The Old Testament and Baptism
To begin to understand what baptism is and does, let’s start in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, purification laws are given. There are three primary verses that give an origin for such purification. These verses are Genesis 32:5 (purification from idol worship), Exodus 19:10 (Israel at Mount Sinai) and Numbers 19:7 (purification for priests). All other purification rituals seem to flow from these verses. When broken down, there are seven primary categories for purification. These categories (in no particular order) are…
– Purification for priests (Exodus 29:1-9, 30:17-21, 40:3-32 – Psalm 26:6, 73:13)
– Leprosy (Leviticus 13:6, 13:34)
– Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:20-28)
– Bodily discharges (Leviticus 15:1-29, Deuteronomy 23:10-11)
– Cleansing of the Levites (Numbers 8:5-7, 19:7-22)
– Contact with the deceased (Leviticus 5:2, 16:4, 16:24, 11:24-28, 11:39-40, 22:4-6 & Numbers 19:11-13)
– Unsolved murders (Deuteronomy 21:1-9)
Old Testament purification texts are only one area that should be examined when studying Christian baptism. In all, there are three categories; purification, allegory and prophecy. To further investigate, it is important to view the verses listed above which correspond to Old Testament purification practices, True Old Testament events that are allegorized by New Testament apostles (Genesis 6:9-18/1 Peter 3:20-21, Exodus 14:1/1Corinthians 10:1-2) and Old Testament prophesies concerning baptism (Ezekiel 36:24-27). Let’s examine a few of these passages in context.
Old Testament Purification Rituals
1. Purification for Priests – Exodus 30:17-21
“The Lord said to Moses, “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”
Here the instruction is given by God, to Moses, for Aaron and descendant priests to purify themselves before embarking on their priestly duties. This passage specifically commands them to purify themselves in the ceremonial basin…“When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die.” This is an interesting picture. If the priest comes into the presence of God without cleansing with water in the basin of bronze he will surely die. There is nothing concerning any specific miraculous property of the water; only that God said for the priest to “wash” their feet and hands in the water of the bronze basin before performing priestly duties or else face death. Also there is a means (wash hands/feet with water in bronze basin) and a promise (death will not occur). Once again, their is nothing “special” about the water or the bronze basin. The action here is in God’s word. We will see the importance of this thought carried through the rest of this study.
2. Leprosy – Leviticus 13:6
“And the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day, and if the diseased area has faded and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only an eruption. And he shall wash his clothes and be clean.”
The disease of leprosy comes up many times throughout the Old and New Testament. There are many similarities between leprosy and sin. Leprosy is an extremely painful and incurable skin disease that once contracted leads to affected body parts falling off, eventually resulting in death. Likewise, sin is a completely devastating disease that reeks havoc throughout the body eventually earning us death (Romans 6:23). Several theologians have written comparing sin and leprosy. C.H. Spurgeon wrote an entire sermon on the subject (The Cleansing of the Leper sermon #353). The verse above speaks of a purification process after a former leper has been pronounced clean. After this pronouncement, the text says, “he shall wash his clothes and be clean.”
3. Contact with the deceased – Numbers 19:11-13
“Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.”
These are the purification rights associated with coming into contact with a corpse. There are some echoes of baptism in this verse, especially in the statement “…because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean.” Here there is a correlation of water with cleansing impurity. One could argue that this is a sanitary precaution as to not contaminate the community with the infirmary from the deceased, but if that was the case, shouldn’t the command have been to “wash immediately and scrub well?” Instead we have a means (water for impurity on the 3rd and 7th day) and a promise (cleanliness that rejoins the person with fellowship). I also cannot help but see the correlation between cleansing on the 3rd day as a symbolic reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the 7th day cleansing as a symbolic reference to “completion” as we see in the creation account.
4. Day of Atonement – Leviticus 16:20-28
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.”
Leviticus 16 outlines the Day of Atonement which was the day 3 animals atoned for the sins of Israel. First a bull was selected to cover for the High Priest and his family. Second, two goats were selected to atone for the sins of Israel. Lots were cast to see which goat would be sacrificed (The Lord) and which goat would live as the scapegoat (Azazal which means outcast or scapegoat). For the goat whose lot fell as scapegoat, the High Priest would confess all of the iniquities of Israel over the goats head, thus transferring onus from Israel to the goat. The goat was then guided outside of the camp, into the wilderness, to never return again. We ultimately see the true fulfillment of all of this (the sacrifice of the bull, goat and the scapegoat) in Christ and His atoning work on the Cross as Hebrews 10:4 says “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” There is so much good news in these verses now as we see Jesus Christ as the one true atonement that takes away the sin of the world. Once again, there is purification ceremonies for the High Priest, the handler of the scapegoat and the one who burns the remnants of the sacrificed bull and goat. The High Priest is to bathe, put on garments of a specific fabric before sacrificing the bull and goat and then remove the garments and bathe again. We are told numerous time that this is so he will not die. Likewise the one who takes the scapegoat to the wilderness and the one who burns the sacrificed remains must wash his clothes and bathe his body in water or he will face excommunication. Once again, there is a means and a promise. The means for the High priest are: wash in water, wear particular garments, remove particular garments, wash in water. The promise is that the High Priest will live. Likewise there is a means and a promise for the men who handled the goats and sacrificed remains. Upon coming in contact with the creatures that atoned for their sin, they were to wash their clothes and their bodies in order to return to fellowship with Israel. There is no evidence that neither the fabric or the water has any special properties, only the word of the Lord. Yet again, the action lies within the word of the Lord.
