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How Baptism Relates To The Old Testament

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

In the last blog (which can be found here), I provided the definition of the word baptism and listed out the relevant verses from the Bible so that each reader could make their own decision about what baptism is, how it is to be done and its purpose. In this follow up blog, I want to add some additional thoughts about how baptism relates to what we see in the Old Testament.

First, it is important to state what baptism in the New Testament age does not relate to in the Old Testament. Baptism is not a replacement for circumcision. The easiest way to explain why this is so is to look at all the occurrences in the New Testament writings where the Apostles dealt with what is referred to as the “circumcision party”. The term is prevalent throughout the book of Acts, in Galatians, Titus, etc.

In none of the cases mentioned, neither Peter nor Paul ever says that circumcision is no longer relevant because it was replaced by baptism. As they fought with this controversy over whether or not a person needed to be circumcised in order to be accepted into the Kingdom (which the New Testament makes clear one most certainly does NOT need to do) for decades, the surest way to shut the argument down would have been to say baptism replaced circumcision. But the Apostles did not use that line of argument because it simply isn’t true.

It is easy to see why some have mistakenly thought of baptism as the replacement for circumcision based on what Paul wrote to the Colossians. First, let’s read the verse and then we will explain it.

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Colossians 2: 11 – 12

Circumcision was done on all those born into a certain ethnic lineage and did not involve personal faith. It demonstrated that one belonged to the Hebrew people whether one wanted to or not and whether one chose to follow the religious practices of the Hebrew people later in life. Baptism stands in stark contrast to that. Paul says here in Colossians that what circumcision was designed to demonstrate in one aspect of life is similar to what baptism establishes for a different aspect. But because they show very different things (“I was born into a Hebrew family” vs. “I have personally chosen to put my faith in Jesus Christ”), they are only similar in concept but not in application, substitution or fulfillment.

Circumcision was done without the willing participation of the one being circumcised and certainly was completed without their having had a faith in the promises of God. Baptism, however, as Paul explicitly mentions here, is only valid if we are raised out of the baptismal water with a personal faith in the workings of God. Circumcision wasn’t replaced by baptism. Circumcision simply ceased to be of any significance after Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant.

As circumcision was used for illustration purposes in the verse above in Colossians, baptism is used for such illustrative purposes in a couple of other New Testament passages. Exploring them will help to further refine our understanding of baptism. The first one is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Though he is not talking about baptism in these verses, Paul uses it as an example.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea I Corinthians 10: 1 – 2

The statement being “baptized into Moses” seems to mean that as they followed the cloud, they passed through the water (as the Red Sea parted), placing themselves under the leadership of Moses. This episode was a major change in the life of the Israelites. They were – as provided by God – leaving captivity and entering into a brand new phase. The relationship, then, is that a Christian will leave the old life behind and begin – as provided by God’s grace – a brand new phase, placing themselves under the leadership of Christ.

The second set of verses is found in Peter’s first letter.

because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 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 good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ I Peter 3: 20 – 21

Again, Peter’s main point here is not about baptism, but as Paul did in the verses we just examined, Peter uses baptism to make a point about a different subject. But, again as with the verses from Paul, we can learn a great deal about the New Testament purpose of baptism and how it relates to the Old Testament from these verses.

Noah and his family experienced a change where they were ushered into a new phase, by the grace of God, through the water that punished the sins of the world. In the New Testament age, we see that, through the grace of God, Jesus was punished once and for all for the sins of the world and the water of baptism saves us and brings us into a new phase of life.

In summary, baptism does not relate to the Old Testament practice of circumcision, which is clearly the reason we see no infant baptisms in the Bible (though infant circumcision was the norm). Baptism is compared to (or corresponds to) events in the Old Testament portion of the Bible that involve people entering a God ordained new phase in life and placing their faith in God and His works before passing through (or by the way of) water.

Andy’s book, Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World, can be purchased here.

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