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THE DOCTRINE OF
he King James translation of Hebrews 6:2 describes the “the
doctrine of baptisms” as one of the “elementary teachings
about Christ” (Hebrews 6:1). The word “doctrine” is here
translated from the Greek didache, meaning simply
“instruction” or “what is taught” (BAG*). Note another
point: the word “baptisms” is plural.
In order to understand what was taught among the original
believing community about baptisms, we must first consider the
origins of baptism. The ritual was not new to the Christian church.
Its origins stretch deep into history.
The Origins of Baptism
The rite of baptism was not invented by Christians. Its beginnings are of
much greater antiquity. Ritual immersion was well known from early times
in Judaism. Our English word “baptize” comes from the Greek baptizo
(pronounced “bap-tid-zo”) which means to “dip” or to “immerse” (BAG*).
In non-Christian usage, it was commonly understood to mean “plunge,
sink, drench or overwhelm” (ibid. BAG). Of all these words, the most
appropriate is “immerse.”
In Biblical times, baptism was a rite in both Judaism and early
Christianity, but it was not designated a “sacrament” until post-New
[Note: “The word “sacrament” is not found in the Bible. It is
derived from the Latin word sacramentum, which originally denoted a sum
of money deposited by two parties in a lawsuit. After the decision of the
court, the winner’s money was returned, while that of the loser was
forfeited as a sort of offering to the gods. The transition to the Christian use
of the term is probably to be sought (1) in its military use to denote the oath
by which a soldier solemnly pledges obedience to his commander; and (2)
in the Vulgate’s use of it to translate the Greek word for mystery. The
sacraments were regarded as both pledges of obedience and mysteries” --
Manual of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof, pp. 310-311].
Ablutions in Israel
The real origin of the Christian rite of baptism is to be found in the ritual
purification rites of ancient Israel. Washings and ablutions were very much
a part of Israel’s relationship with God. It is in the Oral Law of the Jews
(Mishnah, Sotah, ix. 15) that we find the basis for the well-known proverb,
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
When God commanded the people of Israel to appear before him at
Sinai, he said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and
tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day…”
(Exodus 19:10). God did not want his people appearing before him caked
in sweat and dust from the desert floor. When we approach the holiness of
God, we must be clean inside and out.
As Israelite practice became formalized, it took on three forms: 1)
The washing of hands, 2) The washing of hands and feet and 3) Immersion
of the whole body in water. Technically, the ritual washing of hands is not
specifically commanded in the Bible. It was based on deductive thinking
drawing from passages of Scripture like Psalm 26:6. Once it was
established, an elaborate set of support rituals grew up around hand-
washing. Those who wish to research hand washing ritual further may
consult the rabbinical code Shulhan ‘Aruk, Orah Hayyim, pp. 117-165.
Hand and foot washing were only required for priests. The rule is
found in Exodus 30:19 & 40:30. This practice was continued until the
destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Ritual immersion of the whole body is found frequently in the Old
Testament (The TaNaKh). We read the following in the Jewish
Encyclopedia: “The washing of the whole body is the form of Ablution
most frequently ordained in Scripture, and for the greatest number of
causes. According to rabbinical interpretation, this is only valid when
performed by immersion, either in a natural fountain or stream or in a
properly constructed mikweh, or ritual bath, containing at least forty seahs
(about one hundred and twenty gallons) of water” (Jewish
Encyclopedia.com, article “Ablution”).
Examples of whole body immersion requirements are found in the
following passages: Leviticus 22:4-6; Leviticus 14:8-9; Leviticus 15:5-11;
Leviticus 16:23-28; Leviticus 15: 16-25 and other verses.
The same source tells us that, “A Gentile wishing to become a
proselyte must also immerse his whole body. This ceremony is, no doubt,
historically allied to Baptism, which is thought by modern authorities to
have originated among the Essenes, who were very scrupulous respecting
ablutions and in the observance of the rules of purity…” (ibid.).
A gentile who became a Jew was, during the second Temple period,
required to perform three things upon conversion: 1) Ritual immersion, 2).
Circumcision (males only), and 3). Offer a sacrifice. These rites became an
issue for the early Church which found a need to set forth a ruling on it;
more on that later.
The Mikveh – ritual immersion bath – was invented to accommodate the
requirements of ceremonial immersion. As we have seen, it was designed
to contain at least 120 gallons of very pure water. The word mikveh means
“a gathering of waters.” It has its source in the account of the third day of
creation where God calls “the gathered waters [mikveh] seas…” (Genesis
1:10). Because of this reference to the oceans, the ocean itself is considered
a legitimate mikveh.
