Is baptism in the Old Testament?

Baptism is an ordinance instituted by Christ for believers. Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, and through baptism, the Christian identifies with Jesus by being fully immersed into the water (symbolizing death) and then being lifted out of the water to show their new life in Christ. It is a physical portrayal of a spiritual reality. While baptism is not practiced in the Old Testament, there are concepts and practices in Judaism that foreshadow baptism.

In the Old Testament, the word mikveh is used to refer to a gathering of something, specifically water. This can be referring to a body of water of great extent such as in Genesis 1:10 when God calls the gathered (or mikveh) waters "seas." It can also refer more specifically to water gathered from a spring or within a cistern (Leviticus 11:36) or water designated for a specific reservoir (Isaiah 22:11).

Cleansing and purity are important concepts in the Old Testament as well. Ritual purity was mandated in order to enter the tabernacle or temple, before making a sacrifice, and for receiving the benefit of a priestly offering. In Exodus 19:10–11, God commanded Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people." This is the first time God commanded the people to wash themselves and it was in preparation for entering His presence. Similarly, in Exodus 29:4 God commanded that Aaron and his sons be washed with water in preparation for their service as priests. These men would be mediating in the LORD's presence on behalf of the people and this symbolic washing was necessary for them to be ritually clean.

God's presence was not the only reason He commanded people to become ritually pure by bathing. Bathing was also commanded after women finished their monthly cycle (Leviticus 15:21–22), after recovering from a skin disease (Leviticus 14:7–9), and after coming in contact with a corpse (Numbers 19:11–13), among other reasons. Immersing in water is what symbolized the removal of filth and the maintenance of ritual purity.

At some point during the second temple period, rabbinic standards were formed for where and how a person was to immerse in water for ritual cleaning (the act is called tevilah). The rabbis determined that a mikveh must contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized man (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 4b) with about 150 gallons of water. The rabbis also specified that a mikveh must be connected to a natural spring, or to a well of naturally occurring water—like rainwater. Ritual purification by immersion in a mikveh is used for a variety of reasons including conversion, cleansing before a wedding or after childbirth (for women), after having intercourse (for men), burial ceremonies, and to cleanse dishes used before Yom Kippur.

Throughout the Old Testament, washing and cleansing were used as a metaphor for rescue from sin. Zechariah 13:1 says, "On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness." David prayed in his well-known prayer of repentance, "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!… Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Psalm 51:2, 7). Washing and cleansing were related to repentance and forgiveness, which is why John the Baptist "appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). The physical act of washing in water symbolized a greater spiritual reality.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word mikveh is also translated as "hope" (1 Chronicles 29:15; Ezra 10:2; Jeremiah 14:8; 17:13; 50:7). Jeremiah 17:13 says, "O LORD, the hope (mikveh) of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water." Of course, Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise for ultimate cleansing. He revealed Himself as the source of living water to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:10 and reiterated that truth to His followers in John 7:37–39. In part, Jesus said, "Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive" (John 7:38–39). Our only hope to be cleansed from sin and death is God Himself.

Jesus commanded His followers to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Paul explained to the Roman church, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin" (Romans 6:3–7).

The Old Testament prescribed water rituals that symbolized cleansing of sin and purity of the ritually impure. It also associated water with life. So, too, the baptism of the New Testament symbolizes freedom from sin and the new life in the Spirit that are only available through faith in Jesus Christ and His saving work on the cross and in His resurrection. He is our true hope.

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