I had the privilege of baptizing all 3 of my children this year. It was an incredibly moving time, as a father and a pastor, now being on this side of years of prayers and gospel-conversations, helping them work through (or not obsess over) their doubts, and otherwise seeing how the Spirit grew in them a desire to be a part of this messy, beautiful thing called the church.
Talking with younger types about baptism, though, is a reminder of how layered it is and therefore how much nuance it requires. For adults too. It’s even kind of hard to define. It’s less like “What is an apple?” and more like “What is marriage?” (Well, how much time do you have?)
Christians haven’t always agreed on things like when a person should be baptized or what, specifically, it symbolizes. I don’t intend to dig deep into the different camps on the matter here, nor to argue for my “side” as a Baptist. What concerns me most, at least for this article, is not definitions per se, but how baptism becomes a window into even greener pastures, how it’s not an end in and of itself (as if it were an act of obedience alone), but an arrow pointing onward to the very depths of the gospel itself.
The apostles utilize a variety of images for baptism in their letters — things like Noah’s ark, Red Sea crossings, washing rites, death and resurrection, oneness with Jesus, new creation motifs, etc. All of these are different facets of the one diamond, but there’s something even simpler that doesn’t get a lot of fanfare, and it has to do with directionality.
In the traditional gospel song “Down in the River to Pray” that Alison Krauss famously recorded for the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the most pointed invitation in the song is, “Come on brothers, let’s go down. Come on sisters, let’s go down, down in the river to pray.”
Now, I don’t mean to meddle in semantics, but it’s worth asking, why “down” to the river and not “up”? The geographical answer might be obvious: rivers flow at (or toward) the lowest elevation possible. But the theological significance is greater still. Even the simplest child knows that going down is easier than going up, and sledding hills without toe-ropes are fun half the time. Baptisms, whether done in a river, a lake, or even a baptismal, are descended into, which requires much less energy, and is good news for those who are weary from failed attempts at saving themselves.
In Acts 8, after Philip shared the good news of Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch, the eunuch says, “Look, there’s some water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” Good question! The answer is nothing, because nothing stands in the way of God and sinners anymore, due to Jesus’s sacrifice. Then it adds, “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.” Again: down, not up. Also notice, after they’re in the water the eunuch is baptized by the assisting hands of another, not his own. If there were a passivity dial to all of this, it would be turned up to 11.
And that brings us to the crux of the matter: baptism is, physically speaking, an easy burden, just like salvation that is freely given. It requires no effort on our part, only belief. There’s a reason why it’s closer to “Let’s go for a leisurely swim,” than, “Climb up that mountain!” In fact, the Old Testament temple was located on a mountain for this very reason: to show how heavy of a burden law-observance was, and how much fruitless effort it took to draw near to God. After working hard to pay for their sacrifices, the work wasn’t done. They had to go up.
But, again, Jesus is different. He came down to us — laying in a manger, growing up in the Podunk town of Nazareth, beginning his ministry in the Jordan river of all places. He would even die outside the city, apart from temples and laws, to get at this same idea. The New Testament is much more valley than mountain.
So Jesus chooses his sacraments carefully. Nothing is by chance, even the mode by which they’re administered. As popular as mountaintop selfies are today, they will never epitomize Christianity. Too much ascension. Too much self-optimization. It would send all the wrong messages about the gospel. Instead, we’re left with the humbling act of baptism, the river of grace that washes away our pride, and the realization that it’s not our breathlessness that matters (after a steep climb), but Jesus’s, as he’s gasping for air on the cross and giving away everything that we might have new life in him.