This article traces the origin of baptism to the rituals of the Old Testament. The author encourages the baptismal mode of sprinkling rather than immersion based on the text of Hebrews 9 and other scripture passages.

5 pages.

Mode of Baptism

Among Protestants there is much disagreement concerning baptism and how it is to be done. There are those who believe that immersion is the only way and that if one is not immersed, put under, the baptism is not valid. Others, including those of Reformed persuasion, believe that sprinkling is the correct mode, but often do not know the reason why. Then there are those who are of the attitude: a cupful or a tubful, what’s the difference? Water cannot save anyone anyway. Perhaps some of you have such an attitude. I must confess that it was somewhat mine until I read a little book by Jay Adams, entitled The Meaning and Mode of Baptism which in turn, is based upon another book, entitled William the Baptist by James M. Chaney. What follows is a digest of these two works, and to demonstrate from Scriptures that sprinkling is the Biblical mode of baptism.

All would agree, I trust, that the proper place to begin a study of baptism is at the point of its inception. If there was a time when baptism was not practiced, there was also a time which it was begun. Is there scriptural reference to the institution of this rite? Fortunately, yes.

There are those that say baptism was introduced by John the Baptist. But that idea is preposterous. Nothing could be more contrary to the Scriptures. John’s title, “the Baptist,” should not be taken to mean that he was the originator of baptism, but that he was a man primarily engaged in that work. A better title would be, “the Baptizer.” There is not one hint in the New Testament concerning the institution of this supposedly “new” practice. Rather, the Jewish people most naturally assumed that John is a prophet from God BECAUSE he is baptizing. In John 1:24, 25, John is questioned by the representatives of the Pharisees. (Remember, these were eagle-eyed heresy-hunters who would have instantly pounced upon John for teaching NEW rites, had they not already been acquainted with & accepted baptism.) After John denied he was the Messiah or Elijah returned to the earth, they ask him in vs. 25: “Then why are you baptizing if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” By this statement the Jewish leaders clearly indicate that the Old Testament predicted the coming of someone who would baptize and that this activity would be one of his distinguishing characteristics. This interesting observation leads to some important considerations: If baptism was known to the Old Testament prophets, the question may and must be asked: What was it? The Old Testament Jews not only knew about, but expected baptizing activities in connection with the coming Messiah: “So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider” (Isaiah 52:15). “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and; ye shall be clean; form all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25). This expectation and acceptance also shows that the Old Testament Jew was sufficiently familiar with baptism to recognize it when it appeared. It would also seem certain that John did not originate the ceremony.

So what we must do now is direct our attention to the earliest biblical baptisms on record. Ritual baptism is as old as the law. The law is replete with what are called ceremonial purifications. THESE ARE BAPTISMS. That fact must not be missed. John’s baptism was nothing new to the Jews. From the days of Moses they had known the ceremony of baptism. There can be no question about this since the New Testament itself calls the Old Testament purifications “baptisms:” “Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10). The phrase translated “meats and drinks, and divers washings” is not as clear as it could be. The words “divers washings” do not adequately convey the sense of the original. First, the term “divers” is difficult to understand. In today’s language it would be translated “different kinds of.” “Washings” never was a good translation, for the original word is “baptismois” or baptisms. The writer to the Hebrews, to put in simply, refers to the “different kinds of baptisms” required by the Old Testament Law.

Nor is there any doubt about the mode of those different kinds of “baptisms.” The writer of Hebrews fully describes them:

“For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of any heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh… For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, . . . Moreover, he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry.”

Hebrews 9:13, 19, 21

Compare this with the following:

And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone or one slain, or one dead, or a grave.

Numbers 19:17,18

And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar … And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.

Exodus 24:6,8

And he brought the ram for the burnt offering: and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the ram. And he killed it; and Moses sprinkled the blood upon the altar round about. 

Leviticus 8:18, 19

And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times. 

Leviticus 16:14

Please note that in both the Old Testament passages and the New Testament book of Hebrews these purifications or baptisms are designated as “sprinklings.” There is not one ceremonial law in all the Old Testament that requires different kinds of immersions. The Law simply knew nothing of immersions, not to mention different kinds of them.

