Waters of Death


The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me… (Jonah 2:5)

The Errant Typology of Baptismal Sprinkling

The Bible is an incredibly complex book, however it is also an incredibly consistent book. Its symbolism is a language, which means that although it is flexible enough to allow for new combinations, it has a core which remains steadfast from Genesis to Revelation. This means that, just as we have no excuse for refusing to read this book of types for what it is, we also have no excuse for misusing its types to support any otherwise unsupportable dogma.

I have yet to figure out why some denominations are terrible at biblical typology and others are very good at it. In Sydney, Australia, the Presbyterians and Anglicans are both extremely solid and evangelical, and often work together. Yet, when it comes to typological studies and awareness, there is a world of difference. Talking to a Moore College graduate about typology is like having a conversation with a horse. In this case, it’s probably a thoroughbred, but it simply does not have the faculty for the language in its DNA. It will just look at you with those big horse eyes as if you have not said anything, or are from another planet where humans expect to have conversations with horses. However, if you speak to a Presbyterian, such as my learned friend Doug, tapping away at his PhD and tutoring university students in Hebrew, he will not only pick up the conversation and respond, he will even call out the minimalist Moore mentality as a form of gnosticism like my Presbyterian friends do in the USA.

They are not allowing the text to shape their doctrine. They are shaping the text to suit their doctrine.

So, my question is this: How can people who are so quick on the uptake when it comes to biblical types get things so wrong when it comes to baptism?

The answer is that they have a doctrine, a tradition, and they go looking for typological support for it. This is exactly what the Roman Catholic theologians do, and some of them are mighty fine, too.1See Mother Of Invention. But they, like the Presbyterians, are not allowing the text to shape their doctrine. They are shaping the text to suit their doctrine. This is something of which we are all guilty at times, because it is impossible to read any text without coming at it with some assumptions. The good thing about the global Church is that when a theologian or theological school does this, there will be somebody else in Christendom who will stick it to them.

A fine example of the myopia of my Biblical Horizons friends begins with an article by James R. Rogers concerning the difficult subject of “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29.2James R. Rogers, Baptism for the Dead, Biblical Horizons Newsletter No. 76, 1995. As I have written elsewhere, it is a good article, finding the solution to the problem within the Canon rather than outside of it. This awareness of the integrity of the Bible is something I have appreciated about the Biblical Horizons crowd very much. But what does Rogers do when he gets to Numbers 19? He focusses on the act of sprinkling the water of purification on the defiled persons, and entirely overlooks the washing of the clothes and bodies of the priests who carry out the rite!

How does he get this so wrong? The answer is that he is looking for evidence for a cleansing by sprinkling rather than a cleansing by submersion. He is blinded by the unsupported assumptions of Reformed Theology, and seems unaware of anything else in the text that might challenge those assumptions. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Biblical Horizons gents call out other theologians on. As David T. Gordon so succinctly describes in his Why Johnny Can’t Preach3Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, we prevent the texts from speaking to us, and make them instead a “response,” an opaque source of support for what we already know,  an “Amen” bench. The Bible itself is censored by our assumptions. This is no more apparent than in the often bewildering statements concerning baptism from my theological betters. It is one thing to ignore an ignorant baptist (or Sydney Anglican) concerning the typology of baptism. It is quite another to ignore the Scriptures themselves. Numbers 19 supported part of what Rogers wanted to prove, but he moved his very selective spotlight before it could protest against his conclusion concerning sprinkling.

Baptism and Creation

If I still have your attention, the example I would like to deal with is a recent blog post by the formidable Joshua Luper over at Kuyperian Commentary, entitled Living Water: Foundations of Baptism in Creation.4Living Water: Foundations of Baptism in Creation and a comment by my friend Dustin Messer. Luper writes:

Why do we baptize with water? Since Scripture gives us a water ritual to perform, the element used in that ritual must contain some essential significance. How might we deepen our understanding of baptism by reflecting on the element of water?

One way to fill out our understanding of the waters of baptism would be to reflect on the import of water in our everyday experience, then apply those insights to baptism. Typically, reflection on the elements of the rite of baptism centers on the cleansing properties of water. Water washes away dirt and impurity. Water aids healing. This is quite true, and an important component of our understanding of baptism. This is also something readily discerned from Scripture (especially the law). However, the role of water as a cleansing agent doesn’t really emerge in Scripture until the time of the flood (at the earliest). Yet we read plenty about water in just the first two chapters of Genesis.

He goes on to note the connection between the Holy Spirit and water, the fact that life on earth is sustained and surrounded by water, that the waters are the first place that living creatures appear, and that water nourishes the Garden of Eden and the lands beyond.

