It is written:
concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:10)
As strange as it may sound, in order to better understand the baptism of the New Testament, we must begin with the Old Testament.
Many are not aware that baptism (ceremonial cleansing in water) was an important part of the Old Testament Scriptures. It was especially discussed in Leviticus chapters 11-15.
In the Book of Hebrews, Paul discusses the various “washings” (baptismos-one of the Greek words for baptism) that were practiced under the Old Testament Law.
Speaking of this subject, Ferguson has written:
“Jewish concepts and practices provide a more likely immediate context for Christian baptism than any other antecedents. 115 Ideas of purity among the Jews, however, were similar to those in their surrounding cultures. First-century Judaism, moreover, saw considerable influence from Hellenism. There was considerable variety in the purification practices among Jews and the application of water in those rites. 116 Our main concern is background information relevant to Christian baptism and hence words of the bapt-root, but here we note some generalizations about usage of some other words. Λoύω is to wash the whole body; νἰπτω is to wash parts of the body (especially hands—Philo preferred the compound ἐκνἰπτω); πλύνω is to wash inanimate things; ἀπoλoύω is a strengthened form stressing the complete removal of dirt; λoυτρóν is the place for a bath, a bathhouse, water for a bath, or the bath itself; ῥαἰνω is to sprinkle (an aspersion). 117 The Background in the Jewish Scriptures Ceremonial Cleansing The Law of Moses provided for ceremonial applications of water for purposes of purification and included a degree of detail lacking in Greco-Roman sources. 118 This practice applied to human beings and to inanimate objects: “Whoever touches the carcass of any [unclean animal] shall be unclean until the evening, and whoever carries any part of the carcass of any of them shall wash  119 his clothes and be unclean until the evening.” 120 Any “article of wood, cloth, skin, or sacking” on which a dead unclean animal falls “shall be dipped into water [εἰς ὕδωρ βαφήσεται], and it shall be unclean until evening.” 121 Uncleanness attached also to a person who touched the dead body of a human being, making that person unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh days a clean person poured running water  into a vessel containing the ashes of a burnt purification offering, dipped [βἀπτω] hyssop into the water mixed with ashes, and sprinkled it on whoever touched the corpse or the grave: The clean person shall sprinkle  the unclean ones on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying him on the seventh day. Then he shall wash  his clothes and bathe himself in water [λoύσεται ὕδατι], and at evening he shall be clean. 122 Other occasions of ceremonial defilement required the use of water in purification. A man after a discharge of semen and a woman after the discharge of her monthly period were ceremonially unclean and had to wash their clothes and bathe in water; so did anyone who touched them, their clothing, or their bedding. 123 A distinction was made in the vocabulary employed for washing clothes and bathing, and between dipping an object and pouring and sprinkling various substances. This is illustrated by the account of the cleansing of a person cured of a skin disease: [The priest] shall take the living bird with the cedarwood and the crimson yarn and the hyssop, and dip [βἀψει] them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall sprinkle  it seven times upon the one who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean. . . . The one who is to be cleansed shall wash  his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and bathe [λoύσεται] himself in water, and he shall be clean. . . . The priest shall take some of the . . . oil and pour  it into the palm of his own left hand, and dip [βἀψει] his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand and sprinkle  some oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. 124 These passages are representative of the use of βἀπτω in the Greek Old Testament. For a complete listing see chapter 3. It most often translates the Hebrew , ṭabal, “to dip.” The Hebrew and the Greek maintain different word usage for bathing and washing from dipping or immersing (ṭabal, baptō). The use of “living” (), “running,” water is specified in Numbers 5: 17; 19: 17; Leviticus 14: 5, 50-53.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 1701-1742 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
From these facts, we can learn several things about the subject of baptism in the Old Testament.
First, baptism was practiced in the Old Testament. Not only was it practiced, but in many cases, it was commanded.
Second, the primary purpose of baptism in the Old Testament was a ritual cleansing by immersion in water.
Notice that the Old Testament (and the Jewish rabbinical texts) maintain the distinctions between immersion and sprinkling and pouring of water. Baptism (immersion) was seen to be distinct from the sprinkling and pouring of water-they were not the same.
