And why did He call the grace of the Spirit water? Because by water all things subsist; because water brings forth grass and living things; because the water of the showers comes down from heaven — Cyril of Jerusalem

Water is one of the most important symbols of spiritual rebirth in the Bible. The symbolism of water is present even in the Church today, primarily in the form of baptism and holy water in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. The primary point of comparison between the Holy Spirit and water, as we will see, is cleansing. Additional points of comparison between the Holy Spirit and water are new birth and nourishment.

New Creation and Baptism

We saw in the previous chapters the role of the Holy Spirit in creation. We noted there that when God began to create and before He spoke light into being, there was water. We furthermore made the connection between the presence of water in Genesis 1–2 and the flood waters in Noah’s story (Gen. 7). We said that the point of the flood story was recreation. By flooding the earth, God was returning the creation back to its original state of watery chaos and darkness. As Peter says, “the earth was formed out of water and through watery the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished” (2 Pet. 3:6).  This, then, is the link between water and creation. 

Normally, when we think of baptism, we think of it as a symbol of resurrection. As one is plunged down into the water then subsequently brought up out of the water, the physical motion itself points to being raised from the dead as Jesus was raised from the dead. There are two levels of interpretation here. The first is that as Christians we have hope for the resurrection of the body. Just as Jesus was raised, so we too will be raised (1 Cor. 15). The second is dying to flesh and raising to life in the Spirit, or new life in Jesus.

Something that we don’t normally think of in the sign of baptism is new creation. When we plunge down into the water and are raised up, we are embodying Genesis 1–2. Just like God called order out of water chaos, light out of darkness, and life out of death, He is calling us into life in Himself. He is creating order in our lives, bringing light to our darkness, and life to our death. This is the framing narrative in Paul’s thinking when he says, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Israel’s Baptism: The Red Sea and The Jordan River

The central event in the story of Israel’s coming out of Egypt is God’s establishment of the covenant with Israel through Moses at Sinai (Ex 19–24). This, by the way, attests to the fact that the entire point of salvation is not simply forgiveness, but the indwelling of God with his people. Deliverance from Egyptian slavery was a meansto that end. In the same way, the cross is the instrument through which the goal of God’s presence with His people is fulfilled. 

Second to this central event is the crossing of the Red Sea. This event is the climax of the dramatic sequence of plagues God sends to loosen Pharaoh’s grip on the Hebrews. The crossing of the Red Sea is the point of transition out of slavery and into life and freedom as God’s covenant people. This event undoubtedly corresponds to and points to the sign of baptism in the New Testament. Israel enters into the water as slaves and comes out as a free nation.

Also corresponding to the crossing of the Red Sea is the crossing of the Jordan River. Bible readers will notice that on the top and tail of Israel’s time in the desert is the crossing a body of water. There’s a couple major difference between these two corresponding events. For starters, when Israel crossed the Red Sea to go into the desert, they had yet to establish their covenant with Yahweh. His deliverance was founded on and inspired by his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Crossing the Jordan River, however, is a post-Sinai event. This, I think, is cause for the second major difference between the Red Sea crossing and the Jordan River crossing and that is that in the former they only need to “be still and know that I am God” (Ex. 14:14). In the latter (Jordan river crossing), however, there are more detailed instructions as to how the crossing is the take place (references). These include instructions for the priests and how they are to carry the ark, as well as instructions as to how the people are to prepare themselves to cross into Canaan. 

A third major difference between the Red Sea and Jordan river crossings is that in the former the enemy is at their backs and in the latter the enemy is in front of them. With the enemy behind them they didn’t need to do anything to fight for their freedom. With the enemy in front of them (Canaanites), however, they needed to play an active part in displacing them in order to conquer and colonize the Promised Land. 

