If memory serves, I stood outdoors on a construction site and adjacent to a plastic green bathtub filled with holy water. It was regular water from a German faucet, but the water’s holiness derived from the baptism ritual about to take place, not the physical source itself. Those of us gathered—teachers at my Christian school, students, administrators—encircled the tub on the cement foundation of the newly expanding chapel location. See, my high-school was a school for missionary kids, tucked away in the Black Forest region, and I was about to be baptized. By the principal, no less. Sure, I had been baptized before as an infant, but this was, as the Anabaptists put it, my “second baptism.” A baptism of conviction and heart, in which my submersion in water matched my heart’s true desire to die and rise again in Christ. My faith would change dramatically over decades. Truth be told, those witnesses standing there on the fundamentalist spectrum of faith would call me a heretic today (and some have), but the earnestness of my intention, along with the promise and power of the sacrament lingers through both evolution and years.
“And in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.” —Revelation 4:6
Water seems to be the symbol for passing into divine presence. Many of us are familiar with water in the New Testament as having to do with Christian baptism. John baptized Jesus at River Jordan and Paul tells Christians to be “baptized in Christ,” referencing early Christian dunking ceremonies. But in the Book of Revelation, there is water in front of God’s throne room and adjacent to the very Presence of Presence. It’s a seemingly throwaway detail in a book that has no throwaway details. The deeper I adventure down the rabbit hole of Revelation, the more I realize how utterly steeped in the Hebrew Bible the seer John is. So water is far more than water.
The ancient Jewish temple, Margaret Barker tells, had a “Great Sea.” Literally, this meant that the courtyard of the Temple housed large bronze basins used for water purification (1 Kings 7:38). But in the Hebrew worshipping imagination, water was also more than water. Figuratively—and this is where things become interesting—the courtyard represented water and the Holy of Holies where God dwelled (also the home of the ark of the covenant, where the high priest entered once a year to atone for Israel’s sin) symbolized the throne room of heaven. Rabbinic commentators on the book of Numbers wrote, “The court surrounds the temple just as the sea surrounds the world” (quoted in Barker, The Gate of Heaven, 65). Water right before heaven. In the fascinating cosmology of biblical times, the heavens and the waters were above while the earth was below. The ancients saw that rain, snow, sleet, and hail came from “up there,” and so viewed heaven as water’s source. When the writers of Genesis told the story of Noah, they said the flood came as “the windows of heaven opened up and the floodwaters came crashing down” (Genesis 7:11). In other words, the design of the Jewish temple was intended symbolically to mirror the architecture of the cosmos. To enter the throne room of God (heaven), you had to pass first through the sea.
Side comment: heavens and waters “up there” form part of a three-fold ancient cosmology affirmed in the Bible: heaven above, earth in the middle, and underworld below. To believe this literally is to prefer millennia-old science over modern insights about an evolutionary universe. This leads disastrously to what Diana Butler Bass calls “elevator Christianity” in which you are either headed in two directions, up or down (and down is never good!).
To continue the biblical deep-diving one more step, there’s another aspect of water in the Bible to be named—chaos. In the Bible, water is not only a central part of the cosmos, and a cleansing, purifying, and transforming symbol, it is also a symbol of chaos threatening to overtake God’s good creation. Often, this chaos is even personified as a sea-monster. God’s first act of creation takes place from out of the watery chaos in the beginning (Genesis 1:1), and the Psalms sing of God’s victory “dividing the sea by might, breaking the heads of dragons in the waters.” “You crushed the heads of (sea-monster) Leviathan,” the Psalmist continues (74:12). The chaos of waters is the anti-creation. It’s this anti-creation force that God overcomes in liberating Israelite slaves from the Egyptian empire, “dividing the sea by might.” And when Jesus calms the waves, it is more than a simple storm that the Gospel writers are referencing; it’s the showdown between creation and chaos itself (Mark 4:35-41).
The sea of glass in front of the throne is the water of chaos, conquered and frozen in place, held at bay. But the sea of glass is also the water of transformation. The worshipper plunges through it in order to rise again with Christ in new life, leaving old life, habits, attachments, “stinking-thinking”—and indeed, the chaos that comes with them—behind. I’d like to think the same water flows from heaven into a German tap, into a plastic, green baptismal tub, and from your faucets, too.
Apocalyptic culture corner: The CDC uses zombie apocalypse storylines to nudge people to prepare for emergencies.
Apocalyptic quote of the week: “When the writers of the Bible wrote about this (apocalypse), it was with the anticipation of everything being made right, put back in place, restored. It was a hopeful buoyant, joyous expectation that there is still a better future for the world. A true apocalypse isn’t something to be feared but something to be celebrated.” —Rob Bell, What is the Bible?