Sunday, August 17, 2014

What can Baptism Metaphors Teach Us?

I taught a Relief Society lesson last Sunday about Baptism from the Joseph Fielding Smith manual and in the process of preparing, I noticed that there are a lot of metaphors used in the scriptures to describe baptism and what it does for us and what it means for us. 

I decided I wanted to collect them together to see what I could learn from them.  And it was neat enough that I wanted to share what I found. (I didn't have time to share these in my lesson, so this is bonus material!)

The straitness of the path (2 Nephi 31:9)  Strait does not mean not crooked here.  It is another word for narrow.  Drawing attention to the narrowness emphasizes that a correct baptism has be done in a certain way otherwise it isn’t valid or efficacious.  A path implies steps we have to take and if you learn about the requirements of baptism, you learn there really are steps (see D&C 20:37). These same steps are also applicable to preparing to take the sacrament, so it’s not like we leave this path once we’ve been baptized.

Narrowness of the gate by which they should enter (2 Nephi 31:9) – Baptism is called a gateway we should enter.  This implies it is an entrance into something.  Entrance is required, so everyone needs to be searching for this gate.  Using a gate implies that it is an entrance into a place with walls where we could otherwise not get in.  This makes me think that the gate is to the kingdom of God and we might surmise that there is no other way in besides this one.  Again, narrowness implies the specificity of baptism and the way it is done and by whom. 

A witness and a testimony (Mosiah 21:35) – This makes me think of court witness and certifying to the truth of something.  Baptism is a way that we testify to the truth of our repentance and that we have covenanted to serve the Lord.    Witness also communicates how baptism demonstrates an inner state by an outer act.  I suppose that is part of bringing the body into subjection to the spirit.

Wash away thy sins (Acts 22:16) – This gives us the sense that after baptism the dirty past that has clung to us is gone.

Washed their garments in my [Jesus’] blood (3 Ne. 27:19), cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten (Moses 6:59) – This gives us additional symbolism of the baptismal act.  The water we are immersed in symbolizes being washed in the blood of Christ.  (Being dunked in blood is kind of a disturbing image, so I’m glad we don’t do that literally…)  Just like it would be a miracle if anything washed in blood were to come out clean, it is similarly a miracle that we are cleansed by Christ’s vicarious sacrifice.   The idea of being washed and cleansed by Christ’s blood also communicates how Christ’s sacrifice sanctifies us in baptism.

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us (Col. 2:14) – This one takes a bit of effort to unpack.  “ordinances that was against us” refers to the law of Moses and it means all the laws of God we’ve broken.  It’s our rap sheet, all the things we’ve done wrong.  “Blotting out the handwriting” refers to how people would erase writing on parchment or leather scrolls in an age without erasers.  They would sponge the writing with a damp or wet rag until the ink had been moistened and drawn up and out.   

So, this communicates that baptism is a wholesale erasure of the big list of our offenses on our official record, and the result is we don’t have to live in fear of judgment any more.  When a rap sheet is erased, we can walk free and not worry that we’ll be dragged to court at any moment.    Likewise, after baptism, all the list of things we’ve done wrong is erased and we don’t have to live in fear of dying and being suddenly brought to the judgment bar of God.

For the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) – Remission is an odd word.  It’s hard to get your mind around it unless you start thinking about it in medical terms.  If cancer goes into remission, then that means there is an absence of disease activity in the body.  So maybe we can think of remission of sins as an absence of sin activity in the body.  I’ve read that cancer isn’t cured unless it has been in remission long enough.  There is still potential for relapse.  Likewise, we aren’t cured of sin until we’ve been in remission long enough.  There is still the potential for relapse there too.   Remission also is used to convey the sense of cancelling a debt or a penalty. 

Our old man is crucified with him that the body of sin might be destroyed (Romans 6:6) – Crucifixion is torture.  When we begin to repent, that is torture to the natural man.  The repentance process tortures the natural man to death and destroys it, with baptism giving the coup de grace. 

Buried with him [Christ] by baptism into death (Romans 6:4, Mosiah 18:14) – This teaches us that the old natural man is meant to die and be buried during baptism.  Baptism is a likeness of the grave.  From this metaphor I get the idea that the sinful life is not prolonged, but ended, and the visible remains are placed where it will not be seen again. 

Planted together in the likeness of his death (Romans 6:5) – Paul noted that a seed can’t grow unless it dies first and is buried.  The death of the natural man in baptism is compared to a seed that is planted and then yields something much different and much better, something that sprouts and grows!  

Fruits meet for repentance (Matt 3:7-8) – Baptism is compared to fruit.  Fruit is the thing we all want from a fruit tree and we see that fruit trees go through a process before fruit ripens on them.  Fruit trees bud and flower and fruit.  That fruiting process teaches us there is a process to repentance that is meant to end with baptism. 

Born again  (John 3:3, Mosiah 27:25) -- This gives us a sense that baptism is starting over.  We get to have innocence back again without losing the knowledge we’ve gained so far.  We become a different person. 

Enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5) – This helps us think of baptism in terms of becoming a citizen in a different country.  You take an oath of loyalty and service to the king, who is Christ.  You will be a participating citizen and help build the kingdom.  You will help defend the kingdom if called upon. 

Translated in the kingdom (Colossians 1:13) – This one is unexpected and very much overlooked.  Translated evokes the idea of changing between two different languages.  We are changed and transformed into something different. 

come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism (1 Nephi 20:1) – This is Nephi quoting Isaiah and Joseph Smith inserted that “out of the waters of baptism” as prophetic commentary.   “Out of the waters of Judah” is a strange phrase for baptism, but if we remember that baptism is meant to adopt an individual into the house of Israel, we have our first clue.  The second clue is that by the time Isaiah wrote this, the northern tribes of Israel had gone apostate after idolatry, so efficacious baptism could only be found in Judah.   Today because of the restored gospel, we can speak again of baptism as coming forth out of the waters of Israel.  This conveys how baptism is an adoption into the house of Israel and joining a group who enjoy great spiritual privileges and responsibilities.

As you can see, each of these baptism metaphors teaches something special about baptism—what it does for us, how our status changes, how we prepare for it, the importance of how it is done and how that relates to its efficacy, how it relates to the atonement of Christ, how it is an ending and a beginning all at once.

Baptism is a true principle and is necessary for entering into the kingdom of God.  These metaphors are meant to persuade us to toward repentance so that we bring forth those fruits, and they are also meant to remind us of the privileges we have received as members of the kingdom of God and to remind us of our covenants.   I’m glad the prophets and apostles worked so hard to think of these metaphors to share these truths so succinctly and powerfully.


Rozy Lass said...

An archaic definition of "strait" is strict; which fits with the path being narrow--strict and narrow is the way. In other words we can't broaden the way to accommodate us, we have to change to the strictness and narrowness of the path that leads to eternal life. Thanks for this list.

Michaela Stephens said...

That's a nice little nugget on "strait" and "strict."
I like to think of the path as a one-line highway rather than a multi-lane.