The Essenes practiced daily immersion.
Ritual immersion baths – mikva’ot – were found in some Jewish
homes, and in synagogues of the second Temple period. Many very large
mikva’ot have been found at the Temple site itself. Herod’s temple
contained a large number of such baths constructed primarily for priestly
use. In fact, 48 mikva’ot have been found near the monumental staircase
that leads into the larger Temple complex.
For Jews, there were multiple occasions for which ritual immersion
was called. Converting proselytes (as we saw earlier) had to be immersed.
Menstruous women were required to undergo immersion following their
period. Various bodily emissions required it. Even pots and pans
manufactured by non-Jews had to be immersed before usage. Jews were
also immersed just prior to the observance of Yom Kippur (Atonement) as
a sign of repentance and purity.
In the construction of synagogues, the building of the mikveh was
more important than the synagogue itself. Attention had to be paid to
exacting requirements. Mikva’ot had staircases leading down into the water
with a divider to separate those going down from those coming up. As we
have already learned, 120 gallons of water were needed to ensure complete
submergence. (If you wish to study Jewish ritual immersion in greater
detail, please consult the tractate Mikwaoth in the Mishnah (Oral Law of
The water in a mikveh could not be mixed with any other kind of liquid. It
had to be “living” water, not manually drawn water. Natural springs, rivers
or oceans were all considered legitimate mikva’ot. The water channeled to
the ritual immersion bath must not be passed through anything unclean. It
could not be taken from a vessel or receptacle in which it had been
standing. Typically, the water used in a mikveh was taken from a river or a
spring. In some cases, rain water was channeled directly into the ritual
Those being immersed often went down into the water naked, but
never in the presence of the opposite gender. Prof. Marvin Wilson
describes the process for proselytes: In proselyte baptism, “The candidate,
fully naked, immersed himself in the waters, symbolically cleansing
himself from the antecedent defilement. His past behind him, he emerged
to take his stand with the people of Israel.” (Our Father Abraham, p. 22.)
Self-immersion was the most common form, though officiating priests or
priestesses were allowed to touch the baptized person to ensure that all
went under, or to stabilize the person. The candidate walked down into the
water and squatted down with arms stretched straight out before him or her.
Total immersion was then accomplished.
An interesting observation about ritual immersion is found in the
Jewish Encyclopedia: “The baptismal water (Mikveh) in rabbinic literature
was referred to as the womb of the world, and as a convert came out of the
water it was considered a new birth separating him from the pagan world.
As the convert came out of these waters his status was changed and he was
referred to as ‘a little child just born’ or ‘a child of one day (Yeb. 22a; 48b;
97b). We see the New Testament using similar Jewish terms as ‘born
anew,’ ‘new creation,’ and ‘born from above’…”
These terms were not new with Jesus. They were common in 2nd
Temple Judaism and reflected Jewish ritual immersion practice.
The Significance of Jesus’ Baptism
We have seen that the rite of Christian baptism had its roots in long-
standing Jewish practice. Jesus himself was baptized in the Jordan River by
John the Baptist. All three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke)
include an account of the event. As we have already seen, a free-flowing
river like the Jordan met the requirements for a mikveh.
Each account of Jesus’ baptism includes a detail not contained by
the other two. Luke’s account (the translation) uses the passive voice:
“Jesus was baptized…” (Luke 3:21); it says nothing about John the Baptist
in this context. We also learn from Luke that Jesus was praying during his
baptism (same verse). The next verse tells us that the Holy Spirit took on
the “bodily form” of a dove as it came down upon Jesus (verse 22). The
arrival of the Holy Spirit was followed by the voice of God from heaven
saying, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well pleased” (verse 22b).
Mark’s account adds the detail that it was John who baptized Jesus
Matthew’s report tells that Jesus experienced baptism “to fulfill all
righteousness” (Matthew 3:15b). What does this mean? We know that
Jesus was not a sinner and that John baptized for repentance (verse 11).
What need of baptism did Jesus have? There was nothing in his life of
which he needed to repent (Hebrews 4:15).
