Part 3 – The rite of Baptism – The proper method of Baptism
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Is Sprinkling an Appropriate Mode of Baptism?
By Caleb Colley, Ph.D.
In their definitions of “baptism”, most modern dictionaries include the sprinkling (and pouring) of water. Similarly, many in the religious world teach that “baptism” by sprinkling is acceptable and sufficient, while others disagree. Because of these conflicting messages, questions on the issue of sprinkling inevitably arise. What does the word “baptism” really mean? Does it, by definition, include sprinkling? The answers to these questions have a bearing on the meaning of Jesus’ command, “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, emphasis added).
The English word “baptism” is transliterated from the Greek word baptisma, which signifies dipping or immersion (Thayer, 1958, p. 94; Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, 1979, p. 132). Immersion and sprinkling are two very different things, and the Greek language bears that out (Jackson, 2002a, p. 31). Forms of the word baptisma appear in various extrabiblical Greek writings, where it consistently carries with it the meaning of immersion. Aristotle, Polybius, Plutarch, Strabo, Diodorus, and Josephus all wrote of things that were “immersed” in water, and they all used forms of baptizo (Martin, 1991, pp. 208-210). In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, there is a passage that plainly shows the clear distinction between the concepts of sprinkling and baptism. Leviticus 4:17 reads: “Then the priest shall dip [baptizo] his finger in the blood and sprinkle [rhantizo] it several times before the Lord, in front of the veil.” In this verse, the word translated “baptize” (or “dip”) is mentioned in the same sentence with the word rightly translated “sprinkle”, so it is clear that in the Old Testament, sprinkling is not baptism. The same holds true in the New Testament. In John 13:16, Jesus “dipped” (Greek bapto) a bread morsel and passed it to Judas. Every time “baptism” is mentioned in the New Testament, it means immersion, never sprinkling. In fact, the practice of substituting sprinkling for baptism was unheard of until A.D. 253 (Thompson and Jackson, 1984, p. 11).
Despite the fact that the word “baptism” has nothing to do with sprinkling, there are several passages of Scripture that frequently are used by advocates of sprinkling to justify their positon.
Sometimes those who defend the practice of sprinkling claim that three of the most common modern “modes” of baptism (immersion in water, pouring of water, and sprinkling) are all authorized in Leviticus 14:15-16. “And the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord” (emphasis added).
Observe that Leviticus 14:15-16 was written about the process of purification of lepers after they recover from their disease. This process of purification was the way by which the recovered leper could re-enter Hebrew society (Keil and Delitzsch, 1976, 1:385). Leviticus 14:15-16 is part of the discussion of the second act of leper purification. This process is similar to one described in Leviticus 8:23, when Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons as priests. Both Leviticus 14:15-16 and Leviticus 8:23 are totally unrelated to New Testament baptism (both passages are addressing guidelines of Mosaic law, not Christian law – see Hebrews 7:22-28; Galatians 3:21-29), and thus cannot be used to justify sprinkling as an appropriate mode of baptism.
Some contend that because this passage mentions the word “sprinkle”, the act of sprinkling must be a scriptural substitution for New Testament baptism. We must evaluate the validity of that contention by examining the context of Isaiah 52:15. “So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; For what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider” (emphasis added). This verse is couched in a portion of Scripture that discusses the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world, so it is clear that the One Who shall “sprinkle many nations” is the Lord Himself.
The word “sprinkle” in Isaiah 52:15 is translated from the Hebrew word nazah. Every time nazah appears in the Old Testament, it is translated “sprinkle” (in the King James Version – see Exodus 29:21; Leviticus 5:9; Numbers 8:7), but scholars believe that a more accurate translation of nazah here is “startle” (e.g. Hailey, 1992, p. 435; Keil and Delitzsch, 1976, 7:308). Albert Barnes (1950, 2:258) observed that the usage of “sprinkle” in this context is either an allusion to the sprinkling of blood in the Old Testament (and figuratively a link between that sprinkling and the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross), or to the ceremonial sprinkling of water to symbolize cleansing and purity (see Leviticus 14:51; Hebrews 9:19). However if nazah were translated “startle” the emphasis of the verse would change completely. The verse would then tell us that Christ’s suffering was going to “startle” the nations. Many accept that interpretation because the statement in verse 15, “Kings shall shut their mouths.” This interpretation indicates that many were going to be shocked or even speechless when the Word became flesh, died as a sacrifice for sin, and was resurrected from the dead (Hailey, 1992, p. 436; Jackson, 1991, p. 105). No matter which translation of nazah is correct in this context, there is nothing contained in Isaiah 52:15 that has any connection to New Testament baptism, so it cannot be used to justify the modern practice of sprinkling.
