Does “Baptism into Moses” Justify Infant Baptism?
Those who support infant baptism sometimes appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:2 to justify their position. The passage states that “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”—a direct reference to Exodus 14:22. Baptism into Moses is entirely different from baptism into Christ, but those who defend infant baptism assert that, because Paul called the crossing of the Red Sea a “baptism,” many infants and young children must have been “baptized” when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. What did Paul mean when he wrote that “our fathers” all were “baptized into Moses”?
In 1 Corinthians 10, the inspired apostle did not discuss baptism, how to obtain forgiveness of sin, or entrance into the church. Paul referenced the sins of the children of Israel to warn the Christians in Corinth (see Mare, 1976, pp. 248-249). The meaning of baptism (in 1 Corinthians 10:2) is both literal and figurative. The Israelites were baptized—not in the sense that they were baptized for religious reasons, but in the sense that they were literally surrounded by water, though the water did not touch them. This is a legitimate use of the word “baptism.” When a body is buried in a cemetery, for example, the body is “immersed” in the ground (surrounded by dirt), though a casket prevents any dirt from actually touching the body. In that sense, the children of Israel were submerged in the Red Sea. Paul also wrote of baptism in a figurative sense: the Israelites were “baptized into Moses,” in that they devoted themselves to his leadership and, through him, God’s leadership. G.G. Findlay explained:
The cloud, shading and guiding the Israelites from above, and the “sea” making a path for them through its midst and drowning their enemies behind them, were glorious signs to “our fathers” of God’s salvation; together they formed a washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), inaugurating the national covenant life; as it trode the miraculous path between upper and nether waters, Israel was born into its Divine estate. Thus “they all received their baptism unto Moses, entering through him into acknowledged fellowship with God; even so the Corinthians in the use of the same symbolic element had been baptized unto Christ (cf. Romans 6:3f., Galatians 3:27)” [n.d., p. 857, parenthetical items in orig.].
Baptism into Christ is not mandated by Exodus 14:22, though the example of the Red Sea crossing metaphorically foreshadows baptism into Christ, as does the water of the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21; see Lenski, 1937, p. 391). In Exodus 14, however, the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea in order to save their physical lives, not to save their eternal souls (plus, the “baptism” of Exodus 14 was instituted by Moses hundreds of years before the baptism of Christ came into effect). There is no identification of the proper candidate for baptism in either 1 Corinthians 10:2 or Exodus 14:22, so infant baptism cannot be justified by either passage.
If the Holy Spirit did not author a discussion of baptism into Moses in order to authorize infant baptism, why did He write about baptism into Moses? First, observe that when the children of Israel were baptized “into Moses,” they made a conscious decision to completely follow Moses’ leadership. Some Israelites had been quite critical of Moses’ leadership because he brought the people out of Egyptian slavery (Exodus 14:10-12). Others likely admired Moses, and were willing to follow Moses and Aaron out of Egypt, but following Moses across the parted Red Sea necessitated a higher level of trust. It was not a given that all the people would be eager to obey Moses’ command to “go forward” (verse 15). Following Moses’ instruction was not the only option available to the children of Israel (though choosing to disobey Moses meant almost certain death). Before crossing the Red Sea, the children of Israel made a commitment to obey Moses, and, in turn, to serve God. In the same way, people are baptized into Christ when they decide to stop sinning and serve the Lord, i.e., they are separated from the world and consecrated to God (Acts 2:37-38; Acts 22:16; see Kistemaker, 2002, p. 322). This point destroys infants’ candidacy for baptism.
Second, notice that the waters of the Red Sea, in dividing, did not save the children of Israel on its own—water is, by itself, incapable of defying the Law of Gravity. It was only by the power of God, in moving the waters, that Israel was preserved. Similarly, the waters of baptism are not magical or miraculous. It is not the water itself that washes away sin and saves souls. Rather, it is God Who forgives sin when someone is baptized, and He continues to forgive the sins of those who penitently serve Him (Matthew 26:28; Acts 8:13; 22:16; Romans 4:7,8; 1 Peter 3:21; 1 John 1:7). However, God never said that He would forgive the sins of one who did not believe on Him (or could not believe on Him, i.e., those incapable of belief need no forgiveness, because they have not sinned; see 2 Thessalonians 2:14; Romans 10:16; McGarvey, n.d., p. 40).
Third, most of the children of Israel who crossed the Red Sea as a result of their obedience to Moses died in the wilderness because they disobeyed God sometime after they crossed the sea. Similarly, just because someone is baptized into Christ and forgiven of sin, does not mean that he can never lose his salvation or fall out of favor with God. To the contrary, the Bible teaches that one can lose his salvation (Galatians 5:1,4; Hebrews 3:1,12; James 5:19,20).
Fourth, the example of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea should make every Christian more appreciative of the sacrifice of Christ. Just as God provided the only means of physical escape to the captive Israelites, God has provided us with the blood of Christ, which cleanses our souls from sin, providing the only means of escape from eternal spiritual death. God used the cloud and the Red Sea to “separate” an identified people—His chosen people. Today, the church makes up God’s spiritual Israel—those who are saved are members of the Lord’s church (Galatians 3; Ephesians 1:22-23; Hebrews 8).
Findlay, G.G. (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Lenski, Robert C.H. (1937), The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Mare, W. Harold (1976), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
McGarvey, J.W. (no date), Commentary on Acts (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).