Baptism stems from the practice of immersing oneself (an act called tevilah) in a ritual bath called a mikveh in Hebrew. Because a person bathes and removes all physical impurities before entering the mikveh, the purpose of the mikveh is spiritual cleansing. The water symbolizes life and is seen to cleanse a person of sin, purify the ritually impure, and express rebirth to new life. This practice of mikveh comes from commands in the Old Testament to cleanse oneself at appointed times or for certain reasons.
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. Immersion 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. So immersing in a mikveh was a ritual that was practiced regularly throughout the lives of ancient Israelites.
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, cleansing, and immersion 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).
Interestingly, the Hebrew word mikveh is translated as "hope" in Jeremiah 17:13 showing that our only hope for ultimate purity is God Himself. It 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.
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).
Just like the Old Testament immersion that symbolized cleansing of sin, purity of the ritually impure, and a rebirth to new 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.
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