Summary: Baptism explained from a Methodist theology
Since the beginning of time, water has played a significant role in the lives of human beings. It has determined where people lived, impacted how and where people planted crops. And it has had a role in the religious life of people as well. In he Old Testament, water was to separate the ashes from the meat of sacrificed animals (Numbers 19). Water is used to consecrate the priests (Leviticus 8:6). Water is used to cleanse lepers (Leviticus 14:1-8). Water is used to wash according to the Law (Hebrews 9:10). And water is used to spiritually cleanse. Jews two centuries before Jesus practiced self immersion for spiritually cleanising. Image. They did this in mikvahs which were baths used exclusively for spiritual purification and ritual cleaning. The building of the mikveh was so important in ancient times it was said to take precedence over the construction of a synagogue.
The High Priest immersed himself before entering the Holy of Holies and before priests participated in the Temple service, as well as several other occasions. Males were to immerse themselves before praying or studying. Immersion is also required after a woman has her monthly period (Lev. 15:28). Besides these, there are other times when it is customary to be immersed in the mikveh such as before Yom Kippur and before the Sabbath in order to sensitize oneself to the holiness of the day. Several Jewish groups observed ritual immersion every day to assure readiness for the coming of the Messiah., like the Essenes who immersed twice a day. Image Recent archaeological excavations have found 48 different mikvaot near the Monumental Staircase leading into the Temple Complex. Image of mikvot with 2 steps The mikveh must contain at least 200 gallons of water and had two sets of steps, one entering and another leaving so as not to defile what had been purified.
There were three prerequisites for a proselyte or convert of Judaism: Circumcision, sacrifice and immersion. Males were circumcised, marking them as one who stood apart from the peoples around him. When they had healed, they were immersed and then a sacrifice was made, a heifer or a pair of turtledoves which was brought to the priest and given as a burnt offering to God. Now the ritual of immersion was to be performed in the presence of witnesses. The convert made special preparations by cutting his nails and made a fresh profession of his faith before the designated "fathers of the baptism". This is possibly where churches got the term godfathers or godparents. When females were immersed, they were attended by other females while the male priest or rabbi stood outside the door. The converts undressed and were immersed three times, many think because the word mikveh occurs three times in the Torah. A person was totally immersed without anyone touching them because Leviticus 15:16 says, "he shall wash all his flesh in the water." This is also why no clothing was worn. Anything that prevented the water from reaching a part of the body would render the immersion invalid. The water in the Mikveh was referred to as the womb of the world, and as a convert came out of the water it was considered a new birth separating him from the pagan world. Now he was referred to as "a little child just born". We see the New Testament using similar Jewish terms as "born anew," "new creation," and "born from above."
One of the most important teachings in Judaism is that of repentance. According to both Scripture and rabbinic literature, no matter how great the sin, if a person repents and forsakes the sin before God he can be forgiven. The Jerusalem Talmud states, "nothing can stand before repentance" It was taught that water can purify the body only if the soul has first been purified through repentance and righteousness. Image John the Baptist ministered in the wilderness of Judea, calling people to repentance and then baptizing them in the waters of the Jordan River. All this was meant to re-commit people to living for God and to prepare them for the coming of the messiah. Expectations for a messiah were high in Jesus’ time, especially under the increasingly oppressive rule of the Romans. Image It was to John the Baptist that Jesus came when he was ready to commit himself to his calling and begin his ministry. Thus Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Image??? The earliest drawing of Christian baptism was found on the wall of a Roman catacomb in the second century showing John standing on the bank of the Jordan helping Jesus back to shore after self immersion. And you will recall that just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he left these words for the disciples as their commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19 Thus baptism was meant to be at the heart of who we are as followers of Christ and one of the principle practices of the church.