A Theology of Baptism

Baptists, unlike many other denominations, believe in baptism by immersion rather than by “sprinkling” or “pouring.” Three reasons that I know of are commonly cited:

  • The Greek word baptizo literally means to “immerse” or “submerge.”
  • The symbology of baptism as generally recognized is burial and resurrection, which is not adequately pictured by sprinkling or pouring.
  • The oldest known paintings of baptisms seem to depict immersions.

For me, personally, I must go by what I know from many years of studying the rich Jewish background of Christianity. If Scripture isn’t explicit about how to do something it commands us to do, then that is usually because when the Scripture was written, there was no ambiguity. The church started out 100% Jewish, and in fact “The Way”, as we were often called in the 1st Century, was regarded within and without as a Jewish sect. Another common name was “The Sect of the Nazarene”. Ritual purification by total immersion in “living waters” (a natural stream or one of thousands of constructed Jewish mikvot, or baptisteries), was required as a personal response to sin, and to prepare for almost any ritual event. I believe that Christian baptism following salvation and prior to admission to membership in a local assembly mirrors the Jewish practice of requiring a person to be ritually submerged prior to recognition of his or her conversion to Judaism.

Several years ago, one of my granddaughters was dating a boy who was a member of a Reformed congregation. She wanted to attend catechism classes with him. I agreed, with the stipulation that I would read a copy of the text for myself and review it with her. On at least two occasions I had lunch with the pastor of that church. He was teaching the classes, and we had some very friendly, but of course inconclusive, conversations about the doctrine he was teaching.

The text was Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine. Here are my responses to specific statements made in the chapter on Christian Baptism:

  1. Berkhof said, “We maintain that the mode is quite immaterial, as long as the fundamental idea of purification finds expression in the rite…It is perfectly evident from several passages that baptism symbolizes spiritual cleansing or purification” as opposed to death, burial and resurrection. We’ll start this list with a point of agreement. Berkhof lists a number of Scriptural references, but I will stick with just one of those here:

    1Pet 3:20-21. (CJB) [20] to those who were disobedient long ago, in the days of Noach, when God waited patiently during the building of the ark, in which a few people—to be specific, eight—were delivered by means of water. [21] This also prefigures what delivers us now, the water of immersion, which is not the removal of dirt from the body, but one’s pledge to keep a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah.

    The concept that Christian baptism represents Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection came into use early, and was supported by Paul, himself in Col 2:12, but that was not the original intent of the rite.
  2. “Jesus did not prescribe a certain mode of baptism, and the Bible never stresses any particular mode.” That is true precisely because it was not a new concept that needed to be explained. Christian baptism is patterned on the Jewish rites for ritual purification of new converts. The original writers of the Bible and their audiences, both in Israel and the Diaspora, were all intimately familiar with the Jewish purification rites, and there could have been no ambiguity on the forms required.
  3. “The word employed by [Greek translations of Jesus’ words] does not necessarily mean ‘to immerse,’ but may also mean ‘to purify by washing’.” To purify by washing is one application of the term. So is the process of dying a cloth. But both practically and linguistically, the method of doing either was by dipping something completely. Strong defines the root, bapto, as a verb meaning “to overwhelm, i.e., cover wholly with a fluid”, “to moisten” or “to dip”, and baptizo as “to make overwhelmed, or fully wet.” Thayer adds, “submerge” and “immerge” (immerse) and Vine illustrates all of these meanings. Linguistically, it is possible to derive a translation that includes something less than total submergence, but to do so in this instance ignores the cultural context under which the word was written and how it would have been understood by the two imminent Jewish theologians, Jesus and Paul.
  4. “From earliest times it was customary to baptize by sprinkling and pouring as well as by immersion. Purification was frequently, if not generally, effected by sprinkling during Old Testament times” (emphasis added). This is a true statement about ritual cleansing, but inapplicable to the subject of Christian baptism or the Jewish customs at its root. Berkhof is referring here to the purification of objects, and rituals like the washing of hands. There were many different types of purification rite specified in the Old Testament. Each type of purification had its own specified mode. Berkhof gives numerous scriptural examples, but in each case, the mode demonstrated was as commanded by God for the specific situation. Purification for the purpose of human conversion and for many types of personal defilement required complete submersion, down to the last hair on the head. In particular, purification by complete submersion was required for conversion to Judaism, so I’m very sure that for “conversion” to Christianity, that is what they, too, did.
  5. “The baptism with the Spirit certainly did not take place by immersion…” That’s a weak argument for the question of water baptism, and I don’t even think it’s true for spiritual! I’m very sure that Holy Spirit baptism requires metaphorically complete immersion in the Holy Spirit. If sprinkling with “tongues of fire” on the head (“sprinkling of the Holy Spirit”?) is what Berkhof had in mind, then where is my tongue of fire? I think I really have been “immersed” in the Spirit!
  6. “…nor did other baptisms mentioned in Scripture.” He gave three examples here that I think are instructive:

    (a) Lk 11:37-38, (CJB) [37] As Yeshua* spoke, a Parush* [Pharisee] asked him to eat dinner with him; so he went in and took his place at the table; [38] and the Parush* was surprised that he didn’t begin by doing n’tilat yadayim [ritual handwashing] before the meal.

