] Christ" (Colossians 2:11).
* Most of what follows comes from Meredith Kline's By Oath Consigned.
2. Kline points out that the importance of this knife ritual and the resulting consecration to God in the history of redemption. This will be seen in the events which shortly follow in Genesis 22. According to Kline, "For Abraham the consecratory purpose of circumcision was brought home in another cutting ritual he was afterwards required to perform. When Isaac the son of promise was born, Abraham had circumcised him on the eight day as God had commanded (Genesis 21:4). But later God summoned Abraham to take up the knife again and to perfect Isaac's circumcision by cutting him off altogether from the land of the living (Gen 22:1 ff). The identification of this cutting off of Isaac as a `burnt offering' (v. 2), the form of sacrifice expressive of total consecration, illuminates the meaning of these knife rituals...with this demand laid upon Abraham to perfect the consecration of his son, he was confronted with the dilemma of circumcision-consecration. The son of Adam who would consecrate himself to God in obedience of covenant service can do so only by passing through the judgement curse which circumcision symbolizes. Isaac must be cut off in death at the altar of God. In the circumcision of the foreskin on the eighth day he had passed under the judgment knife of God apart from God's altar in a merely symbolic, token act of conditional malediction. But this cutting off of the whole body of Isaac's flesh to be consumed in the fire of the altar of God was a falling under the actual judgement curse. This was an infliction in reality of that curse which was symbolized by the ordinary circumcision made with hands. How then can there be a realization of the proper purpose of the redemptive covenant administrated to Abraham? How can Isaac be consecrated to living service in the favor of God if he must be consecrated in death as an object of divine condemnation? And how can there be a fulfillment of the decree of election if the redemptive program aborts here and now in the damnation of Isaac?" [Kline, BOC, 44, 45]. Thus, the knife ritual of circumcision points forward to the knife ritual and sacrifice of the covenant seed, Isaac, which in turn points forward to the mediator of the covenant himself bearing the curse of the covenant, so that his people might be spared.
3. The answer to this dilemma is vital to grasp. According to Kline, "the answer to this dilemma began to unfold in an earlier knife rite of circumcision, in which Abraham had participated. Genesis 15 tells us of a covenant cutting and a theophany which Abraham witnessed amid dankness and horror--the only proper setting for this Old Testament Golgotha. There in the passage of God, in the divided theophanic symbol of smoking furnace and flaming torch, between the dismembered creatures the mystery of the abandonment of the Son of God emerged beforehand. For what Abraham witnessed was the strange self-malediction of the Lord of the covenant, who would himself undergo the covenantal curse of cutting asunder rather than fail to lead his servant into the promised fullness of beatitude" [Kline, BOC, 45]. Thus in order for any of those who have broken the covenant of works, and who stand under God's curse, to be delivered from the curse, someone else must bear God's anger, namely God himself!
4. The gospel and the promise that the fallen children of Adam would be God's people, made under the covenant of grace with Abraham, are clearly in view here. Notes Kline, "Read together in the light of fulfillment, the three cutting rituals of Genesis 15, 17, and 22, proclaim the mystery of a divine circumcisions--the circumcision of God in the crucifixion of his only begotten. Paul calls it the "circumcision of Christ" (Colossians 2:11). The circumcision of the infant Jesus in obedience to Genesis 17, that partial and symbolic cutting off, corresponded to the ritual of Genesis 15 as a passing of one who was divine under the curse threat of the covenant oath. That was the moment, prophetically chosen, to name him "Jesus." But it was the circumcision of Christ in crucifixion that answered to the burnt-offering of Genesis 22, as a perfecting of circumcision, a `putting off' not merely of a token part but `of the [whole] body of the flesh' (Colossians 2:11), not simply a symbolic oath-cursing but a cutting off of `the body of his flesh through death' (Colossians 1:22) in accursed darkness and dereliction" [Kline, BOC, 45]. Thus when Jesus submits to circumcision, he in fact, as God in human flesh, places himself under the curse of the covenant, thus identifying with the fallen children of Adam, the true covenant breakers. Thus the gospel is clearly revealed in the ritual-oath of circumcision, since the ritual itself points forward to the covenant mediator bearing the curses of the covenant.
