The Old Testament Roots of John’s Baptism

© 2002 by Chris Accardy. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to freely copy this article as long as it is reproduced in it’s entirety and proper credit is given to the author.


Due to the influence Baptists have had on American culture, many simply assume that John the Baptist baptized by immersion. Few would question this assumption. After all the Baptists tell us that the word “baptize” means immersion and only immersion. They also tell us that Jews practiced baptism by immersion at the time of John. Rather than look at secular usages of the word “baptize” and alleged practices of Jews outside the teaching of Scripture, I think it is best to look at the Bible itself for direction in understanding the word “baptize”. If we look at the Bible I believe we can come to no other conclusion: John’s mode of baptizing was by sprinkling.

I am not presenting anything new here. This perspective is shared by the majority of Christians throughout the centuries that base their faith on the teaching of the Bible.

Consider the following:

Old Testament Baptisms

The writer of Hebrews identifies certain purification rites in the Old Testament as “washings”. The writer of Hebrews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is using a Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint as he writes his letter. He writes that part of the Old Testament system that pointed to Christ was “diverse washings” (Hebrews 9:13, 19, 21 KJV). These “washings” the writer refers to are called “baptisms” in the translation of the Old Testament he is using. The word is often translated by the word “washing” or some synonym because the baptisms that the writer of Hebrews has in mind are all connected to the idea of cleansing and purification.

The first baptism mentioned in Hebrews 9 was the sprinkling of ashes on the unclean (Hebrews 9:13 cf. Numbers 19:17-18). In Numbers 19 an unclean person needed to be sprinkled with a mixture of ashes and water to be made clean. In the New Testament it is Jesus who makes the unclean clean.

The second baptism occurred when Moses sprinkled blood on Israel after reading the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:1-8 cf. Hebrews 9:19). This sprinkling acted as a seal that bound Israel to live by what they just heard and a sign that pointed the saving work of the Lord God as he delivered them from Egypt and made them His people. In the New Testament it is Jesus’ blood that points to God’s saving work and binds God’s people to believe and obey Him.

The last Old Testament baptism in Hebrews 9 describes the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:14 cf. Hebrews 9:21). This great Day pointed to saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Israel looked forward to Christ’s purifying sacrifice on the Cross by observing the Day of Atonement.

The “diverse baptisms” of the Old Testament all had something to do with cleansing and purification – making Israel fit to be God’s people and live in His presence. They were all sprinklings.

John’s Baptism

John the Baptist was the last Old Covenant prophet. He was called to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. A significant part of his ministry was baptizing repentant Israelites. When Pharisees, priests and Levites came from Jerusalem in an attempt to discern John’s identity they wondered why he was baptizing. They all expected the Messiah (or Christ – both mean God’s anointed Savior) to be baptizing. When John denied he was either the Messiah or the Prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah these Jewish leaders could not understand why John was baptizing (see John 1:19-25). Where could they have gotten the idea that the coming of the Messiah was connected with baptism? From the Old Testament of course!

These religious leaders knew the messianic passages in Isaiah very well. Isaiah predicted that when the Messiah came he would baptize by sprinkling. Isaiah 52:15 predicted that the Messiah would “sprinkle many nations”. Remember that the writer of Hebrews already connected the idea of baptism and sprinkling together when it came to the Old Testament. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah that is translated “sprinkling” is the word that the writer of Hebrews translates “baptism”. Sprinkling carried the connotation of cleansing and purification. It is interesting to note that John’s baptism was also a baptism of cleansing and purification in that it was for the “remission of sins” (Matthew 3:1-10; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-14).

In the Apostle John’s account of John the Baptist’s work he records a conversation between John’s disciples and a Jew regarding baptism (John 3:23-25). The question at hand was purification. Given the nature of Old Testament baptism this Jewish man naturally thought John’s baptism was for purification in the same way that the Old Testament baptisms were. The Old Testament baptisms that Jews knew that reminded them of purification were all sprinklings!

In fact, John made sure he sprinkled them with clean water, as a symbol of purity, when he baptized them. That is why he was baptizing in the springs of Aenon (John 3:22-34). Aenon means “springs” or “fountains” in Greek. There was “much water” there because there were springs all over the place. In fact, the Greek translated “much water” is “hudata polla” which literally means “waters many”. In other words, Aenon was a place with many springs that produced water. The phrase is talking about the volume of water, not it’s depth.

One often imagines big pools of water in which John stood waist deep as people came to him. Aenon was not such a place. There was “much water” but it was not very deep. This would be the ideal place to sprinkle the mass of Jews coming to him with a baptism of purification (i.e. for the “remission of sins”).

My Baptist upbringing led me to assume that John baptized by immersion. But the Bible gives us absolutely no reason to believe that he did baptize by immersion. Even if immersion was a Jewish means of baptism at the time of John as some say, I’m not sure it would be wise to assert that John baptized by immersion. Why? That would mean that John used a mode of baptism that is foreign to the Bible. The Old Testament clearly teaches baptism by sprinkling. What kind of prophet ignores God’s Word and does things the popular way? I do not believe that John, a prophet of God, would ignore God’s inspired and authoritative Word like that. John’s baptism was one of sprinkling for the remission of sins. It pointed to the cleansing and purifying work that Jesus Christ would do in his death for sin and in his giving of the Holy Spirit upon his ascension into heaven.