I have been spending an increasing amount of time in my studies trying to do a better job of placing myself in the shoes of those who lived in biblical times. I believe it is correct to say that if we do not understand the scriptures in their historical context, it will not be possible for us to make proper applications to ourselves today. Trying to understand the original language and the original culture has been the crux of the studies I have shared with you. We have discussed the gospel in its Roman context, noting how the preaching of the apostles would have been counter-imperial to Rome. We spent some time discussing the significance of Jesus remaining in the tomb for three days.
Last time we performed this study we talking about rethinking the purpose of baptism. We spent our time with 1 Peter 3:21 noticing that Peter did not say that baptism was a response of a clean conscience. Rather, Peter said that baptism is the way we ask God for a clear conscience. I would like to expand our studies on the subject of baptism.
We often ask the question or are asked the question: “why baptism?” “Why did God choose baptism as the way for us to be in contact with the blood of Christ?” Frequently we turn to Romans 6 and point out that baptism unites us in the death and the resurrection of Jesus. This, of course, is absolutely true. But Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered to be penned around 57 A.D. Are we to suppose that until 57 A.D. no one had any idea why baptism was the chosen mechanism to receive God’s grace? When Peter stood up with the eleven in Acts 2 and command the people to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, should we suppose the people looked around at each other wondering what baptism was? Did they say to each other, “we need to build some baptisteries?” Or, to put the questions another way, was the command for baptism something completely new and shocking to the audience of the first century which required Paul’s explanation in Romans 6 or did the people already have an understanding of baptism?
We can also go one step further. Archaeology is continuing to excavate numerous amounts of pools in the city of Jerusalem. Even from reading the scriptures we are able to know about a few of the pools that existing in Jerusalem in the first century. In John 9 we read about the pool of Siloam that the blind man was commanded to use to wash mud from his eyes and be healed from blindness. We also read in John 5 about the pool in Bethesda where the waters were troubled by an angel and the first person into the waters would be healed of their illness. Numerous pools are being found throughout the city. Perhaps baptism was a new concept to John the Baptist and the teachings of Jesus as we may think.
I. Baptism in the Old Testament
A. Ritual washings
- It is important for us to realize that ceremonial washings were a critical part of the Old Testament law. We spend much of our time learning about the sacrificial system that was instituted under the law of Moses. But we can easily forget that ritual washings were an integral part of God’s commands. Let us look at some of God’s commands to get a feel and better understanding of the ritual washings commanded by God.
- In Leviticus 14-17 we see the regulations given by God describing when one was deemed unclean by God and what was necessary to do to no longer be unclean. In Leviticus 14 God gives the regulations concerning skin diseases. “The one who is to be cleansed must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe with water; he is clean. Afterwards he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent for seven days. He is to shave off all his hair again on the seventh day: his head, his beard, his eyebrows, and the rest of his hair. He is to wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; he is clean”(Lev. 14:8-9, HCSB). We will notice the same commands given to make a person clean: wash the clothes and wash himself in water.
- Leviticus 15 is God’s discussion concerning bodily fluids. “When the man with the discharge has been cured of it, he is to count seven days for his cleansing, wash his clothes, and bathe his body in fresh water; he will be clean” (Lev. 15:13; HCSB).
- In Leviticus 17 God dealt with forbidden sacrifices and the eating of blood and dead animals. “Every person, whether the native or the foreigner, who eats an animal that died a natural death or was mauled by wild beasts is to wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will remain unclean until evening; he will be clean. But if he does not wash his clothes and bathe himself, he will bear his punishment” (Lev. 17:15-16, HCSB).
- In Leviticus 16 God gave regulations concerning the day of atonement. The day of atonement was a very special and sacred day when the high priest was allowed to enter into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle and sprinkle blood upon the cover of the ark of the covenant to atone for the sins of the people.
- “Then Aaron is to enter the tent of meeting, take off the linen garments he wore when he entered the most holy place, and leave them there. He will bathe his body with water in a holy place and put on his clothes. Then he must go out and sacrifice his burnt offering and the people’s burnt offering; he will make atonement for himself and for the people. He is to burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar. The man who released the goat as the scapegoat is to wash his clothes and bathe his body with water; afterwards he may reenter the camp. The bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought into the most holy place to make atonement, must be brought outside the camp and their hide, flesh, and dung burned up. The one who burns them is to wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterwards he may reenter the camp” (Lev. 16:23-28). Even on the important day of atonement, the washing of the clothes and immersion of the body was tied closely with the sacrifice of atonement. We see similar commands throughout this section of Leviticus and in the book of Numbers (Numbers 19:19).
B. Ritual washings and baptism
- Now, you may be asking what these ritual washings have to do with baptism. The New Testament comments on these ritual washings that were performed under the old covenant. The writer of Hebrews speaks about the day of atonement and these washings which the people did.
- “These things having been set up this way, the priests enter the first room repeatedly, performing their ministry. But the high priest alone enters the second room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was making it clear that the way into the holy of holies had not yet been disclosed while the first tabernacle was still standing. This is a symbol for the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the worshiper’s conscience. They are physical regulations and only deal with food, drink, and various washings imposed until the time of restoration” (Heb. 9:6-10, HCSB).
- The word for “washings” at the end of verse 10 is the Greek word baptismos. The Jews did not understand these washings to be the taking out of a scrub brush and taking filth off the body. Nor did they understand these washings to be a simple sprinkling of water. The Jews believed that immersion in water was necessary and that the water much touch every part of the body to become ritually clean (Science & the Bible; National Geographic Channel). This explains why Jerusalem had so many pools available to the people.
