In Bible times Baptism was viewed differently than it is today. First, it was viewed as an eschatological act. Second, it was seen as a political act. In the next few posts, we will look at these two dimensions of baptism.
Baptism as an Eschatological Event
In the NT baptism is associated with the kingdom of God before it is associated with the church. John the Baptist is the first to declare, “Repent and be baptized for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Nothing could be more eschatological that this command. Jesus himself submits to John’s baptism, at which time God anoints Jesus as king and inaugurates or launches his kingdom agenda. When Jesus’ first post Easter followers repent and submit to baptism, they not only acknowledge him as “savior,” but as exalted king of the universe to whom they pledge their loyalty even to the point of death.
In baptism the new believer participates in a graphic representation of the resurrection which will occur at the end of the age when all God’s enemies are destroyed, his faithful people are raised from the dead and his ultimate kingdom arrives on earth. Lutheran theologian and Professor of NT, Ernst Käsemann identifies baptism as “the seal of membership in the eschatological people of God”
The Apostle Peter likens baptism to the flood of Noah’s day “eight souls, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:20). He adds: “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer [pledge] of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him” (vv. 21-22).
Three things make Peter’s reference to the flood important for our discussion. First, Noah and his family “were saved” (v 20).This speaks of being delivered from an evil world which God is destroying and coming under the rule of God in a renewed world.
Second, in like fashion, believers are delivered by “baptism” which Peter calls “an antitype” (v 21a) to the flood. Saved from what? In this context from the “authorities and powers” who rule the present evil world. What saves us? It is not the liquid H2O, per se; rather, we are delivered “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ [Messiah], who has gone into heaven and sits at the right hand of God” (v 22). The one executed by Rome has emerged from the tomb victorious over his enemies and has received his lawful seat of authority. In baptism we re-enact that event and claim it as our own. At the end of the age we too will be raised to reign with Jesus.
Third, this passage is important because Peter tells us that baptism is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (v 21b). The word “answer,” translated from the Greek word eperōtēma, comes from the business community of first-century Rome. It referred to a verbal promise at the end of a contract. It was in essence a pledge to fulfill the agreement and was legally binding. The same word was used to describe the oath unto death a Roman soldier took when he entered Caesar’s service. The early church borrowed eperōtēma and applied it to baptism. Thus the text: “Baptism . . . is the pledge . . . toward God.” So often we think of baptism as a profession of faith toward others. But Peter says that by baptism the candidate pledges his or her loyalty to King Jesus and his kingdom.
New Testament scholar, Günter Bornkamm says in baptism the candidate portrays graphically “the turning away from the old godless past and the turning towards God and his coming reign.” Oscar Brooks calls it, “the drama of decision.” As such, baptism is the decisive act of repentance and faith.
Peter adds that this pledge is offered in “good conscience” without coercion or mental reserve. In baptism we pledge to live and die for Christ, knowing that whatever the cost, we will be raised at the eschaton to reign with Christ.