In the New Testament it seems the act of water baptism appears rather suddenly. We read about John the Baptist, the disciples, and then the early New Testament church participating in baptism. But where did the concept of water baptism originate?
Whether anyone could pinpoint a time prior to John the Baptist or Christ when the concept of baptism was adopted is uncertain. Some secular-minded historians say that Jews borrowed the concept from pagans who had similar practices, but they cannot prove it. Interestingly, it appears that Jews may have practiced a baptismal-type ceremony during the four hundred silent years between the Old and New Testaments; the ceremony initiated Gentiles into Judaism.
Bathing for the purpose of cleansing the body is about as old as human history, and this human activity likely became symbolic for spiritual cleansing. Cleansing with water was not foreign to Jews of the Old Testament. It was part of their Mosaic law system, for example. Exodus 40 tells about the item of furniture in the tabernacle known as the laver, where priests would wash with water. When Aaron went into the Holy Place, he had to wash his body with water before putting on his priestly garments (Leviticus 16:4). Also, Leviticus 15 and Numbers 19 speak of immersion in water for ridding oneself of bodily impurities.
In addition, David, confessing his sin to God, pled, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2, emphasis added). And Ezekiel mentioned the symbolic cleansing of water as he proclaimed God’s message concerning His nation’s recovery from apostasy (Ezekiel 36:25). It wouldn’t be difficult, with the emphasis on cleansing through water in the Old Testament, to connect the concept of cleansing with water to an act we know as baptism.
The important thing to remember, however, is not how the concept became an act but that our Lord Jesus asked John the Baptist to baptize Him. As His public ministry came to a close, Jesus commanded the church to baptize all who believe on Him. We thus dare not think that baptism saves, as many have been erroneously led to believe because of misunderstanding and misinterpreting Scripture. Many people have had a false hope of salvation in this way. Because they have been baptized, they reason, they will someday enter Heaven.
Many people have believed that baptism is an extension of circumcision found in the Old Testament. But we must note that Abraham, for example, believed on God and was therefore saved before circumcision. Romans 4:3 and 10 state, “What does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness!. . . How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.” Circumcision was an outward sign of God’s promises. Baptism likewise is an outward testimony to others of something that has already taken place in a life: regeneration.
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