God's Kingdom Ministries
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Part 1: Salvation: Chapter 8: What is Baptism?

The word baptism is derived from a Greek word, baptisma. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is usually tabal, “to dip,” as we see in Lev. 14:6, 16, and 51. The Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, renders tabal as bapto, “to baptize.”

The Septuagint acted as an official Hebrew-Greek dictionary. So while we do not see the word baptize anywhere in our English translations of the Old Testament, we do see the word tabal used many times, which is rendered as bapto (“to baptize”).

In other words, John the Baptist did not invent baptism. It was practiced in the time of Moses when the priests washed their hands and feet to cleanse themselves at the laver that stood in the outer court. However, in such cases, the usual Hebrew word is rakhats, “washing” (Exodus 30:18; 40:30). Nonetheless, just as the brazen altar was the place of justification for sin, so also the laver was the place of baptism.

Naaman, the Syrian general, was healed of leprosy after Elisha instructed him to “go and wash in the Jordan seven times” (2 Kings 5:10). The Hebrew word for “wash” is rakhats. Naaman then “went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan” (2 Kings 5:14). Here the word tabal is used, which, as we have shown, is the word usually rendered bapto in the Septuagint.

So we see that tabal and rakhats mean essentially the same thing. To “wash” does not specify the manner of washing. To “dip” is more specific. Yet there is a third Hebrew word that is often used that draws attention to the mode of baptism. This word is naza, “to sprinkle.” We see this word used in Lev. 4:6, where we read, “the priest shall dip [tabal] his finger in the blood and sprinkle [naza] some of the blood seven times before the Lord.”

The baptizer’s finger was dipped, but the one being baptized was sprinkled.

We must also note that Lev. 14:6 instructs the priest to “dip” (tabal) the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed in an earthen vessel over running water. Clearly, the priest could not immerse the bird, simply because he could not squeeze enough blood from the first bird to be able to immerse the second bird. Hence, tabal in this case means to smear, rather than to immerse.

Both birds prophesy of Jesus Christ. The first prophesies of Christ’s death and the shedding of His blood. The second, which is the living bird, prophesies of Christ’s second manifestation, where His robe is said to be dipped in blood (Rev. 19:13). This does not mean Christ was immersed in blood but that He was smeared or sprinkled with blood.

Three Baptisms

There were three types of baptism: blood, and water, and oil. The example in Lev. 4:6 was a baptism of blood (to cleanse the soul). There was also a baptism of oil in Exodus 29:21, where oil was to be sprinkled on the garments of the priests to consecrate them. This was a spiritual anointing. Finally, there was a baptism of water, sprinkled upon the unclean, for “the cleansing of the flesh” (Heb. 9:13).

This was a baptism where ashes of the red heifer were mixed with water and sprinkled upon the unclean. In later years, this was done just outside the eastern gate of Jerusalem, on the side of the Mount of Olives, to cleanse those who were entering the outer court of the temple in the city. So also, when Jesus healed the ten lepers, He told them to “go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14). This was to undergo the sprinkling ritual that Moses had established in Leviticus 14:7 for the cleansing of lepers.

Cleansing Lepers

Leprosy is a biblical type of mortality because it is a slow death. Lepers were treated as if they were dead, and so if anyone touched a leper, he became unclean and had to undergo a cleansing ritual for seven days. Hence, when a man was healed of leprosy, he was still required to undergo a seven-day time of cleansing (Lev. 14:7) and was pronounced fully clean on the eighth day (Lev. 14:10, 11).

The ritual, as I said earlier, involved two birds, one of which was killed over running (chay, “living”) water, and other was to be dipped in the blood of the first bird and let loose into the open field (Lev. 14:4-7). The first bird, of course, could not possibly provide enough blood to immerse the second bird. To “dip” (tabal) obviously did not mean to immerse but to smear the second bird with the blood of the first.

As for the leper himself, we read in Lev. 14:7,

7 He shall then sprinkle seven times the one who is to be cleansed from the leprosy and shall pronounce him clean…

The leper was to be baptized with the water at hand over which the first bird was killed. This was to be running water, because it signified “living” water. Some of this living water was to be used to sprinkle the ex-leper seven times, pronouncing him “clean” (and alive). In other words, the priest bore witness that God had indeed healed the leper (Lev. 14:3).

Jesus put it another way in John 5:24, telling us that we have “passed out of death into life.”

This shows another truth of Scripture—that baptism is a ritual where men bear witness that God has already healed the person’s leprosy (i.e., mortality). In other words, baptism is not what saves or justifies a sinner (non-believer). It is an earthly witness to something that God has already done prior to the baptism. The priest performing the baptism was not expected to heal the leper by baptizing him. For this reason, we read in Lev. 14:2-4,

2 This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing. Now he shall be brought to the priest, 3 and the priest shall go out to the outside of the camp. Thus the priest shall look, and if the infection of leprosy has been healed in the leper, 4 then the priest shall give orders to take two live clean birds…

In other words, if the leper was still a leper, the priest could not pronounce him clean, nor was he allowed to baptize any lepers. To use New Testament terminology, people had to be justified by faith before they could be baptized. Baptism was a priestly witness on earth to what God had already done from heaven. No one “gets saved” at the moment of baptism. Only those who have faith and are already saved are eligible for baptism.

So also, we see that God’s firstborn son, Israel, was justified by faith in the blood of the Lamb at Passover in Egypt and only later was baptized at the Red Sea. 1 Cor. 10:1, 2 says,

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

First, we see that God instituted baptism at least as far back as the time of Moses. As I said earlier, baptism did not begin with John the Baptist. As a priest, John was very familiar with baptism, for there is no doubt that he witnessed many baptisms at the laver in the temple.

Second, we see that Israel was baptized when they crossed the Red Sea, following the pillar of cloud. I often wonder if Paul was using a bit of humor here. The Israelites were baptized by sprinkling “under the cloud,” while the Egyptians were baptized by immersion “in the sea.” It is known to scholars that the Egyptian priests used to immerse their candidates in a coffin until they quite literally were drowned. Then they were taken out and revived. They referred to this as passing from death to life.

No doubt Moses himself had been immersed into the Egyptian mystery religion while he was still young. So it is striking that he did not command that anyone should be immersed as a mode of baptism. Instead, most baptisms were performed at the laver, which was outfitted with faucets by which the priests would wash their hands and feet (Exodus 40:31). It is apparent that they did not dive into the laver to immerse themselves, for then they would have rendered that water unclean. They could not change the water in the laver every time someone was baptized.

Washing was done by pouring and sprinkling from above, signifying that this cleansing originated from God in heaven. Isaiah 32:15 says, “Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high.” Again, we read in Ezekiel 36:25, 26,

25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you…

This shows the true meaning of baptism. It is to cleanse us from the “filthiness” of sin and “from all your idols.” It is to give us “a new heart” and “a new spirit.” Paul tells us that it signifies putting the old man to death so that, as new beings, we can “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Passing from death to resurrection life is pictured in a leper being healed and cleansed by the sprinkling of water.

Death to Life

In Rom. 6:3-11, Paul discusses baptism in terms of passing from death to life. He concludes that believers identify with Christ in His death so that they may also identify with Him in His resurrection. Hence, “we have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (Rom. 6:3), just as we have been crucified with Christ on His cross.

The comparison includes burial, which most Christians picture as an immersion in water. But Paul derived his teachings from his study of the law—the law of lepers in particular. Lepers were considered to be dead, and if God healed a leper, he was said to be raised from the dead. So the word picture of baptism, according to the law, is really about being healed of leprosy, that is, moving from mortality to immortality. The law does not mention burial in the law of lepers.

The two doves picture death and resurrection, as seen in Christ’s fulfillment of the law. He was the first bird in His death; He was the second bird in His resurrection. In long-term prophecy, the two birds picture the two comings of Christ. The first time, He came to die; the second coming is pictured by the live bird who is released in the open field (Lev. 14:7).

The field is the world” (Matt. 13:38), Jesus said. So when Jesus comes back into the world, Rev. 19:13 says, “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood.” This identifies Him as the second bird who was dipped in the blood of the first bird (Lev. 14:6), emphasizing the point that this is a live “bird” that was once dead.

Sprinkling water on the ex-leper seven times certainly includes the principle of death, but the real focus is upon resurrection life. Hence, baptism was to take place over “living water.” Death is a prerequisite to resurrection life, but the real significance of the water is not death, but life and the outpouring of the Spirit.

Again, by comparing Israel’s Passover with the crossing of the Red Sea, we see that the main focus of Passover was about the lamb that was killed for our justification. The main focus of the Red Sea crossing was to prophesy life—beginning with the resurrection of Christ.

Old and New Covenant Baptism

The main difference between Old and New Covenant baptism is the fact that the Israelites were baptized “into Moses” (1 Cor. 10:2), whereas Christians are baptized into Christ. Until the time of Christ, people were baptized into Moses. This included John the Baptist himself, who baptized the people into repentance. Some years later, when Paul went on his first missionary trip to Corinth, he came across Apollos (Acts 19:1), who was following John’s example of baptism.

Acts 19:2-6 says,

2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came upon them…

Many do not realize that John’s baptism was “into Moses,” and essentially “in the name of Moses,” according to the authority of Moses. Moses was a prophetic type of Christ who led the people out of Egypt at Passover. So also Jesus, in His first appearance, was crucified at Passover to lead us out of the house of sin’s bondage.

In His second appearance, He comes as Yeshua/Joshua to lead us into the Kingdom. To do this requires a second baptism. The first was their Red Sea crossing; the second is their Jordan crossing. Old Covenant baptism, pictured by the Red Sea, did not impart the Holy Spirit to them, and for this reason, the followers of Apollos knew nothing of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Israelites did not come to the feast of Pentecost until they arrived at Mount Sinai. This was a separate experience, distinct from the Red Sea.

Hence, under the New Covenant, our baptism should include the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Power by which we may “walk in newness of life.” As for the mode of baptism, I do not believe it has changed from sprinkling to immersion. Certainly, the symbolism remains unchanged. But we should also know that over and beyond the symbolism of baptism, with its living water, sprinkling, and pouring, it is really a matter of faith. The mode of baptism shows its spiritual meaning but is of secondary importance.

Israel’s baptism at the Red Sea took them fully out of Egypt, taking them to the other side of the Red Sea (Gulf of Aqaba) toward the land of Midian. The importance of baptism is seen in the fact that their feast of Passover was conducted in Egypt, where they were justified, but their baptism fully delivered them from the Egyptian army.

As Christian believers, our baptism accomplishes this on a greater level, for we are delivered from a greater house of bondage through the Passover wherein Christ was crucified. Yet the real focus of baptism is not upon death but upon the resurrection. Recall that Israel’s Red Sea experience prophesied of Christ’s resurrection, even as their Passover in Egypt had prophesied of His death on the cross.

So while baptism into Moses was accomplished by physical water, baptism into the name of Jesus is about the outpouring of the Spirit, which gives us “newness of life.” Yet in both cases, it is expressed in Scripture in terms of “sprinkling” in order to cleanse us from death (as ex-lepers). The promise in Joel 2:28 is, “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind.” Again, verse 29 says, “I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”

This was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1, 2, but there is yet a greater fulfillment of this promise in our time that will only increase until His Spirit has been poured out upon all mankind.

Elijah’s Baptism

In 2 Kings 3:11 we read,

11 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not a prophet of the Lord here, that we may inquire of the Lord by him?” And one of the king of Israel’s servants answered and said, “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.”

Recall that the priests were required to wash their hands and feet at the laver before entering into the Holy Place (Exodus 40:31, 32). By extension, the people as a whole were required to cleanse their hands before eating a meal, because in the course of daily life it was assumed that they might have touched something unclean, such as a fly.

Washing one’s hands before a meal was not designed to get rid of dirt, dust or bacteria. It was for spiritual cleansing. Elijah practiced this as well, as seen in the verse above, and Elisha had the honored position of pouring water on the hands of Elijah. This washing was done by pouring, not by immersing one’s hands in a basin of water.

New Testament Baptism

In Mark 7:1-5 we see this custom also practiced in the New Testament,

1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse [rhantizo, “sprinkle”] themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing [baptismos] of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?”

The Concordant Version of Mark 7:4 is very literal. It reads,

4 and from the market, except they should be sprinkled, they are not eating; and many other things are there which they accepted to hold, the baptizing of cups and ewers and copper vessels and of couches.

This “tradition of the elders” (vs. 3) is described in terms of cleansing one’s hands by sprinkling (rhantizo). Mark adds that they also baptizecups and pitchers and copper pots” in order to cleanse them ritually. The clear implication is that pouring water over one’s hands in a cleansing ritual is said to be baptism, and the people did this before every meal.

The Essenes

Years ago, I arranged to hold joint meetings with my archeologist friend, Professor E. Raymond Capt (now deceased). He gave a lecture on biblical archeology, and I then followed with a Bible study on the same topic. In one of the meetings, he lectured on the beliefs and practices of the Essenes, the third main sect of Judaism (after the Pharisees and Sadducees).

In the course of his lecture, Ray mentioned that the Essenes baptized themselves before every meal, though he expressed some incredulity that it was really possible for all of them to immerse themselves in a cistern before every meal. After all, water was scarce in the Qumran area where they lived. They had to fill cisterns during the rainy season to have enough water during the dry season.

It was not likely that they immersed themselves before every meal, for this would have required them to dump the water from the cistern. Their water supply would have dwindled to nothing within a week!

I later told Ray about Mark 7 and the fact that Elisha poured water on the hands of Elijah, and he exclaimed, “Well, that explains how they could all baptize themselves before every meal!”

John’s Baptism

The point is that while the Greek word bapto might indeed mean “to dip,” this word must be defined according to its Hebrew equivalent and by the way it was actually practiced. Remember that the Greek word was merely the closest equivalent to the Hebrew word. It is clear that baptism was established in the law, but because the priests did not normally immerse themselves, most Christians miss this detail and think that John the Baptist was the first to baptize people.

In other words, many know that the Old Testament priests sprinkled, but they think that John immersed, so they fail to connect John’s baptism with the common practice dating back to the time of Moses.

John the Baptist must have had a dispute with the temple priests, and so he baptized at the Jordan River, where there was “running water.” When John baptized Jesus, we read that “Jesus came up immediately from the water” (Matt. 3:16). Many picture Jesus coming up from beneath the water, having been immersed, but it actually means that He came up to the shore “from the water” to dry land.

If John baptized according to the specification in the law, He would have stood in the Jordan and baptized by scooping up water in a cup, pouring it over the head of the one being baptized.

Baptism on the Day of Pentecost

The same could be said of the 3,000 who were baptized in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. After Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-36, explaining the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the people asked what they should do. Acts 2:38 says,

38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 2:41 says,

41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.

There is no indication as to how these 3,000 souls were baptized. The book of Acts assumes that the reader already knows how they were baptized, because both Peter and Luke knew how baptism was done in those days. Certainly, Peter did not have to explain how baptism had supposedly been changed from sprinkling to immersion.

Jerusalem had two pools of water: Siloam and Bethesda. It hardly seems possible that the disciples could have immersed 3,000 people in those two pools within a day. But if the people were sprinkled, this event was certainly possible. The church continued this practice in the following centuries, eventually prescribing three cups of water to be poured over the head of the believer, one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Spirit. But this formula was developed after the Trinitarian controversy in accordance with Jesus’ statement in Matt. 28:19.

However, Peter said to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). Years later, under Paul’s ministry, the believers in Corinth “were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).

There are differing views on this formula, each side drawing from different Scriptures.