There are a lot of opinions about baptism, as I’m sure you are aware. Is it immersion, sprinkling, pouring, or what? Is baptism the point of salvation, justification, or sanctification? Or does this take place at the point of faith? Is baptism to be practiced in the common era? Or was it a culturally appropriate symbol with which people in the Near East would have been familiar? Should it be practiced today at all? Or is it just another Jewish washing?
Wow. What a daunting set of questions. Volumes upon volumes have been written to address each of these issues. There are literally thousands upon thousands of hours of debate, sermon, and Bible class audio addressing each of these questions.
Now, I’m not going to answer all these questions in this short article, but I do want to address one: was the great commission baptism, the one to which the Eunuch submitted, just another Old Covenant washing (baptismos; Hebrews 6:1-2)?
The answer comes from one of the more popular baptism texts: 1 Peter 3:20-21.
…who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…1 Peter 3:20-21
First, notice that the baptism under consideration is water baptism. Water is mentioned in verse 20, and Peter has to make the point that it was not concerning the removal of dirt from the flesh. This is a point he wouldn’t have to make had the nature of their baptism been non-physical.
But the question remains, “Was this baptism just another Old Covenant washing?” I say no. My reason for that is Peter’s explanation “- not the removal of dirt from the flesh…” This is more than just saying, as I used to, that Peter was talking about a typical bath.
The word dirt here carries with the the idea of uncleanness:
dirt, uncleannessBalz, Horst Robert, and Gerhard Schneider. Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament 1990– : 215. Print.
Another author says that the word translated dirt (rhypou) can mean…
…in an ethical sense uncleanness…Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, et al. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature 2000 : 908. Print.
Now, considering that Peter’s audience were believers descended from Abraham who were raised under the Law, how would his readers have taken this expression?
First, consider how the word flesh is used in the context of verse 21:
Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,1 Peter 4:1
Flesh, here, is a reference to their existence under the Law/ in Adam, not a flesh and blood body. This passage is similar to what Paul discusses in Romans 6:8-14; 8:1-9. Jesus took upon Himself the full experience of being human, including temptations of every sort, in order to die to it so that He could pave a way for others to die to it as well. Paul commented on Jesus’s relationship with the Law in Galatians 4:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.Galatians 4:4-5
So, when Peter talks about uncleanness/ dirt/ filth in relation to the flesh, He is not simply talking about one’s body being washed like in a bath but he is speaking of ceremonial cleanliness. The writer of Hebrews said it like this,
The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [baptismois], regulations for the body [sarkos – flesh] imposed until a time of reformation.Hebrews 9:8–10
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?Hebrews 9:13–14
The baptisms under the Old Covenant could not purify the conscience; they were for the cleansing of the flesh. This is exactly what Peter is talking about! He is distinguishing the baptism of the great commission, the one to which the eunuch submitted, and the washings of the Old Testament. One was for the purpose of cleansing the flesh while the other is an appeal to God for a clean conscience.
I see no reason to stop the practice of baptism today. Visual representations of spiritual realities are ways that we can visualize the mysteries of God. Furthermore, outward representations of the gospel, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper/ Eucharist, are also beneficial to the entire community of believers, not to mention visitors, in that they serve as reminders of the glory that is within each member of Christ’s body and of the death and resurrection of the Christ.