The practice of baptism has been a part of Church orthodoxy since the beginning and is distinguished as one of the two New Testament (NT) ceremonies, along with the Lord’s Supper, enjoined upon Christians by Christ himself (Matt. 26:26-29; 28:18-20). At the conclusion of the first recorded sermon on Pentecost, in response to the question “What shall we do?” Peter commanded, “… let every one of you be baptized” (Acts 2:37, 38) cementing baptism as a perpetual part of Christian soteriology. As the years have developed, the import of baptism, as a sacrament to some and a rite to others, has been commented upon by the greatest of theological minds. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) refers to baptism as a “washing, by which we are cleansed from the filth of our sins.”[i] Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), when answering the Donatist view, wrote that “however great the evil of either minister or recipient may be, the sacrament itself is holy on account of the one whose sacrament it is.”[ii] Martin Luther (d. 1546) in his Large Catechism takes the stand that, “Yes, our works truly avail nothing for salvation, but baptism is not our work, it is the work of God.”[iii] Luther’s historical contemporary John Calvin (d. 1564) believed baptism and circumcision had an “anagogic relation”[iv] – both events related to the idea of an inauguration into a covenant and therefore the reception of the hopes and blessings that reside in that covenant. Even a brief review of the thoughts regarding the salvific necessity or theological significance of baptism would fill more than the space allowed; therefore, the remainder of this examination will focus solely upon the theological significance of baptism as the ceremony corresponds to the purification of the individual and their relationship to God.
When beginning a discussion of baptism, the prevailing theological beliefs behind the sacrament or rite, depending on one’s denominational practice, tend to fall into two broad categories: baptism as an essential salvific element, or baptism as a non-essential salvific element. Regardless upon which side one falls regarding the import of baptism, both views place baptism as part of the introductory ceremony for a catechumen into the Church. So one might raise the question, “As an element in the redemptive process, what significance could the rite of water baptism play in the believer’s relationship to God?”
When discussing theological relationships, especially those significant relationships that span the Testaments, typology becomes a strong force indicating importance. Mickelsen discusses the fact that there is a historical orientation to typology that shows a “point of correspondence” in which God’s earlier actions become significant to his later actions.[v] Notably in the NT we find an explicit statement regarding the relationship between baptism and water in 1 Peter 3:20, 21. Christian baptism is presented as intimately related to the historical event of Noah’s deliverance through water, but Peter makes it clear that the water is seen as less important for the cleansing the body as our pledge to God proceeding from our good conscience. The catechumen “answers affirmatively to God’s request for faith and obedience”[vi] and then submits to the baptismal pool in response to that affirmation. Paul also elaborates on that answering action and the specific results that follow in 1 Corinthians 6:11. Paul presents the “washing” as the bridge from the Corinthian’s previous sinful lives into a life of sanctification and justification; the purifying waters are united with being made holy and being declared just.[vii] Where Peter seems to be highlighting the purification of the internal man as good conscious and baptism meet; Paul points to the transitional impetus of baptism from previous sinful actions into a new and restored relationship with God. So, with an eye towards typology, is there an adequate Old Testament (OT) example of a rite achieving similar results?
There are several diametric relationships found in the Scriptures: good versus evil, permanent versus temporary, and clean versus unclean to name just a few of the possible pairings. For our purposes, the idea of clean versus unclean takes a central role in looking for a potentially typological event related to baptism. A primary speculation regarding a type for the anti-type of baptism has often seen in the baptism of Jewish proselytes. The initial condition of the proselyte was one of being outside those that were spiritually alive, and the translation of that individual into the company of the circumcision was like a child newly born. But, there are some that criticize the baptism-to-baptism relationship since the washing of the proselyte occurred after the more defining translation event. As Beasley-Murry points out “the decisive turn from ‘death’ therefore was the circumcision already undergone, not the bath taken seven days later.”[viii]
Proselyte baptism may have analogous leanings to Christian baptism, but a much more convincing type/anti-type relationship can be seen in the ceremonial washings among the Jews as part of the cleanliness laws of the Levitical code. The legal codes imposed by God through Moses take shape from the need of the people to be holy because God is holy (Lev. 11:45; 19:2; 20:7, 26), and that holiness takes its primary shape in the contrast between clean versus unclean. The primary meaning of holiness points to an otherness of God that we cannot hope to approach, but the secondary meaning of holiness – in which God is pure and righteous – has a “communicable” nature[ix] by the rites imposed: the Levitical ablutions.
