The Old Testament Roots of Baptism: Part 1


Baptism isn't a new teaching. The past three to four hundred years have seen an increase in churchly debates about Baptism, but it isn't a new teaching. It wasn’t in Jesus' day, either. In fact, neither Jesus nor John the Baptist introduced baptism. It goes much further back.

To baptize literally means in Greek “to wash with water.” Such washing has deep roots in the Bible. The basic stuff can be found all the way back at the beginning of everything. This explains why Jesus - The Word of God in the flesh - made so much of Baptism being about water, Word, and Spirit.

The roots of Baptism begin in Genesis 1, when the Spirit of God overshadowed the waters, and the Word of God spoke creation up from the waters. At the beginning of everything the Trinity, the Father and the Word and the Spirit, are there in and with the water.

Jump ahead thousands of years and the Trinity shows up again at Jesus' baptism in the Jordan. At the beginning of his ministry we read about the Father, and the Word, and the Spirit in and with the water. Only at that time, Jesus comes not to create, but recreate. Jesus' Baptism is for "the fulfilling of all righteousness." It's a washing of regeneration and renewal, a new beginning, done to us by God's Spirit. As it was in the beginning, so it is at Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, and so it will be with all baptisms until the Last Day. Creation and recreation. Genesis and regeneration through water, God's Word, and the Holy Spirit.

Baptism comes up again in the story of the Flood (Genesis 6-9). Cain's children had practically ruined the world since "every thought of their hearts was evil every day of their lives." But God's Word, water, and the Holy Spirit (the breath of Life) brought about a regeneration and renewal of the world. Noah and his family, eight people in all, were saved from judgment by water, God's Word, and the Spirit.

St. Peter picks up on this in his first letter (3:20-21) when he notes that eight people were saved from God's judgment by water. In the same way, he writes, baptism now saves you through Jesus' resurrection. In the days of Noah, according to Peter, the flood purged the earth of sin. Now, Baptism - water, God's Word, and Spirit - purges away our sin so we can enjoy a good conscience in relation to our Heavenly Father.

Baptism comes up again at the time of the Exodus. When the Israelites were led through the waters of the Red Sea, St. Paul teaches us that this was a Baptism (1 Cor 10:1-2). He writes, “…our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Israel was saved from bondage through water, God's Word, and the Spirit (the cloud that went before and behind Israel was the presence of God). In the same way, God saves us from the Egypt of slavery to sin and death by leading us through the Red Sea of Baptism.

At the Jordan river, when God through Joshua brought Israel into the Promised Land, we again read about water, God's Word, and Spirit. It was no coincidence that Jesus was baptized in this same river. But now, on account of Jesus, we're led into the heavenly Promised Land. Jesus’ name in Hebrew is Joshua. Jesus is the new Joshua who leads us into the kingdom of God through Baptism. That's why he tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God, without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). We are born again in the Jordan of Baptism.

Finally, Ezekiel the prophet preaches about how God will speak His Spirit into us in the last days. God says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities… I will give you a new heart and place the new Spirit within you… I will put my Spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (36:25-26a).

Already in the Old Testament we receive an abundant number of examples that God saves his chosen people from judgment through the instrumentality of water. The gift of forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation comes through water, God's Word, and Spirit. Through water, Word and Spirit, God regenerates and renews sinners, giving them new life through the power of Jesus' resurrection. The proof has been there since the beginning.

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.
Twitter @DonavonRiley