    (b) Lk 12:49-51, (CJB) [49] “I have come to set fire to the earth! And how I wish it were already kindled! [50] I have an immersion to undergo—how pressured I feel till it’s over! [51] Do you think that I have come to bring peace in the Land? Not peace, I tell you, but division! Jesus is speaking here of His coming ordeal, His crucifixion and the ultimate division that that will cause in the final judgement. His “baptism of fire”, so to speak.

    And (c) 1Cor 10:1-2 (CJB) [1] For, brothers, I don’t want you to miss the significance of what happened to our fathers. All of them were guided by the pillar of cloud, and they all passed through the sea, [2] and in connection with the cloud and with the sea they all immersed themselves into Moshe* [Moses]. Jesus is speaking metaphorically about the Reed Sea crossing by the Israelites. Of course, they, unlike the Egyptians behind them, were not literally immersed.
  7. “Neither does it seem that this mode was followed in the cases mentioned in Acts.” Berkhof here provides several references: Saul’s immersion after his road to Damascus encounter; the Gentile conversions at the house of Cornelius; and the Philippian jailer and his family. Nowhere do these verses mention the mode followed. They just say, in effect, “they were baptized.” I think that Berkhof is here assuming that there simply was no place handy for a complete immersion. He’s wrong. Every synagogue in every town with 10 or more male Jews had its own mikvah. Where there was no mikvah, there was a river or stream that could be used as it was or dredged or dammed to form a deep enough pool.

    A Jewish mikvah at Qumran, ©2008, Ron Thompson
  8. “Spiritual renewal is sometimes said to have been effected by sprinkling.” Where sprinkling is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is usually blood or oil, sprinkled in specific places for specific reasons. Water is sprinkled, literally, in only two contexts, where the vast amounts of water that would be required for full immersion were impractical: (a) The initial consecration of the Levites—all of them—at the “commissioning” of the tabernacle. And (b) at red heifer ceremonies, when many objects and people were to be cleansed more or less simultaneously. The one Old Testament example given by Berkhof was

    Ez 36:24-26 (CJB)
    [24] For I will take you from among the nations,
    gather you from all the countries,
    and return you to your own soil.
    [25] Then I will sprinkle clean water on you,
    and you will be clean;
    I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness
    and from all your idols.
    [26] I will give you a new heart
    and put a new spirit inside you;
    I will take the stony heart out of your flesh
    and give you a heart of flesh.

    This was, of course, poetic language referring to the New Covenant and to the Olam HaBa (the end-time world to come), and not at all meant to be taken literally. God was speaking, through Ezekiel, about what He will do, not to an individual, but to the entire Nation of Israel. If it was meant to be taken literally, God is also promising to rip out their old hearts and spirits and replace them with new!

    Berkhof also inserts a New Testament example here:

    Heb 10:22 (CJB)
    [22] Therefore, let us approach the Holiest Place with a sincere heart, in the full assurance that comes from [faith]—with our hearts sprinkled clean from a bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    In this event, hearts are metaphorically sprinkled (since you can’t do that literally, let alone completely immerse it), but bodies are literally immersed.

Note the important point that salvation was never a result of ritual. Even in Temple days, Jewish salvation was by God’s grace, as a result of the individual’s faith in God. All ritual was an obedient response by a believing heart. Inevitably, many Church customs have evolved over the millennia. God’s grace will not condemn a “sprinkler”, but I prefer to do it right.

The Jewish Feasts: Part 10, The Days of Awe

©Ron Thompson 2020

As Israel’s hot summer months come to a close, we enter the Fall Feast season. The first two of these Feasts define the most solemn days of the Jewish year, and the final one, the most joyous. The first two are intimately connected: Yom Teruah, the Day of Trumpets (also known as Rosh Ha-Shanah, Head of the Year, the Jewish secular New Year), on Tishri 1, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement on Tishri 10. These two days and the intervening eight days are called, collectively, the Days of Awe (Heb. Yamim Noraim). The entire 10-day period is devoted to intense personal, individual repentance, prayer and righteous deeds (Heb. T’shuvah, tefilla, and tzedakah) and to acts of reconciliation. Joyous celebrations such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs do not take place during these days.