What does it mean to “fulfill all righteousness”? Dr. Brad Young, a
noted Hebrew roots scholar, comments: “He [Jesus] explains that he must
fulfill all righteousness. In his identity with the total human need, he
submitted to baptism in order to affirm the process of redemption which
was in action as a result of John’s prophetic career. Luke’s portrayal drives
home the message. Jesus is with all the people, thus demonstrating his total
identification with all humanity.” (Jesus the Jewish Theologian, p. 17)
What is important about the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus is
not so much the symbolism itself, but the fact of Jesus’ empowerment to
carry out his Messianic role in the divine plan. Again, Dr. Young explains:
“Perhaps this is the point at the baptism of Jesus. The phenomenon of the
Spirit’s descent is of greater import than supposed symbolism. It is so
tangible and real in the dimension of human experience that a dove
descends upon him. The Spirit empowerment for service is of prime
significance at the baptism of Jesus. Although sometimes the dove is
thought to symbolize the Holy Spirit or the people of Israel, it actually
opens a vista into the supernatural realm…God has empowered Jesus for
service” (ibid. p. 20).
According to Dr. Young, the heavenly voice is alluding to two
important Messianic passages in the TaNaKh (Old Testament): Psalm 2:7
& Isaiah 42:1. The NIV translation of the former passage reads as follows:
“He said to me, ‘You are my Son, today I have become your Father.” Dr.
Young suggests that a better rendering of that verse would read: “I have
brought thee forth.” God is presenting and empowering His Anointed One
before the world. This is clearer in the NIV rendering of Isaiah 42:1: “Here
is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put
my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” The word
“chosen” in Hebrew is bachiri – synonymous with “beloved.”
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. He knew who Jesus was and
he understood his mission – at least in part. Matthew’s account sheds light
on what John knew: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the
wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at
hand!” (Matthew 3:1-2). When he said “at hand,” he meant just that. The
Kingdom of God (Heaven) was not merely some promise to be fulfilled
millennia down the line – with Jesus it would become a present reality. The
Greek word here is in the perfect meaning: “it has drawn near but it has not
necessarily arrived” (Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament by
Reinecker. P. 6).
The Kingdom of God was imminent because Jesus was about to
commence his ministry. He had spent 30 years of his life preparing for it.
Now it was time. God in Christ was now setting in motion the centerpiece
of his redemptive plan.
John then quoted a Messianic passage from the book of Isaiah:
“For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, ‘The voice
of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his
paths straight” (Matthew 3:3 KJV; Isaiah 40:3). This is an unfortunate
translation. It obscures the meaning of Isaiah’s original statement. In the
KJV of Isaiah, we read the following: “The voice of him that crieth in the
wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a
highway for our God.” The word “Lord” here is YHVH and “our God” is
Elohim. The “Lord” whose way John is preparing is YHVH, and he is to
come through or from the desert.
The Jewish translation makes it even clearer: “A voice rings out:
Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway
for our God!”
In the KJV, not only is the Tetragrammaton (4-letter name of God)
obscured, but the punctuation is wrongly placed. The latter part of the
statement also refers to “our God” – the word there is Elohim.
It is no wonder then that John spoke of the imminent arrival of the
Kingdom of God – the King himself was now on the scene!
John then warned that repentance was in order and that human
“trees” that failed to bear good fruit would be cut down and burnt up
(Matthew 3:10). John spoke of his own mode of immersion; then he spoke
of two other baptisms that he would not perform. They would be carried
out by the Anointed One: “I indeed baptize you with water unto
repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I
am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with
fire: Whose fan is in his hand and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and
gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with
unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12 KJV).
John was saying that the one who was now in their midst was able
to immerse his people in the Holy Spirit – that is, the Spirit of God. The
Spirit of God is the empowering aspect of the Deity. When Jesus was
baptized, he received more of that Spirit to enable him to carry out his
divinely appointed tasks (Matthew 3:16). His people, who would come to
represent the Kingdom, would also need empowerment. Jesus told his
followers: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come
upon you…” (Acts 1:8a).
Jesus’ experience with divine empowerment set a precedent for
every true Christian. Ideally, we should first repent, as John taught, then be
immersed, and finally become empowered with the Holy Spirit. On the day
of Pentecost that was the “birthday” of the Church, the apostle Peter said to
the “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22): “Repent, and let every one of you be
baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall
receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
The Rite of Christian Baptism
In the centuries since that first day of Pentecost for the Church, many
changes have been made to what was once a simple rite practiced within
Judaism. (It must be remembered that the first manifestation of the
“Church” took place entirely within Judaism. There, it was known as “the
sect of the Nazarene” (cf. Acts 24:5). It was a movement centered on Jesus
and it was part and parcel with the Jewish world.)
