Baptism: Union with Christ and Participation in His Death
The unique contribution made by Paul to the early Christian understanding of baptism was his emphasis on the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. Elsewhere, he makes use of the simple symbolism of washing (vb lou/w), i.e., the earlier/original idea of a cleansing of sin, referring to the waters that (symbolically) wash away a person’s sins—1 Cor 6:11; also Eph 5:26; Titus 3:5. However, when it comes to the distinctly Christian development of the dunking/washing ritual (baptism)—(1) being performed “in the name of Jesus”, and (2) the association with the Holy Spirit (cf. the previous two notes)—Paul gave to these elements of the ritual a greater theological depth and significance. He did this primarily through his emphasis on the participatory aspect; that is to say, baptism symbolized the believer’s union with Jesus Christ, and, with it, a participation in Jesus’ own death.
This was very much a theological emphasis of Paul’s, even when there was no particular reference to baptism—see, most notably, Galatians 2:19-21 (also 5:24; 6:14). The central idea is that, through trust and union with Jesus, we die to sin (and its power). This goes a step beyond the traditional religious requirement of repenting from one’s sins; it means that the believer in Christ is actually dead to the power of sin. For Paul, it is the sacrificial death of Jesus that accomplishes this, freeing humankind from bondage to sin. This is the central tenet of Pauline soteriology, best and most fully expounded in chapters 5-8 of Romans; and it is in Romans 6:1-11 that Paul draws upon the baptism ritual to illustrate how believers have died to sin (and so must think and act accordingly). The ethical, paraenetic thrust of the passage is clear from the rhetorical question posed in verse 1 (“Shall we remain upon sin…?”), and which Paul answers himself in verse 2: “May it not come to be so! We, the (one)s who died away to sin, how shall we yet live in it?”. This leads to the argument based on the significance of Christian baptism:
“Or, are you without knowledge that, we, as (many) as were dunked [e)bapti/sqhmen] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? So we were buried together with him through the dunking [ba/ptisma] into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor of the Father, so also we should walk about in newness of life.” (vv. 3-4)
The concluding exhortation in v. 4 is part of the ethical instruction Paul is giving in these verses, but it, in turn, is based on a key theological and Christological point: we should “walk in newness of life” because we are united with both Jesus’ death and his resurrection:
“For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (it cannot be) other (that that) we will also be (in the likeness) of his standing up (out of the dead)…. And, if we died away with (the) Anointed, we trust that we also will live together with him, having seen [i.e. known] that (the) Anointed (One), (hav)ing been raised out of the dead, does not die away any longer, (and) Death no longer acts as Lord (over) him.” (vv. 5, 8-9)
This idea of baptism symbolizing our participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection does not appear to be part of the earliest Christian understanding of the dunking ritual (based on the evidence in the book of Acts, as discussed in the previous notes). How, then, did Paul come to emphasize and develop this particular aspect? Several factors seem to be involved. First, it is a natural development of the ritual action—i.e., stepping down into the water represents death, while emerging again indicates the beginning of new life. And, even though this symbolic dimension was, it seems, not part of either the Johannine dunkings or the earliest Christian baptisms, it is known from contemporary initiation rituals (in the mystery cults, etc). Tertullian specifically notes the similarities (On Baptism 5.1), and, indeed, it is to be expected that early Christians (and perhaps as early as Paul) would come to interpret baptism in a corresponding way.
Second, the ritual meal (the Lord’s Supper) specifically signified a participation of believers in Jesus’ death, and it would be natural for the baptism ritual to take on a similar significance. Unfortunately, we have precious little detail in the New Testament on how the earliest Christians viewed the Lord’s Supper, but the Gospel tradition, attested in multiple sources (Mark 14:22-25 par; 1 Cor 12:23-26ff; cf. also John 6:51-58), suggests that the ritual would have carried this meaning from the earliest times.