5. This only becomes clear when viewed from this covenantal conception. Kline contends that "here, then, was the direction for faith to look for the solution to the dilemma of circumcision as a sign of consecration. By the demand to slay Isaac, God reminds us that all the ordinary generation of Adam, even Abraham and his promised seed, are covenant breakers and must be consecrated to him by coming to the place of curse. But beholding the ram on Moraih and God's own oath of dismembering, may not even Old Testament faith have discerned the way of grace, the way of identification with God in his cutting off in the dread darkness, the way that cannot but lead through the curse into blessing, beyond death unto life? The prophet who later wrote of the messianic Servant that `he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people' (Isaiah 53:8b) might have articulated this Old Testament identification faith in some such assurance to the faithful as this: You were cut off with the Servant in circumcision, wherein also you were buried with him, whose grave is appointed with the wicked, and you were also raised with him, for he shall be exalted and divide the spoil with the strong [Kline BOC 46]." Here is the gospel, under the type of circumcision, as the sign and seal of the covenant of promise, since the ritual itself points forward to the covenant mediator, who will himself bear the curse associated with the cutting of the covenant.
6. This is the gospel in the Old Testament, for this is what the authors of the New Testament tell us. This is "the gospel of circumcision according to Paul. In the Colossians 2 passage already cited, Paul affirms the union of the Christian with Christ in his crucifixion-circumcision: `in whom ye also were circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead'(vv. 11, 12 ARV). That Paul here interprets circumcision as a dying or death is clear from the sequence of ideas: circumcision, burial, resurrection (cf. Romans 6:3,4). This is confirmed by the expression of circumcision as a `putting' (or stripping off,' the latter being in turn synonymous with `putting to death.' (Colossians 3:5-9). As a death in union with Christ, the representative sin-bearer, in his crucifixion, the Christian's circumcision-death, as an undergoing of the wrath of God against sin, a falling under his sword of judgement. It is a judicial death as the penalty for sin. Yet, to be united with Christ in his death is also to be raised with him whom death could not hold in his resurrection unto justification. So it is that circumcision, which in itself as a symbolic action signifies the sword of the Lord cutting off his false servants, as a sign of the Covenant of Redemption [Kline's term for the covenant of grace] takes in, alongside the import of condemnation, that of justification, the blessing that may come through the course" [Kline, BOC, 46, 47]. Thus, it should be clear by now that it is Paul, primarily, who makes the case for the continuity between circumcision symbolizing the ordeal of judgement and the covenant curses, and baptism, which does exactly the same thing! This not only makes a strong case for continuity--one gospel with one mediator, Jesus Christ--but it firmly establishes the sacraments of both Testaments as signs and seals of the gospel promises, namely new life, the forgiveness of sins and consecration to God as his people. The Baptist, therefore, must assume the burden of proof in demonstrating that baptism signifies something else, namely the sign and seal of the presence of regeneration, in which the baptized must swear the oath making baptism inadvertently into a covenant of law.
C. Summation of the Meaning of Circumcision:
1. Circumcision is the oath-curse of the covenant of grace, "I will be your God," as well as the sign of consecration to the covenant Lord, "You will be my people." The account of the circumcision of Abraham in Genesis 17 is organically connected to the covenant of promise in Genesis 15, and serves as the ratification ceremony of the prior covenant.
2. As the sign of the covenant of grace, circumcision is commanded of all male offspring of the descendants of Abraham, both natural as well as adopted. As a sign of the covenant of grace, it is extended to all infant males and proselytes in the household, including the offspring of the slaves and servants [Genesis 17:9-14]. The cutting off of the foreskin on the 8th day is a perpetual covenant ratification for all subsequent generations of those in the covenant [v. 10].
3. As Abraham himself believed God for a seed [and was justified by faith alone, Genesis 15:6] he himself also received circumcision as a sign of the covenant in ratification of God's own oath to provide what he had promised, i.e., the thing signified [Genesis 17:23-24]. So too, the males among God's people received circumcision as a sign of the promise that their children would not be cut off from the covenant, and that God would send a redeemer, the promised "seed."
4. This is how Paul connects the coming of Christ to the promise and covenant of grace that God made with Abraham. All those in Christ are, therefore, the true children of Abraham [Galatians 3:7; Romans 4:16], who have believed the same gospel, who receive the same promises [because of grace alone though faith alone--Romans 4:16], and who now receive baptism as the replacement of circumcision [Colossians 2:11-12]. This is a compelling argument for a single covenant of grace, understood as "promise" to Abraham, and understood as "fulfillment" to those in Christ.
