"The Exodus of Baptism" - Romans 6:1-23 by Pastor Joe Ellis - May 2, 2021
I’m going to reflect a bit on baptism, but I’m going to take a strange way to get there. Please bear with me.
God’s people were captive in Egypt. They were slaves. The way they ended up in Egypt was innocent enough — Isaac and his family followed Joseph to Egypt to escape from a famine in the land. Over time their numbers grew. The Pharaoh, who was so favourable to Joseph, died.
You know the story, over years and years pharaohs came and went, until a pharaoh arrived who made living harsh and intolerable for the people of God. He pressed them into hard labour. He began killing their babies. Perhaps Pharaoh feared they might overpower his government and take over the land. The people groaned. They cried out. The people were desperate. Listen to what it says at the end of Exodus 2. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Their cries rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and took notice of them.”
So began the rescue operation. God initiated His plan to emancipate His people from slavery and lead them into freedom. Yet Pharaoh did all he could to stand in the way. Pharaoh was foolish enough to think he could stand in the way of God, and would not release them at any cost. So God went to war against Pharaoh. The only power Pharaoh really had in this war was to be stubborn. God sends plague after plague. Pharaoh is stubborn.
When Pharaoh finally relents, when he’s had enough, he lets the people go to worship their God in the wilderness — yet he soon changes His mind. He charges this helpless people with his full army. Yet this too was God’s plan — God was luring Pharaoh out for one final attack. So, God’s people had their back up against the sea. Pharaoh is bearing down on them with the intent to utterly destroy them. To the people of Israel, all seemed lost. Yet God instructs Moses to hold his staff over the sea so that the waters might be divided and the people of God might cross safely over on dry ground. And God says to Moses — “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army… And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself, over Pharaoh…” And so it happened. The people of God journeyed through to the other side. Pharaoh and his army drowned.
This is the story of baptism. This is the story Paul tells about baptism in Romans 6 — the characters have simply changed. The slave master is no longer pharaoh. The slave master is much more formidable — going by the name of Sin and Death. This slavery is not localized, but all people of the earth are under this enslavement. As you know, nothing good comes from this slavery — only death. That’s why Paul said, “When you were slaves of sin… what fruit did you ever have from the things of which you are now ashamed? Their destination is death.” Life in service to sin and death is just as intolerable as life in service to pharaoh — and all people are captive to this slave master. We cannot escape or find freedom in our own power. We were trapped with no hope of escape.
Now, in the Exodus story, you have hundreds of thousands of people journeying together from slavery into freedom. On the surface, in this new story Paul is telling, it looks quite different. The Messiah, Jesus, makes the journey alone. The Messiah journeys alone to the cross. Just like Pharaoh saw Israel’s back up against the sea and went in for the kill — Sin and Death saw the Messiah’s back up against the cross, and thought they were going for the kill. But this was also a trap set by God. Thinking that they were going to destroy God’s Messiah, and thus destroy God’s plan to rescue His people — the Slave Master Sin and Death bared down on the crucified Messiah just like Pharaoh ran down the Israelites when they were trapped against the sea. But God made a way through — He brought Jesus through the waters of death and out onto the other side — The Messiah rose from the dead. The powers of Sin and Death were revealed as powerless. Jesus came up through the waters of death, and stood victoriously on the other side.
Now, Jesus only appeared to be making this journey alone, but this was a blessed deception. In Hebrew scripture, the king always represents the people. The king embodies the people. This is true a hundred times more with the Messiah King. The Messiah, Jesus, carries in Himself all His people. That means that Jesus smuggled all of His people as he journeyed through death. He smuggled all of us in Himself as He went through the waters of death and rose into new life. What that means is that Sin and Death not only became powerless over the Messiah, Sin and Death became powerless over all those in the Messiah. The Messiah carried us in himself as He plunged into the waters of death and rose again to resurrection life. That is what we proclaim in baptism!
