What the Pharisees taught me about baptism 38

Before immersing yourself in this post, please read part one of this series on the purpose of baptism. We can’t really make sense of the biblical mode of baptism without understanding its purpose.

Before I get started, let me begin with a little biography. I was born into a Baptist family. My grandparents were Baptist missionaries to China in the 1940s, and my grandfather–and, later, my father–pastored the Baptist church in the city in New Zealand where I was born. I was baptized by immersion by my father when I was seven, and I still prize the letter of congratulations that my grandfather sent me on that occasion.

In other words, I was born an immersionist, I was baptized by immersion, and I remained an immersionist until well into my 30s, even after joining a denomination that believed in baptism by sprinkling. I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to baptize by sprinkling. It seemed like baptism lite. Why not go all the way (under)?

That all changed when my pastor explained the significance of John the Baptist. The original baptist changed my opinion on the proper mode of baptism from immersion to sprinkling. The key comes from two questions the Pharisees asked–one of John and one of Jesus.

Who are you?

In Luke 3 we are introduced to John the Baptist who has been having crowds come to listen to his preaching and be baptized by him. Clearly he was causing a stir, and in John 1 we see that the priests and Levites have been dispatched from Jerusalem to see what he is doing. Here’s John’s account:

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

Notice the response when John the Baptist said he was not the Christ: “Then who are you.” They initially assumed that he was the Messiah. Failing that, he must be Elijah or the prophet. Why would they think that? Was there a connection between John’s baptizing, which they did not dispute or question, and what they would expect to see in a Messiah? Let’s take a look at the priests’ three guesses and show why they connected the Baptist with them.

  1. Are you the Christ? (Although we don’t see this actual question, we can infer it from John’s answer and their “what then” response.) All Christians are familiar with Isaiah 53 and its obvious prophetic references to Jesus as the Messiah. Although we often start in chapter 53, the prophecy starts at the end of the previous chapter, which includes this description:

    His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness–so will he sprinkle many nations. (Isaiah 52:14-15)

    We see a similar picture of the Messiah in Ezekiel 36:25-29:

    I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.

    The Pharisees, who knew the Bible very well, were looking for a Messiah who would come sprinkling. If John the Baptist was preaching forgiveness of sins and sprinkling the people who came to him, perhaps this was the long-awaited Messiah.

    John told them that he was not the Messiah, so they guessed that he must be someone else.

  2. Are you Elijah? This connection is found in the last two chapters of Malachi. In Malachi 4:5-6 (the last verses of the Old Testament), the prophet says that God will send Elijah. (Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:14-15 that John the Baptist was the prophesied Elijah, though that not everyone would recognize him as such.)

    I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.

    What would this messenger be doing? We see that in Malachi 3:2-3:

    Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.

    By what means are the Levites purified? We see that in Numbers 8:6-7.

    Take the Levites from among the other Isrealites and make them ceremonially clean. To purify them, do this: Sprinkle the water of cleansing on them.

    Elijah would come sprinkling as well.

  3. Are you the prophet? We find the prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15.

    The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.

    Like who? Like Moses. What connection did John’s interrogators see between the John the Baptist and Moses?

    You can’t read far into the story of Moses’ priestly ministry without encountering him sprinkling something, including people. Perhaps the most significant description is from Exodus 24:8.

    Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Do you recognize those words? They are repeated by Jesus at the last supper as he prepares to shed his blood to sprinkle the nations (Mark 14:24). Just like Moses and the prophet. Just like Elijah. And like the Messiah was about to do.

John the Baptist came sprinkling, which was the activity that alerted the most Bible-literate people in the land that something important was afoot.

How dare you?

This second question is asked of Jesus after he cleaned out the temple from the money changers. Here’s the exchange:

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism–was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’….” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

What is at stake here is Jesus’ authority as a priest to regulate activities in the temple. If he wasn’t a priest, he had no right to clean it out and call it his own house. If he was a priest, he did have that authority.

Why did Jesus turn that question to John’s baptism? Because that’s what sealed Jesus’ status as a priest. If John’s baptism was valid, he had the authority; if it wasn’t, he didn’t have authority.

So, then, how were priests to be baptized? The instructions for the Levites in Numbers 8 cited earlier describe this, and we see another priestly ordination in Exodus 29.

Take the anointing oil and anoint him by pouring it on his head. (Exodus 29:7)

Take some of the blood on the altar and some of the anointing oil and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. Then he and his sons and their garments will be consecrated. (Exodus 29:21)

Priests also had to be at least 30 before they could be ordained (see Numbers 4:46-47). It’s no accident that Jesus’ ministry began when he was 30, as Luke specifically points out for us in Luke 3:23, immediately after describing Jesus’ baptism.

Understanding Jesus’ baptism as an ordination rite also helps us understand John’s initial reluctance to baptize Jesus and his eventual acquiescence.

John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Then John consented.

John, who was a priest himself (by inheritance through his father), understood what Jesus meant by “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus, who is described as a priest (Hebrews 5:4-6), needed to perfectly obey the law, including the Levitical law for ordination. Sprinkling was the lawful mode of priestly ordination.

