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What is Baptism?

Answers | Justin Martz | 13 mins

Baptism is a Christian sacrament in the various denominations of Christianity. However, what this sacrament means and how it is given varies from tradition to tradition. Some believe in infant baptism, while others claim believer-only baptism. Some have specific rituals associated with it, while others are more informal. With so much variation within Christianity, the question becomes, “What exactly is baptism?”

Old Testament Origins

In Genesis 1:9, God collects the waters in one area during the formation of the cosmos. This is a form of the word miqveh (Leviticus 11:36). This word and concept become a key to understanding baptism. Here it is important to note that it has its roots in creation.

The concept of Baptism begins to unfold more in the Torah. In these texts, we see the use of miqveh referring to a pool of water used for ceremonial cleansing. A person or object that is impure or ceremonially unclean before immersion will be pure or ceremonially clean after immersion in a miqveh. Priests would also use this to cleanse themselves as a part of the practice to prepare for sacred work. Priests would begin their service when they turned 30 by going through miqveh cleansing. They would also use miqveh to cleanse instruments used in priestly service and the temple.

Miqveh is additionally used for ceremonial cleansing. Examples of this include women after childbirth or their monthly cycle or men after sexual discharge (Leviticus 15:19–30) or after contact with a dead body (Leviticus 19:18–19). Clothing and utensils could also be cleansed by ritual immersion (Leviticus 11:32).

This miqveh washing or immersion also symbolized cleansing from sin, sickness, or corruption (Isaiah 1:16; Ezekiel 36:25; Psalm 51:2). We see examples like Elisha in 2 Kings 5:10, who sent a messenger saying, "Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be cleansed.” And in Psalm 51, we can read, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.

Miqveh is also from the same root word as hope, and there is some wordplay between the two in Jeremiah 17:13, “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.” Here, “miqveh” is translated as “hope” and is also described as a fountain of living water.

Miqveh cleansing is still used by Jewish people today and is connected to creation, Torah, worship, cleansing, hope, and new beginnings. In these ways, miqveh takes on a sacred connection to God. Rabbi Pauline Bebe puts it this way,

When one plunges into the miqveh, the links with Creation and with our spirituality extend even further. When we remember that we are created in the image of God, miqveh becomes a reminder of the infinite within the finite, the immortal within the human, the limitless options offered to humanity.

Saved Through Water

Once one understands the concept of miqveh, the next step is to consider the Biblical theme of being saved through water. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that the source of living water comes from Eden. God is the source of living water that flows through the land and gives life.

In Genesis 6, we see the account of Noah. God had favor on Noah and delivered him and his family through water. Peter picks up on this and states,

God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.- 1 Peter 3:20–21

Peter links the story of Noah to baptism by showing how Noah, in the ark, going through the water is a picture of us being in Christ and going through the water of baptism, leading to a new life and new creation.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul continues this theme stating, “I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Moses himself had gone through a “baptism-styled event” when he passed through the waters of the Nile in his own “ark” of shelter as a baby (Exodus 2). Later, Moses led the Israelites through the waters of the Sea into a new reality and the creation of a people. And even later, Joshua did the same, passing through the Jordan River.

Jonah goes down into the waters only to be delivered by God, resurrected to a renewed ministry. Jonah references this fact in his prayer: “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me . . . but You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” (Jonah 2:5–6) Jesus later used the story of Jonah as an example of His own resurrection (Luke 11:29–30).

Being saved through water, leading to a new life and renewed creation, becomes an important symbol throughout the biblical story. The accounts of Noah, Moses, Joshua, Elisha, and others all connect to what we see John doing in the gospels.

John the Baptizer – a New Immersion

We have learned about miqveh cleansing through immersion, and we have seen the biblical theme of salvation and new life through water. Being immersed in a miqveh was a powerful symbol that the Jews of Jesus’ time would have understood. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), likely contain an allusion to the miqvah, which Nicodemus would have understood. Jesus was saying that to be right with God, a person must repent of sin (which is what the ritual cleansing in water signified) and undergo a spiritual transformation from God.

John the Baptist continued and formed this picture by cleansing and renewing those he baptized. His Baptism or miqveh was one of repentance, a change to a new life, not just one of ceremonial cleansing. Those who responded in repentance and baptism were admitting that they were unacceptable to God and needed to be made clean (see Acts 2:37–38).

Jesus and Baptism

Jesus started His earthly ministry when He was 30, and just as a priest would, He began His ministry by going through baptism or miqveh. At this time, His ministry started, and His earthly life changed to fulfill his mission and purpose as the Messiah. In this way, He also modeled for those who would follow Him a baptism of repentance, of a new life, that connects to the Biblical theme of living water and a cosmic connection to salvation by God.

At His baptism, the entire Trinity is involved. And just like at creation, the Spirit is present, and The Father speaks. The Father quotes from different OT passages, including Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42, combining them into this one statement highlighting Jesus' fulfillment as the Messiah.

As summarized by the Bible Project,

Baptism is the reenactment of what it means to be rescued through waters of death in order to enter a new creation life. The practice of baptism is seen all throughout the story of the Bible, so when Jesus comes to be baptized, many of the baptismal events from the Hebrew Bible are alluded to and find their ultimate significance in this important scene. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of a new creation. He is the ultimate Noah’s ark where we can be saved and start again. He is the new Moses who rescued us from slavery and into freedom. He is the new Joshua who we can follow into God’s promises. All that Jesus did when he underwent the violent flood of chaos in his crucifixion made a way for everyone who trusts in him to enter the new creation life that he offers. He is where life can flourish and God’s pleasure rests.

Baptidzo (βαπτίζω)
The Greek word for Baptism is baptidzo. The verb means to immerse and is the Greek equivalent to miqveh. The transliteration of this word has led to its meaning being murky and up to interpretation. The meaning comes from both miqveh and the biblical picture of salvation through water. It is this whole picture that Jesus ultimately fills with death and new life, starting something new and becoming recreated. All of this comes together in this immersion experience as one is symbolically and literally brought through the waters into a new life, a new creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Great Commission

This article has attempted to cover a lot of ground regarding the background and meaning of baptism. However, it is important to not get too weighed down in the data and remember that baptism stands out as a commandment of Jesus. Jesus states in Matthew 28:18-20,

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

This commission is the ultimate foundation of baptism as a part of discipleship. So, no matter what tradition you are from or how you view or institute baptism, we are all called to make new disciples and baptize them in the name of the triune God. This is more than an expectation; it is a command. When one is baptized, which is a redefined miqveh and a fulfilled picture of salvation and new creation through water, you externally show your internal faith that you are participating in a cosmic recreation that God has for all His people.

Written By

Justin Martz

Husband and father. “The Professor” and teacher of Sun Valley University, and in my DMIN program. Love to read, listen to podcasts, and watch movies. I am also an associate at Rayhons Financial Solutions.

Published on May 5, 2022