Chad and I cling to each other in the roaring rip tide of the Persian Gulf. We can feel the sand under us being scoured by the strong undercurrent as we are turned and twisted in the rough sea. Chad is about to die. As we hold on to each other in the waves, my mind goes back some 37 years to my own death. Tonight we have both rejoiced, for these are no ordinary deaths. This is baptism.
Last September I had the privilege of conducting Chad’s wedding. Now he and his wife and I rejoice at his burial. I plunge him briefly beneath the water, and then we wade ashore and let the warm air dry us. The Middle East sky is dark now and the humidity high. Pages of my Bible feel as clammy as damp blotting paper.
How strange this must seem to those passing by. But then, much of Christianity seems strange—full of oxymorons. An oxymoron is an apparently self-contradictory statement. They usually point out a poignant truth with wry humor. For example, efficient government, military intelligence, friendly fire and bitter sweet. And “he who will save his life must lose it.”
The idea is oxymoronic. That is just what Jesus intended—a symbolic burial that symbolizes the beginning of new life.
The Bible firmly reminds us that all have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is a word that has lost its currency. But it still pays wages—which the Bible says is death. There is no escaping what that means. But Jesus Christ loves us so much that he has already paid the cost for our sinfulness. That means we can accept his love for us and in him start the new, clean life he has already prepared for us.
In our quieter moments we all know that there are things not right with our lives and not right with our attitude to others. Many go to their graves with those feelings. But the best way to go to your grave is to do so voluntarily—like my friend Chad.
Wanted dead and alive
The Bible explains that in our human state we are dead to God and alive to sin, and that he wants to reverse this condition. He wants us alive to him and dead to sin. He wants us dead and alive.
So how is this changed life to be achieved? It can’t—not by us. But Christ has done it for us. He both represents us before God and substitutes for us before God. When we trust in Jesus, his death substitutes for ours, and he gives us new life in him. When we are “in Christ,” we are dead to sin in his death, and alive to God in his life. Being submerged in water is a way of picturing this transformation, this death to the old self and this resurrection to our new self in Christ.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul explains the idea behind baptism as a watery grave: “When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Romans 6:4, The Message).
That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus, and our own burial; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus, and our own rise to new life as well.
Through his own Son who became one of us for this very purpose, our loving God provides our escape from the prison of sin and its death sentence, which has taken hold of us all. That’s why I buried my friend in the Persian Gulf. He was ready to go.
This article, written by Tony Goudie in 2006, was updated in 2014.
Author: Tony Goudie