What’s the History of Christian Baptism?

Most of us think that baptism started with the Great Commission. But actually, its roots are found in the Old Testament laws of ceremonial washings. There were washings for just about everything from removing mildew from walls, to purification after child birth, to acceptance of a leper back into the community.

A dear friend, Doug Olsen of myredeemer.org, gave me permission to post here a great study on the important topic of baptism.

Baptism is Rooted in Jewish Law

Sooner or later, no matter how much care is taken to keep something clean, everything gets dirty. God provided a set of standards to demonstrate this principle. That set of standards, the Levitical Law, provides the instructions on how to recognize the dirt –uncleanliness– and also the procedures for ceremonial cleansing. The cleansings, or baptisms, were for everything from mildew on walls (Leviticus 14:33-53), to purification after child birth (Leviticus 12:1-8), to acceptance of a healed “leper” back into the community. (Leviticus 13:1-36, Leviticus 14:1-32). So when the people saw John baptizing at the river Jordan, they thought that he was just following those traditions of cleansing.

Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized— for John had not yet been thrown into prison.

Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’” (John 3:22-28)

John quickly corrected the observers when they tried to compare what he was doing to a new and more popular event that was taking place nearby!

Jesus Used Washing Jars

Since these washings were so common, it shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus performed His first miracle using some nearby ceremonial washing jars for containers to hold the wine that He converted from water.

Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it to him. When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:6-10)

The laws regarding cleansings, along with all the other laws, were observed year after year because they couldn’t really make a person clean –they couldn’t take away sins. The laws were only shadows –hints– about how Christ was going to deal with our sins once and for all.

Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)

The Reality Lies Beyond the Shadow

The system of laws first showed how to recognize the various violations of purity. Then the priest examined the situation to confirm the presence of impurity and he provided instructions for cleansing. Later, after the physical cleansing was completed and after the impurity was eradicated, additional rituals were performed for ceremonial cleansing. When all of this was completed, the priest could finally declare that cleanliness had been re-established.

Through our “20/20 hindsight”, the parallel becomes obvious. The law (whether written on stone for the Jews or on the heart for all), convicts man of his unrighteous, dead condition. The man can then choose to go to the true Priest in order to be cleansed from all unrighteousness and gain eternal life. It’s the same Priest –Jesus– who gave him the law, who examined him, who sprinkled him and who declared –and continues to declare– him righteous.

A Curious Irony

Jesus began His ministry with a miracle –water which became wine. You might ask, “Why there were six stone jars for cleansing in the story?”

  • Six is the number for man –he was created on the sixth day.
  • The jar represents man’s earthly body.
  • Stone –or rock– represents God.
  • Clay is what man was made from.

All of this is to demonstrate that the vessel that would provide the ultimate cleansing was going to come in the form of a man –a jar. And that man would be God –stone. If man could provide his own means of purification, the vessel would have been made of clay –like man himself. And Jesus is the stone upon which His church is built.

He changed the water into wine because water is not sufficient for cleansing. Remember the last supper when Jesus explained that wine represented His own blood? Purification must be accomplished using blood. When His mother told Him to make more wine, His reply was so revealing. “My time has not yet come.” It would be a few more years before His day on the cross.

It’s ironic that His ministry started on a wedding day where He changed water into wine. And on His last day of ministry–when He was pierced for our transgressions– out of His body–the true cleansing jar– flowed those same two elements. They came in reverse order–blood was followed by water– to show that everything was accomplished. His ministry started on a day celebrating the fulfillment of a wedding promise; Now we look forward to our own wedding day –as His bride!

Next: It’s Four Purposes

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen