I have recently finished Douglas van Dorn’s book Waters of Creation. It is a mind-blowing biblical study of the ordinance of baptism, and it has helped me have a greater, expanded appreciation for where the ritual came from and what it means for us today. The study is lengthy and there is certainly a lot in it to digest. I am trying to come to a clearer understanding of the arguments made in the book so that I can streamline them in my own mind and learn to present a cogent summary in just a few minutes. This is my first attempt.
Point #1: There are many typical “temples” in Scripture. First, there is the archetypal temple described in Revelation 4-5 as well as Isaiah 6 and Daniel 7. This is a description of heaven itself. An archetype is the original model, one that serves as a pattern for other things of the same kind. The sanctuary in heaven is the real sanctuary that is represented in typical temples in history. Every sanctuary has these features: three gradations of holiness, from the common space to the holy place to the holy of holies; tree or lampstands; and water for cleansing (baptism).
These “temples” include both sanctuaries made by God, and sanctuaries made by man. A detailed study (which I won’t go into here) of each of these sanctuaries shows parallels with the archetypal sanctuary which show that it is indeed a sanctuary. Prototypical sanctuaries include the very heavens and earth, as God built a sanctuary in his work of creation. The earth was made from out of “the deep” and the land was gathered together and arose out of the waters. The Garden of Eden is the other prototypical sanctuary, and Adam served there as a priest.
An “ectype” is copy of an original. Ectypal sanctuaries in Scripture include Mt. Ararat, as Noah, its priest (he offered sacrifices to God on the altar he built afterward) ministered; Mt. Sinai, and the promised land. The two ectypal sanctuaries built by man at God’s specific instruction are the Tabernacle and later the Temple.
Point #2: Sanctuaries are associated with new creation and baptism is required to enter. The first is the original creation itself, of course, but notice how at in the Flood, God is recreating the world, as it were, and beginning anew. At Mt. Sinai, God is creating a people for himself, establishing a nation, and in entering the promised land you have a new creation as well. None of these occur without a baptism! 2 Peter 3:5 tells us that “the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God.” The Flood is an obvious baptism. 1 Peter 3:20-21 says baptism corresponds to that catastrophic event in which eight people were saved through water. Likewise, the Israelites made it to the foot of Mt. Sinai only after passing through the Red Sea. 1 Corinthians 10:2 says they were baptized into Moses “in the sea”! Nor did the Israelites enter into Canaan without first passing through the River Jordan. God seems to be upholding a pattern. New creation and entrance into the temple are preceded by the washing of baptism.
Point #3: Baptismal washing is required of all priests entering into priestly ministry. A perfect example of this is Jesus’ baptism. Remember, Jesus is the High Priest of Israel, he is a high priest forever, and intercedes for us. He fulfills that office in his offering up himself as a sacrifice to God and in interceding for us. Not coincidentally, Jesus began his earthly ministry at the age of 30. Numbers 4:3, 47 tell us why—that’s how old you had to be to enter ministerial service in the tent of meeting. Jesus said he needed to be baptized, not because he was repenting, but to “fulfill all righteousness”—that is, to fulfill the law. Which law? The priestly ordination rite of Exodus 29:4. (A word study reveals that this washing was a full body immersion, unlike the sprinklings that were ordained elsewhere, such as Numbers 8:7. The need for this explains the enormous baths that were built into the temple (2 Chron. 4:2-6)). Shortly hereafter, Jesus does something only a priest would have been allowed to do: he cleanses the temple. The furious Pharisees ask him where he gets the right to do that! Jesus refers back to John’s baptism! So Jesus had been ordained as a priest for his people and did so in a lawful way. Of course, all priests must undergo this washing, and since God made an eternal covenant with the house of Levi on this point, this must still be the case, and the priesthood must still be maintained in the New Covenant. But then how is it being fulfilled? This leads to my next point.
Point #4: All Christians are priests before God. If you have believed in Jesus and chosen to follow him, God cleanses you and ordains you to serve as a priest before him. This is why protestants have historically held to a “priesthood of the saints.” We are priests! This in not merely a deduction. The New Testament is clear about this. In Romans 12:1, Paul urges us to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. Philippians 4:18 describes the gifts the Philippian Christians sent to Paul as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. Only priests are permitted to offer sacrifices to God! But the New Testament gets even more straightforward about our role as priests in 1 Peter 2:5 and 2:9, Revelation 5:10 and 20:6.
