There are many natural and mythological motifs representing the idea of being born again: the sunrise, new moon, spring, lotus flower, phoenix, and butterfly, just to name a few. They all highlight the idea of the old thing completely dying in order to bring about the new. In the scriptures, we see the same concept taught throughout. Central to Christ’s doctrine is the idea that we must undergo a spiritual rebirth in order to enter the kingdom of God. As He told Nicodemus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” When Nicodemus inquires as to what this means, Christ clarifies: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3-5).
What does it truly mean to be born of water and of the Spirit, and how do these two elements work together in the process of spiritual rebirth? This requisite rebirth taught by Christ has both physical (outward) and spiritual (inward) components. In this post I’m just going to cover the former (being born of water) and will treat the latter in the following post.
Is there more to baptism than a public symbol of belief, or stamp on our celestial passport? There are some who contend that being “born of water” in this context has reference to physical birth alone, and that Jesus was drawing a distinction between being born of water as natural birth, and being born of the Spirit as being born again. The truth is that both elements (water and spirit) are present in both births; the first with a mother’s womb water and the spirit of the new child, the second with the water of baptism and reception of the Holy Ghost. This duality is littered throughout the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 3:11, 16; Acts 2:38), though made clearest in the Book of Mormon.
Jesus said He needed to be baptized to, in His own words, “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). He frequently invited us to follow Him, and His example. He told the apostles, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). Of course, if they don’t believe, baptism isn’t even going to be in the question. If they do believe, the Lord expects them to acknowledge that belief and acceptance through baptism. Why? A thoughtful desire without earthly action can and often does fade away. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience. We sin in the body. We keep the commandments in the body. This is why God Himself had to be made flesh in order to work out the atonement on our behalf. There is a reason He could not pardon us from sin without paying the price in the body; eternal laws had to be complied in the physical world. Baptism by water is required for the same reasons.
Considering all this, we might ask: What is baptism, and what does it accomplish?
In order to answer that question, we’ll take a bit of a detour.
The Family of God
The story begins in Genesis with the family of God. Adam was a son of God (Luke 3:38) – a member of God’s own family. He and Eve personally knew God (face to face) before the fall. Lucifer (another son of God) had rebelled against the Father and was cut off from His family. He became “Satan” – an adversary, or “one who opposed.” He tempted Adam and Even to likewise rebel against God by disobeying Him. Upon partaking of the fruit of knowledge, they were cut off from their intimate association with God, and were sent into a fallen, broken, telestial world.
Because the Father could not bear to lose His children, He sent angels (also sons of God) to teach them the plan of redemption whereby they could choose to repent and return to His family. It would require the sacrifice of another son – His Only Begotten – but through His infinite atonement and intercession on Adam’s behalf there could be a way back. As Adam exercised faith in this plan, he gained the hope and knowledge that “in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God” (Moses 5:10). Though he cut himself off from God’s family by his rebellion, Christ paid the price necessary to graft him back in.
Adam and Eve in turn taught their sons and daughters the plan of redemption, whereby they could also be grafted back into God’s family. Unfortunately, Satan was not finished. He went among the family of Adam saying, “ I am also a son of God… believe it not” (Moses 5:13). And this has been the battle ever since: God on the one hand trying to restore His children back into His family, and Satan trying to keep them cut off from His presence.
In those days there was no “church” or institution, only a family. The priesthood was essentially the proper order of that family. Adam was alive for over 900 years, and presided over several generations, each generation being organized father-to-son according to the priesthood. The lineage we read in Genesis (from Adam to Seth to Enos and so on) traces the right of presidency (i.e. the standing “father” of the whole family). Those who turned away from God, in essence, had to break away from the family.
It was all a family matter.
Baptism in the Flood
Eventually, the entirety of this family turned away except for Noah, his wife, and his children. Almost all humanity had arrived at a point of no return, where wicked traditions would prevent future generations from ever being able to get above it. The earth was baptized, as it were. The waters of the flood completely separated Noah’s family from life in the old world, and gave them a chance to leave the world behind and restart life in God’s family. Peter connected this imagery to baptism when he said Noah’s family was “saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also” (1 Peter 3:20-21, NIV).
It was an abandoning of the old world and lifestyle to begin something new; the two worlds being completely separated by water. This watery gate between the old and new harkens back to the womb water of physical brith – our pre-mortal and mortal lives being completely separated by water.
As being born also constitutes entering into a family, rebirth symbolizes a renewal of the family of God on the earth, organized according to the priesthood.