The book of Leviticus is a record of the ecclesiastical ordinances which were given to Israel, and of special note are the laws concerning purity with the distinction between clean and unclean (Lev. 11-15). These laws were designed to not only separate Israel from the world, but also to produce an overall holiness. Beyond even those ordinances which targeted the nation via the individuals, there were also specific rites that the priests were instructed to follow to ensure purity upon entrance into the tabernacle or temple for priestly duties. When describing the tabernacle and items to be used therein, a bronze laver was to be made and so placed that a ritual washing could be performed by the priests before entering the tabernacle for their specific duties “lest they die” (Exo. 30:20,21). Further, if a priest were to become defiled by reason of coming into contact with an unclean person or situation, that priest was considered unclean and required to wash “his body with water” and “be unclean until evening” (Lev. 22:6, 7). Only after the required event and time was the priest considered able to eat the holy offering – or to reenter “the pleasure of communion with God.”[x] Consider also the Day of Atonement and the activities of the High Priest, who was required to take five ritual bathes in preparation for the different sacrificial services he was to provide. In commenting on those ritual washings undertaken by the High Priest, Finkelstein remarks:
Even if the first morning bath was to remove some possible suspicion of defilement, what was the purpose of the later ritual immersions according to Professor Zeitlin’s theory? The obvious truth is that the Pharisees held that a ritual bath was required not only to wash away impurity, but also as a symbol of higher purification and consecration.[xi]
Of course the Pharisees were of a time much later than the tabernacle service, but their assessment of the principle behind the ritual washings of the High Priest, as indeed all the ordinances requiring purity, remains sound – to do the work of God and enter the holy precincts there was a level of purity and consecration required which was symbolized in the actions of the ablutions.
The typological relationship between the ritual washings of the Levitical code with the emphasis on cleanliness prior to entering God’s people/work/presence, and the cleansing nature of Christian baptism which removes our spiritual uncleanliness resulting from sin (cf. Rom. 3:10; Acts 22:16) begins to take on a clearer connection. Doubtlessly the Pharisees in Jesus’ time placed more emphasis on the physical act of washing (cf. Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:2) than the principle of cleanliness in the presence of God, but that legalistic error in no way weakens the import of that principle. In the writings of Paul, the Corinthians appear to have regarded baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper, as “magical rites” which guaranteed spiritual life regardless of the individual’s conduct;[xii] but again, their misunderstanding in no way places a shadow over the cleansing properties found in Christian baptism. Therefore, contrary to the traditionally minded Pharisees of Jesus’ time, the Corinthians with their potentially pre-gnostic leanings, or the legalistically engulfed Christians of today, the baptismal waters are an essential part of the holistic salvific process not because that physical water contains special properties, but because those waters are the anti-type which answers the type found in the extreme cleanliness rituals required to enter the presence of God.
Hence we come to the crux of the discussion when a point of contact appears in God’s earlier commands which have become significant in his later commands. Paul reminds us in Romans 12:1, 2 that we are to transform our minds, and of specific significance, not to be confirmed to this world. Peter also follows suit by identifying Christians as not only a living temple, but also as “a holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:3) which offer spiritual sacrifices to the Lord. Now, of all the reasons and results that we commonly recognize as accompanying baptism – obedience to God (Matt. 3:15), remission of sins (Acts 2:38), being born again (Titus 3:5), putting on Christ (Gal. 3:27), and addition to the Church (1 Cor. 12:13) – the aspect that speaks to the covering of and cleansing from our past sins is our contact with the blood of Christ (Rom. 6:3). John also reminds those early Christians that they were washed from their sins in the blood of Jesus Christ, and made “kings and priests to His God and Father” (Rev. 1:5). Since we are now recognized as priests and kings to God, the writer of Hebrews maintains that we can come into “the Holiest by the blood of Jesus” because we have had our “hearts sprinkled” and our “bodies washed” (Heb. 10:19-22). Hence the implication of a complete cleansing, the spiritual and the physical. Lenski also acknowledges that where the body is concerned the “sacramental washing of baptism” is indicated in this place since that is the part that physically touches the body.[xiii]
It is undeniable that there are no explicit scriptures expressing a typological relationship between the Levitical washings and Christian baptism; yet, the relationship between purity and entrance into God’s people/work/presence should not be summarily dismissed as irrelevant when Christian baptism has such a significant place in the life of the Christian. F. LaGard Smith, who likens baptism to a wedding ceremony, asks the question, “What purpose would be served by a wedding if there were no loving relationship between the bride and the groom?”[xiv] The point being one might well have had his sins cleansed and spirit purified, but that same individual must be diligent to maintain a relationship with God. Of the many lessons a Christian can glean from the Exodus is that one should not look back to a former life with longing; therefore, let one look forward with the realization that a new covenant has been entered and a new life begun in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit when the Christian accesses the blood of Christ through baptism (Rom. 6:1-6).
[i] Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, 4th ed. (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 456.
[ii] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 460.
[iii] Thomas N. Schulz, “The Relation of Baptism to Justification By Faith Only in Luther’s Teachings.” Restoration Quarterly 4, no. 2: 94-103 (1960), ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 25, 2015), 103.
[iv] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology: Three Volumes in One, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 3:310.
[v] A.Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), 246.
[vi] G. R. Beasley-Murry, Baptism in the New Testament (1962; repr., Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 261.
[vii] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 151.
[viii] G. R. Beasley-Murry, Baptism in the New Testament, 27-29.
[x] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. I – Genesis to Deuteronomy (Old Tappan: Fleming H Revell Company, 1970), 532.
[xi] Louis Finkelstein, 1933, “The Institution of Baptism for Proselytes.” Journal of Biblical Literature 52, no. 4: 203-211, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 25, 2015), 206.
[xii] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 446.
[xiii] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistle to the Hebrews and The Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), 349.
[xiv] F. LaGard Smith, Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Publishers, 1993), 33.