Baptismal Allegory in the Old Testament
And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth. In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, they and every beast, according to its kind, and all the livestock according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, according to its kind, and every bird, according to its kind, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the LORD shut him in. The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Here the flood narrative is our Old Testament passage. When striking parallels come to the forefront, such as this, I am reminded of Augustine’s brief statement concerning the Old and New Testament, “The old is the new concealed; the new is the old revealed.” These passages in Genesis show what happened and why in a way that seems readily visible, while the passage in 1 Peter sheds light and depth onto it in a way that is majestically revealing. Peter is saying that through the flood waters Noah and his family were saved, now too, the waters of baptism now save. The direct quote from 1 Peter states “…when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…” Just as real and true as Noah and his family were saved is equally true and real as how baptism now saves you. The God who sealed the door of the Ark is the same God that seals the door of salvation through baptism. This is the allegory revealed in 1 Peter. Once again there is a means and a promise. The means is baptism and the promise is salvation.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.”
1 Corinthians 10:1-5
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Here is the familiar account of the great exodus of Israel from the bonds of Egyptian slavery. Paul uses this text as a picture of both who the Corinthian church is and what could befall them. The Popular Commentary by Paul Kretzmann handles this well. Kretzmann writes…
“In this passage the apostle offers a few pages from the history of ancient Israel as a warning example for those that are in danger of yielding to carnal security. Out of the entire number of adult Israelites that left the land of Egypt only two, Joshua and Caleb, entered the Promised Land. Therefore the lesson should be heeded: For I do not want you to remain in ignorance, brethren, that our fathers all were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. Paul openly speaks of “our fathers,” thus identifying the New Testament Church with the true Israel (Romans 4:1-11, 11:17-18). When the children of Israel left Egypt, the land of their bondage, the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to show them the way (Exodus 13:21). And the entire congregation also passed through the Red Sea as on dry ground, the Lord Himself causing the water to stand like a wall on either side (Exodus 14:22). The merciful presence of God surrounded and accompanied them at every step of their journey. Note that all the Israelites, without exception, escaped from the house of bondage, that they all were included in the miraculous deliverance in the Red Sea; and yet most of them afterward perished! Paul states; furthermore, that they all received their baptism unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea. The cloud and the sea together became the elements by which the children of Israel were cleansed to the Lord, separated as the people of the covenant. Thus the cloud and the sea were types of the New Testament sacrament of Baptism; they were God’s seals and pledges of His merciful promises, just as the Sacraments are in truth to-day. Through the cloud and through the sea God saved His people from the tyranny of Pharaoh and led them forth to freedom. And thus God, through Baptism, delivers us from the power of Satan and transfers us into His kingdom, to be His free, blessed children forever. In saying that the children of Israel were baptized unto Moses, the apostle means that they entered into intimate relationship or fellowship with Moses, as the mediator of the divine manifestations ; they took upon themselves the obligation to follow him faithfully as the leader given them by God (Exodus 14:21) even as a believer baptized unto Christ makes Him the great Leader of his life (Galatians 3:27).”
Here there is a cleansing for the people of the Lord as they were cleansed through the cloud and the sea. This is what it meant to be baptized into Moses. Moses was the mouthpiece for God to Israel and the cloud and the sea were the “means” by which God “promised” to save Israel from Egyptian bondage. Once again we have a means (cloud and sea) and a promise (salvation). Therefore Paul is warning the Corinthian church that even though God chose and saved Israel through the cloud and the sea (which is a picture of New Testament baptism), Israels hearts became hardened as they lived carnally in unbelief. The picture of what happened with Israel is grim as they wandered for 40 years with the only two original men entering the promised land being Joshua and Caleb (those who remained faithful). The writer of Hebrews also speaks of this in Hebrwes 3:12-19 when he says…
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
Therefore 1 Corinthians 10 confirms what we have already discovered in 1 Peter; that baptism does in fact save. We also have more evidence of God acting through means and promise based upon His word given here through Moses. Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 10 (as does the writer of Hebrews) to use the Exodus judgment of Israel as an example to the Corinthians (and to us) to warn of the consequences against hardened hearts and unbelief. This warning will be looked at in more detail later in this study.
Baptismal Prophecies in the Old Testament
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
In Ezekiel 36:24-27 we are given a prophecy for the future restoration of Israel. The imagery here is that of baptism. God says that through the sprinkling of clean water He will cleanse from all uncleanliness, give a new heart made of flesh, and instill the Holy Spirit to allow for holy living. Once again there is a means and promise. The means is “the sprinkling of water” and the promise is “cleansing from all uncleanliness, a heart made of flesh and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The future restoration of Israel is in Christ Jesus. This prophecy is for the entire church, not just for the nation of Israel. We share in the promise of this prophecy through the means of baptism by the work of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God.
Click here for “Christian Baptism Series – Part 2 – Jewish Purification Rites & Pharisaical Law”