Water and Spirit

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

As we follow both the Old Testament story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the New Testament story of Jesus as an infant, a young boy, and a man, we find that they are parallel stories. They are, in fact, telling the same story.

We know from the Lord’s conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection that the entire Word of God as it is found in the Old Testament is speaking, at a deeper level, of the Lord. It says in Luke 24:27:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

And a little later in the same chapter, in Luke 24:44–45, we read:

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

Now, if there were no deeper meaning, there would be no need for the Lord to “open their minds.” But he did open their minds, and it was to see how the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms spoke of himself.

So here we are, along the road to Emmaus, in a new Christian era, having our minds opened to what is written in the Scriptures concerning the Lord.

Abram’s journeys

In “A Child of Revelation” we saw Abram living in the Holy Land, in the first part of Genesis chapter 12. There, God called Abram to leave his family’s home and move to the land of Canaan. This, as we have already discovered, symbolizes the Lord’s inner journeys—and ours as well—from a stage of being concerned mostly with outward, worldly things to a state of being concerned primarily with deeper, spiritual things.

Yet spiritually speaking, even in the land of Canaan there was a tension between the inner and the outer—between the world and heaven. As explained in that article, this is symbolized by Abram pitching his tent between Bethel, “the house of God,” meaning heaven, and Ai, representing our material-world interests. So as the Lord set out on his spiritual journey in his earliest childhood, he felt the tension between the attractions and pleasures of this world on the one side, and the deeper callings and aspirations toward heaven and God on the other.

Then, in “And Jesus Grew in Wisdom” we spoke of how this struggle within himself led the Lord to move “toward the South”—meaning toward the greater light of learning and understanding. And since that “South” is in Canaan—the Holy Land—it symbolizes learning and understanding on the spiritual side of life.

Yet Abram didn’t stop there. There was a famine in the land. Feeling the pinch of hunger, Abram took his family to Egypt, where there were stores of food unaffected by the rainfall that determined crops everywhere else. Egypt, the granary of the region, also represented learning and knowledge, but on the level of facts and intellectual curiosity rather than of deeper understanding and wisdom. And just as we need to strengthen our minds with a broad array of knowledge to be well-equipped for both material and spiritual life, so Jesus, as a young boy, needed to gain an inner wealth of knowledge—especially the knowledge of the Scriptures and of the spiritual laws that govern the universe and the world of humanity.

A wealth of knowledge

As we move from chapter twelve to chapter thirteen in Genesis, we find Abram returning to the South of Canaan after his stay in Egypt. And we are told in Genesis 13:2 that he “had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.” Here we have a picture of the Lord as a boy moving inwardly from a stage of learning largely for the fascination of learning and knowing, represented by Egypt, back to the deeper spiritual understanding and wisdom that he had first sought when he metaphorically moved from Haran to Canaan (see “A Child of Revelation”). He was now wealthy in spiritual and heavenly truth and goodness, represented by the cattle, silver, and gold that he had acquired in Egypt—meaning in his stage of childhood curiosity, study, and learning.

In other words, Jesus, in his boyhood, was moving into a stage that we generally arrive at in our young adulthood at best. Our “Egypt” stage continues through our whole time of schooling, which commonly stretches from the time we are about five years old up to anywhere from our late teens to our mid to late twenties, depending on how long we stay in school. All of these are years in which our primary focus is on equipping ourselves with the knowledge we will need to get along in this world, and to follow the career or life path that we are interested in.

Yet as long as we are in school, the knowledge we are gaining remains largely theoretical. It is a collection of facts that we file away for future use, or simply “drink in” from our curiosity to learn and know as much as we can. We are metaphorically “sojourning in Egypt”; temporarily staying in the “land of learning.” There, if we apply ourselves to our studies, we do become “rich” in knowledge and understanding, and in many other good things that will support and sustain us as we move on in life.

Putting our knowledge to work

But mere knowledge is not enough. If we stayed in school all our life, not only would it get tedious for most of us, but all the intellectual riches that we were storing up for ourselves would never be put to use. We must move out of our youthful phase of focusing primarily on learning, and into an adult phase of putting our knowledge to work in useful service to others.

For us, this happens as we move out of school and into the working world. And though we still have a long way to go before our primary focus is on heavenly and spiritual things, the very fact of putting our knowledge to work in useful employments involves moving from the theoretical to the real. We are moving from Egypt to Canaan, from mere learning to the “heaven” of using what we have learned to serve our fellow human beings.

Baptism with water and spirit

In the Gospel stories, we do not have a continuous account of the Lord’s childhood and youth. After the stories of the Lord’s birth and infancy, we have only one story of Jesus at the Temple as a twelve-year-old boy, and then nothing more until he began his public ministry at the age of thirty.

The baptism of JesusYet even in the story of the beginning of his public ministry, we gain some hints as to what was happening within him spiritually during the years of his youth and young adulthood. In the account of the Lord’s baptism in Matthew 3:11–17, we read, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Here, John the Baptist contrasts his water baptism with the Lord’s baptism with the Spirit, and with fire. If we focus for now on the contrast between baptism with water and baptism with the spirit, we find that there is a tension precisely parallel to the one that comes into the tension between Abram and Lot as narrated in Genesis 13. Because, Emanuel Swedenborg tells us, the baptism of water involves our outward actions, whereas the baptism of the spirit involves our inner spiritual self.

Conflict between Abram and Lot

In Genesis 13, Abram returned to Canaan, together with his nephew Lot and their families and possessions. But now that they were wealthy and had large flocks, the land where they had formerly lived together in peace and harmony was no longer large enough to support both clans. And so “quarreling arose between Abram’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot” (Genesis 13:7).

Spiritually, Lot represents the same thing as “water” does in Matthew 3:11. He represents the knowledge of material and worldly things, and our outward natural-world life in general. Abram is the “spirit” side of things. He represents our deeper aspirations—our sense of God calling us to a higher mission in life.

In Jesus’ life, both of these had become very wealthy. We know that he learned the trade of carpentry, and that he was able to get along in this world. We also know that he studied and learned the Scriptures very deeply—so much so that at the age of twelve his understanding and answers amazed the learned men at the Temple, along with everyone else who heard him speak (Luke 2:46–47).

Equipped with both material and spiritual learning, he returned to the task that God (his divine soul) had called him to. He returned from Egypt to Canaan, wealthy in spiritual cattle, silver, and gold. Yet his lower, material self, represented by Lot, also came back with him, and “also had flocks and herds and tents” (Genesis 13:6). And once again, the two families had moved to the place between Bethel and Ai where Abram had pitched his tent earlier (Genesis 13:3). Figuratively speaking, once again the Lord was caught between his higher, heavenly calling, represented by Bethel, and the attractions of worldly success, represented by Ai. There was conflict between Abram and Lot—between the things of the spirit and the things of the world.

Our lower self vs. our higher self

Isn’t this what happens with us also as we move out of our long stage of study and learning in school, and into the working world? Even if we were brought up through Sunday School and church, and were taught the Bible and the principles of spiritual living, we still find the pleasures of this world very attractive.

Yes, there are great satisfactions to be had by following a spiritual course. But the world also offers many pleasures and satisfactions. Not only are there the purely bodily pleasures such as eating and physical activity and sexual expression, there are also the pleasures of friends and family, social events, music, movies, parties, and, of course, the pleasure of making money and using it to gain not only houses, cars, clothes, electronics, and other possessions, but also the status, power, and position that this world gives to those who are wealthier than others. This world gives us plenty of things to strive after, no matter what our personality may be.

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of this world. God gave us bodies and minds that have many amazing capabilities, with the intention that we would use them and enjoy them.

However, as in the story of Abram and Lot, tension can arise when our lower self—our physical body and our worldly knowledge and capabilities—comes into conflict with our higher spiritual self. It doesn’t take us long in life to realize that the pleasures and demands of this world are constant. They will take up all our time, energy, and attention if we allow them to. Though our physical and mental capabilities are meant to serve the will of our deeper self, much more often, like Lot’s herdsmen quarreling with those of Abram, our involvement in work and family, sports and social events pushes our spiritual self to the side, and denies it any room.

And so, in the metaphor of Genesis 13, there is quarreling between our lower self and our higher self. Which will we follow?

A foot in each world

In the resolution of the story in Genesis 13:8–18, Lot took the lowlands in the southern plains, near Sodom and Gomorrah, which were later destroyed by the Lord for their wickedness. Meanwhile, Abram chose the higher ground, where God gave him a vision of the entire land of Canaan, which would one day belong to his descendants.

Jesus did keep one foot in the material world and one in the spiritual world. And we can do the same. As long as we keep things in their proper place and perspective, we can be baptized both with the water of a good outward life and with the spirit of a deeper spiritual life. This life will also give us the fire of love to keep our souls warm and moving.

(Note: This post is an edited version of a talk originally delivered on January 25, 2004. For the next article in this series, please see: “Desert Warfare.” To start at the beginning of the series, please go to the article, “What Child Is This?”)

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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