Those who suggest that sprinkling is a legitimate substitution for baptism sometimes appeal to Ezekiel 36:25 as a “proof text”. “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols” (emphasis added). This verse, however, is not in context concerning baptism. A study of Ezekiel 36 reveals that the language about “washing” is obviously metaphoric. It would have been a fitting metaphor for Ezekiel to use in relating to his audience, because of the Mosaic system of cleansing. Old Testament passages that use language like that used here about “washing” are numerous. For example, Moses recorded in Exodus 30:20: “When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, lest they die.” Exodus 29:4 reads: “And Aaron and his sons you shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and you shall wash them with water.” Numbers 19:18 declares: “A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, on the persons who were there, or on the one who touched a bone, the slain, the dead, or a grave.” The concept of sprinkling and washing is prevalent in the Old Testament passages, but in such passages (like Ezekiel 36), baptism for salvation is not under consideration. What is under consideration in Ezekiel 36 is, literally, the destruction of one of Israel’s enemies, the nation of Edom, and figuratively, the future destruction of all the Lord’s enemies (Jackson, 2002a, p. 31).
Notice Ezekiel 36:24: “For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land.” Then, immediately following the verse that mentions the sprinkling of clean water, God said: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). These two verses present the immediate context from which many modern religious people remove Ezekiel 36:25 in order to justify sprinkling. If we are to believe that Ezekiel was writing about a literal sprinkling of water in this verse, then we would also be forced to understand Ezekiel’s usage of “heart of stone” in verse 26 as being literal. New Testament baptism is simply not under consideration in Ezekiel 36:25. Wayne Jackson noted that many denominational scholars who defend the practice of sprinkling as an authentic form of baptism do not appeal to Ezekiel 36:25, because it does not aid their cause (2002a, p. 31). The substitution of sprinkling for true baptism cannot be defended, based on Ezekiel 36:25.
At times, those who accept sprinkling appeal to Acts 2 in an attempt to justify their position. Some suggest that the twelve apostles could not have immersed as many as 3,000 people in one day (Acts 2:41 records that “about three thousand souls” were baptized on Pentecost), so the apostles must have sprinkled water on the 3,000. However, if each baptism took approximately a minute, the apostles could have done the job in just over four hours (Jackson, 2002b, p. 32). Also, nothing in the New Testament demands that the apostles had to all the baptizing themselves.
Still others claim that ample water was not available in Jerusalem to accommodate all the immersions. However, there were many pools in Jerusalem, some of which were large. The Virgin’s pool was about 132 feet square and three feet deep. The pool of Siloam occupied approximately 800 square feet, and was more than three feet deep. Lower Gihon covers more than three acres, and can hold a depth of twenty feet of water; plus there were other pools (McGarvey, 1881, p. 201). Without a doubt, on the day of Pentecost, the believers were immersed.
1 Corinthians 10:2
Those who support the substitution of sprinkling for baptism sometimes appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:2 to justify their position. The passage states that “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” – a direct reference to Exodus 14:22. Baptism into Moses is entirely different from baptism into Christ, but some who defend sprinkling assert that, because Paul called the crossing of the Red Sea a “baptism”, the Israelites must have been sprinkled as they crossed the Red Sea. [Israel certainly was not immersed in water – the people walked on dry ground (Hebrews 11:29).] What did Paul mean when he wrote that our fathers were “baptized into Moses”?
