The two New Testament ordinances instituted by Christ are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The rite of baptism is a physical depiction of a new believer’s old life being buried with the Lord and then raised to walk in newness of life. Jesus died, was buried, and resurrected, and the Christian identifies with Jesus by being fully immersed into the water (symbolizing death) and then being lifted out of the water to live a new life now and, one day, to live in a glorified new body in the eternal state.
The physical practice of baptism is not found in the Old Testament, although there are events in biblical history that foreshadowed the ordinance. The first incident is chronicled in Genesis and mentioned by Peter when he references how “God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:20–21). Noah and his family going through the waters of the flood symbolizes New Testament baptism, according to Peter.
Peter links our salvation to the story of Noah, using the waters of the flood as a type of the waters of baptism. Noah was “saved through water”; the ark symbolized salvation for Noah, just as baptism symbolizes salvation for us. Here’s how Peter links the story of Noah to baptism: Noah was in the ark, going through the water (of the flood), as we are in Christ, going through the water (of baptism). The difference is that Noah’s salvation through the ark was temporary, while our salvation through Christ is eternal.
Peter immediately clarifies that he’s speaking spiritually: it’s not “the removal of dirt from the body,” he says (1 Peter 3:21). It’s not the washing of the flesh but the cleansing of the heart he has in mind. It’s not that our bodies are washed, but our conscience is washed. All the water in the world will not take away sin. What makes baptism significant is not the fact that we get wet but what has happened on the inside, in our hearts, and that’s exactly what Peter says. What makes baptism significant is the “pledge” or “answer” of a heart right with God. Baptism is meaningful 1) when administered in connection with true repentance and true faith in the Lord Jesus, 2) when it is performed as a symbol of putting away sin and of the renewal of the Holy Spirit, and 3) when it is an act of unreserved dedication to God. This is all possible through the resurrection of Christ, because, if our Lord did not rise again, we could never have a heart right with God.
Paul references another Old Testament type of baptism: “I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1–2). Moses himself had gone through a “baptism-styled event” when he passed through the waters of the Nile in his own “ark” of shelter as a baby (Exodus 2). Later, Moses led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea as they all followed the cloud of God’s glory. In a way similar to our identification with Christ and the New Covenant, the Israelites were “baptized” or “immersed” in Moses, identifying with him and the covenant he brought to them.
Another Old Testament foreshadowing of baptism is seen in the story of Jonah. The prophet goes down into the waters to what seemed like certain death only to be delivered by God via a great fish that rescues the prophet, thus giving him a “resurrection” of sorts. Jonah references this fact in his prayer: “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me . . . but You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (Jonah 2:5–6). Jesus later used the story of Jonah as a type of His own resurrection (Luke 11:29–30).
Water has been an important symbol throughout biblical history: Noah and his family were saved from worldwide destruction through the waters of the flood; the Israelites under Moses gained their freedom from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea; the Israelites under Joshua entered the Promised Land through the waters of the Jordan River; Elisha began his ministry after the rapture of Elijah by passing through the waters of the Jordan; John the Baptist called for repentance to be shown through baptism in water; and every Christian since Jesus’ ascension has used baptism in water to show their repentance from sin and faith in Christ.
While the ordinance of baptism is not found in the Old Testament, there are biblical events that represented a type of baptism, and those events pointed to and eventually found fulfillment in the New Testament practice commanded by Christ.