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After Paul mentioned the possibility of being disqualified as an overcomer in 1 Corinthians 9:27, he launches into a teaching that was designed to prevent such disqualification. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 says,
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
Paul implies that ignorance of the Scriptures could contribute to one’s disqualification. He reminds them of the example of “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38 KJV), showing how “God was not well-pleased” with most of them. Most of them “were laid low in the wilderness,” that is, they died without entering the Promised Land.
This does not mean that they lost their salvation. It means that they were disqualified as overcomers. Only Caleb and Joshua lived to receive the promise of the Kingdom. Even Moses and Aaron died early, for they were early types of the majority of Christians, that is, “most of them.” Paul’s reference to Israel shows that he was probably thinking of Moses.
Distinguishing between Believers and Overcomers
Paul reminded his readers that the Israelites had been baptized believers after being justified by the blood of the Passover lamb. Yet this did not qualify them to inherit the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not the same as salvation. The Kingdom is a specific goal that the overcomers achieve, in the same manner that the Israelites had considered Canaan (the Kingdom in their day) to be their goal.
Canaan itself does not represent heaven, as so many have been taught. Canaan is not a type of heaven. Canaan is a type of the Kingdom on the earth. It is a type of the Stone Kingdom of Daniel 2:34, 35, which is destined to fill the whole earth during the Tabernacles Age that is to come. To inherit that Kingdom is to attain to the first resurrection (Revelation 20:4, 5, 6), which is given to the overcomers.
“The rest of the dead” (Revelation 20:5) is the same as “most of them” (1 Corinthians 10:5) who must await the general resurrection a thousand years later, having been disqualified from receiving life (immortality) during the Kingdom Age. These disqualified ones will receive life after the Kingdom Age, when all of the dead are raised, as Jesus says in John 5:28, 29,
28 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
It is clear from this that Jesus was referring to the general resurrection, not the first one, because all of the dead are raised, both believers and unbelievers. So we see that in this resurrection, believers will be given “a resurrection of life.” In other words, they will be given immortality, but not until the thousand years are completed.
From this we can say with certainty that although the church in the wilderness under Moses was disqualified from inheriting the Kingdom, they will inherit immortal life when they are raised from the dead at the general resurrection.
Paul, however, greatly desired to be qualified as an overcomer. He wanted to attain the ek-anastasia, the resurrection out from among the dead (Philippians 3:11, literal rendering). This goal, he said, was “the high calling of God” (Philippians 3:14 KJV). When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he did not presume that he had “already obtained it” (Philippians 3:12), even though he had assurance of salvation in general. Being an overcomer requires enduring to the end, as we read in Hebrews 10:35, 36,
35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
Those who make no distinction between believers and overcomers tend to misunderstand such Scriptures. Arminians interpret this passage to mean that men who are saved can lose their salvation if they do not endure to the end. Calvinists interpret this from their point of view, saying that if someone does not endure to the end, it is because he was never saved at all. Either way, fear is instilled in the minds of their followers. Arminians can never be assured of salvation, and Calvinists always have a nagging doubt that they were sincere enough to be saved in the first place. In both cases, their faith is imperfect (or immature), for it is mixed with fear and doubt.
Yet once we understand the difference between a believer and an overcomer, as Paul and John did, we may stand fast in faith that Christ has saved us, even if we doubt that we have achieved the prize as an overcomer.
Israel’s Baptism at the Red Sea
1 Corinthians 10:1 and 2 shows us that Israel was baptized at the Red Sea, shortly after their justification by faith in the blood of the (Passover) lamb. Israel’s journey as the church of God began at Passover with their justification—not when they crossed the Red Sea. Likewise, baptism is not what saves a person, as some churches teach. In Israel’s example, baptism was the second step, a double witness, or an earthly witness of something that God had already done.
So also in the law, baptism was not for lepers, but for ex-lepers. Leviticus 14:3 says that the priest was to inspect the man, and “if the infection of leprosy has been healed in the leper,” he was to be baptized with water—sprinkled seven times (Leviticus 14:7). This time of baptism is also called “the day of his cleansing,” (Leviticus 14:2), not the day of his justification. Blood was for justification, water was for cleansing. These were two distinct steps in one’s journey toward the Promised Land.
The question then arises: Is baptism necessary? The answer depends on the question. Necessary for what? It is NOT necessary for justification, for that has already been accomplished, and the officiating priest was merely a health inspector bearing witness of one’s healing from leprosy (a type of mortality, or slow death). Hence, when Jesus healed lepers, He told them to show themselves to the priest “as a testimony” (Luke 5:14; Matthew 8:4). A “testimony” is a witness. The priest’s job was not to heal the leper, but to bear witness of his God-given healing.
So it is with any who baptize. They are not called to impart salvation by water, but are called to bear witness to something God has already done. The priest sees evidence of God’s work in the person’s life, usually according to their sincere confession of faith.
In the progression toward inheriting the Kingdom, Israel’s example shows that baptism is necessary to enter the Promised Land. In fact, even an encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is necessary—though not for justification—for God required Israel to go to Mount Sinai before they could enter the Promised Land. The feast of Pentecost was given to commemorate Israel’s experience at Mount Sinai, when God came down as fire and all the people heard His voice (in their own language, no doubt, as in Acts 2:6).
