The Baptism of the World

Genesis 1:6-8
Have you ever asked the question, “Why is the sky blue?” If your haven’t asked it, I am sure your children have. If your children are anything like my nephews and nieces, they go through a “Why?” stage. They ask a string of “Why” questions until you finally just answer, “Just Because.” Well, if you ask the question of a scientist today, he will talk to you about how light passes through the atmosphere, and that the air prevents every color of the light spectrum from going through except the color blue. But if you were to ask that question about the blueness of the sky to an average citizen of Israel wandering in the desert at the time Genesis was being written, that person would not know the scientific answer to that question.

And now, we must be extremely careful about how we tread our path, because there are many problems. I have agonized over how to phrase what I am about to say. The Bible here is describing the creation of the firmament, or expanse of the sky, and that expanse separates water above the expanse from water below the expanse. The Bible here is using language in a way that people of that time would understand. What he says does not contradict what science says about the sky. However, he does describe it differently than science would describe it. Moses answers the question, “Why is the sky blue?” by saying that the blueness means that there is water up there. That is what is looks like. The ancient world thought that the sky was a solid object.

We must also recognize that Moses is combating the polytheistic ideas of Babylon here. According to the document known as Enuma Elish, the chief god Marduk kills the great sea monster Tiamat, splits open her body, and out of the top part of the body, he makes heaven, and out of the bottom part of the body, he makes the earth. Moses is obviously seeking to insure that the Israelites will not be led astray by such thinking. The word for “expanse” here is raqia. The word means something that is beaten out like metal. The word “expanse” refers then to the expansion that occurs when God “beats flat” the solid substance of the firmament. Job 37:18 describes the heavens this way, “Can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?”

But how do we know that this is what Moses is trying to say? This probably sounds strange to a lot of us. Well, let’s look at verse 17. God made the great lights to rule the day and the night. Verse 17 says that God set them IN the expanse, or the firmament. They are not said to be above the firmament: they are IN the firmament. Then going back to verse 7, we see that there are waters that are above the firmament. Now, if we understand Moses to be speaking in modern scientific language, then we would also have to say that the waters are above the sun, since the sun is IN the firmament, whereas the waters are ABOVE the firmament. What Moses sees when he looks up into the sky is a solid dome in which the sun, moon and stars are set just like so many jewels in a beautiful setting of jewelry. This dome rotates for day and night. Beyond that solid dome are the waters above the firmament. It should be noted that Augustine and even Luther believed that the sky was solid, and that there were waters behind the solid dome of the sky. So did everyone else in the entire world in the time before the Renaissance, except for the Chinese.

Let us come back to the science question. Does Genesis contradict science in describing the sky this way, or is the Bible in error here? The answer is an emphatic no to both questions. Do we contradict science when we use the language that the sun rises and the sun sets, even when we know perfectly well that that is not a scientific description of what happens? Moses and science are merely describing the sky in two different perfectly legitimate ways. Israelites of Moses’ time period would not have understood our way of describing everything in terms of the structure of an object. We ask the question, “what is it made of, and how does it hold together?” They ask the question, “What does it do; what is its function?” The answer for Moses is that the sky prevents the waters of the great deep from crashing in on this fragile world, and destroying it altogether. Without that separation of water from water, the world cannot exist or survive.

Now, as we will learn later, there are sluice-gates in this solid dome over our heads. God lets these open in the flood, and lets in the waters of the great deep to crush this little bubble of a place that we call earth. The Flood is a reversal of creation. If in creation, God separates the waters of the great deep from the waters on the earth, in the Flood, God removes that separation, to the destruction of all. And yet, God saves Noah, by letting him go through these waters in his ark.

Peter, in his first epistle, talks about Noah and these waters. He says that God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also. I won’t go into that extraordinarily difficult passage very much, only to say that baptism saves the people from the evil spirits that Peter mentions only a few verses before. There is a connection between water and baptism.