5. Circumcision is clearly a judgment ordeal upon the one circumcised. It is an oath sworn by God but which is ratified by the shedding of blood and the cutting of skin borne by God's people. It is a bloody judgment ordeal through which all male members of the covenant must pass. The sacrifice of Isaac to the knife points forward to the coming of the mediator, who would be able to take away the curse for all those who he represents [Galatians 3:10]. Unfaithful members of the covenant will indeed be cut-off and experience the full fury of that to which the blood ordeal pointed [Genesis 17:14]. The sword of the Lord of hosts which had protected them will now slay them. God repeatedly rebukes his people when they have neglected the sign of promise [Exodus 4:24-26; Joshua 5:2 ff.].
6. It is vital to realize that all those circumcised are already guilty under the covenant of works and deserve God's eternal and immediate judgement [Hosea 6:7; Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12, 18-19]. This is why we call the covenant made with Abraham a covenant of grace, since it is graciously made with guilty covenant breakers. Thus when Abraham raises the knife over Isaac [Genesis 22:10--the ultimate picture of what the knife ritual of circumcision symbolizes] we see the judgement ordeal quite clearly--the cutting off of the promised seed, the curse due us because of our sin-- and that to which circumcision ultimately pointed.
7. But in all of this Jesus Christ lies hidden in type and shadow for God is graciously giving us a picture of the ultimate circumcision ordeal of the covenant mediator, when Jesus Christ will be "cut-off" and "stricken for the sins of the people" [Isaiah 53:8b]. Thus circumcision as a sign of judgement actually points forward, not to the judgment that we will experience as God's people, but to the judgement which Jesus Christ will experience for God's people, bearing the judgement that God himself had sworn upon himself in the oath-curse of Genesis 15. It is God who takes the covenant curses upon himself in Christ so that we might be saved.
8. This is why circumcision was applied to the children of believers, since it was not a sign of present regeneration focusing upon the believer's profession of faith or testimony, but instead a sign of faith in God who swore an oath to be God to his people and send them a deliverer, who will save his people through a promised seed.
9. Thus circumcision is the sign and seal of the oath-curse of God. What it signifies is Christ receiving the oath-curse for us by his death upon the cross. Thus circumcision is a gospel sign, anticipating the saving work of Jesus Christ. This means that the cutting of flesh [the sign], signifies the forgiveness of sin, regeneration and new life, as well consecration including both "set-awareness" to God and progressive sanctification [the thing signified].
10. The Judaizers are summarily condemned by Paul in Galatians, and by the entire church in Acts 15, because they did not connect circumcision with the Abrahamic promise given under the covenant of grace [and therefore, not a meritorious work]. Instead the Judaizers saw circumcision as a sign of their own personal obedience to the Law of Moses [the Sinaitic Covenant] which was not based upon promise, but works. To make circumcision mandatory, in this sense, is to say the promise depends upon faith in Christ and personal obedience [works]. Circumcision was the ratification of God's oath in the Abrahamic covenant [grace and promise], not the ratification of the Mosaic covenant based upon obedience. To confuse this is confuse faith and works, law and gospel, Jesus Christ and Moses.
11. This will help us understand why baptism replaces circumcision [Colossians 2:11-12], and why the covenant sign moves from an exclusively male sign, since it was through the male line descendants were anticipated, and therefore, the judgement was the cutting off of the family line and all descendants. Baptism, on the other hand, is a water ordeal-judgement through which all of God's people [male and female, children and adults] must pass, and is also anticipated in the Old Testament in events such as the Exodus through Red Sea [1 Corinthians 10:1-4] and the flood ordeal in the Ark [1 Peter 3:18-22]. Though the sign changes under the New Covenant, and the exact ordeal-judgment changes from blood to water, the thing signified does not. This will become clear when we look at baptism in more detail.
III. The Baptism of "John the Baptist"
* Most of what follows is from Meredith Kline's book, By Oath Consigned.
1. John's baptism is frequently omitted in discussions of Christian baptism, but this should not be the case, since John the Baptist is a pivotal figure in the overlap between the old and new covenants. It is important to remember, in this regard, that circumcision is not only a sign of blessing, but also "a sign of Christ's redemptive judgement with its benedictions and maledictions alike." If true, this means that we must expand any discussion of baptism to also include the idea that baptism also is a sign of blessing and of curse. At this point, Kline asks the rhetorical question, "must we enlarge our theology of baptism so as to see it in a more comprehensive symbol of the eschatological judgement that consummates in the covenant of which baptism is the sign?" [Kline, BOC, 50]. The answer, says Dr. Kline, is yes.
2. This need to expand our notion of baptism becomes clear when we take a look at the baptism of John, and his role in redemptive history, as the background for our discussion of Christian baptism.
B. John-- a messenger of judgement bringing God's ultimatum to his unfaithful people
1. Though it is easy to overlook this point, there is a direct connection made by John himself to Jesus in terms of their baptisms [Matthew 3:11-12]. In all of this, notes Kline, it is vital to notice that "in the revelation associated with John, baptism is emphatically a sign of eschatological judgement" [Kline, BOC, 51]. This means that John's baptism occupies a transitory role between circumcision and Christian baptism.
2. Kline's comments in this regard are extremely significant in understanding the nature of God's judgment upon unbelieving Israel, his own disobedient covenant people, now under the covenant curses because of their unfaithfulness. John comes as the last of the Old Testament prophets, announcing God's judgement upon Israel. According to Kline: "In order to see the mission of John the Forerunner in proper historical perspective it will be useful to review certain procedures followed in ancient covenant administration. Of special interest at this point is the institution of the covenant lawsuit...because of the contribution it makes to our understanding of the historical function of the prophets....When a vassal failed to satisfy the obligations of the sworn treaty, the suzerain instituted a covenant lawsuit against him. The legal process was conducted by messengers. In the first of its two distinct phases messengers delivered one or more warnings. These were couched in a form that reflected the original pattern of the treaty. Stylistically interrogation was a distinctive feature. The vassal was reminded of the suzerain's benefits and of the treaty stipulations, explanation of his offenses was demanded, and he was admonished to mend his ways. He was also confronted anew with the curses of the covenant, now in the form of an ultimatum, and warned of the vanity of all hope of escape....If the messenger of the great king was rejected, imprisoned, and especially if he was killed, the legal process moved into its next phase. This was a declaration of war as an execution of the sacred sanctions of the treaty, and so as a visitation of the oath deities against the offender, a trial by ordeal" [Kline, BOC, 52]. Thus the long succession of prophets throughout Israel's history are messengers from the Great King, fulling the terms of the covenant, and demanding that Israel give account for forgetting their covenant obligations.
3. The covenant lawsuit, notes Kline, is the context for the mission of God's prophets to Israel, including John the Baptist. "The mission of the Old Testament prophets, those messengers of Yahweh to enforce the covenant mediated to Israel through Moses, is surely to be understood within the juridical framework of the covenant lawsuit. So too the mission of John was sent with the word of ultimatum from Yahweh to his covenant violating vassal, Israel" [Kline BOC, 52]. Indeed this impending judgment upon Israel seems to be in our Lord's mind in a number of parables, especially the parable of the tenants [Matthew 21:33 ff.; Mark 21:1 ff.; and Luke 20:9 ff.]. The landowners beat some of the servants and killed others. This is certainly a reference to Jesus and John the Baptist, since the question immediately preceding this parable is the heated debate between Jesus and the leaders of Israel debating the nature of John's baptism [Matthew 21:23-32; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8]. According to Kline, "Jesus himself was of course the lord of the vineyard's son, who was cast out and slain. Because Israel had repudiated his lordship and despised the ultimatum, God would inflict on them the vengeance of the covenant. In fact, Jesus, as the final messenger of the covenant, was declaring the verdict against Israel in the very process of speaking unto them this parable" [Kline BOC, 52, 53]. In this, we see clear evidence of a covenant lawsuit brought by the Great King against his disobedient vassal, since here, Jesus is debating with the leaders of Israel about the exact nature of his own authority [Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:28; Luke 20:2].
4. This is also the way in which the prophet Malachi had spoken. According to Kline, "To the same effect as Jesus' parable of the vineyard had been Malachi's prophetic interpretation of the coming Lord and Forerunner; he, too, depicted them as the bearers of the ultimatum and the final verdict. For Malachi spoke of two messengers, the one called `my [i.e., the Lord's] messenger' and the other, `the messenger of the covenant' [Malachi 3:1]. Of the first he wrote: `he shall prepare the way before me.' Again, Malachi spoke a coming Elijah [i.e., John; cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:12 f.; Mark 9:12 f., Luke 1:17] as a precursor of `the great and terrible day of the Lord.' His mission was to be one of warning lest Israel's Lord smite them `with a curse' [Malachi 4:5, 6]. For at his fiery advent the Lord would refine his people by judgement [cf. Malachi 3:2 ff.]" [Kline BOC, 53, 54].