Scripture has much to teach us about the role of water in the story of redemption, but our brief survey shows that the creational waters are a primal element, a source of life, and a subject of God’s special attention. Water is a gift, nurturing and sustaining the life of the world. And when we see water and the Spirit of God together, we should expect that the creative power of God is about to be unleashed. The Spirit hovering over the waters, forming structure and giving life – this is the rich creational and symbolic context of baptism.

There is a lot of wonderful truth here, and there are some excellent articles concerning baptism on that site by Joshua Torrey. But as was the case with Rogers’ article, some crucial relationships are either overlooked or their significance is not understood. Although Luper does not mention sprinkling, my friend Messer does. He writes:

Micah 5 is a good example of how water is used in Scripture. In 5:7 the remnant (i.e. Christians) are “like dew/rain on the grass” which doesn’t “wait on man.” I take Micah’s point to be that the New Covenant members are like dew/rain in that they are brought about by God, not by man. It is fitting, then, that this “water people” will be marked by water! In this passage, water is used to contrast the efforts of God with the efforts of man. Applied to baptism, this helps us see that the baptismal water does not find its power, authority, or origin in the efforts of any man, even the one administering the sacrament. No, it’s dew, it’s rain, it’s water, it’s from God!

This sounds wonderful, but Micah is dealing with the people of the Land. The relationship, and thus the typology, of water to the Land is very different from that of water to the Sea, at least where people are concerned.

Springs, Rivers and the Sea

Water “sprinkling” from above is definitely a sign of God’s pleasure, but it is related to the fruit of the Land and indirectly the fruit of the womb. According to His word, God would bless Canaan with “sprinkling rain” as a testimony to surrounding nations that Israel was cleansed from her idolatries. This is a favourite verse of “baptismal sprinklers,” but the context is clearly related to the fruitfulness of the Land.

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. (Ezekiel 36:22-25)

To use this verse as support for a practice never described in the actual baptism passages in the New Testament is sloppy at best and dishonest at worst. We are called to better things, especially those of us who are teachers of doctrine. It is interesting that sprinkling is also related to idolatry in the details of the description of the death of Jezebel, which reveal the sacrificial nature of the slaughter.

He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down. And some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her. (2 Kings 9:33)

The blood of the source of Israel’s idolatry is spattered, or “sprinkled” on the very symbols of city and empire, that Israel herself might not be judged as a harlot, her walls bloodied and her offspring dashed against the rocks by foreign troops. The life which she had would be preserved, as is always the case with sprinkling. But baptism is not about preserving life, which is where Rogers, and all my friends at Kuyperian Commentary, go off the rails. Rogers writes:

A person who comes in contact with a dead person, or shares the same roof with a dead person, had death communicated to him, and so needed to undergo the baptism of the water/ashes before being permitted to rejoin the living in the assembly of God. This should be a familiar theme to Christians, because baptism in fact marks the Christian’s resurrection from death to life. This is the burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 6:3-9 and Colossians 2:12. That is, in baptism we are united with the death of Jesus Christ, and so partake of the resurrection of our Lord. We move from death to life in baptism, just as the Hebrews portrayed the movement from death to life in the baptism of the sprinkled heifer ashes.

Rogers identifies those sprinkled with New Covenant baptizands, when in fact it was those who had “passed through” the Laver (the sacrifices and the priests whom they represented) who were immersed, submerged, on their behalf, about whom Paul is likely speaking, because it is most consistent with the biblical types. This is not a small thing which has been overlooked. Although Israel was a priestly nation, being circumcised, that “sprinkling” of blood and the establishment of the Levitical sacrifices were related to the Land and the womb (which explains why Leviticus is so often strange to our ears). It was only the priesthood and sacrifices “washed” in the waters of the Laver, the Edenic spring, which were given access to the Sanctuary. The main point here is that the “movement from death to life” for those sprinkled in Numbers 19 is not the same as it is for those baptised in these Pauline texts. How can I say this? Well, it is obvious if we are not wearing the goggles of a sacramentalist. Sprinkling enables the preservation of the old life. Immersion is the instrument of its extinction.

Sprinkling enables the preservation of the old life. Immersion is the instrument of its extinction.

Preservation or Extinction?

In terms of sacred architecture, sprinkling has nothing to do with the Garden, which has its own source of water, the Laver, the waters above, picturing the Transcendent life of God, or with the World, the unconquered and unconquerable nations, which were a wild “Sea,” the waters below, an instrument of death.

Sprinkling is related to the Mediators between the Garden and the World, between God and the nations, the fruit of the Land, which is why sprinkling relates to the Abrahamic Covenant, and also almost invariably involved some kind of mediatorial death. The act of sprinkling is either the sprinkling of blood or of water containing “death” (the ashes of a heifer, Numbers 19) that life on the Land might continue. It is an act of preservation which temporarily purifies the flesh, halting the spread of death.