We can see this connection more clearly if we look at the Exodus. There the people were, on the border of the Red Sea, with the entire Egyptian army, consisting mainly of the ancient equivalent of tanks (chariots). They are terrified, and they cry out against Moses. Moses reassures them that God will deliver them. God prevents the Egyptians from reaching the people by interposing himself as a pillar of cloud and fire between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Then God tells Moses to stretch out his hands over the Read Sea. When Moses does so, the waters separate, just like God separated the waters in our passage in Genesis: The Red Sea separates, and the people go through these baptismal waters, all of them, men, women and children. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 that this event means that they were all baptized into Moses. When water separates, it means that there is a baptism going on. Baptism separated the waters above the firmament from the waters below the firmament. Baptism separated permanently the Israelites from the Egyptians. The final baptism of the world by fire will separate the world from sin.

In our passage, the world is baptized. Of course, the world cannot even exist without that space between the waters. Without it, everything dies, as we see happened in the Flood. The power of God is needed to restrain the forces of chaos as we see them in this great deep. What Moses is really saying to the people of Israel is that the God who delivered them from the Egyptians is the same God who created heaven and earth, and that the great work of salvation is something that God started at the very beginning. It was a work of grace to hold back the waters of the great deep, so that mankind would have space to live in.

All of this points to Jesus Christ and his baptisms. I say baptisms because there were two. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river, separating Jesus apart for His holy work. Secondly, Jesus talks about the baptism of the cross, and of taking judgment on himself. In Mark 10:38, when John and James come to Jesus to ask whether they could sit at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom, Jesus asks them whether they can endure the baptism that Jesus will undergo. In Luke 12:50, this baptism is even more clear. Jesus says, “But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” You see, Jesus underwent a baptism that separated Satan from humanity, that separated Christian from non-Christian, and that separated a people for Himself. His baptism of death and resurrection is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This baptism then comes upon the church at Pentecost. Tongues of fire came upon the disciples, and the tongues were separated. Baptism now separates people into this community that Jesus made for himself. It means that you are not like the rest of the world.

How much do you think about the fact that you are baptized? We call baptism one of the Sacraments. What does that mean? Baptism does not mean salvation. We must be clear on that point. However, baptism means something. It means that God enters into relationship with people. That relationship is what the word covenant means. Covenant means a lot more than that. But a starting definition of the word is relationship. Take your children, for instance. If you have baptized your children, then you are claiming that your children are set apart from the world, and that they will have special benefits that come with living with the people of God. They will hear the Word of God. They will be part of the church. They will receive instruction, nurture and admonition in the teaching of the Lord. This is very important for us to realize.

Baptism is where the journey starts for many of us. Hopefully, that journey will come to its high-water-mark, repentance and salvation. That is what is known as “improving your baptism.” Baptism places you into the same place that circumcision placed an Israelite. Now, after circumcision, they were in a position to either improve their circumcision, and become a true, faithful Israelite. Or they could disobey, and apostatize. Circumcision said this to an Israelite, “Blessed are you if you obey the words of this law, and cursed are you if you disobey.” Baptism says to us, “Blessed are you if you believe in Jesus’ obedience given to you, and condemned are you if you do not believe in Jesus’ obedience given for you.”

Do you believe in Jesus Christ? All of us are covenant breakers. We all disobeyed the law. We all spit in the face of God, telling him to get off His throne, so that we could take His place. We need Jesus Christ, who is God Himself. We can never dethrone Jesus from His high and lofty throne. However, he can take us up to heaven and sit us down right next to Him, the very thing that James and John requested of Jesus.
Do you continue to improve your baptism? Do you make constant use of the means of grace? That means, do you pray, do you read the Bible, do you do those two things together, do you come to church to hear the preaching of the Word, do you receive the Sacraments with an appropriate heart? These are the means of grace.
If you persist in these means of grace, you will come to the end of the journey, and find out that the troubling waters of the deep have become the River of Life, flowing from the throne of God. There is an eternal separation of evil from the world when Jesus comes back. The world will receive its final baptism, that baptism of fire that cleanses it of all evil. We will dwell with the Lord forever.

1 Comment

  1. Jarvis Claim said,

    January 26, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Hi, I am having a hard time seeing how it is not an error to say that there are waters above the heavens (raqia), when in fact there are no such waters there. This seems to me to go beyond phenomenological language. I can understand describing, phenomenologically, the sky as a “dome”; since, it is a dome phenomenologically. However, it seems to me that even phenomenologically there are no waters above the heavens. If one were to say that God created a raqia that was blue like waters, I would have no questions. But that is not what the text says. It says that there truly are waters above the raqia. I would be very appreciative of any help you might afford on this question. Thanks.

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