5. As Kline notes, "What is narrated in the Gospels concerning the ministry of John [the Baptist] comports fully with the understanding of his role as that of messenger of the covenant to declare the Lord's ultimatum of eschatological judgement. The voice in the wilderness cried `repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' [Matthew 3:2]. It warned of `the wrath to come' and of the vanity of reliance on external earthly relationships, even descent from Abraham. If the trees did not bring forth satisfactory fruit, if they were not properly circumcised unto the Lord [cf. Leviticus 19:23-25], then they must be cursed as a cumbrance to the ground and cut off. The axe was even now `laid unto the root' to inflict this judgement of circumcision" [Kline BOC, 54]. The covenant curse, will now fall upon Israel, the unfaithful servant. The axe will now fall on the root of the tree which does not bear fruit fit for repentance [Matthew 3:8].
6. What about the water being used as a sign of eschatological judgment? In Kline's view this finds ample background in the "figurative use of water in the prophets [and] it is the cleansing property of water that is in view. Moreover, John's baptism is called a `baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins [Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3]. Consequently, the baptismal waters of John have been understood as symbolic of a washing away of the uncleanness of sins. But the possibility must be probed whether this water rite did not dramatize more plainly and pointedly the dominant theme in John's proclamation (particularly in the earlier stage before the baptism of Jesus), namely, the impending judicial ordeal which would discriminate and separate between the chaff and the wheat, rendering a verdict of acceptance, but also of rejection" [Kline, BOC, 54]. Thus if we see John's baptism in light of the covenant lawsuit, John being the last of the prophets, then his baptism is primarily as sign of the impending judgement to come upon Israel as foretold by Malachi.
C. Baptism An Ordeal in Water
1. In many ancient Near-Eastern treaty rites and ceremonies, appeal to the protection and impending wrath of the "gods" was an important part of civil procedure. In these secular rituals, Kline points out that "the two common elemental forces that functioned as ordeal powers were water and fire. So it is, too, as Peter observes, in cosmic history. God's judgement of the ancient world was by water, and the day of judgement awaiting the present heaven and earth will be an ordeal by fire [II Peter 3:5-7]....Archetype of water ordeals was the Noahic deluge. The main features of the subsequent divine river-trials were all found the judgement of the flood: the direct revelation of divine verdict, the use of water as the ordeal element, the overpowering of the condemned and the deliverance of the justified, and the entrance of the ark-saved heirs of the new world into the possession of the erst-while estates of the ungodly. The other outstanding water ordeals of the Old Testament history were those which Moses and Joshua led Israel at the Red Sea and the Jordan. These too, were acts of redemptive judgment wherein God vindicated the cause of those who called upon his name and condemned their adversaries. The exodus ordeal, with Israel coming forth safe and the Egyptians overwhelmed in the depths, striking exemplified the dual potential of the ordeal process. In the Jordan ordeal, the dispossession of the condemned by the acquitted was prominent. At that historical juncture the rightful ownership of Canaan was precisely the legal issue at stake, and God declared in favor of Israel by delivering them from Jordan's overflowing torrents. Thereby Israel's contemplated conquest of the land as vindicated as a holy war, a judgement of God" [Kline, BOC, 56]. Thus water ordeals have a significant Old Testament background--blessing and curse, which serves not only as the background for the baptism of John, but Christian baptism as well.
