WITH A SINGLE WORD, LUKE FAMOUSLY CONNECTS JESUS’ SUFFERING, DEATH, AND RESURRECTION WITH GOD’S DELIVERANCE OF HIS PEOPLE OUT OF EGYPT THROUGH THE RED SEA: “MOSES AND ELIJAH ... APPEARED IN GLORY AND SPOKE OF HIS EXODUS (GREEK: ἔχοδυς; “DEPARTURE”), WHICH HE WAS ABOUT TO ACCOMPLISH AT JERUSALEM” (LUKE 9:31).
Paul develops this connection in his baptismal theology (Rom 6:1–7; compare Exod 14:28–30).1
Like the pursuing Egyptians in the Red Sea, a believer’s old sinful self is drowned in the waters of baptism. And like the fleeing Israelites, we are brought through the waters into new life with Christ. The baptismal prayer in the Book of Common Prayer (and many other service manuals) picks up on this imagery:
And when thou didst drown in the Red Sea Wicked King Pharao, with all his army, yet (at the same time) thou didst lead thy people the children of Israel safely through the midst thereof: whereby thou didst figure the washing of thy holy baptism. 2
John Donne (1572–1631), an English poet and Anglican pastor, also saw rich connections between the sea and the blood of Christ. 3 He loved to creatively and paradoxically improvise this motif in his poetry and sermons: Christ’s blood is both the sea through which we pass and the ship on which we travel. This image provided Donne joy and solace, particularly as he faced a voyage to Germany.
Afraid to sail across the North Sea, Donne contemplated his death in A Hymn to Christ (1619), contrasting his fear with his faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of Thy blood.
Donne transformed his fear of drowning into a reminder of Christ’s precious blood, which had purchased his redemption (1 Pet 1:18–19).
As a pastor, Donne did not get to choose his place of ministry. He accepted his assignment to serve as a chaplain to diplomats overseas, even though that meant leaving the comfort and safety of his home in England:
I sacrifice this island unto Thee,
And all whom I love there, and who love me;
When I have put our seas 'twixt them and me,
Put Thou Thy seas betwixt my sins and Thee.
Instead of seeing the North Sea as a chasm between him and his loved ones, Donne understood it as the chasm between his sins and the Lord. Yes, his pastoral calling put him in danger and took him far from his family and friends, but because of Jesus’ death and resurrection Donne was safe in the care of God, always dwelling in his presence.
In Donne’s last sermon before leaving on this voyage, he prayed that his congregants and fellow travelers would be comforted: “Christ Jesus remember us all in his kingdom, to which, though we must sail through a sea, it is the sea of his blood, where no soul suffers shipwreck.”4
According to the eyes of faith, all Christ’s people are on a voyage. Donne wanted his parishioners to remember this whenever they thought of his perilous trip. They too were traveling. Although they experienced pain, loss, and disappointment in this broken world, they were secure because, in baptism, God had identified them with Jesus’ death and resurrection. “Death no longer has dominion over [Christ]” (Rom 6:9); therefore, it no longer has power over his people.
Whenever we see the waters separating us from our loved ones or our calling, Donne said, we should remember the depths to which Christ went to bring us near to God:
A conscience is not clean by having recollected all her sins in the memory, for they may fester there, and gangrene to desperation, till she have emptied them in the bottomless sea of the blood of Christ Jesus and the mercy of the Father by way of confession.5
Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, our sin is no longer our own. We can walk in newness of life with Christ Jesus our Lord.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
1 See also how the author of Hebrews interprets the Levitical sacrifices in Heb 9:11–28.
2 The Book of Common Prayer (1549), in The Two Liturgies, AD 1549 and AD 1552, ed. Joseph Ketley, 9–158 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844), 107.
3 Preached at Whitehall (February 12, 1630). John Donne, The Works of John Donne, 6 vols., ed. Henry Alford (London: John Parker, 1839), 6:294.
4 Preached at Lincoln’s Inn (April 18, 1619). Donne, Works, 6:32.
5 Preached at St. Dunstan’s (January 1, 1624). Donne, Works, 5:338.