Not a few commentators have noted the correspondence between deliverance from the events in Exodus–Deuteronomy and the spiritual journey of salvation for the New Testament believer. Egyptian slavery symbolizes not only physical slavery to the reign of death/Pharaoh in the world, but also the reign of the power of sin in the world. The deliverance from the tyranny of Pharaoh, then, is synonymous with the forgiveness of sins and justification. This is what God does for believers. The only responsibility of the believer is to believe in God’s willingness and ability to deliver and it will be so. 

But what about the wilderness wanderings? A New Testament reading of the wilderness wanderings sees this event as an illustration of the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus as the new Adam. It’s the place where God takes up residence among His people as a result of the deliverance from sin. Like in the New Testament, and for believers today waiting for the Second Coming and final judgment, the wilderness wandering is a time in which God’s promises are both now, but also not yet. God’s deliverance for His people has begun but is not yet complete. For Israel, slavery to Pharaoh has ended and they can enjoy this freedom, but full-blown freedom has yet to come. Believers today similarly experience freedom from the power of sin and freedom from sin-guilt, but the world still suffers from corruption and the reign of physical death. Christians still get sick, they are persecuted for their faith, and of course, they die. In this sense, the Kingdom of God is both now, but also not yet. The final end of the corruption of the flesh and reign of physical death will come with Jesus’s return. 

But what about the symbol of water and the Holy Spirit? Where does this piece come in? Crossing the Red Sea isn’t Israel’s only baptism. They have a second baptism and that is the crossing of the Jordan River. I’m not suggesting here that people need baptized twice. The Bible certainly doesn’t teach that. However, what this story of Israel (and the New Testament with it) does teach us is that there are phases in the journey of salvation. As already noted, the crossing of the Jordan requires Israel’s participation with God. God does not say to Israel, “The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to keep still,” like he did at the Red Sea crossing (Ex 14:14). This time is different. This time He tells them to prepare for battle by obeying all of his commands. 

These differences are similar to the differences between justification and sanctification. Justification is what God does for us. Sanctification is what God does in us and through us with our participation. Just like Israel’s participation with God in purifying the Promised Land, we have to participate with God, by grace and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to be conformed to the image of Jesus. This process, this part of the spiritual pilgrimage, is a part of the recreation process of salvation, which is why there is a river to cross. This is why there is water. Justification and crossing the Red Sea isn’t the only part of the story. Crossing the Jordan and sanctification is also a part of the story. Both of these bodies of water work together to symbolize the fact that the salvation process includes both what God does for us in the forgiveness of sins as well as what God does in and through us. All of this is the work of the Holy Spirit symbolized in water. It is cleansing and rebirth. 

Spirit Baptism

Water baptism is all-encompassing. The symbol of water in the Bible is not a mere sprinkling when it comes to recreation.[1] It is a full-blown plunge. Let me clarify at this point that I’m not advocating for baptism by emersion. That battle can be and has been fought elsewhere. The point that I am making, however, is that when the Holy Spirit comes into the life of the believer, He intends to be an all-consuming presence. 

This is symbolized in life emerging from the water in the creation account, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea[2], along with the New Testament language of baptism in the Holy Spirit and being filled by the Holy Spirit (Ex 31:3; 35:31; Micah 3:8; Lk 1:15, 41; 4:1; Acts 4:8; 6:3; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9; Eph 5:18). This language of being filled means that God has complete control. God doesn’t want to be a co-regent along-side of you as His assistant king. The Kingdom is a mon-archy. This harmonizes with the image of baptism through immersion as a symbol of new creation. As we have seen already, Paul says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17; italics added). The point here, once again, is everything; all consuming. Thomas Oden says this, 

The water and fire of baptism reshape the clay of humanity, as dramatically summed up by John Chrysostom: “He took dust from the earth and made the man; He formed him. The devil came, and perverted him. Then the Lord came, took him again, and remolded, and recast him in baptism, and He suffered not his body to be of clay, but made it of a harder ware. He subjected the soft clay to the fire of the Holy Spirit.… He was baptized with water that he might be remodelled, with fire that he might he hardened” (John Chrysostom, Eutropius, NPNF 1 IX, p. 259).[3]. (Oden, 1992, p. 180)

Water and the Temple

Water played an important role in the Old Testament temple as a means for purification rites. In describing what Aaron and his sons must do in order to enter into God’s presence as priests, God says to Moses, “you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the tent of meeting and wash them with water” (Ex 29:4). This sort of command regarding water purification rites for entry intro God’s presence pervade the Levitical law code.[4] Washing with water was so common that there was a water basin there in the temple for easy access for cleansing (Ex 30:18). 