This is important to remember since so many in our day and age teach that baptism may also include sprinkling and pouring of water. From a grammatical study of baptism in the Old Testament, this does not follow; rather, the baptisms of the Old Testament were immersion in water and were clearly distinguished from sprinkling and pouring of water.
Third, Jewish baptism (as well as baptism practices of other nations around the ancient world) was extremely widespread and extensive.
Writing of this point, Kenner has pointed out:
“Ritual lustrations were common throughout the ancient world. In addition to ancient Israel,[ 1247] ancient Egyptians,[ 1248] Mesopotamians,[ 1249] and Hittites[ 1250] practiced various ritual washings; they also appear in some genetically unrelated or distant societies.[ 1251] Later Mediterranean models probably also contributed to the development of Jewish purification ideas. Although some philosophers, such as the Cynics, detested the thought behind bodily purifications,[ 1252] other schools, such as the Pythagoreans[ 1253] and the Stoics,[ 1254] valued them as important. Various temples had their own rules mandating ritual purity,[ 1255] and the Eleusinian[ 1256] and Isis[ 1257] cults used lustrations as preliminary purifications in their initiatory rites; some initiatory baths were, however, used to secure pardon from the gods (Apul. Metam. 11.23). But in contrast to some earlier scholarship,[ 1258] most contemporary scholars have rightly observed that such acts were simply preliminary washings and not initiatory of themselves.[ 1259] It is moreover noteworthy that most standard terms for purification in the Greco-Roman world (καθαρμός, καθάρσιον, κάθαρσις) are missing in the NT.[ 1260] The early Jewish practice of ritual washings was widespread in Jewish Palestine long before the time of the Jesus movement, as evidence from Josephus,[ 1261] coins,[ 1262] and especially archaeology attests.[ 1263] Mikvaot, or standard ritual immersion pools, often included steps for descending into the pool and ascending from it, as well as a conduit for water to flow into it from an adjoining pool.[ 1264] One of the most pervasive Jewish features in excavations of Galilean and Judean sites,[ 1265] they are in evidence in the Hasmonean[ 1266] and Herodian[ 1267] periods and are found at places such as Masada[ 1268] and Jerusalem.[ 1269] They were especially common among the well-to-do who lived in Upper City Jerusalem[ 1270] and on the Temple Mount.[ 1271] (Jerusalemites may have been more concerned with ritual purity than were the provincials, “who purified themselves mainly for the festal pilgrimages.”)[ 1272] Wandering wilderness pietists such as Bannus frequently washed in the Jordan or other available sources of water (Jos. Life 11). Rabbinic texts include many discussions of ritual purification.[ 1273] The mikveh’s waters were thought to cleanse ritual impurity[ 1274] and so were important for priests,[ 1275] menstruants,[ 1276] and even vessels.[ 1277] Ritual purity was required before a festival and was achieved mainly through immersion.” (Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 1: Introduction and 1:1-247, 48260-48295 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
Fourth, an interesting phenomenon which sprang up in Judea before the time of Christ is known as “proselyte baptism.” This ritual baptism was part of the initiation of a person from a Gentile (non-Jewish) country who desired to be initiated into the Jewish religion. As we will notice in a future lesson, this practice has interesting applications when we study about the teaching of Christ in John 3:5 regarding baptism into the kingdom of God.
Fifth, because baptism was so commonplace in the ancient world and had a clear association with water baptism, then we should assume that baptism passages in the New Testament are referencing water baptism (unless context demands a different interpretation).
“Although the verb “baptize” can have a metaphorical use, the context usually gives a clear indication of this. Without such an indication, the ordinary use of the word at the time in Jewish and Christian circles for the religious immersion of a person in water should be assumed.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 3243 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
Ferguson has this in footnote 488:
“Cf. Albrecht Oepke, “βἀπτω, βαπτἰζω (et al.),” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), Vol. 1, pp. 539-540, that βαπτἰζειν meant technically “to baptize in water” so it was unnecessary to specify the medium. Cf. Gerard-Henry Baudry, Le baptême et ses symboles: Aux sources du salut (Paris: Beauchesne, 2001), p. 5, that “baptize in water” is a pleonasm.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 22259-22265 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.