November 15, 2004

Water and Spirit (Mark 1:8)

Category: Bible - NT - Mark :: Permalink

In writing about Mark 1:8, commentators often present the contrast between “water” and “Spirit” as a constrast between picture and reality. John is saying that his baptism is just a bare sign, a symbol of something else. John’s baptism is not efficacious because it is only water, not Spirit. When John says, “I baptize with water but he will baptize with the Spirit,” John means something like this: “What I am doing is only a picture, but what he will do will be reality. My baptism doesn’t effect anything, but his baptism will.”

Often, this verse is then applied not merely to John’s baptism but to water baptism in general. Water baptism, people say, is merely a symbol. What really matters and what is really efficacious is Spirit baptism. The one is a picture of the other; Spirit baptism is the reality which water baptism pictures. “Spirit baptism” is then often identified with the “effectual call” or “regeneration” (i.e., the thing that causes us to respond to God in faith).

As I’ve studied this verse, however, it strikes me that John isn’t saying that his baptism is only a picture. Saying that his baptism is with water and not Spirit is not saying that it is ineffective. Rather, John is making a contrast between his work and Jesus’ work, between the Old Covenant and the New.

We find the same contrast in Hebrews 9, where the writer to the Hebrews compares the Old Covenant baptisms (which is the word he uses, though it’s often translated “washings”) with what we have now in Christ. The Old Covenant baptisms, Hebrews says, were effective for the cleansing of the flesh. That is, they cleansed people who were “flesh,” which was everyone’s condition in the Old Covenant. And they cleansed them sufficiently to enable them to draw near to God and even to enable priests to enter God’s presence to serve him.

But because of Christ’s death and resurrection there is an even greater washing. Now, having our bodies washed with pure water and our consciences cleansed (Heb. 10), we can draw near to God in a way no one in the Old Covenant could and with a boldness no one in the Old Covenant had.

John is saying something similar. His baptism is in line with all the other “baptisms” (Heb. 9) of the Old Covenant. It’s an Old Covenant washing. Still, it is effective for the purifying of the flesh so that God’s people can live with him and serve him.

But John’s baptism cannot and does not accomplish what Jesus would accomplish. John’s baptism does not do what the Spirit does. What we have in Christ, through baptism into him, is greater than what John and the rest of the Old Covenant could do. Jesus’ washing surpasses theirs.

The water-Spirit contrast, then, isn’t a contrast between picture and efficacious reality but between an efficacious Old Covenant reality and an efficacious and much more glorious New Covenant reality.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:09 pm | Discuss (0)

Leave a Reply