This practice is even mentioned in the New Testament in the story of the Wedding at Cana. The water that Jesus turned to wine was carried in stone water jars used for purification rites (Jn 2:5). This is telling. The water that is turned to wine is then consumed by the wedding guests. What does this mean? John is telling us that the Holy Spirit offers internal cleansing. This message is reinforced by John by placing the event of Jesus cleansing the temple immediate after the story of the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:13–22). 

Water for purification rites isn’t the role of water surrounding temple life. The book of Ezekiel features an amazing vision of the new temple (Ez 40–42). This temple not only symbolizes the restoration of God’s presence in the creation, but also a vision of the new creation; the fulfillment of God’s world-rescue plan. In this vision, we see what the creation was always intended to be: filled with God’s presence and glory. 

One particular feature of the new temple is that water will flow out of it. Ezekiel 47:1–2 says:

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.

The water, in representing the life-giving presence of God, reaches the ends of the earth. The vision makes it clear that the temple is the source of God’s presence in the entire earth rather than in just one, isolated location. The shocking thing about this temple that we learn about in the New Testament is that this temple is not a building but the people of God. This means that the people of God (i.e., the church) is the means by which God’s presence and glory are to fill the creation. If you’re with the church, then you’re with Jesus. This reality is precisely because the Holy Spirit unites believers to Jesus through indwelling. 

This image of the church being a place of God’s life-giving, abundant presence in the church is what Jesus means when he says, 

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture as said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn 7:37–39; italics added).

This image of the temple is complimented by Revelation 22:1–5, which says: 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Church Father Ambrose of Milan said, “The river flowing from the Throne of God is a figure of the Holy Spirit, but by the waters spoken of by David the powers of heaven are intended. The kingdom of God is the work of the Spirit; and it is no matter for wonder if He reigns in this together with the Son, since St. Paul promises that we too shall reign with the Son.”[5] (Milan, 1896, p. 156).

Baptism of Identification: Union with Christ

Throughout our study we have mentioned that indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers unites believers with Christ. The Bible portrays baptism as the symbolic means through which believers are united with Jesus. As mentioned previously, Jesus’s baptism is a foreshadowing of his death, burial and resurrection. Furthermore, it is a symbol reminding us that Jesus’s disciples have a call to take up the way of the cross thereby identifying with Jesus. Paul says, 

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:3–5).


The symbol of water for the Holy Spirit communicates the cleansing, nourishing, recreating, and unifying ministry of the Holy Spirit. Water is closely associate with ceremonial cleansing in the Old Testament. It is by water purification rites that God’s people are made ceremonially clean and able to enter into God’s presence. Likewise, the Holy Spirit cleanses believers to make them an proper dwelling place for God’s presence. 

[1] Although there is the sprinkling of water in rites of purification of the temple. See Leviticus 4:6, 17; 5:9; 8:11, 30; 14:7, 16, 51; 16:15–15; and Isaiah 52:15.

[2] Note the detail of the text in the story concerning the amount of water: “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and their left” (Ex 14:19).

[3] Oden, 1992, 180.

[4] To list just a few: Ex. 30:20–21; 40:12, 30; Lev. 6:27; 8:6; 11:25; 13:6; 13:54; 14:8; and 15:5.

[5] Milan, 1896, 156.

Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

1 Comment

sophialorenabenjamin · May 24, 2020 at 1:57 pm

indeed, time to go deeper and learn more about our Awesome God and the Holy Spirit.

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