This is why this last step (baptism represented the fulfillment of the law) is what triggers God’s public declaration of Jesus as Messiah and the beginning of his priestly ministry.

Jesus’ baptism by sprinkling is also necessary to have him properly fulfill the title of Messiah, which means anointed one. John anoints him with water, and he is revealed as the Messiah.

(I anticipate at least one more post on this topic, so in the next one I’ll deal with objections, including the reference to coming up out of the water and the Greek definition of baptizo. If you have any other objections or counterpoints, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them in the next post.)

38 thoughts on “What the Pharisees taught me about baptism

  1. Simon P. Nov 21, 2009 7:41 pm

    I think we’ve taken this the wrong way (as James Duncan) said earlier. We’ve gone from method, to candidate, to a requirement of salvation. I would like to personally (at this point) stick with mode. I’ve seen little (and I have to admit argued in the wrong direction myself) discussion of the method of sprinkle vs. immersion. As someone digging deeper into my faith, I’d like to take this one step at a time.

  2. Josh Nov 21, 2009 8:27 pm

    John 3:5 isn’t talking about baptism. There is a word for baptism: baptism. Why would you assume that born of water means baptism?

    If baptism is required for salvation, the how was the thief on the cross saved? Better yet, how were all the people prior to John the Baptist saved? Jesus said “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3. “Born of water” refers to physical birth, which is contrasted with “born of the Spirit” which is spiritual birth described in John 1.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure why you’d draw a distinction between the words of John and the words of Jesus in the gospel of John. Jesus IS the word. Everything John writes in the gospel of John is on equal standing with any of the “red letter” words. I’m not sure how anyone could read the book of John and think salvation requires anything other than belief on Jesus Christ.

  3. Tommy F Nov 22, 2009 1:05 am


    You’re back to inferring. Inference is a very thin way to build your case on labeling people who don’t concur with your inferences blasphemers.

    Though your other passages might include infants, there is no evidence that they absolutely do. I know plenty of people who have families with no infants. You again are finding words in texts that aren’t there. Maybe I just need your special decoder pen. And if infant baptism is so crucial to one’s faith, don’t you think there’d be a verse (or two or three) somewhere that insists on this understanding? Aren’t you making a minor point of theology something major?

    Though I disagree with you on baptism, I wouldn’t say you’re guilty of blasphemy.

    But, regarding your odd Jesus v. John choice of words, I’d say you are very close to blasphemy. Scripture has one divine author, expressed through dozens of human authors. Attempts should be made to find agreement in the 66 books, much less in an individual one. Josh is right. The author of John’s gospel presumably knew what he was doing. On your reading (preferring Jesus over John) you are essentially inferring that the author purposely contradicts himself. Nice. Maybe it’s your reading that needs to be corrected, rather than John’s gospel.

    Again, does the fact that I don’t find infants in John 3 really make me guilty of blasphemy?
    C’mon Scottie. Drop the inferences. Evidence. Words. This is the way to persuade.

  4. Josh Nov 22, 2009 9:31 pm

    James Duncan,

    If that’s the case (which sounds reasonable to me), why would he need to be purified at all?

    And what of the fact that Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi?

  5. James Duncan Nov 22, 2009 9:41 pm


    1) I answered the purification issue in this line: “Although its function can be for cleansing, it also functions as an anointing or consecration–a sign that God has called that person to service (think about David’s consecration by Samuel, for example).” I also addressed the multifaceted meaning of baptism last week.

    2) Jesus is the high priests of high priests, so the Levites were a shadow of Christ. I think you’re looking at the tribal membership question from the wrong direction; the Levites are in the tribe of Christ.

  6. Josh Nov 22, 2009 10:11 pm

    James Duncan,

    That may be your best answer to the purification question, but it isn’t a particularly persuasive one, especially since the very verse you quoted (Numbers 8:6-7) says “To PURIFY them, do this: Sprinkle the water of cleansing on them and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves.” I’m not sure why you would arbitrarily say the sprinkling wasn’t for purification purposes when the verse itself says it IS for purification.

    While I agree with you that all of the law is a foreshadowing of Christ, if Jesus’ baptism by John was to ordain him as a priest as in Numbers 8, it does matter what tribe Jesus was from. No one could be a levitical priest but a Levite. But Jesus’ priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek, which predates the levitical priesthood. As such, it seems odd to claim that His baptism was intended to be the fulfillment of an unneeded purification (due to His sinless perfection) of a different priesthood, especially since, at best, the baptism fulfilled only a part of the ordination rite.

    It’s an interesting theory, but it just doesn’t seem to fit on all fours.

    • James Duncan Nov 22, 2009 10:54 pm

      Jesus is greater than Levi, and so is Melchizedek, according to Hebrews 7:7-10.

      And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

      (Although I don’t think it’s necessary to prove Jesus is a Levite, you can get there through Mary, who was related to Elizabeth, who was married to a Levite priest.)

Comments are closed.