Israel was baptized “under the cloud” (1 Corinthians 10:1), while the Egyptians were baptized “in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2). Each was baptized according to his belief. The Egyptians believed in baptism, for it was part of their initiation ceremony into the mystery religion of Egypt. They put initiates into a coffin of water and literally drowned them before reviving them with some sort of artificial resuscitation. To them, this signified passing from death to life, and there is no doubt that Moses himself had undergone that initiation in his early life.
Moses was thus familiar with the Egyptian mode of baptism (by immersion). Yet he instituted sprinkling (or pouring) in the church in the wilderness, for he understood the principle of “living water.” In the Hebrew language, running water was called living water. So the first dove used to cleanse lepers was to be killed “over running water” (Leviticus 14:5), rather than being immersed under water. Because this dove was a type of Christ, this prophesies the manner of Jesus’ own baptism. No doubt He stood in the running water of the Jordan River when John baptized Him by pouring water over His head. As a priest, John the Baptist knew the law of baptism that had been instituted under Moses. John did not invent baptism, as so many think.
The idea behind baptism was to be cleansed by living water in order to signify being given the promise of life.
Moses did not require immersion. In the tabernacle, the brazen altar of sacrifice was not the same as the laver. These represented two different steps in the journey from the outside into the Most Holy Place, where someday we will all see Him face to face. Justification for sin was accomplished at the brazen altar of sacrifice, where the blood was poured out upon the ground.
Sprinkling or Pouring under Moses
The laver of water was the next step. It was outfitted with faucets by which the priests washed their hands and feet to be cleansed before entering the Holy Place to minister to God. No one ever was immersed in the laver, for that would have polluted the water. Furthermore, by using faucets, running water was applied for cleansing, supplying the proper type of passing from death to life (Romans 6:4). Neither Moses nor Paul required immersion to signify passing from death to life, although if one were baptized in a flowing river (regardless of the manner in which it was administered), this would fit the biblical type.
The idea of immersion is based almost entirely on the Greek word baptizo and baptismos, which are said to mean immersion. Whether or not this word means immersion is irrelevant, though the point is disputed by theologians. What is relevant is how the Greek word is used to express Hebrew concepts. The Hebrew concept is sprinkling or pouring, so the technical meaning of baptizo is not relevant.
So we read in Mark 7:1-4,
1 And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse [baptismos] themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing [baptismos] of cups and pitchers and copper pots.)
The Jewish practice was not to take a bath to immerse themselves in water each time they returned from the market place, nor did they necessarily immerse their cups, pitchers, and copper pots. They poured water over their hands and vessels as a ceremonial cleansing. So also, Elisha “used to pour water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11).
Jesus’ disciples were not following this traditional practice, for it was not commanded in the law, and apparently, Jesus found it unnecessary. But the point is that pouring water over one’s hands to cleanse them was said to be baptismos, or baptism. So later, when Paul comments on such “washings” in the law, he writes in Hebrews 9:9, 10,
9 … Accordingly, both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [baptismos], regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.
Paul was speaking of the baptisms instituted by Moses. For this reason, if we want to know how to picture baptism, we must go back to the law and see how it was administered under Moses. There is no reason to believe that John the Baptist changed the mode of baptism from sprinkling to immersion. If he had changed anything, the Pharisees would have criticized him severely. But John often baptized in a place called “Aenon, near Salim, because there was much water there” (John 3:23). Actually, Aenon was a place of many springs—water coming out of the rocky cliff. There were no pools of water to baptize by immersion.
Therefore, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1 that Israel was baptized “under the cloud,” he was painting a picture of sprinkling, rather than immersion. Since cleansing came from God, the water was normally administered by sprinkling to signify its heavenly origin (from above). The same was true with the sprinkling (or baptism) of blood (Exodus 24:8) and with the baptism of the Spirit (Isaiah 32:15).
Baptizing Egyptians in the Sea
The fact is, the Egyptian army was baptized “in the sea” as well. This came after the land had been covered by blood (Exodus 7:20, 21). Egypt is a type of the world in general. When Israel came out of Egypt, they were picturing the church being separated from the world and its sinful practices.
The first “plague” (of blood) was a judgment of God. It was “bad” on the surface, but since the judgments of God come out of His heart of love, and since His judgments are designed to correct us, rather than destroy us, this plague prophesies of the blood of Jesus that would ultimately cleanse the whole earth so that His glory might fill the whole earth.
The second step in the redemption of Egypt was their baptism in the sea. This disaster too was not without hope, for God loves the whole world (John 3:16), including Egyptians. In fact, Isaiah 19 is a long prophecy about Egypt, and it ends with the redemption of Egypt. Isaiah 19:24, 25 says,
24 In that day Israel will be the third part with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”
The Egyptians, too, will be God’s people, along with Assyria and Israel. This shows the impartiality of God in His dealings with the nations. In that context, we can see that when the Egyptians were baptized in the sea, God gave us a hidden prophecy of Egypt’s redemption in the Red Sea of the blood and water that flowed from His pierced side on the cross (John 19:33, 34).
ADDENDUM: In my view the water of baptism is part of the symbolism, and the manner in which it is administered is designed to teach us spiritual principles. I do not advocate being re-baptized if one has been baptized by an "incorrect" mode. One's baptism is only as good as the motives of one's heart. God looks at the heart. Always.