Baptism in the Red Sea
In the ensuing generations, almost all turned away again. Abraham “sought for the blessings of the fathers,” (or to be a part of God’s family) his own fathers having turned away. Under the hand of Noah’s son Shem (renamed Melchizedek), he was adopted back into the family tree.This is why the Lord would say that through him and his family (in other words, his priesthood) all the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3, Abraham 2:8-11). From then on out, the Bible follows the story of only Abraham’s family.
It’s still a family matter.
After 400 years as slaves in Egypt, likely due to iniquity, God raised up Moses to lead the family out of bondage so they could return to the close association with God they were intended to have. So what did God do? After freeing them from slavery, He led them through the Red Sea to be completely separated from their old lives in Egypt. Hence Paul’s comment that they were all “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1). It was a total turning away from Egypt, and a returning to their covenant heritage; the two worlds being completely separated by water. It constituted a renewal of their covenant status as “God’s people.”
Baptism in the Jordan River
When the next generation entered the promised land, they crossed through the Jordan River, completely leaving behind their lives in the wilderness. Moses reiterated the law for them (which became the book of Deuteronomy), and they in turn renewed their covenant with Jehovah. It was a new beginning as God’s covenant family.
It is no coincidence that many years later, John baptized Jesus in this same river. A baptism at this location would have echoed back to those same commitments Israel had made to be God’s covenant family before crossing into the promised land.
Jesus affirmed the importance of baptism when He told John He must obey the ordinance to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Nephi observed, “wherein the Lamb of God did fulfill all righteousness in being baptized by water? Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments” (2 Nephi 31:6-7). By being baptized here, Jesus demonstrated His willingness to submit to God in covenant as a member of His family. Hence why after His baptism, the voice of Father was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
He repeatedly invites us to follow His example. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father? And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son” (2 Nephi 31:10-11). While the ordinance of baptism did not begin here with Christ, He is the perfect example, and His baptism shows the way we must go in order to be saved.
Rebirth into Family
As being born also constitutes entering into a family, through baptism we enter into the covenant family of God. Our identity changes. Not only do we “put on Christ” as Paul says (Galatians 3:27), but we are numbered with the house of Israel (3 Nephi 30:2). As many (if not most) people are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, baptism (after the order of the priesthood) is a renewal and reclamation of their lost identity, comparable to Abraham’s case mentioned above. Abraham was a descendant of Noah but his fathers turned away from the family line. When Abraham was initiated into the priesthood, he rejoined God’s covenant family.
Nephi emphasizes this idea when elaborating on the words of Isaiah: “Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters [also: lineage, line, loins] of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism…” (1 Nephi 20:1). Nephi highlights the Hebrew words “out of the waters” as a play on words to signify covenant status, either by birth or baptism.
Religion, when it exists in it’s true form, always exists as a community/family of believers. Community is required; the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot accomplish its full end in isolation.
As Alma asked his converts, “as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized?” (Mosiah 18:8-10).
If we don’t have a community then we cannot be willing to mourn for those that mourn. We cannot comfort those that stand in need of comfort. We cannot stand as a witness to one another of God at all times and in all places. We cannot bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, as is required by the gospel and by the covenant of baptism. Paul said there is only “one faith” and it is in the “one Lord” whom we worship, and it requires “one baptism” to be included in the body of believers (Ephesians 4:5). The unity of this “one” family was lost during the great apostasy, and the world needed its restoration.
The gospel is all about restoring God’s family, or people. Individuals are rarely baptized in isolation, as being joined to God’s family is about serving among a community of believers.
New Life in Death
Baptism by water is the sign God has asked for to show our repentance and faith in Christ. Paul declared that to be baptized is to “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). By participating in this symbolic act which God has ordained (i.e. ordinance), we show God our willingness to enter into covenant and obey His commandments.
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” (Romans 6:1-6)
It requires completely leaving the old world and lifestyle behind and, passing through a watery gate, entering into new life in Christ. In order for baptism to have the desired spiritual effect, it must be done with a repentant heart. Baptism isn’t a magic spell that will change you against your will. However, it is true that “in the ordinances [of the priesthood], the power of Godliness is made manifest” (D&C 84:20). If we comply with the pattern by willingly and totally dying to our old life, will, and desires, baptism will open a channel to heaven for us – allowing us to receive the Holy Ghost.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 31:13).
This added blessing will give us new life, new strength, a change of heart, and spiritual gifts.
More will be said on this topic in an upcoming post.