Hebrews 9:10 is another significant passage that helps shed some light on the Jewish understanding of baptism leading up to the first century. It tells us unequivocally that the Old Testament ceremonial system, long before the time of Christ, included many different kinds of ritual “baptisms.” Although this passage does not explicitly tell us which specific kinds of rituals were known as baptisms, it does alert us as to their presence in the Old Testament. Because the context of Hebrews 9 is talking about the temporary rites and practices of the ceremonial system, it is not a great stretch to see the ritual washings of the regulations for clean and unclean people as being chiefly in mind here. When we look back at these ritual washings (of which there are at least eleven), we see the repeated requirement to wash garments, objects, and people in water in order to rid them of their ceremonial uncleanness. Sometimes this washing is partial, as in Exodus 30:18–21, in which the priests are commanded to wash only their hands and feet before entering the tabernacle. Sometimes it is wholesale, as in Leviticus 14, where individuals are commanded to wash their whole bodies and also their clothes. In all these cases, however, washing or cleansing in water is the common feature.
Thus, when we consider the example of Naaman from 2 Kings 5 together with the many ritual baptisms from the Old Testament, we are able to conclude that the first-century Jew would have regarded baptism as a rite of washing or cleansing in water. The way this water would have been applied would have been less important than the meaning behind its application. For the first-century Jew, baptism would have meant cleansing or purification, and it would have been applied directly to the person who is unclean in the sight of God in order to wash him and render him clean or pure before God.
A New Testament Rite
In the New Testament, after the death of John the Baptist, we see baptism taking on added significance. It becomes the outward sign of the new covenant people of God. We see this particularly in Matthew 28:18–20, where Jesus commands His followers to make disciples of all nations and peoples and to mark them out with water baptism. We also see it in Acts 2, when Peter instructs would-be followers of Christ to “repent and be baptized” (v. 38). The point is that, beginning with the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, all who turn to Jesus in faith are to be marked out with the sign of baptism. It is something that everyone who puts his faith in Christ must now do.
These two passages, among others, coupled with the clear statements in the New Testament indicating that circumcision no longer applies to new covenant Christians (see, for example, Acts 15 and Gal. 2:3–10; 5:7–12; 6:12–16), lead us to conclude that baptism takes on added significance in the ministry of the Apostles and the early church. It is still an outward rite of washing or cleansing with water, just as it was in the Old Testament, but it is now specifically commanded by the Lord to be administered to every disciple as an outward sign of God’s covenant with them.