But now, this is what the LORD says —
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
God’s promise is that he would be with his people when they passed through the waters and the rivers and the fire. As he was with Noah, when he and his family passed safely through the deadly waters of the flood in a wooden, pitch-covered ark. As he was with Moses when Pharaoh had every infant male Hebrew cast into the Nile and drowned. Placed in a tar-coated papyrus basket by his mother, Moses passed safely through to new life.
God was with the children of Israel when they miraculously passed through the waters of the Red Sea, escaping bondage and death in Egypt, but Pharaoh’s army all drowned. God was with them again when they passed through the waters of the river Jordan, which miraculously parted for them to enter into the Promised Land.
As for fire, God was with the three young Hebrew males who were cast by Nebuchadnezzar into the blazing furnace. A fourth person, who was “like the Son of God,” stood with them in the flames, and they passed through unharmed.
Messiah is hidden in all these passages, and he it was, as the eternal Son of God, who was with his people in all those instances. Now as we come, in the season of Epiphany, to the celebration of the baptism of the Lord Jesus, we are presented again with water and fire. And we find John the Baptist preaching the gospel about the coming of Messiah:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18)The ministry of John was a messianic one, announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and preparing the way for God’s anointed King by means of baptism. There is no surprise, then, that many were wondering if John himself might be that Anointed One. But no, he explained, he only baptized with water, but the One to Come would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Baptism with the Holy Spirit indicated the time of Messiah, when God would cleanse his people with water and give them a new heart and a new spirit — God’s own Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Baptism with fire is the burning away of whatever does not belong, whatever does not come from God. For God is a “consuming fire.” But God is also love, so what his fire consumes must be for the sake of love, burning away everything that does not come from love. This is good news for all who belong to God, who hunger and thirst for what is good and right, who hunger for the love of God to be revealed throughout the world. But first we find that the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire comes to be baptized with water.
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)The people who came to John for baptism came in repentance, for the baptism he preached was one of repentance. They were turning away from their sins, from their old life and their old ways — dying to themselves — that they might know the life of the age to come, the age of God’s Messiah King.
They were passing through the waters of death. Yet into these waters stepped Messiah himself, not that he needed to repent himself, but to identify with his people in their repentance and death, and from that death bring life. He passed through the waters with them and in that way blessed them. But in his baptism, he also prefigured his death on the cross — a death for the sake of his people, and indeed, of all the world — and his resurrection from the dead. And now all who are baptized into him, Paul tells us, are baptized into his death, that we may know his resurrection life.
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4)But let us go back to Isaiah’s prophecy for a moment. For there God, the Holy One of Israel, and their Savior who passes through the waters with them, promised to gather in all their children from the far reaches of the world.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you;As we discover in the gospel, it is not only Israel that is being gathered back to God through Jesus the Messiah, all the nations of the world are being drawn to him by the shining of his light, to be grafted into the “olive tree,” the Israel of God.
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, “Give them up!”
and to the south, “Do not hold them back.”
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth —
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
By baptism, Jesus passed through the waters of death with us, that by baptism, we may pass through the waters with him to resurrection.