In the beginning, when darkness and light are first mentioned, the Holy Spirit and water are introduced between them:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. —Gen. 1:1–3
In Genesis, the passage from darkness into light is marked by the Holy Spirit and water. This pattern is repeated throughout the rest of Scripture. Baptism involves water, as a person passes from darkness into light. Thus, all baptisms continuously point back to creation:
Consider, however, how ancient is the mystery [of baptism] prefigured even in the origin of the world itself. In the very beginning, when God made the heaven and the earth, “the Spirit,” it is said, “moved upon the waters.” He Who was moving upon the waters, was He not working upon the waters?
—St. Ambrose, On the Mysteries
Every time a baptism occurs in Scripture, the same pattern emerges:
- In Noah’s baptism, the flood of Water marked the world’s passage from spiritual darkness to light. The flood waters destroyed the wicked, and also carried Noah’s ark to safety on Mount Ararat. Noah and his family passed from being social outcasts, to being the supreme rulers and parents of the new post-flood world. Their place in creation was renewed by their Baptism.
- In the infant baptism of Moses, the baptismal waters carried him from death to life, from condemnation to acceptance, from slavery to royalty. His baptism conferred a new name upon him, a new future, and a new identity.
- In the baptism of Israel, the Jordan waters destroyed the wicked Egyptian army, and also parted in order to bring freedom to God’s people in the Exodus. The Israelites passed from being despised slaves to being a blessed new nation bound for the promised land.
- In Old Testament ceremonial-purification baptisms, the waters caused Israelites to pass from ceremonial uncleanness (not permitted to worship in the Temple) to ceremonial cleanness (allowed in the Temple), thus embodying a spiritual passage from darkness into light.
- In Naaman’s Baptism, the waters were instrumental in renewing the health of Naaman’s body and soul. The seventh time he dipped into the Jordan river, his flesh was healed of leprosy, and his spirit gained faith in Israel’s true God. This was a baptismal passage from darkness into light.
And finally, in the Gospel of John, there is a recapitulation of the Genesis creation narrative:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. —John 1:1–5
The world was in spiritual darkness, but the true Light was coming—and that Light is Jesus Christ. But who would point the way to the Light? John immediately thereafter answers this question:
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. —John 1:6–7
And what was this Forerunner John’s ministry? It was a ministry of baptism. The world was in spiritual darkness, and John the Baptizer came as a voice “crying in the wilderness,” baptizing people and pointing them to the true Light of all creation. Thus, the pattern remains consistent: Water baptism marks the passage from darkness into light.
This Christian mystery marks the passage from darkness into light, from death into life. From being an outcast to being in God’s very presence. From being “formless and empty” (Gen. 1:2) to being “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
Baptism echoes creation’s movement from darkness into light. And its eternal significance lies in the cleansing from sin and regeneration (new creation) by the Holy Spirit.