Where Did Baptism Come From?

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Guest Contributor

In the New Testament and across Christian tradition, baptism signals at least three realities:

  1. Identification with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection (Romans 6:3–4; Colossians 2:12)
  2. Purification from sin and its effects, which have separated us from our Maker (Acts 22:16)
  3. Incorporation into the body of Christ, the church (Acts 2:41; 1 Corinthians 12:13)

Given these connotations, and given the assumption that Christian baptism is new with John the Baptist’s initiation — a baptism received by Christ at the beginning of his earthly ministry to signal its inauguration and association with the dawn of the new covenant — how does Christian baptism relate to Old Testament practices? Where did the idea of baptism come from? After overviewing the meaning of Christian baptism, this article seeks to briefly explore the connections between baptism and Old Testament ritual washings.

Buried and Raised with Christ

When considering the meaning of baptism, it is important to distinguish the word’s definitional meaning from its symbolic or metaphorical meaning. Literally, or definitionally, the word baptize means “to dip” or “to immerse.”1 But this definition does not exhaust the meaning of Christian baptism in the New Testament.

Paul gets to the heart of the meaning of Christian baptism in Romans 6:3–4:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

In this passage, Paul connects Christian baptism to union with Christ, especially in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in the place of, and on behalf of, his people (see also Colossians 2:12). This connection explains why immersion was the normal baptismal practice of the early church, a practice that has continued in some traditions to the present day.2 Immersion in water, and the believer’s subsequent emersion from the water, symbolizes union with Christ and his work: Christ’s death and burial in our place, Christ’s resurrection on our behalf.

“Immersion in water, and the believer’s subsequent emersion from the water, symbolizes union with Christ and his work.”

In this way, baptism pictures the new birth, without which no one can “see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). By faith, the old man is “crucified with him” (Romans 6:6) and buried — represented by being submerged under the waters of judgment with Christ (Romans 6:3) — so that emerging, the newborn person might live in new life and resurrection hope in union with Christ. In this way, the act of baptism heralds the good news that Christ saves sinners from sin and death through identification with his life and holiness.

Circumcision and Baptism

Although identification with God in Christ is central to understanding baptism — hence why the Christian baptismal formula is “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and why the New Testament speaks of being “baptized into Christ” (see Galatians 3:27) — other biblical-theological symbols can help us understand and appreciate the full meaning of Christian baptism. One, which we cannot explore at length in this short article, is baptism’s connection with the old covenant rite of circumcision.

Paedobaptist traditions often justify their practice of infant baptism by positing a strong continuity between the old and new covenants: as the (male) children of God’s old covenant people received the old covenant sign of circumcision on the eighth day, so today, children born to new covenant believers should receive the new covenant sign, baptism.

We should note that the connection between baptism and circumcision is biblically justified (see Colossians 2:11–12). But paedobaptists misidentify the point of connection. Yes, people are born into the new covenant community, but this is the new birth of which Jesus spoke, and the new covenant children are those who have the faith of their father Abraham (Romans 4:11). In other words, those who are newborn by faith into the new covenant community receive the new-covenant sign of baptism, thus being incorporated into Christ’s body, the church.

‘Wash Away Your Sins’

But what of Old Testament washings? Are these practices part of the symbolic furniture that can help fill out a New Testament understanding of Christian baptism? Acts 22:16 seems to indicate so.

In this passage, Paul recounts for the Jews gathered at the temple in Jerusalem his miraculous conversion and subsequent baptism. As Paul relays his testimony, he includes Ananias’s instructions after he supernaturally received back his sight (an event that is probably meant to symbolize the moment of Paul’s conversion). Ananias said to Paul, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). In this verse, baptism is related to the washing away of sins. But how? Seeing baptism as the efficient cause of washing would be to overread the connection and to ignore the qualifying participle, “calling on his name.” But failing to see the symbolic connection between baptism and washing would be to underread this verse.

