Metaphors for Baptism

By Tom Hamilton

The plain and direct statements of Scripture on the proper role and meaning of baptism are complemented by seven metaphors for baptism. These figures of speech emphasize various aspects of baptism’s significance and importance.


Perhaps the most well-known and obvious metaphor is the figure of washing. The significance of this figure goes back to the literal washings of purification required under the old covenant. These washings pointed toward the spiritual cleansing which would be available through Christ. Even in the Old Testament, we already see writers such as Ezekiel looking toward a figurative or spiritual washing (Ezek. 36:25). This is a passage the Hebrew writer alludes to in Hebrews 10:22-23 in referring to this spiritual cleansing which is now fulfilled in Christ — “having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Paul identifies Christ’s disciples as those who have been washed, justified, and sanctified (1 Cor. 6:11), regardless of what sins they had committed. In addition, Paul says that God “saved us, not on the basis of deeds we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5). Paul identifies God’s people as the sanctified bride of Christ, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26). One who fails to abound in godly character “has forgotten that he was purified from his former sins” (2 Pet. 1:9).

The force of the figure is unmistakable — the washing is the definitive action which separates the dirty from the clean, the filthy from the washed, the unholy from the sanctified. Prior to being washed, one is contaminated by the filth of sin; after being washed, he is cleansed and forgiven.

In addition, the Bible is clear that this washing is associated with baptism — not that baptism is merely a symbol of washing, but that it is the washing. The sins of the believing and penitent Saul were certainly not washed away until he was baptized, because Ananias asked Paul, “Now what are you waiting for? Arise! Be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). However, Peter makes it clear that this washing is not ritualistic. It has no physical effect, as if the water itself were magical, but is effective through God’s grace. It is an appeal to God for a clear conscience by an obedient trusting heart — “In like manner, baptism also now saves us, not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21). We are not washed of our sins until we humble ourselves in obedient trust and do what God has commanded — arise, be baptized, and wash away our sins!


Circumcision is another metaphor for baptism which is taken from the Old Testament. The rite of circumcision was the sign of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham’s family, first instituted in Genesis 17. As such a symbol, it was a clear and definitive line dividing those in the covenant from those outside of the covenant, just as the act of washing separates the dirty from the clean.

The New Testament speaks of a figurative or spiritual circumcision in which sin is cut away from one’s heart and cast aside and in which one enters into a covenant relation- ship with God. “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart” (Rom. 2:28-29). Paul comments elsewhere, “. . . in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism” (Col. 2:11-12). Again, baptism is emphasized as the definitive action which divides those within the covenant of Christ from those outside of the covenant of Christ.


Another metaphor for baptism drawn from the Old Testament is the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is portrayed as redeemed and made to be God’s people upon the crossing of the Red Sea. For example, in Psalm 106:9-10 we read, “Thus He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up, and He led them through the deeps, as through the wilderness. So he saved them from the hand of the one who hated them and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.”

Here again, the metaphor focuses on a definitive act which separates two distinct peoples, the unredeemed and the redeemed. Just as the Israelites had been in the literal bondage of slavery, mankind is in the bondage of sin. Just as the passage through the Red Sea freed and redeemed them, our baptism into Christ marks the point of our redemption from sin. Paul uses this analogy to compare the new covenant with the old — “. . . our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:1-2). So also Christ Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Tit. 2:14).


Galatians 3:27-28 reads, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ . . . for you are all one in Christ.” Here baptism is compared to putting on clothes, the clothing of the character of Christ. In Ephesians 4:22-24, these new clothes of the new man in Christ are contrasted with the old self of sin which we take off — “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and clothe yourselves with the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (cf., Col. 3:9-10). Of course, this act of clothing oneself with Christ is not a once-for-all action, but a lifelong process (Rom. 13:14), as seen in the fact that all of these passages were written to Christians. However, the figure demonstrates that there is a definitive point at which one goes from not being clothed to being clothed with Christ, and the Bible affirms that this point is baptism into Christ.


The Bible frequently uses the figure of new birth, renewal, or regeneration to describe coming into a covenant relationship with God. Our lives are to be so dramatically different than they were before that the Scriptures describe it as a rebirth, starting all over again completely new (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:1-10; 4:23-24; Col. 3:9-10; 1 Pet.1:3, 23; 1 John 3:9; 4:7). In fact, this new life living in us is to be Christ (Gal. 2:20).

It is not surprising that this figure of new birth is associated with baptism as the definitive turning point at which the new birth takes place. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, he paralleled being “born again” (3:3) with being “born of water and Spirit” (3:5). Jesus does not refer here to two different births, but a singular one which involves both water and Spirit. Without this new birth of water and Spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Likewise, Paul refers to our salvation through the “washing of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5). It was this new birth which Peter urged upon his listeners in Acts 2:38 — to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We are able to know for certain that Jesus’ “water” and Paul’s “washing” are indeed references to baptism, because this same figure of new birth is also used as part of the figure of our spiritual resurrection, in which baptism also stands as a figure of burial (Col. 2:12-13). As we consider this next related figure, we will come to see baptism as the crucial turning point which may be described both as a burial in terms of signaling the end of the old life and as a new birth in terms of signaling the beginning of the new life.


Paul uses the metaphor of burial as a description of baptism in Romans 6:3-6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Paul also used this figure in Colossians 2:11-

14, along with the metaphor of circumcision: “. . . having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:12-13).

In both cases, the meaning of the metaphor is clear. Just as a person must first die, then be buried, and then be resurrected, the proper order of our spiritual insurrection is first death (by repentance), then burial (by baptism), and then our spiritual resurrection or “newness of life.” Those who teach that one is first saved (i.e., made alive spiritually) and then baptized afterwards makes as much sense as burying a living person, because that is what they are claiming to do. You must decide whether it is the scriptural order that makes sense, or those who want to rearrange the biblical order to suit their peculiar theological views. Not only that, but Paul is rather explicit that baptism is the point at which we are spiritually made alive or resurrected. It is once again that definitive turning point which separates God’s people from those who are spiritually dead. In Colossians 2:12, Paul says baptism is that “in which you were also raised up with him.”Are we raised up with Christ in baptism or not? Likewise, in Romans 6:3-5, Paul stated that the reason we were “baptized into Christ” or were “buried with him through baptism” was “in order that . . . we too might walk in newness of life.” Is this the reason we were baptized or not?

Complete Union

Finally, we may consider how the literal action of baptism — that is, immersion —comes to represent the completeness of the spiritual union which we have with Christ. We are said to be immersed or “baptized into Christ” (Rom. 6 3; Gal. 3:27), and Paul explicitly connects this with our being united with Christ (Rom. 6:5). Clearly, this is the point at which we enter into Christ and are united to him. In a similar way, we are said to be immersed into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Clearly, this is the point at which we enter into the body of Christ, his church. It is at the point of baptism that we bury the crucified old man of sin to the point that we are able to say that “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).


Whatever the metaphor or figure of speech, in every case the Bible makes clear that baptism is the definitive turning point which separates the forgiven from the unforgiven: the clean from the unclean, the circumcised from the uncircumcised, the one in covenant relationship with God from the one who is not, the clothed from the naked, the new from the old, the dead from the living, the one in Christ from the one outside of Christ.

These metaphors are simple, understandable illustrations which complement the plain teaching of Scripture elsewhere — that baptism makes disciples (Matt. 28:19), brings forgiveness (Acts 2:38), and saves (1 Pet. 3:21).