In addition, it is obvious that the words “different kinds of” indicate that the Old Testament baptisms were not all of the same sort. Immersions must, of necessity, be all alike. How can one immersion differ from another? The point, however, is that there were Old Testament baptisms of “different kinds.” How then did they differ? Hebrews 9 makes it quite clear: there baptisms were variously sprinklings of water alone, sprinklings of water and ashes, sprinklings of oil, and sprinklings of blood. The one who insists of immersion cannot demonstrate what these different kinds of baptisms were if they were immersions. The facts are plain: John’s baptism was not something new. Baptism was practiced at lease as early as the days of Moses. There is no Old Testament requirement for immersion. But baptisms were required and performed by sprinkling. These sprinklings were of “different kinds” depending upon the element used.

The point is that biblical baptism, in its origin, was performed by sprinkling and not by immersion. Unless, therefore, one should discover unmistakable evidence that a change in mode was effected,  he is obligated to consider references to baptism as being performed in like manner. Not only do the Scriptures fail to record any such change in mode, but they consistently link Old Testament and New Testament baptisms to one another and use the same word to describe both.

Another example is: “After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. For John was not yet cast into prison” (John 3:22-24). This passage is usually thought of as the immersionist’s fort. Triumphantly vs 23 is read as settling the whole question of mode. If John needed “much water” to baptize, then most assuredly he must have baptized by immersion. Else, why should he require so much? But it is not such an open and shut case as might seem at first glance. The Greek says, “hudata polla,” which when literally translated means “many waters.” We must look closely at the term “hudata.” Is there any way of determining just what these “waters” were? The context provides the answer. We get it from the name “Aenon.” “Aenon” is the plural of fountain or spring and most likely took its name from the many springs or fountains there. And this agrees with the Greek “hudata polla,” i.e., many springs or fountains, instead of much water in one body. These springs, trickling through marshy meadow land on their way to the Jordan River, as they do to this day, offer little or no facilities for immersion.

But there is still a more important aspect to this passage in the following verses. There we see the terms “baptize” and “purify” used interchangeably. The gospel writer mentions John baptizing in Aenon merely as a background for what follows. During this activity something happened which brought about a revealing discussion. We are told that the Jews and some of Jesus’ disciples got into an argument in regard to “purification.” Then the reader is brought near so that he may listen to the conversation: “Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying. And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him” (John 3:25,26). Lo and behold, as one listens, he discovers that the argument about “purification” concerns baptism! The discussion concerns Christ and how He is “baptizing” and everyone is coming to Him. Without a doubt, the two words “purification” and “baptism” are used here interchangeably. And as has been pointed out already, Old Testament “purifications” were “sprinklings.”  Such had indeed been prophesied for the Messianic Age (cf. Isaiah 52:15; Ezekiel 36:25).

I believe the case for sprinkling as the correct biblical mode for baptism has been made. However, for added evidence, there are several biblical incidents where baptism certainly had to be by sprinkling.

In the first chapter of Mark it says, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming out of the water, he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending upon him” (vv. 9-10). This passage is quoted to prove that Jesus was immersed. However, that is an assumption, for the passage does not say that Jesus was immersed. Pointing out that Jesus was baptized “in Jordan” and that He “came up out of the water” does not mean that John put Him down into or under the water. The fact is that both John and Jesus went down into the water and came up out of it. Does that mean John was immersed? Anyone that goes “into” the water does not necessarily go under it. Thus, to begin with, immersion is an assumption from the above passage.

More to the point, we must understand the reason why Jesus was baptized of John.  We read of the object of John’s baptism in Mark 1:4: “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (cp. Acts 19:4). This, of course, could not apply to Jesus.  Jesus, Himself, tells us why He was baptized and the object of it:

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

Matthew 3:13-15

“To fulfill all righteousness” is a legal term and has reference to our relation to the law or doing what the law directs. (This term is used frequently in the first five chapters of Romans.) There was some law making it necessary for Christ to be baptized. Jesus is our Great High Priest (cf. Hebrews 7:21). Aaron’s priesthood was typical of His, so that Aaron and his descendants may be called typical priests, and Christ the real priest. The Aaronic priesthood all pertained to the tribe of Levi, and were the descendants of Aaron. But Jesus belonged to another tribe, of which, as the apostle Paul says, “no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident our Lord sprang out of Judah, of which tribe, Moses spake nothing concerning the priesthood” (Hebrews 7:13,14), and in verse 12 he says, “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” Now, when the Aaronic priesthood was first instituted, the tribe to which it pertained was, in a formal manner, consecrated, set apart to this high calling: “And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, Take the Levites from among the children of Israel and cleanse them. And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them, and let them shave all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean” (Numbers 8:5-7). But when so great a change occurred as Paul speaks of, a change to another tribe of which Moses spoke nothing concerning the priesthood, then the law of consecration should be complied with; and it was to this law that Jesus referred when He came to John for baptism. Jesus would comply with this law because he was about to enter his priestly work, not as a descendant of Aaron, or of the tribe of Levi, but as member of another tribe — Judah.  And the method of this law of consecration has been carefully preserved as well:


