Jesus is the goal of redemptive history. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul observes that God has “[made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him.” In Galatians 4:4, the apostle has the same view in mind: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” Hebrews 1:1 also highlights the climactic arrival of the Son of God: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
In short, the apostles, as model interpreters, understand all redemptive history to be leading to Jesus.
Example of Baptism
Consequently, it’s not surprising to find that the “typological structures” of the Old Testament escalate until they find fulfillment in Jesus. In other words, the Scriptures begin with glimpses of the pre-incarnate Christ and gradually add contour and color to the portrait of the coming Messiah. Over time, such glimpses of grace are developed and made more concrete as the types—that is, forward-looking persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament—repeat and escalate.
One prominent event repeated in the Old Testament is “baptism.” As Peter observes in his first epistle, baptism “corresponds” (in terms of fulfillment) to Noah and his life-saving—make that humanity-saving—ark (1 Pet. 3:20).
In this article I want to show that Old Testament “types” don’t just prefigure Christ and his work of salvation, but also grow in intensity and efficacy as the incarnation nears.
We’ll take baptism as a case study.
According to 1 Peter, baptism begins not at the waters of Aenon (John 3:23), but in Scripture’s opening chapters. In Genesis 6, God tells Noah that humanity’s sin has reached a critical mass (v. 5) and that he plans to destroy the world with water. In that trial by water, God promises to save Noah and his family.
This is the origin of baptism, the headwaters of every other baptismal font. At first glance, it may seem to be the most prominent of all baptisms, but it’s actually the weakest. Granted, the waters engulfed the whole earth, but when we consider Noah’s ark only saved seven people besides himself, we see just how weak this “baptism” was. It set in motion the pattern of salvation through judgment, but it did little to effect salvation.
This is the origin of baptism, the headwaters of every other baptismal font. At first glance, [Noah’s] may seem to be the most prominent of all baptisms, but it’s actually the weakest.
In a purely physical sense, it spared the human race, but it had little spiritual effect. Noah functioned as a priest who mediated—and in a sense, still mediates—a non-salvific covenant for all people. As Genesis 9 shows, however, Noah’s covenant mediation was weak. Like Adam, he too fell naked due to the fruit of the vine. His sons inherit a mixed blessing—Shem is blessed, Ham is cursed, and Japheth stands somewhere in between.
Noah’s trial by water gets baptism started, but it’s the weakest link in the typological chain.
Next, the people of Israel are baptized into the salvation mediated by Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). Moses himself undergoes a baptism of sorts when he’s thrown into the Nile (a place of death) and rescued miraculously through Pharaoh’s own daughter (Ex. 2). Harkening back to Noah’s baptism, the basket Moses is placed in is actually an “ark” of refuge (a deliberate linguistic connection between the two stories).
Eight decades later, when Yahweh saves the nation, he does so both by substituting a lamb for the firstborn of Israel (an escalation of the substitution sacrifice found in Genesis 22) and also by parting the Red Sea. Paul later calls this event Moses’s “baptism” (1 Cor. 10:2), and, like Noah’s ark, it corresponds to the salvation ultimately found in Christ.
In redemptive history, Moses’s baptism is greater than Noah’s, for it saves more than a few family members. Moses’s baptism saves the whole nation of Israel. Even the event’s intensity is unmatched by the first flood. Whereas Noah boarded the ark before the waters came (Gen. 7), Moses’s waters stood ready to swallow Israel as Pharaoh’s armies chased them. With Israel fearing for its life, God commands Moses to raise his staff, that he might part the waters and provide salvation (Ex. 14:10–16). After their safe passage, Moses pulls back his hand as the waters cover the Egyptians’ heads (v. 26). In this dramatic narrative, it’s plain to see how the efficacy and intensity of baptism have escalated.
A generation later, Joshua takes Moses’s place. While he doesn’t measure up to Moses’s status as a prophet (see Ex. 34:10–12), he too is called “the servant of the LORD” (Ex. 24:29)—an appellation often used of Moses (Deut. 34:5; Josh. 1:1–2, 7, 13, and so on). In Joshua’s quest to lead Israel into the Promised Land, they’re again blocked by raging waters in flood stage (Josh. 3:15). Like Moses, Joshua receives his instruction: “Command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan’” (v. 8). Joshua obeys. The priests enter the flood waters; the waters stand up in a heap (v. 13); and Israel is able to enter the land.
As at the Red Sea, Israel’s leader guides God’s people through dangerous waters at God’s command. But notice the escalation. Instead of raising a staff, God asks the priests to stand in the water. The risk is greater, but so is the payoff. Instead of delivering Israel from Egypt, Joshua brings the children of God into the very land God had promised. Moses successfully brought Israel out of bondage, but he failed to bring the nation to dwell with God. A new Moses, however, completes the task. And so Israel, through Joshua, is once again saved by baptism.
