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The Origin of Baptism

Although Christian Baptism may perhaps be regarded as having originated with John The Baptist, baptism by immersion in water ("baptize," whether in its original Hebrew or Greek forms, literally means to immerse in water) did not originate with Christians, or with John the Baptist. Jews practiced baptism as a traditional act of purification and initiation long before the coming of the Messiah. As a Jew (a Levite actually, John was the son of a Levite priest, Zechariah i.e. Luke 1:5, and John's mother Elizabeth, also a Levite, was a relative of Mary), the man who came to be known as John the Baptist would have been well familiar with the practice before he was sent, by some unidentified individual (John 1:33), who also may have been the one who baptized John himself (there is no Biblical record of John's own baptism) to baptize, proclaiming "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2 RSV).

The Origin of Baptism

The Jordan River The ancient Levite priests (see Levites) were commanded to perform a symbolic cleansing in water (as described below, it wasn't simply taking a bath) before, and while, performing their priestly duties:

"But thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy Linen coat, and shall have the linen breeches on his body, be girded with the linen girdle, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water, and then put them on ... Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there; and he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people." (Leviticus 16:3-4,23-24 RSV)

Symbolic acts of cleansing weren't just done by the priests, as evidenced by Naaman the Syrian being cured of leprosy by a "baptism" in the Jordan River. He at first didn't appreciate what Elisha told him to do, or why. He later learned that it wasn't the water that healed him, it was because of his act of obedience and faith that God made him "clean":

"But Naaman was angry, and went away, saying, "Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of The Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage."

"But his servants came near and said to him, "My father, if the prophet [see Prophets] had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him; and he said, "Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel" (2 Kings 5:11-15 RSV)

This "cleansing of what ails you" took on a much greater meaning with Christianity:

"Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21 RSV)

Christian baptism, by immersion in water (just as the dead are usually immersed in the earth), symbolizes what Christianity is all about:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of The Father, we too might walk in newness of life [see Resurrections]. For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His." (Romans 6:3-5 RSV)

"and you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." (Colossians 2:12 RSV)

"for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring [see Physical and Spiritual Israel], heirs according to promise." (Galatians 3:26-29 RSV)

Fact Finder: Is baptism very important for salvation?
Mark 16:16

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