However, when Israel disobeyed God, the waters above were reunited with the waters below, symbolically-speaking, and at Yahweh’s command the Land was submerged beneath Gentile armies. When the Gentile armies were mustering, this was not an act of preservation but extinction. Sprinkled water brings cleansing that preserves life. A flood brings a cleansing that extinguishes it. Genesis describes the fact that the flood waters rose higher than the tops of the mountains for a reason: all flesh was extinguished, all life that had “breath.”

We can observe this symbolism in the Lord’s warning to Jerusalem concerning the invasion of the armies of Assyria, where the waters of life (from above) would be replaced with the waters of death (from below):

 The Lord spoke to me again: “Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.” (Isaiah 8:5-8)

Only Jerusalem would be spared from trampling by Assyria, its walls being the level of the “neck,” above which the “breath” of Judah be preserved, and not be cut off. Only the mountain of God would remain above the rising waters of judgment.5Of course, when Israel crossed the similarly overflowing Jordan, it was Israel serving as Yahweh’s instrument of judgment upon the idolaters in Canaan.

This explains the strange symbolism contained in the prayer of Jonah (chapter 2), offered inside the fish. Why is it that “sprinklers” never relate this language to Jesus’ baptism, seeing as He Himself said His death and burial would be “the sign of Jonah”? The mind boggles. It is a chiastic song of death and resurrection. I quote it in full, not that you might skim over it, but that you might suffocate on the inescapable symbols of death-by-immersion:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

The point of Jonah’s miraculous deliverance (and delivery!) is not merely that God could get him from the ship to dry land. The point is that God would preserve a faithful Israelite (Land) prophet in his ministry to the (Sea) nations. All the Sea Beasts are at His command, as He often reminds us in passages which pass right over the heads of not only Sydney Anglicans, but stubborn paedobaptists.

The New Testament moves the action from the Land to the Sea, from Israel to the nations, from shepherds to fishermen, from dominion over the Land to dominion over the Sea. The Gentile nations come from the Sea, but the obedient ones are Land animals (Daniel 7). Jesus walks on water, not to show off, but to picture His power over both the Social deep (the Gentile nations) and the Physical deep (the grave). When He says that “this mountain” (Zion) would be cast into the Sea, He was promising to do what He did when He brought the Babylonian armies against Jerusalem. The flood waters would rise above the neck, and all life in the old Jerusalem would be extinguished.

Under the Old Covenant, the water was in the vessel. Under the New Covenant, the vessel is in the water.

1 Peter 3:21 alludes to the Great Flood as a baptism. “Baptism now delivers you,” giving the baptizand a clear conscience before the God who looks upon the heart, as He did upon the blameless heart of His perfect Son at His own baptism. The only way it can achieve this for sinners is through the extinction of the old life, not through its preservation. Baptism is not about the mitigation of death, as was sprinkling.6Some will no doubt quote Hebrews 10:22, “…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water,” but even this text differentiates between the “Adamic” heart (sprinkling) and the “Evian” body (washing). So they are merely seeing what they wish to see, and not really thinking in biblical typological terms. It amazes me that a denomination that speaks so much about “the baptised body” persists in sprinkling water on the head, and nobody bats an eyelid. As Joshua Luper describes, water is the source of life, but in biblical typology, the waters below the dove do not denote a preservation of life, but a testimony to the end of all flesh, and a new Creation.

The mediatory Land was cut off. All that remains of the Land is the resurrection body of Christ in heaven. Christ was the fruit of the Land and womb, and He now offers these to us as finished products, bread and wine from God’s table. Infant baptism and the sprinkling of water, however, are both Abrahamic, a fertility rite, a strange hybrid fusing the preservation of the fruit of the Land with the fruit of the womb — the old, carnal life. These have no place in the New Covenant, since the kingdom of Christ is all about His resurrection from the dead, and His dominion over the Sea.7See Walking On Water.

If your baptism, whether as an infant or an adult, was a sprinkling, you have not been baptised as Jesus was. You have not followed Him in what should be the first step of obedience.

Under the Old Covenant, the water was in the vessel (on the Land). Under the New Covenant, the vessel is in the water (in the Sea).

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1. See Mother Of Invention.
2. James R. Rogers, Baptism for the Dead, Biblical Horizons Newsletter No. 76, 1995.
3. Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
4. Living Water: Foundations of Baptism in Creation
5. Of course, when Israel crossed the similarly overflowing Jordan, it was Israel serving as Yahweh’s instrument of judgment upon the idolaters in Canaan.
6. Some will no doubt quote Hebrews 10:22, “…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water,” but even this text differentiates between the “Adamic” heart (sprinkling) and the “Evian” body (washing). So they are merely seeing what they wish to see, and not really thinking in biblical typological terms. It amazes me that a denomination that speaks so much about “the baptised body” persists in sprinkling water on the head, and nobody bats an eyelid.
7. See Walking On Water.

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