2. According to Kline, this puts John's baptism in redemptive-historical context. "The baptismal sign of [John's] mission...[is] a symbolic water ordeal, a dramatic enactment of the imminent messianic judgement. In such a visualization of the coming judgement John will have been resuming the prophetic tradition of picturing the messianic mission as a second Red Sea judgment and so as a water ordeal [see Isaiah 11:10-16; 27:1; 12, 13; 51:10, 11]. Indeed, read in the light of the history of covenant ordeals, the whole record of John's ministry points to the understanding of his water rite an ordeal sign rather than as a mere ceremonial bath of purification. The description of John's baptism as `unto the remission of sins,' which is usually regarded as suggesting the idea of spiritual cleaning is even more compatible with the forensic conception of a verdict of acquittal rendered in a judicial ordeal. The time had come when here in the Jordan River, where once Yahweh had declared through an ordeal that the promised land belonged to Israel, he was requiring the Israelites to confess their forfeiture of the blessings of his kingdom and their liability to the wrath to come. Yet John's proclamation was a preaching of `good tidings' to the people [Luke 3:18] because it invited the repentant to anticipate the messianic judgement in a symbolic ordeal in the Jordan, so securing for themselves beforehand a verdict of the remission of sin against the coming judgement. To seal a holy remnant by baptism unto the messianic kingdom was the proper purpose of the bearer of the ultimatum of the Great King." [Kline, BOC 56, 57]. Thus John's baptism serves to call true Israel to repentance, setting the remnant apart, and sparing them from the judgement yet to come. Thus John's baptism, is a provisional measure, and is a sign of impending judgement upon Israel and blessing upon those who repent of their sins.
3. Additional evidence for this comes from the use of the term "baptism" to refer to historic ordeals in redemptive history. Kline reminds us that "Paul described Israel's Red Sea ordeal as a being baptized [1 Corinthians 10:2] and Peter in effect calls the Noahic deluge ordeal a baptism [1 Peter 3:21]....But of particular relevance at this point is the fact that John the Baptist himself used the verb [baptidzo] for the impending ordeal in which the One mightier than he would wield his winnowing fork to separate from the covenant kingdom those whose circumcision had by want of Abrahamic faith become uncircumcision and who must therefore be cut off from the congregation of Israel and devoted to unquenchable flames. With reference to this judicially discriminating ordeal with its dual destinies of garner and Gehenna John declared `He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire [Matthew 3:11 ff; Luke 3:16 ff. cf. Mark 1:8]....[We] must remember that fire was along with water a traditional ordeal element. In fact, in the very prophecy where the Old Testament delineates the mission of the Lord and his Forerunner as final messengers of the covenant lawsuit, the messianic judgement is portrayed as an ordeal by fire with dual effects. For evil doers the fire of that day is the burning of an oven to consume them, but for those who fear God's name it is the healing rays of the sun to refine them [Malachi 4:1-2 cf. Malachi 3:2,3]" [Kline BOC, 57, 58]. Thus the way in which the biblical writers use the term "baptism" indicates that baptism is primarily an ordeal, and encompasses much more than simply the idea of "immersion" in water.
4. According to Kline, John "instituted an explicit comparison between that baptismal ordeal which was to be executed by the coming One and his own baptismal rite: I indeed baptize you with water...he will baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire [Matthew 3:11]. John called attention to the great difference; his baptism was only a symbol whereas the coming One would baptize men in an actual ordeal with the very element of divine power [the Holy Spirit]....John's baptism symbolized...the coming messianic judgement....Jesus's reception of John's baptism can be more easily understood on this approach. As covenant Servant, Jesus submitted in symbol to the judgement of God of the covenant in the waters of baptism. But for Jesus, as the Lamb of God, to submit to the symbol of judgement was to offer himself up to the curse of the covenant. By his baptism Jesus was consecrating himself unto his sacrificial death in the judicial ordeal of the cross [as seen for example in the Servant Songs of Isaiah 42:1 ff.]. Such an understanding of baptism is reflected in Jesus' own reference to his coming passion as a baptism: `I have a baptism to be baptized with' [Luke 12:50 cf. Mark 10:38]. Jesus' symbolic baptism unto judgement appropriately concluded with a divine verdict, the verdict of justification expressed by the heavenly voice and sealed by the Spirit's anointing, Messiah's earnest of the kingdom inheritance [Matthew 3:16, 17; Mark 1:10; 11; Luke 3:22, cf. John 1:32, 33; Psalm 2:7 ff.]. This verdict of sonship was contested by Satan, and that led to the ordeal by combat between Jesus and Satan, beginning with the wilderness temptation immediately after Jesus' baptism and culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection--vindication of the victorious Christ, the prelude to his reception of all the kingdoms of the world [the issue under dispute in the ordeal; cf. Matthew 4:8 ff; Luke 4:5 ff.]. Further background for Jesus' conceptualizing of his sufferings as a water ordeal...is found in those supplicatory Psalms in which the righteous servant pleads for deliverance from the overwhelming waters. Of particular interest is Psalm 69, from which the New Testament draws so deeply in its explication of the juridical sufferings of Christ: ` I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me....Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up [vv. 2b, 15a; cf. Vv. 1, 2a, 14]" [Kline BOC, 58, 59]. Thus Jesus undergoes baptism because he is the covenant servant and mediator. He must undergo the ordeal in water, though he is without sin, in order to be identified with those under the covenant curses because of their own sin.
