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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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In the NT, after the Gospels, water is nearly always used in a figurative or symbolical sense.

1. The words employed by Christ in Acts 1:5 seem to echo Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33. Water was the element in which John baptized his penitents, and the best that he had; but he was profoundly conscious of its inadequacy, and eagerly expectant of an altogether different kind of baptism, to be introduced by the Messiah. It has been contended that the πνεῦμα ἄγιον and the πῦρ which he desired were the sweeping wind and the destroying fire of judgment (so, e.g., A. B. Bruce, EGT , ‘Matthew,’ London, 1897, p. 84), but it is more likely that what he longed for was the life-giving breath and the purifying fire of the Messianic era. If we must not read into his words the Pentecostal and similar experiences, we need not eliminate from them the highest prophetic ideals. When Christ confirms His forerunner’s distinction between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), He certainly regards the latter not as a blast of judgment but as the supreme gift of Divine grace; and Peter, who ‘remembered the word of the Lord,’ and no doubt the tone in which He uttered it, quotes it not as a menace but as an evangelical promise (Acts 11:16). Water is referred to in connexion with the baptism of the eunuch (Acts 8:36; Acts 8:38-39) and of Cornelius (Acts 10:47). In the latter case the baptism in water is the immediate sequel to the earliest baptism of the Gentiles with the Holy Spirit, which was attended with the rapturous utterances known as glossolalia.

2. In Ephesians 5:26 the Church is said to be cleansed by the washing (or laver, τῷ λουτρῷ) of water with the word, baptism being regarded as the seal and symbol of a spiritual experience which is mediated by faith in the gospel.

3. The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 9:19) says that water was used along with blood-either to prevent coagulation or as a symbol of purity-at the institution of the ancient covenant, a detail which is not mentioned in Exodus 24:3 ff. It is a striking fact that in his review of the Levitical ordinances this writer never quotes the LXX phrase ὕδωρ ῥαντισμοῦ, ‘water of sprinkling,’ which occurs four times in Numbers 19, but coins in its place the phrase αἷμα ῥαντισμοῦ, ‘blood of sprinkling’ (Hebrews 12:24). It is his conviction that, while the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer (according to a Scripture which he does not question) cleanse the flesh (Hebrews 9:13), and while water purifies the body (Hebrews 10:22), only the blood of Christ can sprinkle the heart from an evil conscience (Hebrews 9:14, Hebrews 10:22). He does not, as F. Delitzsch (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, ii. [Edinburgh, 1870] 179) thinks, suggest that the water of baptism has cleansing virtue because ‘sacramentally impregnated’ with the blood of Christ. Just as he altogether ignores the sacramental value of the Levitical rites which he enumerates, it is not his task to give a philosophy of the Christian sacraments. His distinctive doctrine, to the enforcement of which he devotes his whole strength, is that, while all ritual is at the best but outward and symbolic, the spiritual appropriation of Christ and His atonement by faith has virtue to penetrate and purify the whole personality, beginning with the heart.

4. Peter sees a parallel between the water of Noah’s flood and that of baptism (1 Peter 3:20), and Paul finds a mystical and sacramental meaning in the sea and the cloud, in both of which the Israelites may be said to have been baptized into Moses (1 Corinthians 10:2).

5. It is the teaching of John that Jesus Christ came by (διά) water and blood, not with (ἐν) the water only, but with the water and the blood (1 John 5:6). Historically the baptism and death of the Messiah were crises in His activity, occurring once for all at the beginning and the end of His ministry, but spiritually He ever abides with and in the water and the blood, which are ‘the two wells of life in His Church, His baptism being repeated in every fresh act of baptism, and His blood of atonement never failing in the communion cup’ (H. J. Holtzmann, Handkomm. zum NT, Freiburg i. B., 1891, ii. 236).

6. James (James 3:11-12) illustrates the moral law that the same heart cannot overflow in both blessings and curses by the natural law that the same fountain cannot send forth both sweet water and bitter-a variation on Christ’s words in Matthew 7:16-17.

7. The prophet of the Revelation (recalling Ezekiel 1:24; Ezekiel 43:2) once compares the voice of Christ (Revelation 1:15), and twice that of the great multitude of the redeemed (Revelation 14:2, Revelation 19:6), to the voice of many waters, in the one case thinking perhaps of the music of waves quietly breaking, in the other of the thunder of great billows crashing, around the aegean island which was his place of exile. He constantly uses fountains of water, and clear rivers, as symbols of spiritual life and blessing. Per contra, he imagines ‘the angel of the waters’ turning Rome’s rivers and fountains of water into blood (Revelation 16:4); for, as she has shed the blood of saints like water, it is but just that she should have to drink blood-a grim species of poetic justice. The great star Wormwood falls in Earth’s sweet waters, turning them to wormwood, and those who drink of them die because they are so bitter (Revelation 8:9-11). The waters of the Euphrates are to be dried up, like the Jordan before Joshua, that the powers of the East-Parthia and her confederates-may come to the invasion of the Roman Empire (Revelation 16:12). The great harlot, Rome, sits proudly upon many waters-ruling peoples and nations by many rivers and seas (Revelation 17:1; Revelation 17:15)-but her day of judgment and dethronement is in sight (Revelation 17:1).

James Strahan.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Water'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Monday, June 1st, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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