The apostle Peter makes a similar connection between baptism and washing, or purification, in 1 Peter 3:21. After he references Noah and his family’s safe passage through the flood on the ark, he writes, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

This notoriously difficult verse has been used to justify a doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which teaches that the waters of baptism are an efficient cause of salvation. But as in Acts 22:16, the call to God in faith qualifies such an overreading. It is not the water-washing of baptism that saves, but what the water-washing symbolizes: “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” And such an appeal can only be made by faith.

Old Testament Washings

Given the relationship Paul and Peter draw between Christian baptism and washing, what specific relation might baptism have to Old Testament washings?

“Baptism is an appeal to God and a symbol of the decisive act of the Holy Spirit, who washes, regenerates, and renews.”

While some rites of washing and purification were immediately related to physical hygiene and the spread of disease (see, for instance, laws regarding leprosy and bodily discharges in Leviticus 13–15), other ritual washings addressed the spiritual uncleanness that comes from living as sinners in a sinful world. For instance, in Exodus 19:10–11, Israel is told to wash before they meet God at Sinai. In Exodus 29:4, Aaron and his sons are to be washed with water to be consecrated as priests. Exodus 30:17–21 includes instructions for priests to wash their hands and feet before they enter the tabernacle.

As my colleague Randal Breland puts it, death, disease, and disorder, which the Bible teaches are all downstream from sin, make one unclean, or impure. And in order to relate to a holy God, we must be made clean. Old Testament ceremonial washings addressed this fallen reality in two ways: first by confronting sinners with their perpetual uncleanness — if they wash, they are tacitly acknowledging their uncleanness — and second by giving them a divinely ordained way to be made clean and so relate to God on his terms.

Cleansing the Heart

Even so, Scripture makes clear that ritual washings are not sufficient to deal with sin and its effects once and for all. In Luke 11:39–40, Jesus addresses the spiritual implications of ceremonial washing: “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?”

Mark records Jesus in a similar context expanding this observation into a spiritual principle with implications for ritual washing: “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:14–15; see also Matthew 15:1–20). In other words, the deeper spiritual reality and meaning behind the act — not the washing itself — is most significant.

This spiritual significance of washing, and its relationship to baptism, seems to lie behind Jesus’s response to Peter in John 13:9, where Peter tells Jesus to wash not just his feet, but his head and his hands. Jesus responds to Peter that he has already been made clean: “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you” (John 13:10).

Significantly, Jesus tells Peter that he does not need to perpetually wash his head and his hands, as the priests of old did, in order to come to God. He has been made clean, once for all, by his faith-union with Christ, which is symbolized by the “bathing” of baptism in which Peter had been submerged — head, hands, and all. But notice: the twelve all had received baptism when they followed Christ, they all had “bathed” (see John 4:1–2), but only eleven were clean. Judas was baptized, but he was not clean.

True and Greater Washing

What then is the symbolic connection between Christian baptism and Old Testament washings? Just as Old Testament washings occurred in obedience to the command of God and symbolized purification from sin, so also baptism. But as in the Old Testament, the act itself does not effect the cleansing; God does. Baptism is an appeal to God and a symbol of the decisive act of the Holy Spirit, who washes, regenerates, and renews in his application of Christ’s work to our lives. As Paul writes in Titus 3:5, “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”

In this way, we leave behind the “various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10), while also recognizing how they teach us of and point us to the true and greater washing by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 9:13–14) and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, all of which is symbolized by baptism into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, let those of us who by faith have been baptized “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).

  1. After a thorough survey of the words from the bapt- root in Classical and Hellenistic Greek, Everett Ferguson concludes, “Baptizō meant to dip, usually a thorough submerging, but it also meant to overwhelm and so could be used whether the object was placed in an element (which was more common) or was overwhelmed by it (often in the metaphorical usages).” See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 59. 

  2. See, for example, the Didache, a second century document: “Concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before” (7.1–4). Even in some paedobaptist traditions, immersion was the norm until very recently, and sometimes is still practiced, such as in some Orthodox churches.