What did Paul mean by “baptism” in 1 Cor. 10:1-4: “I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers…were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea”?
The Corinthians, at the time of Paul’s writing, had been baptized into Christ and felt safe and secure. Paul wishes to address their overconfidence and warns them to stay alert and to illustrate, reaches back into Israel’s history, drawing parallels between the situation of the Corinthians and that of the ancient Israelites led by Moses.
Just as the Corinthians had been baptized or committed unto Christ through immersion in water, the Israelites had been “baptized” or committed unto Moses through their joint witness to the power of God. God’s presence was visible to them in the form of a cloud which guided and protected them and the power of God had allowed them to cross the Red Sea; hence, “baptism in the cloud and in the sea.”
Up to this point then, both the Corinthians and the Israelites are initiated into a community and possess a strong commitment. However, while the Israelites experienced the power of God and were baptized unto Moses, most of the Israelites failed in their journey most miserably. In the same way, even the strongest among the Corinthians faced danger from the heathen influences around them. Just as the cloud and the sea did not stop the Israelites from succumbing to temptation, literal baptism was no guarantee of security for the Corinthians. A main lesson here is that literal baptism alone will not save.
The real meaning of baptism is the attachment to Christ and the detachment from the world and this arrangement of allegiances is not something to “do once and get it over with.” It is a process and a journey which requires vigilance, devotion, prayer and repentance.