5. The theme of baptism as a water ordeal is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. "The supplicant Jonah found it possible to make literal use of this terminology of water ordeal in his appeal from the depths, and Jesus saw in Jonah's trial by water signs of his own judgement ordeal in the heart of the earth [Jonah 2:2 ff; Matthew 12:39, 40]." This theme also may be connected with the theme of water-combat that also appears without the Old Testament. "Synonymous with the motif of the ordeal by water is that of ordeal by combat with sea-monsters. Thus, the Red Sea water ordeal becomes in certain Old Testament passages a conflict of Yahweh against Leviathan [cf. Isaiah 51:9, 10; cf. Psalm 74:12-15; 89:9 10]. We are thereby reminded that the Lord was present with his people in the passage through the sea, that he underwent their ordeal, and that their salvation depended on their identification with him. Then in the New Testament there is a typological application of this imagery to Jesus' conflict with Satan in the course of his humiliation unto death [See Revelation 12, which pictures Satan as dragon and the agent of flood]. Hence, on our understanding of John's baptism in general and of his baptism of Jesus in particular, Jesus' experience in the Jordan would have been a symbolic anticipation of his ensuing combat with Satan-Dragon. We cannot, therefore, but view with new appreciation the liturgies of the ancient church when they speak of Jesus crushing the had of the dragon in his descent into the river for baptism" [Kline, BOC, 60]. It is especially interesting here to remind ourselves that in many ancient cultures, the crushing of the monster of chaos was prepatory for restoration. In this case, it is the crushing of Satan by our covenant head, Jesus, that makes way for the "age to come" and the restoration of all things.
D. Summary of John's Baptism [according to Kline]:
1. John the Baptist was the final messenger of God [the Great King] to the people of Israel. His ministry was not to the nations, but "to summon Israel unto the Lord to whom they had sworn allegiance at Sinai." If his call was not heeded, God's final judgement would fall upon in the full fury of the covenant curses. This is why his baptism is transitional and not perpetual.
2. John's call to repentance was primarily through his baptism--a baptism of blessing and of curse. Thus notes Kline, "this baptism was not an ordinance to be observed by Israel in their generations but a special sign for that terminal generation epitomizing the particular crisis in covenant history represented by the mission of John as messenger of the Lord's ultimatum." This is the final stage of the covenant lawsuit.
3. "John's ultimatum could be seen as a gracious invitation to the marriage feast of the Suzerain's Son; and John's baptism, as a seal of the remission of sins....For the passing of Jesus through the divine judgement in the water rite in the Jordan meant to John's baptism what the passing of Yahweh through the curse of the knife rite of Genesis 15 meant to Abrahamic circumcision."
4. "In each case the divine action constituted an invitation to all recipients of these covenant signs of consecration to identify themselves by faith with the Lord himself in their passage though the ordeal. So they might be assured of emerging from the overwhelming curse with a blessing. Jesus' passage through the water ordeal with the others who were baptized in the Jordan was also one in meaning with the Lord's presence with Israel in the theophany pilar during the passage through the Red Sea, and in the ark of the covenant during their crossing of the Jordan." Notes Kline, the meaning of this is found, in part, in Isaiah 43:13a.
5. "Viewed from a more comprehensive vantage point, John's baptism was a sign of the ordeal through which Israel must pass to receive a judgement of either curse or blessing, for it represented the demand of the suzerainty-law covenant, an engagement sealed by dual sanctions. The actual judgement, experienced by that generation to which John was sent, was an ordeal unto the casting off of Israel, a remnant only excepted [cf. Romans 11]. The city and the sanctuary were destroyed and the end thereof was with a flood, a pouring out of desolation [cf. Daniel 9:26, 27]. To this overflowing wrath the waters of John's baptism had pointed, as well as to the remission of sins received by the remnant according to the election of grace."
6. "By his message and baptism John thus proclaimed again to the seed of Abraham the meaning of their circumcision. Circumcision was no guarantee of inviolable privilege. It was a sign of the divine ordeal in which the axe, laid at the roots of the unfruitful trees cursed my the Messiah, would cut them off [Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9]. John's baptism was in effect a recircumcising."