So, being a Church of Christ kind of guy, I’ve been thinking about the preceding posts on worship and wondering what the implications of the Creation and the church each being God’s temple would be for baptism. Does seeing things this way shed any light on a difficult doctrine? I think it does.
One of the challenges of the doctrine of baptism has been its lack of OT antecedents. Insofar as the scriptures are concerned, it appears to just pop into existence with John the Baptist. And yet the Jews didn’t seem to consider baptism foreign to their worldview. Why?
Well, let’s think about the Essenes. This sect of Jews retreated to the Dead Sea and gathered the papers we call the Dead Sea Scrolls.
They immersed their converts as a means of obtaining forgiveness, not unlike John’s baptism and Christian baptism. Why? Because they’d rejected the Temple due to its corruption.
The Essenes, claiming (most likely) to be the real heirs of the Zadokite priestly line, refused to have anything to do with the ‘cleansed’ Temple, and established their own community elsewhere.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 170.
When the Jews won their freedom from the Seleucids under the leadership of the Maccabees, Jonathan Maccabeus allowed himself to be appointed high priest, even though he was not a descendant of Zadok — contrary to scripture. As a result, the Essenes considered the Temple hopelessly corrupted.
Later, when Herod was appointed “king of the Jews” by Caesar, the outrage was compounded, as Herod was not even of Jewish blood, but an Edomite (Idumean). Under the Maccabees, the Edomites had been forcibly converted to Judaism, but they were not physical descendants of Jacob, much less Judah, and no descendant of David.
Hence, the Essenes retreated the desert and waited for God to set things right.
Of the regular praxis [religious practice] of the [Essene] community, one feature in particular deserves special comment: the community described in the Community Rule (as opposed to that in the Damascus Document) offered no animal sacrifices. Building on this, and piecing together the ideology of the movement from hints and statements, we reach the clear conclusion that at least one branch regarded itself not just as the true Israel but as the true Temple. The existing Temple might have been ‘cleansed’ by the Maccabaean revolt, but it was still polluted as far as this group was concerned. Just as the Pharisees and their putative successors developed an alternative to the Temple, offering ‘spiritual sacrifices’ through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so the group that practised the Community Rule developed a theology in which Israel’s god had called them into being as an alternative Temple. Their devotion was acceptable in the place of that which was still being offered a few miles away, and a few thousand feet higher up, on Mount Zion itself.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 205–206.
Because the Essenes had rejected the Temple, they needed a means of atonement — for sins to be forgiven — and so they expanded ritual cleansing in water to become an act of atonement — so that God would forgive sins through immersion rather than sacrifice in the Temple.
The usual scholarly response to this bit of history is to carefully distinguish between washings for the sake of ritual cleansing and washings for atonement, which would be like baptism. Under this perspective, the Essene washing was the first baptism-like ritual in Judaism. The Torah’s ritual washings are considered of a very different type by most Bible scholars.
But I think this understanding misses some critical elements of Jewish thought. And to see the point we need to go back to the Torah. Why wash in water? What was the point?
(Lev 7:19-21 ESV) “Flesh that touches any unclean thing shall not be eaten. It shall be burned up with fire. All who are clean may eat flesh, 20 but the person who eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of the LORD’s peace offerings while an uncleanness is on him, that person shall be cut off from his people. 21 And if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether human uncleanness or an unclean beast or any unclean detestable creature, and then eats some flesh from the sacrifice of the LORD’s peace offerings, that person shall be cut off from his people.“
(Lev 15:31 ESV) “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”
(Num 19:13 ESV) 13 Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.
The ultimate penalty for being unclean was separation from the tabernacle/Temple and from the right to participate in sacrifice to God. Indeed, the penalty for entering the tabernacle or sharing in a sacrifice while unclean was to be “cut off” — thrown out of the camp and left to wander in the desert without family or the presence of God (or, some believe, capital punishment).
So under the Law of Moses, the cleansing that comes from washing with water did not provide atonement, but it did make the person eligible to go to the tabernacle/Temple and to sacrifice for atonement.
And so, if the church is the temple, as the body of Christ, then what’s required for someone to enter the temple? Well, ritual washing. You can’t enter the temple unless you are clean.
It’s easy to see why the Jews weren’t puzzled by baptism. It was a requisite condition to entering the new temple, the body of Christ. How else would a good Jew do this?
And so, if the church is the temple, and if the temple is where sacrifices are made and sins are forgiven, of course we must be washed in water before we enter. It goes back to the Torah. It’s not so much a new ritual as a new temple.
The fact the entry into Kingdom corresponds with forgiveness naturally associates our washing with atonement. But we enter the Kingdom to offer sacrifices, just as the Jews entered the Temple to do so. The difference is that we now only offer thanks offerings. The only atonement sacrifice offered for us was offered by Jesus. And so, as soon as we are cleansed, we are forgiven. There’s no next step required because the atoning sacrifice has already been made, whereas the Jews had to be cleansed and then enter the temple and then offer an atonement sacrifice. We don’t need the third step.
This being the case, we find guidance on how God deals with baptism in the OT. And we can’t help but note the severity of the commands regarding ritual cleansing. The penalty is to be “cut off” from Israel. It was a truly awful prospect!
But God is gracious. In 2 Chr 30, we are told about King Hezekiah’s renewal of the worship of God. After years of neglect, Hezekiah ordered that the practices of the Law of Moses be re-established, and so Israel celebrated the first Passover in generations.
Hezekiah sent messengers to all of Israel, both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, inviting all to come to Jerusalem to honor God through the Passover, and many journeyed from great distances to once again participate in the ritual. But some did not arrive in time to undergo the necessary cleansing ritual.
(2Ch 30:18-20 NET) 18 The majority of the many people from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun were ceremonially unclean, yet they ate the Passover in violation of what is prescribed in the law. For Hezekiah prayed for them, saying: “May the LORD, who is good, forgive 19 everyone who has determined to follow God, the LORD God of his ancestors, even if he is not ceremonially clean according to the standards of the temple.” 20 The LORD responded favorably to Hezekiah and forgave the people.
So there you have it. Is cleansing a command? Yes. Is the penalty severe? Yes, essentially death. So what if someone messes up the cleansing ritual, unaware of the correct rules? God will accept him if he “has determined to follow God,” that is, if he didn’t violate God’s commands knowingly, that is, with a rebellious spirit.
And so it is with baptism — a ritual with roots going back to Moses.