Fast forward nearly a millennium to Mediterranean shores. God’s prophet Jonah is tasked to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to God’s enemies (Jonah 1:2). Imagine traveling to Mecca in 2015 to preach repentance to leaders of ISIS. Such was Jonah’s charge.
Reluctant to obey, Jonah goes in the opposite direction to Tarshish (1:3). While he’s asleep on the boat, God hurls a storm and threatens to destroy the whole vessel (1:4). In the midst of the divine fury, Jonah confesses his sin and begs the sailors to throw him overboard (1:12, 15). They oblige, and immediately the storm abates (1:15). The men are saved and give homage to Yahweh (1:16), but Jonah’s death is certain—to those on the boat at least.
Jonah 2 continues the story from the belly of the fish. In that casket with gills, Jonah recounts how the waters engulfed him, and he cries out to God. God saves Jonah, who does not deserve deliverance. What normally meant the end of life (death by aquatic consumption) serves as the means of his rescue. Three days later (1:17), life returns as the fish spit him out on dry ground (2:10).
Amid the drama, another picture of baptism emerges. Like Moses and Joshua—the representative leaders of Israel—Jonah too occupies an office among God’s covenant people. As a prophet, his life does more than bring God’s words to the nation. He embodies the nation. And his rebellion displays Israel’s attitude in the days leading up to exile.
Still, Jonah’s life, “death,” and “resurrection” do more than speak to ancient Israel. They depict the kind of baptism Jesus will undergo (Matt. 12:40). Following the trajectory of previous baptisms, Jonah’s baptism is both similar and also different. It too displays the fury of God’s wrath, and the means of salvation is a type of baptism—Jonah’s substitutionary “death” spared the Gentile sailors and his preaching brought a whole city to repentance (Jonah 3).
Without getting into the details of his repentance, it’s noteworthy that Jonah’s baptism was both more costly and also more powerful than any previous one. With Noah, Moses, and Joshua, no one died. The people of Israel and the priests in the Jordan may have thought they were going to die, but they didn’t. In Jonah’s case, he did die—or at least he appeared to die to his fellow sailors.
We who know the whole story can view his three-day fish ride as an act that looked like death. And his baptism caused a wave of repentance far larger than anything Israel had ever seen. The Israelites delivered from Egypt by Moses’s baptism died in the wilderness (Ps. 95), and the generation that took the land enjoyed the blessings therein, but nothing is said of a spirit of repentance. By escalation, the miracle in Nineveh was far larger in scope than any other baptism to date.
Still, it was only a shadow of the real thing.
Like Moses, Jesus experienced two baptisms. At the onset of his ministry—“to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15)—Jesus first underwent the baptism of John (Matt. 3). This identified him with the people of Israel, whom he was about to lead on a new exodus (Luke 9:31). Like Joshua entering the Promised Land, Jesus (as a new Joshua) was baptized by John, who was baptizing outside the land on the other side of the Jordan (John 1:28). And like Moses’s first baptism, Jesus’s wasn’t for the salvation of his people; it was an identity-marker of his ministry.
Like Moses, Jesus experienced two baptisms.
Jesus’s second baptism is the one to which all the previous shadows point. In Mark 10:39, while discussing who’s the greatest with his disciples, Jesus says to James and John: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” His language implies the baptism of his death (cf. Rom. 6:4–6) and the suffering he comes to earth to embrace. He tells his followers they too will suffer with him and for him, but not before he first goes to the cross. According to Jesus, baptism is an ordeal whereby he willingly puts himself under the floodwaters of God’s wrath.
- Like Noah’s ark, Jesus’s cross will become a refuge for all who seek rest in him.
- Like Moses’s staff, Jesus will be lifted up, so as to deliver his people from impending death.
- Like the priests in the Jordan, Jesus will insert himself into the stream of God’s wrath.
- Like Jonah, Jesus will volunteer himself to be swallowed in the earth, so that he might rise to save the nations.
In these ways and more, Jesus both fulfills and also eclipses Scripture’s previous “installments” in the pattern of baptism.
Putting It All Together
With the full light of revelation, we can see how each of these biblical baptisms foreshadows with increasing intensity and efficacy the cross of Jesus Christ. In each case, the magnitude of the suffering does relate (in some unspecified way) to the magnitude of God’s mercy. As redemptive history progresses, the various types increase in passion (suffering) but also in the measure of their salvation—from Noah’s family, to the nation of Israel (Moses and Joshua), to the nations of the world (Jonah). In each case, the baptism is physical, not spiritual, since none can accomplish what Christ alone can.
In Jesus’s case, since his sacrifice is offered with his own blood, his death has the power not only to procure forgiveness for all his people, but also to ensure that his message will reach his elect in every corner of the earth. He will save the whole family of faith from the floodwaters of God’s wrath.
To this day, the power of Christ’s bloody baptism is displayed as the cross reconciles all things (Col. 1:20). So when we read the Old Testament, may we observe the intricate details through which God paves the way for his Son. And may we marvel at his wisdom and power to save sinful believers through Christ’s superlative baptism.