Scholars of the Jerusalem School believe the events of that
Pentecost day took place within the Temple itself (Luke 24:53) – that is the
“house” spoken of in Acts 2:2. It is significant that the birth of the Church
occurred on the same day Jewish tradition teaches the Torah was given on
Mt. Sinai. A sound “like a rushing mighty wind” filled the Temple. Some
have suggested that it may have been the sound of a shofar – the ram’s
horn used in many Jewish ceremonies; however, there is no way to prove
Immediately following this sound, “Then there appeared to them
divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were
all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the
Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:3-4).
The Spirit descending upon Jesus had manifested a dove-like
appearance. For the disciples, it was “cloven tongues of fire.” The Holy
Spirit then empowered those gathered in the Temple to speak in languages
they had not learned: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and
began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”
The people who were gathered were all Jews. Many had come in
from various parts of the Diaspora. A wide variety of regional languages
was represented. Remarkably, the assembled Jews heard people from other
parts of the world speaking in their languages (Acts 2:5-6). Perhaps the
significance of this is to show that the Spirit would give them the
wherewithal to carry out the commission they’d been given: “And He
opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.
Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the
Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance
and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations,
beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
Jesus said that it is “necessary” that his redemptive story be told in
all nations. It was to start at Jerusalem, and that’s exactly where it did start.
God showed that the Holy Spirit could provide the first apostles with
anything they needed to get the job done – including the gift of foreign
languages if necessary. (I did hear of one man in our time to whom was
given the ability to speak Portuguese by the Holy Spirit in order to go to
the people of Brazil. He had never been exposed to that language in his
life. It is rare to see this happen in our day.)
Baptism into the Body
The Church is not primarily an institution or an organization. It is the Body
of Christ – that is, it his instrumentation in the world. The apostle Paul
explained this to the Corinthians when he wrote: “The body is a unit,
though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they
form one body. So it is with Christ. For we are all baptized [immersed] by
one Spirit into one body –whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free –and we
were all given the one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:12-13).
The Church has organizations, but it isn’t an organization. The
organizations that it has are tools, not ends in themselves. The Body of
Christ is the spiritual entity into which we are all immersed by the action of
the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we “drink of” the Holy Spirit (I
It is the Holy Spirit, not organizational affiliation, or belief systems,
that makes one a part of the “Church.”
Christian water baptism has its origins in Jewish ritual immersion. It is
done once, at conversion (Acts 2:38), not thrice daily or weekly. To be
baptized means to be immersed in water, not merely sprinkled with it. The
significance of full immersion is explained in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may
increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were
baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through
baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:1-
Christian baptism represents a burial of the old sinful self – the
person you used to be. When we rise from the baptismal waters, we are
born anew. We begin a new life in Christ. In the past, we were dead in our
sins, but now we are alive again because of what Christ did in our lives.
When we come up out of the baptismal waters, we are empowered by the
Holy Spirit to “walk in newness of life.”
In baptism then, we have died to sin, and have been resurrected to a
new, moral life.
In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul connects baptism with faith and sonship.
He writes, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of
you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you
are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s
seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
As baptized Christians, our union with Christ overcomes all human
divisions including race, class and gender. Each of us is a new person in
Christ. Spiritually, we are all on a par as children of God. We are equally
eligible to co-inherit the promises made to Abraham and his progeny.
Paul expanded on his understanding of the meaning of baptism in
his letter to the Colossians, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives
in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head
over every power and authority. In him you are also circumcised, in the
putting off of the sinful nature [“body of the sins of the flesh” – Greek], not
with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision
done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with
him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the
dead” (Colossians 2:9-12).
Paul then adds one more clarification, “When you were dead in
your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature [Greek: “of your
flesh”], God made you alive with Christ” (verse 13).
“Baptism” means “immersion” in most cases. A possible exception would
be Luke 11:38 where the term is used of hand-washing, yet, even that
passage could refer to the immersion of the hands in water to cleanse them.
Christian baptism retained the sense of ritual purification found in
Jewish practice (I Peter 3:21). It also depicts our adoption as God’s
children. When we receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, we gain the right to
call God “Abba” or “Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15-17).
In Judaism, circumcision for males symbolized entry into the fold.
For Christians, baptism has the same effect – it is the formal entrance rite
into the covenantal community (Colossians 2:11-12). In baptism, we
Christians symbolically die to our sins and close the door on our past lives.
We are buried in baptism with Christ, and we rise from that watery “grave”
in purity to share the new life brought about by Jesus’ resurrection
(Romans 6:1-4). Baptism is, in effect, a new birth (John 3:4-5) to a new life
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?