To live in some mystical kingdom has ideal hopes attached to it that does not happen with a democracy where majority rules and things change. If one is to see Christianity as a mystical kingdom one could say this involves a mystical entrance which scripture shows with “instruction of baptisms” (Hebrews 6:2). There was a built in sense of plain meaning to it by the time Jesus implemented it but what it also has an air of mystery.
First, it is fitting that a mystical entrance would be radical in a pure sense. The word “radical” has an etymology of being “of the roots” (like a radish for instance is a root in the ground). The development of Christian doctrine is shown through many scenes in salvation history towards God’s kingdom in concrete obedience and righteousness comes. Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). The prior acts speak to the roots of the person but not until Jesus’ baptism is water with the Holy Spirit mysteriously shown to address the entirety of the person by entering into the light.
The first stumbling block, and it is a hard one, is to enter into this light in simplicity and humility. Baptism addresses this in symbol and substance. On religious matters simplicity is often not the first instinct by some believers but instead is replaced with overcomplicating life. This is why Jesus had a spiritual directive of “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Jesus so wanted to underly an intersection of simplicity and humility like this that he challenged an accomplished religious leader of his day to enter this reality like this.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit (John 3:3-6). It was likely humbling to be asked by a man younger than him to be born again.
There has been attempts to say that baptism with literal water is only meant to be an afterthought. One attempt is to say that the water reference in the John passage was only amniotic fluid. This does not hold up since scripture points to fulfillment in Christ in antitypes which are always greater than the types as seen below. The momentum in scripture is for baptism to be a great, spiritual and objective reality and reference point for entering the kingdom of God.
First with Noah and deliverance of him and his household by water and importantly saved on a wooden object which is a shadow of things to come in the cross of Christ. Peter states of this typology in that, “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
In the earlier decades of the early church, there was a need to support the learning of some who were only knew the baptism of John the Baptist.
A Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, an eloquent speaker, arrived in Ephesus. He was an authority on the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord and, with ardent spirit, spoke and taught accurately about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the Way of God more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).
This is powerful because of the context of the word for “way” here is hodos. Jesus said he is the “Way” (hodos) and no one can come to the Father but through him (John 14:6). This is a play on the Greek for which we get the “way out” through Moses and the Exodus (ehxodo) as translated in the Greek Old Testament called the Septuagint . Jesus is our deliverer from sin and baptism is appropriate for the children of the New Israel found in Christ through water and Spirit. Baptism is the entrance into the new covenant in Christ in place of the circumcision of the flesh that was in the time of Moses. Paul wrote about a baptism in Moses, in the context of circumcision which was ineffective to the heart.
Paul connected this saying, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
John the Baptist said he was to “prepare the way of the Lord”. This was to set up a teaching point of reference for the one who would bring a cleaning not only of our sins but bring hope of a “way out” to the sin we are prone to. Many years later there were some who did not understand John’s baptism was a warm up for Jesus. This ignorance of Christian baptism was an ignorance of the person and work of the Holy Spirit that comes as an accompanying separate, holy and objective encounter with the divine as “the Lord, the Giver of life” (Nicene Creed, 325).
He [Paul] said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They answered him, “We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” He said, “How were you baptized?” They replied, “With the baptism of John.” Paul then said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:2-5).
It was baptism here that happens with an anticipation of the Holy Spirit to be received in the same setting. It was not assumed that salvation happened fully in God with the good intentions of John the Baptist’s baptism. The act of regeneration was noted by early church writer Origin as substantive in Jesus.
We next remark in passing that the baptism of John was inferior to the baptism of Jesus which was given through His disciples. Those persons in Acts (Acts 19:2) who were baptized to John’s baptism and who had not heard if there are any Holy Ghost are baptized over again by Paul. Regeneration did not take place with John, but in Jesus through His disciples it does so, and what is called the laver of regeneration takes place with renewal of the Spirit (Origin of 185-254 AD, Commentary on John, Bk VI.17).
The reality of baptism, per early Christians had an efficacy but always as a fruit of the cross of Christ. They saw the objective expressing of salvation in baptism not as an empty ritual lacking grace or in other words, “not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
It cannot be overemphasized that the spiritual effect is evident by Jesus with baptism as the default expression of salvation and worthy of emphasis. We see this only 10 days after Jesus ascended which was the birthday of the church he founded. It was a context of repentance, faith and baptism.
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” Peter [said] to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38).
Yes, there is plenty of ink on paper in the scriptures and early centuries of Christian thought about someone having salvation without baptism. This does not minimize that an objectively seen, normative expressing for entering the kingdom of God was in baptism. But baptism was not an end in itself. It leads to the next steps of Christian life in continued cooperation with God’s grace.