Thoughts on the Mode of Christian Baptism in light of Old Testament Scriptures

Introduction

Here is a brief outline of some of my studies and thoughts on sprinkling, immersion, and submersion within Christian Baptism in light of the Old Testament. It provides a trail of Scriptural passages that support the sprinkling and pouring modes of Christian baptism rather than full submersion.

This article is not meant to indicate that full, bodily submersion is wrong, but rather to question whether or not it would be preferred by or practiced by early Christian Jews who had practiced the modes as specified in the Old Testament for centuries.

The Mode of Baptism in the New Testament

Let us first consider New Testament word and instances of “baptism.” The following word is often utilized to indicate a full immersion via submersion for the mode of baptism.

G907 -- βαπτίζω -- baptizō -- bap-tid'-zo

From a derivative of G911; to make whelmed (that is, fully wet); used only (in the New Testament) of ceremonial ablution, especially (technically) of the ordinance of Christian baptism: - baptist, baptize, wash.

So baptizo is a derivative of G911. Which is:

G911 – βάπτω -- baptō -- bap'-to

A primary verb; to whelm, that is, cover wholly with a fluid; in the New Testament only in a qualified or specific sense, that is, (literally) to moisten (a part of one’s person), or (by implication) to stain (as with dye): - dip.

Although there are several instances of this word in the New Testament, only one will be mentioned. The underlined words in the following passage are the same words.

"(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash (G907). And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing (G911) of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)" (Mark 7:3-4)

It could be argued that the cups, pots, and copper vessels could be completely dipped and immersed into water for washing (literally “baptizing”); however, fully immersing dining couches is not logical or practical. Rather than fully immersing the dining couches, it is more likely that they were “baptized” by the pouring or sprinkling of water upon them and then wiped dry.

Since baptizing a dining couch by full immersion is highly unlikely, this is sufficient enough to say that baptizo does not always indicate the complete and full immersion or submersion of an object or person.

Another example of baptizo:

"The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner." (Luke 11:38)

Although they could have submerged their entire body to wash before dinner, it is more likely that they would have only washed their hands and perhaps their feet before eating. And although their hands may be fully engulfed in water, the method of the washing could have been by either pouring water over the hands or by putting the hands fully into water.

It should also be considered that something could be covered wholly with a fluid through pouring as well as through immersion through submersion. For example, a cup could be fully covered in water that is poured over it, and hands can be “baptized” by the pouring of water over them from a pot of water or a stream of water.

These few New Testament examples show that the word does not always indicate full immersion by submersion and that the word can indeed indicate washing without complete submersion of an object especially as mentioned regarding the washing (baptizo) of dining couches.

Now let us consider the Old Testament, which is rarely considered in a study of baptism, in relation to the act of baptism.


The Mode of Baptism in the Old Testament

Old Testament Background – sprinkling and pouring in purification acts.

Another factor in considering the mode of baptism that is often overlooked or not considered is the form of purification and ceremonial cleansing in the Old Testament.
Since the early New Testament disciples and followers of Christ were Jews and followed the Mosaic Law, then they would be quite familiar and even practice cleansing and purification acts as described in the Old Testament. As water replaced blood as the symbol of purification, the disciples could, quite arguably, continue using the mode of Old Testament Mosaic cleansing into the New Testament era. As the Gospel of Christ spread into the Gentile culture, it is very easy to conceive how the mode of baptism could be changed from one form to another, specifically sprinkling or pouring to full immersion, without an understanding of the Mosaic Ceremonial practices that were closely associated with Jewish culture.

First, consider the sprinkling of the blood for purification and cleansing of sin as referenced in the Old Testament Law in these passages:

"Then you shall take part of the blood that is on the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments, and on his sons and his sons' garments with him. He and his garments shall be holy, and his sons and his sons' garments with him." (Ex. 29:21)

"And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the LORD in front of the veil of the sanctuary." (Lev. 4:6)

"and he shall sprinkle some of the blood of the sin offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin offering." (Lev 5:9)

"And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field." (Lev 14:7)

"And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times." (Lev 16:14)

"And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel." (Lev 16:19)

Second, consider the pouring of the blood for purification as referenced in the Old Testament Law in these Scriptures:

"And shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar." (Exo 29:12)

" And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the LORD that is in the tent of meeting, and all the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting." (Lev 4:7)

Third, consider the pouring of oil for purification, cleansing, and anointing as referenced in these Old Testament passages:

"Then take the flask of oil and pour it on his head and say, 'Thus says the LORD, I anoint you king over Israel.' Then open the door and flee; do not linger." (2Ki 9:3)

"You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him." (Ex 29:7)

" And the rest of the oil that is in the priest's hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. Then the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD." (Lev 14:18)

Finally, let us consider Scriptures concerning Dipping or Immersion in the Old Testament. Oddly enough, the only places in the Mosaic Law that mention the word dipping or the concept of immersion are when an object is dipped into blood or oil and then used to sprinkle or mark another object. For example:

"And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and [then] sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the LORD in front of the veil of the sanctuary." (Lev 4:6)

The concept of immersion is only present after the blood has been poured out into the base of an altar as in Exodus 29:12 and in Leviticus 4:7. The blood covers or immerses part of the alter trough, yet the blood is not actually immersing (or submerging) the sacrifice, which is located atop the altar.


Final Thoughts

So from these example scriptures from the Old Testament, it is clear that the sign of purification was shown by the sprinkling of or by the pouring of blood over an object. These examples do not show that purification was shown by full submersion of an object.

And regarding the New Testament references, this article has shown that the word baptizo, which is often associated with submersion, can also mean to wash through pouring or sprinkling.

John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul were Jews and understood the practices mentioned in the Old Testament scriptures referenced above. These Old Testament ceremonial practices of sprinkling and pouring would have naturally been well known to them and carried over into the early New Testament era. Since John, Peter, Paul, and Jesus were Jews who would practice purification through the modes of sprinkling and pouring as instructed in the Old Testament Law, then the mode of New Testament baptism would more than likely have been sprinkling or pouring. Sprinkling and pouring was a part of their culture and an established religious practice amongst the Jews. To suggest that this Old Testament practice would be changed to full immersion of the person through submersion does not seem fitting to or persistent with Old Testament law, Jewish traditions, and religious practices.

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