- But there is even more. The Jews went beyond the teachings of Moses concerning ritual washings and required those who converted to Judaism to also be immersed in water. “For the Jews required three things of strangers who declared themselves to be converts to the Law of Moses: circumcision, baptism, and to offer sacrifice if they were men: the two latter if they were women” (“baptism,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). We have usually recognized the need for converts to Judaism to be circumcised if they were males. But immersion and sacrifice were also needed to be part of Judaism. This also explains why there were so many pools in Jerusalem in the early centuries. Therefore we see that the Jews were very familiar with the need to be immersed in water.
- But Gentiles were also familiar with this and would not have seen immersion as a foreign concept. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia further states, “Baptism, as an initiatory rite, was no less familiar to Gentile converts who had no acquaintance with the Jewish religion. These heathen baptisms, like the baptism of proselytes, were for the most part simply ceremonial purifications…” (ibid). We see that immersion in water was not a new concept being taught in the New Testament. In fact, not only the Jews but also the Gentiles knew the reasoning and purpose for being immersed in water. Immersion was done for purification or to be ceremonially cleansed.
C. Old Testament prophecies
- The Old Testament prophets also spoke of washing in water with a similar understanding. The prophets used the people’s knowledge of ceremonial cleanliness before God as a way to symbolize the people needing to cleanse their hearts from sin. The external act of immersion symbolized the cleansing taking place as the worshipper was unclean but now was made clean in the sight of God.
- In the first 15 verses of Isaiah 1, Isaiah condemns the people for their wickedness. The people were full of injustice, bloodshed, and iniquity. Isaiah then declared, “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil” (Isaiah 1:16; HCSB).
- In speaking in Messianic language about what would come with the Christ, Zechariah prophesied: “On that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the residents of Jerusalem, to wash away sin and impurity” (Zechariah 13:1). Zechariah prophesied to the people telling them they needed to look forward to the day of the Messiah when a washing away of sin and impurity would take place. This picture would make perfect sense to the people of Israel. The blood of bulls and goats was not taking away sins. The ceremonial washings were simply symbols of a greater reality that was to come (Hebrews 9:10). Israel was awaiting the Messiah who would bring the reality.
II. Baptism in the New Testament
A. John the Baptist
- As we come to the New Testament, we read about a man named John who was given an important task of preaching that the kingdom of heaven was near. “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said: A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make His paths straight!” John himself had a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the vicinity of the Jordan were flocking to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the place of his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matt. 3:1-7, HCSB).
- The message of John was that all Jews had to be purified to be ready for the coming Messianic kingdom. I think this helps us better understand the nature of John’s baptism. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, as Paul declares in Acts 19, in that it was to get people’s lives right for the coming Messiah. But the scriptures also tell us that John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. We should not be thrown off by this, seeing that these ceremonial washings were always considered the way that God made a worshipper clean who was unclean.
- Those coming to John would not have thought that there was magic in the Jordan River that would take away their sins. They realized this was a symbolic act of their hearts turning to God and away from their wickedness. This explains why John condemns the Pharisees and Sadducees for coming to him. John seems to indicate that these were hypocrites who had not come with a change of heart and desire for purification.
- In fact, the people of Israel were expecting immersion in water as a sign of the Messianic age. “So they asked him, ‘Why then do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?'” (John 1:25). Immersion in water was not a shocking new teaching but was expected by the people. The Messianic age would require the people to ask God for cleansing through baptism.
B. Other NT passages
- I believe this background also explains the language the apostles used in describing the nature and working of baptism. Peter stood up in Acts 2 and did not say something that the people had never heard of, that is, immersion in water is needed for cleansing. What was new was the fact that Jesus was the Messiah and it was through His power that sins were now taken away. The day had coming where the Messiah would remove sins forever when a person desired to be purified and was immersed in water.
- In Acts 22:16 Ananias told Paul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” Baptism was the way to be made clean by God. Ananias declares Paul’s need to be baptized to wash away his sins.
- Notice how the writer of Hebrews draws strongly on the ritual washings of the Old Testament and applies it to the act of baptism under the covenant of Jesus. “Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He has inaugurated for us, through the veil (that is, His flesh); and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22). This is exactly what was commanded under the old covenant to the high priest on behalf of the worshippers. But that was only a symbol of the future reality that the Messiah would bring to the world. The atoning work of Christ is tied to our need to have our hearts cleansed and our bodies washed in water, that is baptism.
- Paul described baptism in a similar way: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11, HCSB). Again, we are now able to understand why baptism is called a washing many times throughout the New Testament. The image calls upon God taking unclean people and making them clean through immersion in water.
- Hear Paul’s words again: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
- The symbolism is similar to the Old Testament picture. God declared his people clean when they washed their clothes and washed their bodies in water. It was at that point they were made clean. If they did not perform this act they were not made clean: “But if he does not wash his clothes and bathe himself, he will bear his punishment” (Lev. 17:16, HCSB). It was still God’s word to declare the people clean, but they had to perform the act for God to make the declaration.
- Paul said the same thing. God saved us by His own mercy and love and not by any works we have done. But God saves us “through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” The washing cannot be taken away for it is the point that God declares His people clean. The teaching of John, Jesus, and the apostles was not surprising to first century Jews nor Gentiles because washing in water has always been considered the way to be made clean. It is through the act of immersion in water that God extends his grace to mankind.