The “Book(s) of Life” are a concept that most Christian denominations don’t give much attention to, though there are quite a few somewhat obscure scriptures about them. There are mentions in Exodus, 1 Samuel, Daniel, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Luke, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Hebrews, and of course, Revelation. Plus several Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal books. I won’t go into the Christian theology here, but I must talk about the Jewish, because it is extremely relevant to the Days of Awe.

The Book of Life (or Book of the Living, Heb. Sefer Hayyim) have taken on huge significance in the writings of Rabbi Akiva, and the Jewish Talmud states that,

 “Three books are opened in Heaven on Rosh Ha-Shanah, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed in the Book of Life, and the thoroughly wicked in the Book of Death, wile the fate of the intermediate is suspended until the Day of Atonement.”

Most people would certainly have considered themselves among the intermediate, but who really knows, so pretty much everyone must consider themselves as such. Thus, the 10-day span of the Days of Awe are marked by ritual cleansing (immersion), prayer and fasting, intense introspection, acts of repentance and, frankly, fear. But wait; the consequences are so dire for those not written in the Book of Life, that the rabbis very early decided than 10 days was not enough, and the tradition grew of starting a month early, on Elul 1.

©Ron Thompson 1008. On Masada, a typical Jewish baptistry (Heb. mikvah).

So here is what the period looked like: On Elul 1, all Jews went to the most convenient mikvah (ritual baptistery), spring or river for immersion and cleansing from sin, then, for 40 days, the process of virtual self-flagellation would proceed, culminating in the Pilgrim Festival of Yom Kippur, to be covered in Part 12. Of course, all intervening Sabbaths and the Day of Trumpets/Rosh Ha-Shanah Feast were scrupulously observed. At the conclusion of the 40 days, Jews from around Israel and the Diaspora convened at the Temple Mount for the most important Feast of the year.

The Parapet of the Temple, adapted from Rose Guide to the Temple,
© Copyright 2012 Bristol Works, Inc.

Consider now a late summer in AD 29. It is Elul 1, and John the Baptizer is standing by the water near the village of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, not too far from Jericho (Luke 3). He is baptizing devout Jewish men and women from the district, and chastising those simply obeying their legalistic impulses. He raises his head and sees, walking towards him, his cousin Jesus of Nazareth, who some 33 years earlier had caused him to jump in his mother’s womb. Jesus speaks to John, then steps into the water and is baptized, not for His own sin, but in order to conform to the ritual necessities expected of Him, and to receive the blessing given Him by Father and Spirit that day.

Following His baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for the requisite 40 days of prayer and fasting. At the end of this time, on Yom Kippur, Satan appears to Him and tests Him in three ways:

Luke 4:1-12 (CJB)
[4:1] Then Yeshua*, filled with the Ruach HaKodesh* [Holy Spirit], returned from the Yarden* [Jordan] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness [2] for forty days of testing by the Adversary. During that time he ate nothing, and afterwards he was hungry. [3] The Adversary said to him, “If you are the Son of God, order this stone to become bread.” [4] Yeshua* answered him, “The Tanakh* [Old Testament] says, ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’

[5] The Adversary took him up, showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world, [6] and said to him, “I will give you all this power and glory. It has been handed over to me, and I can give it to whomever I choose. [7] So if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” [8] Yeshua* answered him, “The Tanakh* says, ‘Worship ADONAI* your God and serve him only.’”

[9] Then he took him to Yerushalayim*, set him on the highest point of the Temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, jump from here! [10] For the Tanakh* says,

‘He will order his angels
to be responsible for you and to protect you.
[11] They will support you with their hands,
so that you will not hurt your feet on the stones.’”

[12] Yeshua* answered him, “It also says, ‘Do not put ADONAI* your God to the test.’”

The Gospels differ in the order presented, but I think that Luke is most likely chronologically correct by putting Him last on the “highest point of the Temple“, the parapet on the southeastern corner of Solomon’s Porch (see diagram). Yom Kippur being a required Pilgrim Festival, as many as a million people would have been below him in the Temple courts, the Plaza outside, or down in the City of David or its surroundings. Many would have only to raise their eyes to see the drama if Jesus had failed this test.

The Temptation of Jesus does not get the attention it deserves! It is, in my opinion, one of the key events in all of human history.

Jesus, just like Adam, was placed on earth without a sin nature, meaning that they did not have the innate propensity to challenge God’s will. But both were human, and both could be persuaded by temptation. Adam and his mate were tempted by Satan in three ways that we have come to call, The Lust of the Flesh, The Lust of the Eyes, and The Pride of Life. They failed this test and condemned all their descendants to a life of sin. Jesus was tempted in the same fashion and resisted on all counts! He passed all three tests. Had He not done so, we would have no Savior!

Table of Contents: The Jewish Feasts
Start of Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 1, Chapter Introduction
Previous in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 9, Weeks
Next in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 11, Trumpets