On Pentecost, in answer to the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” thousands heard and believed the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On Pentecost, 3000 were baptized into “the way” (cf. Acts 2:41). Soon after, on another day, 5000 men believed and presumably, 5000 women as well (cf. Acts 4:4). There is absolutely nothing in the record to indicate what form of baptism was used on these occasions. Thus we can assume that the ordinary mode employed among the Jews would be employed, and this, as we have seen, was by the time-honored method of sprinkling with water. It is supposed by those who argue for immersion, that the baptisms took place at or in the pool of Solomon, as the only practical place both on account of its close location and necessary quantity of water required, since the Jordan River was too far away. In regard to this pool it may be said that the water was brought by an aqueduct from quite a distance and was carefully guarded as one of the principal sources of supply for the wants of the inhabitants, who came here to fill their vessels for home use, and for drinking and that no such use of it as that of a crowd of 3000 rushing down to and through it would have been tolerated by the Jews. Especially would this have been the case, when done by a sect (as Christians were considered) that was already in ill favor with the Jewish leaders who would be looking for any excuse to have them arrested. It is very doubtful that these people would have been given the courtesy of being baptized in their drinking water!

It is simple enough to explain the baptism of 3000 people in one day (more on another day) if one remembers the words of the Psalmist, “Purge me with hyssop.” If they used a twig of hyssop or some similar plant, dipped in water and sprinkled the entire group en masse, the problem is easily solved (cf. Hebrews 9:19). To immerse that many in a day would be a gigantic task and well nigh impossible!

Another example is the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism (cf. Acts 8:26-36). The route which the eunuch was following lay through a fringe of the dessert and unpopulated land. There was not enough water there for an immersion even if that had been their intention. It is an established fact, that no river or stream is to be found in that region now and there is no geographical evidence of there ever having been any. The only water to be found is that of an occasional little spring trickling form a bluff or hillside, and forming a little pool or puddle before losing itself in the sand. The eunuch’s exclamation in the original, “tina hudor” (a little water), shows his surprise and excitement at the discovery of any water. In addition, what made him connect a small amount of water with baptism? He had been reading the prophet Isaiah and his Messianic prophecies, specifically 53:7. But might he not also have read 52:13-15, which speaks of sprinkling? It’s most reasonable to assume that he was baptized by sprinkling.

The next baptism for consideration is that the apostle Paul. In both accounts one finds either Ananias saying, “Stand up and be baptized” or the statement, “he stood up and was baptized.” Literally it reads: “Standing up, he was baptized” (cf. Acts 9:17-18; 22: 12-16). How can Saul have been immersed if he was baptized on the spot as he stood up?

The story of the Philippian jailor’s baptism (Acts 16) also supports sprinkling as the mode used for baptism. It was midnight, and in that “same hour” the jailor and his house were baptized. Sometime after 12:00 midnight it is supposed that Paul and Silas went out to a river and immersed the jailor and his household! A very unlikely hour! Later, they refused to leave the jail when cajoled to do so (cf. vv. 37ff). Were they then being deceptive? Also, remember how Paul and Silas had been lashed not many hours before. The walk & immersion would be quite a task for two men in this condition at this hour. How much more likely that the mode of sprinkling was used as the jailor and his family were baptized with the water from the same basin that contained the water the jailor used to wash their stripes after he had brought them out of the inner prison (cf. vv. 23-24, 33-34).

The evidence, I believe, is conclusive. Sprinkling is the biblical mode of baptism, If our minds are open to all the Word of God, this will become plain. Also, once again we can see something more of the matchless grace of God, who in His love, mercy and wisdom sent His Son to die in the place of His own that they may have everlasting life. Baptism is a covenant sign and seal “appointed by God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross” (Heidelberg Catechism #66).

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