Third, it is a natural development of the fundamental belief that believers are united with Jesus. This union means that we are also joined with him in his death, and all that was accomplished in it. Note how Paul has developed the traditional idea of being baptized “into [ei)$] the name of Jesus” (cf. the earlier note), and the expression which would have signified that a person belonged to Jesus, as his trusting follower. Now, however, in Rom 6:3, Paul speaks simply of being baptized “into [ei)$] the Anointed Yeshua” —that is, into the person of Jesus himself. This is essentially equivalent with idea of being “in [e)n] Christ”, an expression (and theological statement) used repeatedly by Paul (8:1-2; 12:5; 1 Cor 1:30, et al), including here at the close of the passage (v. 11).
Finally, though sometimes overlooked, we have the Gospel tradition of the saying of Jesus whereby he refers to his suffering and death as a “dunking” (i.e. baptism, ba/ptisma); there are two ‘versions’ of this saying:
“Are you able to drink (of) the (same) drinking cup that I drink (from)? or to be dunked [baptisqh=nai] (with) the (same) dunking [ba/ptisma] that I am dunked [bapti/zomai]?…” (Mark 10:38f)
“And I hold a dunking [ba/ptisma] (that I am) to be dunked [baptisqh=nai] (with), and I am held (tight) together until the (time when) it should be completed!” (Luke 12:50)
The Markan version, with its pairing of the cup and the “dunking”, effectively establishes both Christian rituals—Lord’s Supper and Baptism—as being fundamentally tied to the disciple’s participation in Jesus death.
The participatory aspect of baptism is stated again in Colossians 2:12, and in similar ethical, exhortational context—cf. verse 6: “So, as you received the Anointed Yeshua, the Lord, alongside, you must walk about in him [e)n au)tw=|]…”. This is the familiar Pauline idea of being “in Christ”, and is repeated in verses 10-11:
“…and you are in him [e)n au)tw=|] having been made full, (in the one) who is the head of all chief (rule) and authority, in whom [e)n w!|] also you were cut around [i.e. circumcised]—a cutting round [i.e. circumcision] done without hands, in the sinking out (away) from the body of the flesh, in the cutting round of (the) Anointed—”
The statement regarding baptism follows:
“(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [ba/ptisma], in whom [e)n w!|] also you were raised together, through the trust (you have) of the (power) of God working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead” (v. 12)
This is precisely the same dying and rising with Christ theme expressed in Rom 6:3-4, stated more concisely in context of the framing concept of being “in Christ”. What is notable here is the way that Paul (accepting the genuine authorship of Colossians) blends baptism together with the motif of circumcision, suggesting that the ritual dunking holds a similar place for believers (in the New Covenant) as circumcision did for Israel (in the Old Covenant). This is the only place in the New Testament where such a parallel is drawn; however, the comparison here is perhaps better understood in terms of the nature and significance of the ritual action—that is, of cutting away the flesh. It very much fits the Pauline idea of the believer as a new creation, having set aside the old nature of things that had been in bondage under sin; indeed, this is the aspect Paul emphasizes here, when he refers to the ‘putting off’ (lit. sinking out away from, a)pe/kdusi$) the “body of the flesh”, as a snake would shed its skin. The same point is made in verse 13, uniting even more closely the motifs of baptism and circumcision:
“and you, being dead [in] the (moment)s of falling alongside, and in the (outer) edge of enclosure of the flesh, he (has) made you alive together with him, (hav)ing shown favor to you…”
I have translated the noun a)krobusti/a quite literally as “(outer) edge of enclosure”, rendered more commonly (and correctly) as “foreskin” (i.e. of the male genital organ). The paraptw/mata are the failings or sins (lit. “[moment]s of falling alongside”) of the believer, especially those committed while still under bondage to the power of sin. The “foreskin” signifies the outermost part of this old condition, and thus that which is most dead. Through trust in Jesus, and symbolized by the baptism ritual, this ‘old nature’ is cut off and put away—the believer dies to the old and comes alive again to the new.
This symbolic dimension of baptism is more frequently expressed with clothing imagery—i.e., of removing an old garment and “putting on” one that is new. This will be discussed in the next daily note, as we explore Paul’s understanding of the role of the Spirit in the baptism ritual.