The meaning of baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:2 is both literal and figurative. The Israelites were baptized – in the sense that they were literally surrounded by water, though the water did not touch them. This is a legitimate use of the word “baptism”. When a body is buried in a cemetery, for example, the body is “immersed” in the ground (surrounded by dirt), though a casket prevents any dirt from actually touching the body. In that sense, the children of Israel were immersed in the Red Sea. Paul also wrote of baptism in a figurative sense: the children of Israel were “baptized” into Moses in that they devoted themselves to his leadership and, through him, God’s leadership. G.G. Findlay explained:
“The cloud, shading and guiding the Israelites from above, and ‘the sea’ making a path for them through its midst and drowning their enemies behind them, were glorious signs to ‘our fathers’ of God’s salvation; together they formed a washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), inaugurating the national covenant life; as it trode the miraculous path between upper and nether waters, Israel was born into its Divine estate. Thus ‘they all received their baptism unto Moses’, entering through him into acknowledged fellowship with God; even so the Corinthians in the use of the same symbolic element had been baptized unto Christ” (cf. Romans 6:3f., Galatians 3:27; n.d., 857).
Baptism into Christ is not mandated by Exodus 14:22, though the example of the Red Sea crossing metaphorically foreshadows baptism into Christ, as does Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21; see Lenski, 1937, p. 391). In Exodus 14, though, the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea in order to save their physical lives, not to save their eternal [non-Biblical] souls, and the “baptism” of Exodus 14 was instituted by Moses hundreds of years before the baptism of Christ came into effect. There is no identification of the proper “mode” of baptism in either 1 Corinthians 10:2 or Exodus 14:22, so the substitution of sprinkling for baptism cannot be justified based on either passage.
This verse often is cited as proof that people should be sprinkled in order to be saved, but a brief examination of the text reveals another meaning. Hebrews 10:22 reads: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (emphasis added). This verse seems to draw its spiritual meaning from God’s old covenant with Israel. During that period of Mosaic law, the high priests had to wash themselves before they entered the Most Holy Place (see Leviticus 16:3-4). Notice Hebrews 10:19-21: “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God…” These verses and verse 22, both deal with how people “draw near” to God, and the message in verse 22 is clear: our hearts must be true. What apparently makes our hearts true is the “sprinkling” of our hearts/ If the hearts of Christians are “sprinkled”, the “evil conscience” is removed and they no longer bear the quilt of sin. The evil conscience is one that does not object to evil (cf. 1 Timothy 4:2). Robert Milligan explained this:
“Every act that we perform contrary to the known will of God defiles our conscience and also our consciousness; we have them both an evil conscience and an evil self-consciousness. And this, so long as it continues, must seriously interrupt our union, communion, and fellowship with God. The child that is suffering from an evil consciousness on account of its having transgressed the known will of its father cannot, so long as the feeling lasts, approach Him with perfect confidence. But when it repents of the evil, confesses the wrong, and feels fully assured that the fault is forgiven, then what a change come over it” (1950, p. 281).
The Hebrews writer did make reference to baptism, but notice how he did it. Verse 22 says our hearts are sprinkled from an evil conscience, but that our bodies are washed with pure water. Sprinkling is indeed under consideration in Hebrews 10:22, but the reader must take care to observe what, exactly, is being “sprinkled”. In this passage, the Hebrew writer illustrates the need to have our hearts sprinkled, so obviously the meaning is not literal, but must be understood as figurative or metaphorical. The only portion of the verse that potentially deals with literal water is the part that mentions a “washing”. What is this washing? It is the same “washing of regeneration” that is mentioned in Titus 3:5 – baptism (Milligan, 1950, p. 282). However, the portion of the verse that deals with sprinkling does not apply to the portion of the verse that deals with baptism. The hearts of Christians are figuratively sprinkled with the blood of Christ, but their bodies are washed (they are buried in water for the forgiveness of their sins; see Acts 22:16; Mark 16:16). The modern practice of sprinkling for baptism in not authorized by Hebrews 10:22.
If the “proof texts” for sprinkling as a substitution for baptism do not prove that sprinkling is a form of baptism, then what is the authentic, scriptural form of baptism? The baptism Jesus authorized and commanded is precisely what is indicated by the Greek word baptizo: immersion. The book of Acts contains multiple accounts of baptism, and in every instance, that immersion was sufficient (See Acts 10:48; Acts 16:31-33; Acts 22:16).
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Barnes, Albert (1950), Notes on the Old Testament: Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Findlay, G.G. (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoli (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans).
Hailey, Homer (1992), A Commentary on Isaiah (Louisville, KY: Religious Supply).
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Jackson, Wayne (2002a), “Did the Prophet Ezekiel Preview ‘Sprinkling’ As A Form of New Testament ‘Baptism’?”, Christian Courier, 38:31, January.
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