Point #5: All Christians enter into priestly service within the temple of God, Jesus and his church. Jesus Christ and the church are identified as the temple God now recognizes. John 2:21, and Revelation 21:22 speak of Jesus as the temple. But he is the cornerstone of the larger temple God is building. The real temple, the temple of his church. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22. To enter to serve in God’s temple, baptism is a requirement. This is why baptism is so important, and why new converts are always baptized soon after conversion. Neglecting baptism will not keep you from being saved, but it means that you are serving God illegally in a way. God is concerned that after a disciple is made, she or he is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, even before they begin to be thoroughly taught about their new faith. Make disciples, baptize, teach. In fact, make disciples by baptizing and teaching. By baptism, the convert is (in some more express way) made a disciple.
Conclusions for Christian Baptism: So there is a lot of continuity between the Old Testament washing of the new priest, and our baptismal washing as new priests in God’s new temple. What does this say about the mode, meaning, and subjects of baptism?
- Mode: Baptism is not related to circumcision. The two rites are nothing alike. They are not organically or in any other way corresponsive to one another. Baptism does not originate in Old Testament ceremonial sprinklings. Rather, baptism comes from baptism. Baptisms in the Old Testament, including the washing rite of the priests, were full body immersions. Baptism represents washing. It also represents passing through an ordeal (think of the Flood or the Red Sea. We are said even to be baptized into Christ’s death!). But it also represents (as we emerge from the water) deliverance from the ordeal or from God’s judgment. In this way, it represents for us our identification with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Only full immersion captures these images in a meaningful way. There is a trauma to being held under the water, as our old self is put to death, but then we are raised to new life in Christ. Furthermore, baptism’s root in the ritual of Exodus 29:4 requires a mode of immersion. It is the lawful mandate. There is good circumstantial evidence from the New Testament that baptism was done by immersion, and good historical evidence from the early church. But the continuity that baptism shares with its Old Testament counterparts is the final appeal we can make: God’s law expects a dipping of the whole person in water.
- Meaning: Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. As we saw, baptisms are associated with new creation, and this is what we become when we are saved, a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)! As such, we must pass through the waters of baptism and come out a new creation. Baptism also serves as a symbolic representation of our fellowship with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, as we are submerged into the water then raised up out of it again (Romans 6:3). But baptism is not just a memorial looking back to our salvation. It is living sacrament in which God is saying, “I ordain you as one of my servants. You will minister for me in my temple as a priest.” It is our initiation into God’s service as a Christian. It is not about what we are saying to God, but what God is saying to us. In that way, it isn’t so much our testimony in front of witnesses in the church, but God’s testimony in front of witnesses in the church about what he has called us to and where he is placing us. Van Dorn says, “It is not what we do to prove to the world we are saved, but what God does to his priests so that they may serve before him legally, biblically, and in sanctified purity.”
- Subjects: This is of course directly related to meaning. According to our study, covenant membership is not really relevant to the question of whom to baptize. That is, even if the infant children of believers are automatically members of the New Covenant in Christ by virtue of their parents’ faith (and I believe they are not), they still should not be baptized. Why? Because baptism, though a sign of the covenant, is not a sign of covenant membership, and is not a holdover from the Abrahamic Covenant. Rather, it is a holdover from the Levitical Covenant (Malachi 2:4), and a ceremonial sacrament of cleansing required of those who would serve as priests before God. So first of all, only followers of Christ may be baptized, or those who claim to be so, whom we believe in good faith. Baptism cannot be applied to unbelievers because priests had to be called by God. Also, priests had to be at least 30 years old to serve. The New Covenant changes this, as we see young people being baptized. However, all those baptized in the New Testament are conscious of their baptisms. This seems to be the corresponding New Testament requirement. Recipients of baptism are making a conscious and serious (Luke 9:62) commitment to enter into God’s “royal priesthood.” An infant, even if a child of God, cannot serve in the temple. They are not aware of what they are doing. Therefore, neither the infant’s salvation, nor his membership in the New Covenant, nor whether he is under the federal headship of Adam or Christ has anything to do with his qualification for baptism. Therefore, it would not only be illegitimate to administer this sacrament to a baby, but somewhat of a mockery of its significance. Both the Lord’s Supper and baptism are to be guarded by the church and ordinarily reserved for those who can discern the meaning of what they are doing.
Well, so much for a streamlined summary in a few minutes. If you want to learn more, pick up the book Waters of Creation by Douglas Van Dorn, available on Amazon. Baptism is important, and I pray that all of us can come to a greater appreciation of its meaning and what God does and promises at each and every baptism.