Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 19, 2009
How and when did the sacrament of Baptism begin?
In the Acts of the Apostles, we see some received the baptism of John but not the Holy Spirit. Where did Johnís baptism come from? Why was Jesus baptized since he had no sin?
Many Christian practices had their origins in the Jewish religion. It appears that Johnís, and subsequently Christian, baptism had origins in Jewish rites of ritual washing or immersion.
The Hebrew term mikveh means baths or ritual immersion waters. It first appears in Genesis for the gathering of the waters. Scripture shows Godís cleansing of the world with water.
In Noahís time, immersion in floodwaters cleansed the land of wickedness. The Red Sea waters cleansed the land of evildoers, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land, a testimony to Godís power. Paul says: ďAll were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the seaĒ (1Corinthians 10:2).
Ancient ritual cleanliness for Israelites was a spiritual and physical cleansing of defilement incurred in numerous ways such as touching a dead body. It restored oneís status in the community and testified that the person was ready to assume a new life of responsibility and service. It witnessed to repentance and a desire for closer union with God.
Historically, for the Jews, it was performed before a variety of religious activities and services. For converts, next in importance to circumcision and sacrifice, ritual immersion was a cleansing of idolatry and a willingness to assume a Jewish identity.
Therefore, many ritual pools were needed within the Temple area. Archaeological excavations have discovered 48 different baths leading into the Temple area and others such as at Masada, a fortress used by the Jews as their last stand against the Romans. The construction of ritual baths, it seems, took precedence over the building of synagogues.
There were numerous regulations concerning the water in these pools. Its purity was assured by its being free of other substances and its direct connectedness to the earth. There were different levels with the highest order being the use of a spring or flowing river.
The candidate was immersed three times because the word mikveh appears three times in the Torah. Every part of the flesh had to be washed directly so no clothing or person could touch the one being immersed. Immersion was performed before witnesses with exhortations and benedictions.
SEVICE TO GOD
John the Baptist understood the meaning of this ancient Jewish rite. Those who came in faith and repentance were confirmed in their conversion, beginning a new life of service to God. The difference with John the Baptist was his declaration that the one who would come after him would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.
Some disagreement exists about any connection between Jewish ritual cleansing and Baptism. Their purpose is similar but Christian Baptism gives the added strengthening grace of the Holy Spirit and Godís gift of salvation.
In the New Testament, there seem to be hints that connect them. For one, the Gospels donít mention that this ritual surprised the people who came to John so itís likely they were familiar with it from their own Jewish practices.
Also, in John 1:19, the priests and Levites sent from the Pharisees questioned John the Baptistís identity since he was baptizing. It looks like this was the role of an official person since they wondered if he was the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet.
In addition, at Pentecost, it seemed normal to the crowd to be told they had to be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.
In the Jewish ritual, the person was immersed in the name of the official witness. Paul may refer to this practice when he tells a divided community they are not baptized in the name of individuals such as himself but in the name of Jesus.
Why did Jesus go for Baptism? Jesus went to be baptized ďto fulfill all righteousnessĒ (Matthew 3:16) required for Jews.
He identified with humanity and took upon himself the sins of all and the baptism of repentance for all.
A NEW LIFE
Baptism is the beginning of a new life and it was so for Jesus as he was about to embark on his public ministry, suffering and death. He was affirmed in this mission, according to the Gospels, by the voice of the Father and the appearance of the Holy Spirit.
(Sister Louise welcomes your questions. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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