Chapter 2

Baptism Foreshadowed In The Old Testament

William Shakespeare, in The Tempest (Act 2, Scene 1), wisely said, “What is past is prologue.” He was extolling the value of seeing the events and practices of yesterday as the seeds of today. This is especially helpful in wrestling with the issue of baptism.

From a first-century Jewish point of view, many Bible scholars believe that two practices prepared the way for baptism and help to explain its nature and purpose. One was the practice of the mikvah (the ceremonial bath), and the other was the rite of circumcision, which we will consider first.

THE PICTURE OF CIRCUMCISION

From the time of Abram, circumcision was a physical sign of a chosen people’s covenant relationship with God (Gen. 17:11). Although other nations also practiced circumcision, the rite took on a special meaning for the Jewish people. At the very least, it showed that God had a right to order even the most intimate and personal areas of their lives.

Some believe that, in a similar way, baptism later became a sign of a New Covenant for followers of Christ.

It must be understood, however, that these two pictures (circumcision and baptism) are not exact equivalents. Circumcision was to be performed only on males. Baptism is not gender-specific.

In addition, circumcision was done on male infants on the eighth day after their birth. Baptism, as described in the New Testament, was a public profession of personal faith in Christ. Circumcision was a mark of national identity. New Testament baptism was a sign of entrance into the international body of Christ.

Because of these distinctions, the most we can safely say is that circumcision foreshadowed the significance of baptism.

It’s also important to see how water baptism was practiced in Jewish culture prior to its New Testament meaning.

THE PRACTICE OF THE MIKVAH

While I was on a trip to Israel, our study group spent several hours at Qumran. An archaeological dig is underway there to unearth the life and culture of the Essene sect, a conservative, ascetic Jewish group in the first century.

As we toured this ancient community, one of the places we examined was an ancient mikvah. In their purification ceremonies, the Jews would descend a set of seven steps into the water, then exit by a different set of steps. This signified that the sins of which they had been cleansed had been left behind in the waters. It was a strategic part of the community life of the Essenes.

Today within Judaism, the purification ceremony of the mikvah (immersion in a ritual bath) is still practiced. Online encyclopedia Wikipedia says this of the mikvah:

Its main use nowadays is by Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth, by Jewish men to achieve ritual purity, as part of a traditional procedure for conversion to Judaism, and (in some cases) for utensils used for eating and cooking.

This ancient practice of ceremonial cleansing is also used as a rite of spiritual conversion. According to Rabbi Maurice Lamm in Becoming A Jew:

Immersion, tevillah, is the common core component of every [traditional] Jewish conversion process, for male and female, adult and child, ignoramus and scholar. It is sine qua non, and a conversion ceremony without immersion is unacceptable to the traditional religious community and simply not Jewish in character.

In addition to the mikvah’s use for ceremonial cleansing and conversion, a metaphorical use of the word links the mikvah to the aspirations and hopes of Judaism.

Wikipedia further states:

The Hebrew word mikvah also means “hope.” The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly refers to this dual meaning in using rain, living water, and the mikvah itself as a symbol of hope in and from God (see Jer. 14:22; 17:13).

Above all, the mikvah expressed the hope that the provider God would care for and meet the needs of His people.

For the first-century Jewish community, all of these ideas could have converged in their understanding of baptism. New Testament followers of Christ would eventually conclude that when it came to baptism, what was past was simply a prologue. From a Christian point of view, one era was coming to an end.

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