We’d been poised for April’s spring glories when a wintery blizzard caught us by surprise, punching through our part of Virginia with a white fury. While snowdrifts were piling high and crystal icicles dangled from trees, I couldn’t imagine that in only a few days we would keep our plans to offer Easter baptisms in the James River. Yet here we were, stepping onto the stones beneath its icy current, trying to catch our breath.
As we stood on the bank under a gray sky, we asked each person a series of questions we put to every baptismal candidate. The final question was this: Will you now lay down your life and be buried in God’s love? Each person answered boldly: I will.
This question is crucial because it gets to the crux of what’s happening in baptism. The central story of our faith is the story of Jesus dying on a cross, Jesus going down into the earth, and Jesus rising from the dead three days later. Baptism carries us into this story with our Savior.
It takes us down into the water (like Jesus into the tomb) and then raises us (like Jesus victorious over the grave).
The apostle Paul put it this way: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).
Yes, baptism proclaims life, but first it proclaims death. Jesus intended to walk out of that grim tomb, but He had to die on a bloodstained cross first. We must follow the same path: walking through the valley of the shadow of death on our way to life abundant. Fear not, though—Paul assures us that God will carry us through the dark waters: “If we have died with Christ … we shall also live with Him” (Rom. 3:8).
Baptism is, if nothing else, an admission that our life depends on God. We ask Him for mercy, and we put all our faith in Jesus to be for us everything we’ve desperately (and with massive failure) tried to be for ourselves. Our failures and inadequacies force us to abandon the illusion that we can manage without God. In contrast to the American ideal of self-reliance, to our years of training where we’re taught to be experts, to the messages insisting we prove our value and worth—in contrast to all this, baptism tells us the truth: If God doesn’t save us, we are ruined.
So this is why, before we baptize people, we ask if they’re willing to die. In effect, are they willing to be buried into Jesus’ death? I understand different Christians have varying opinions about the mode of baptism, but there is a power to being submerged underwater. It might do us good to come out of the water gasping, disoriented, wide-eyed with fresh gratitude for the life Jesus gives us.
It’s noteworthy that Jesus’ baptism happened at the Jordan River, the place where the Israelites, in their exodus from slavery in Egypt, had to walk through waters threatening to overwhelm and bury them. Unless God acted on their behalf, Israel had no future, no possibilities. They had no land or life unless God granted it to them. When Israel came to the edge of the Jordan, they stopped, stood still, and waited. There was nothing else for them to do—no other options. Whatever would become of them, God was the only one who could help.
And God did. He parted the waters, and Israel walked across on dry ground—not once but twice. (See Josh. 3.) Every generation that followed would hear about it. They would know that their God was trustworthy, powerful, and eager to rescue. They would know that they had stood at the brink, but He never abandoned them. They would know that their future rested in God’s good hands.
Baptism teaches us that we don’t have to cling to our life. We can surrender our unrelenting demands for the relationship we crave or the career we’ve exerted so much energy to build. We can release the ways we cower in hopes of gaining the acceptance of others. We can lay down the many masks or identities we have concocted, the ways we try to convey power, beauty, or competence. We can relinquish our white-knuckle grip on all the things we think we must secure if we are ever to find joy. We can be buried in God’s love, and then we can truly live.
When I baptize people in the James River, they trust I will hold them up, that the water will not carry them away—that I’ll pull them back to the surface before it’s too late. I’ve not lost one of them … yet. Thankfully, God is far more reliable. He buries us in His love, but then He raises us to a life both new and beautiful.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft