Is Water Baptism a New Testament Invention?
By Darryll Watson
When we think of rituals, most of us think of the ordinances that were given to Israel in the Old Testament. Most believers today consider that "rituals" are a thing of the past and have been rendered useless and unnecessary by the sacrifice of Yahshua. It may come as a surprise to some when we consider just how many "rituals" we participate in (and rightly so) today. Ritual is defined as "a strictly ordered traditional method of conducting an act of worship…" (The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language). Would anyone care to deny that they perform rituals in keeping the Sabbath, appointed Feast of YHWH or in worshipping in general? Did Yahshua advocate or approve of "ritual" in prayer and other acts of worship? Fasting, by the way, is a ritual! So is a worship service that follows a fairly consistent pattern. So is baptism! If any ritual is followed because the doer believes he/she will gain salvation by doing the "ritual," this is a mistake. However, rituals are part of prescribed and expected behavior that is pleasing to YHWH.
Now consider the ritual of baptism. Is it a New Covenant invention? Perhaps many will see the "washings" ritual as a forerunner of baptism. Leviticus 14 gives an account of a common "washing" ritual, that of cleansing lepers. After offering certain sacrifices and being sprinkled seven times with the water of purification, then the cleansed leper was to wash his clothes and wash himself (Hebrew--rachats - wash or bathe) as specified in verse 8. In 2 Kings 5, a gentile named Naaman was sent to the prophet Elisha to be cured of his leprosy. Elisha’s instructions include a "washing" ritual which Naaman thought to be silly at first. But he was persuaded by his servant that since it was simple enough to "dip" himself seven times in the Jordan River," it was at least worth a try. In giving this instruction, Elisha seems to have combined the "sprinkling seven times" with the "washing" itself. None-the-less, it is clear what for this "washing" took—an immersion (read verses ten through fourteen).
Likewise, it is common knowledge that the "washing" the priest performed in purifying himself for temple service (such as that prescribed in Leviticus 16:4 for Atonement service) took the form of an immersion (Hebrew—mikveh). In fact, so common was this "ritual bathe" (mikveh), that below the temple mount in Jerusalem there was built a "bath house" with many of these ritual pools where pilgrims could stop for purification on their way to temple services. In 1994 I was privileged to be in Israel for the Feast of Tabernacles and saw the evidence of these mikvot in the excavations below the temple mount as well as in the excavated ruins of Qumran and Masada.
Perhaps the best and most famous "baptism" of all was the great flood of Genesis. Think about what this entailed… The total immersion of the world and the "washing away" of all that was evil. So vile had the society of man become that a drastic change was called for. Read and think about the events of the flood in Genesis the seventh chapter. The imagery of what is taking place in the "drowning" of all the wickedness is the same as what happens (or rather is supposed to happen) for the person undergoing "baptism."
Many have been long familiar with the "baptism" or immersion imagery of the Israelites coming through the Red Sea with the walls of water on either side of them. "Moreover, brothers, I would not that you should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea…" 1 Corinthians 10:1-2. But, what is the connection with "under the cloud," "in the sea" and baptism?
Many would not know that immersion has long been practiced in Judaism for the purpose of initiating new converts called proselytes. In the entry "PROSELYTES" under the article titled "Laws of Conversion" in the CD edition of Encyclopedia Judaica, we find these statements: "The procedure… according to which a non-Jew may be accepted into the Jewish faith… (he) had to sacrifice a burnt offering either of cattle or two young pigeons (until sacrifices were no longer offered; after which)… only circumcision and immersion remained." There arose disputes as to "whether someone who immersed himself but was not circumcised or vice versa could be considered a proselyte." The procedure ordinarily had to be witnessed by three and a similar dispute rose up as to whether "a proselyte who immersed himself in the presence of two members only" could be accepted. One school said he could be accepted and another said he couldn’t. The point, of course, is that immersion was an important "ritual" in initiating new converts.
Immersion (baptiso in the Greek, t’vilah in Hebrew) had deep and profound meaning to the Hebrew people. It is not some giant leap from a mikveh to immersion either. When Yahweh created in Genesis, the Hebrew word for "gathering the waters" was from this Hebrew word mikveh (Genesis 1:9). The place where the "water was gathered" for the Israelites to follow Yahweh’s purification instructions came to be known as a "mikveh." The concept of immersion in the Hebrew word "t’vilah" appears unmistakably in Exodus 15:4 where Pharaoh and his host were drowned (t’vilah) in the sea. In Psalm 9:16 and Lamentations 2:9, the same Hebrew word is used and translated as "sunk." No mistaking the concept of immersion. The Hebrew people connected the washings and purification rites to this immersion and with the following ideas in mind:
(1) immersion in the mikveh symbolized the grave—man cannot survive immersed completely in water indefinitely; he enters a state of non-breathing. When he emerges from the water’s depths, it is as if he is re-born.
(2) It symbolized the womb—whn Yahweh hovered over the waters in Genesis, rabbinical understanding was that He impregnated the waters and the creation was birthed from thence. Job 38:29, 30 shows the basis for this imagery. So, when man goes down into the waters of the mikveh, it is as if he is in a womb and when he come up out of the waters, it is as if he is birthed from the womb.
(3) It symbolized a change of status—from death to life, from non-living to rebirth!
Now, consider: what would the people coming in view of John the Immerser have thought if John was doing something brand new? Would we not have some indication in the historical accounts that this man was instituting new rituals? But there is no indication in the gospels or in any other historical accounts that the "wild man" from the wilderness was instituting new rituals. His "audiences" were well familiar with the rituals being performed in the Jordan. Along comes Yahshua and instead of questioning John’s rituals, He joins right in. And later, we find His diciples who were with Him baptizing (John 4:1-2). And, is it any wonder that Yahshua took Nicodemus to task for not understanding in His discussion about "rebirth" and "coming out of the womb" because Nicodemus, as a ruler and a teacher of the people "should have understood" the imagery? And Paul’s discussions of baptism such as in Romans 6 about "being buried in baptism and raised" as if from the dead to be transformed? Does this not show the depth of the understanding of those taught in the way of life of the Hebrew "religion?" Check out Ephesians 2:1-6 where Paul talks about this "change of status" from death to life; 2 Corinthians 5:17 where Paul describes us as "becoming a new creation;" Galatians 4:7 where Paul describes conversion as a change from "a slave to son/heir" of Elohim; 1 Peter 2:9-10 where Peter describes this process as a change from "darkness to light." These are not some brand "New Testament" thoughts!
Now read Jeremiah 14:8. "O, the hope (the Hebrew word here is mikveh) of Israel, the Savior thereof in time of trouble…" Did you get that? Is it not fitting that we are buried in our Mikveh in the ritual of baptism and come up out of that watery grave in HOPE? Is that just coincidence? All the symbolism of the Hebrew worship system is valid. The ritual of baptism will not save us, but who among us will teach that is it "just a ritual" to cast aside? It’s an important ritual that teaches a physical being some profound lessons affecting his relationship with his Savior and his Mighty One.
Let us be glad and rejoice and appreciate what our Mikveh (Baptism) means to us.