Let me read the beginning of Romans 6 one more time. “We died to sin; how can we still live in it? Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into the Messiah, Jesus, were baptized into his death? That means that we were buried with him, through baptism, into death, so that, just as the Messiah was raised from the dead through the father’s glory, we too might behave with a new quality of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall also be raised in the likeness of his resurrection.” Throughout Romans 6, Paul is retelling the story of the Exodus around the death and resurrection of the Messiah — Paul is doing so to remind us, the people of God, how we fit into that story. We have died and risen with the Messiah, Jesus.
Under the Old Covenant, circumcision was the badge that marked a person out as being part of God’s people. In the New Covenant, we have a new badge, and the badge we wear is baptism. Baptism is the sign and seal that we are a people who have been smuggled through death and now live in resurrection life. Paul is saying, “This is who you are, do not return to Egypt! Do not return to your old slave masters, sin and death! Be who you are — you are resurrection people!”
Now, over the centuries, Christians have begun to practice baptism in different ways. All these different modes of baptism are highlighting different truths about this story. We just baptized baby, Joseph — in the practice of baptizing a baby, we are underscoring that we don’t do this journey alone. We are part of a community when we go through the waters of baptism. Just as whole families came out of Egypt together, just as whole families crossed the Red Sea together, just as they took their children with them and did not leave them behind, we too bring our children with us. In baptizing a baby we are saying, “you are part of a family that is on a journey into resurrection life.” We are not especially troubled by the fact that this little baby doesn’t have an idea of what’s going on. We recognize that all God’s people are helpless like a child against the power of sin and death — we recognize that this is God’s rescue operation from beginning to end. In his death and resurrection, Jesus carried us all, like a baby, through those waters.
Christians practice baptism in different ways — and some practices of baptism emphasize an individual’s recognition that the Messiah has carried them through the waters of death and into life on the other side. In that sense, this practice of baptism emphasizes a person choosing to put on the badge — saying, “I embrace this act which marks me out as one of the Messiah’s people.” In that sense, baptism becomes witness to what we all must do — embrace the reality that through Jesus we have died to sin and death. When a person makes the choice to be baptized, they are embracing what the Messiah has done for them — that He has carried them through the waters of Sin and Death — and that for them sin and death have been stripped of their power.
These different practices of baptism highlight different truths that are hard to hold together at the same time. That is why some have called baby dedication a “dry baptism” — those same people might call adult baptism is a “wet profession of faith.” People who embrace the other perspective might see infant baptism as a “wet dedication,” and profession of faith as a “dry baptism” — we are all trying to find ways of living out and embracing this rich story by which God saved us through the crucified Messiah. This story whereby we all are carried helpless as a babe through the waters of sin and death.
Whatever the mode — infant, adult — let’s learn to celebrate baptism as a good thing. Let’s encourage baptism. Let’s help young and old alike put on this badge that we call baptism. Let’s be proud wearing it, because it is a badge that says the Messiah has smuggled His people through the waters of death — we have died with Christ, and we have risen to life with Him. As a church community, let’s learn how to encourage people to take on this badge of baptism, and be proud of what it says about us. Parents, let’s talk together about your role in this rite.
And for those of us who have been baptized — we need to remember what it says about us. We have a new master — we are slaves of the living God. Remember when the Israelites were in the wilderness, life got hard and they wanted to go back to being slaves in Egypt. Life was hard for the Romans, but Paul encourages the people to remember the reality embodied by their baptism. You emerged from the waters of baptism with a new master — don’t return to your old master, Sin. Likewise, as a community, we need to remind each other the truth embodied in our baptism. When we see each other turning to that old life of sin, we need to remind each other of whose we are. “Be who you are!” is the constant refrain of Paul. Let’s continue to help each other keep in mind the reality of whose we are, that our freedom was not cheap. We were bought at a price — so, let’s glorify God in our freedom.
I love this image of baptism — as a telling of the exodus story, an exodus from sin and death into freedom. Despite having come through the waters, we have not yet made it yet into the Promised Land — that won’t happen until the Messiah returns into the New Creation. We are like the people of Israel in the wilderness — we are no longer under that old master sin. As we wait, let’s learn together how to live in the Spirit under our new freedom. Let’s learn together how to live in the freedom of belonging to God alone. Let’s learn to live in the freedom of being a people, together united under one master, one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.