My sermon on Sunday spent some time in 1 Corinthians 10:2, which in part says “and all were baptised… in the cloud”. As someone who’s thought and written quite a bit about baptism, and who’s job it is to present the Bible in ways relevant to life in the 21st century…. I immediately began pondering whether or not one could “be baptized” during a skydiving adventure on a cloudy day. Could this be the new evangelism method that connects with the 21st century audience?!?!
For, I hope, obvious reasons, I decided not to preach that sermon yesterday. For starters the church doesn’t own a plane. But we do have a pilot…. hmmmm…
Okay, I joke, but the concept of Israel’s baptism in the cloud and the Red Sea is an important one.
Exodus 13:17-22 describes as the Hebrews left Egypt how God led the people of Israel in a pillar of cloud during the day and and in a pillar of fire by night.
This cloudy & fiery pillar fulfilled several functions.
- In a very real sense the pillar was the presence of God.
- The pillar guided the Israelites.
- The pillar protected the Israelites.
- The pillar also obscured God from the Israelites.
Here’s 1 Corinthians 10:1-2…
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
When we read these verses the reference to passing through the sea as a type of baptism makes sense. It’s water. You leave an old life behind and arrive at a new life. You leave behind the gods and chaos of Egypt and move toward a Promised Land. The sea makes sense, but what’s with the cloud?
Many scholars see the cloud as representing the Holy Spirit. After all, the Holy Spirit fulfills several functions:
- In a very real sense the presence of God in our lives. (“…indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.” Rom 8:9)
- The Holy Spirit guides us. (“the Spirit of truth… he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13)
- The Holy Spirit protects us. (“…you were sanctified… by the Spirit of God.” 1 Cor. 6:11)
- The Holy Spirit obscures God from us. (“the Spirit himself intercedes for us…” Rom. 8:26)
Hopefully, those points are fairly plain. However, the fourth point probably needs some explanation. When the Israelites traveled through the wilderness they could see God’s presence in the cloud, but they could not see God. However we find an exception after God makes the covenant between God and Israel at Mt Sinai. At that time four leaders and seventy elders had a meal with God and “saw God”. (Exodus 24:9-11)
A little later in Exodus God tells Moses, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19-20)
This second passage describes the normal relationship between God and humanity. We cannot see God’s face and live. So the cloud both reveals God’s presence and obscures God’s face. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God within us, but also an intercessor for us. We don’t see God’s face but the Holy Spirit ensures that he hears our prayers.
Returning to the point of 1 Corinthians 10 that the cloud represents the Spirit, we find some correlation to this thought in John 3. In verse 5, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit. Baptism is not just a physical ritual or act of obedience. Baptism is a spiritual event where, among other things, we submit to God, accept His Spirit and commit to follow His guidance.
The Israelites didn’t have an option to walk through the sea but abandon the cloud. Well, they had the option but the outcome would be tragedy. Just as cloud and sea could not separate, neither can water and the Spirit in our lives.