In 1 Pet 3:21 it says (NASB, emphasis added):

Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

How is the phrase "baptism now saves you" explained by various interpreters, but more importantly, what really is the correct interpretation of what the author was communicating to his audience through this statement?


10 Answers 10


What does the text say?

This verse is fairly clear: baptism now saves you. However, there are two things worth noting:

  1. For the early church, faith and baptism were never intentionally separated. Occasionally there was a small gap between the two, but generally they were always held together. And so when we try and interpret these sorts of verses we have to remember that. Trying to interpret verses about either faith or water baptism in a way that imagines the authors didn't hold the two together is a potential error.

  2. Baptism was still a new word to the early church, and so we should be careful not to immediately eisegete two thousand years of subsequent theology into passages. βαπτίζω is a word which speaks of immersion or dipping, and wasn't exclusively a doctrinal word in the same sense as its modern equivalent. Translators just don't translate it, and so that can lead us to potential errors. We might interpret it differently if it were rendered: "Corresponding to that, immersion now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ".

There can thus be a little bit of theological flexibility in interpreting it physically or spiritually, but this ought to be tempered by carefully weighing the evidence on how early Christians approached Baptism. As with all NT passages, we ought to aim to read these verses as early recipients would have received them.

What was the New Testament church's approach to baptism?

For the early church, baptism / water immersion was the normative means of entering the kingdom of God, and it went hand-in-hand with repentance and faith, simultaneously. This is analogous to a modern wedding ceremony - two people decide to pledge their lives to one another, and so they have a ceremony where they do this formally. In the same way, water immersion played this role in the early church - it was the moment when somebody pledged their life to Jesus.

This is evident again and again throughout the NT:

Matthew 28:18-20

"Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Acts 2:38

'Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'

Acts 8:35-37

"Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”"

So this is all very clear - for the intended recipients of 1 Peter, the two were never practically separated, and so there's no conflict between the two, and this verse is not intended to separate the two. The teaching here is that the special moment they all understood as (faith + repentance + baptism) was itself a saving moment - not because of the water, but because of how it functioned as an appeal to God through the resurrection of Jesus.

Therefore, how should we live today?

We need to be very careful interpreting a verse like this in such a different modern context from its original recipients.

  • For those who point at this verse and say "Look! Baptism is the point of salvation", that's a fair interpretation of the text, but it can lead to mis-applications. For an early church who never separated the two, of course it was always the moment of salvation, because that's just the way things were done. This is solid justification for endeavouring as a church to not separate these unnecessarily going forward, but is not necessarily justification for pointing at Christians of different denominations and insisting they are all wrong in this matter.

  • For those who point to the faith/grace alone verses as their means for re-interpreting the plain meaning of this verse, care must be taken that they're not playing Bible trumps, knocking out dozens of verses on the prominence of Baptism using competing verses on the prominence of salvation-by-faith. The early church did not separate the two - Paul did not have any problem saying that we are "justified freely by his grace" (Romans 3:24) and yet we were "buried [with Christ] by baptism" (Romans 6:4).

As far as the scriptures lead us to expect, we know that God does not turn away those who call on him through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ (Jesus himself once said to a woman - "your faith has saved you!", Luke 7:50), and yet we know that baptism is an expectation for Christians. Today it is common for Christians to come to a genuine faith ahead of their baptism, but that does not mean that we should normalise that separation.


There are texts in the New Testament which may suggest Christians can be saved before baptism (such as Cornelius in Acts 10), but Christians being saved without ever being baptised does not feature in the scriptures. Baptism was the plain and regular point of salvation for the typical first-century Christian, and regardless of our current doctrinal position we should not shy away from that fact. We must interpret verses like these cautiously, seeking to see them through the eyes of the original recipients before we try to understand them in our own contexts.

  • +1 -Regarding Cornelius, see the story of the Holy Spirit (HS) and the murderous King Saul (1 Sam 19:19-20:1). The HS gift of prophesy was given not to save Saul, but to save David. Having the HS come upon you doing miraculous gifts doesn't mean you are saved. Jesus explains you will not enter the kingdom if you call on Christ and do miracles, but not God's will (Mt7:21-23). Thus Peter insisted they be baptized. The HS wasn't sent because Cornelius was saved but to show that Jews should not stand in God's way for the Gentiles (Ac11:17), and so Peter immediately commanded them to be baptized.
    – Austin
    Aug 15 '21 at 4:50

John says in his first letter, in verses 7 and 8, "For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement."

It is obvious that we are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, in that our sins are fully payed for by the act of His death, and there no longer stands any accusation or record of wrong against us (Colossians 2:14, Romans 8:1). The [Holy] Spirit is given to us as a seal of our salvation, and a placeholder--a promise of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Peter explains how the water contributes to testify to our salvation in 1 Peter 3:19-22

After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes* baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

The Greek word translated "symbolizes" in the NIV means "antitype". It is my opinion that our action of baptism is being compared here to Noah's building of the ark, and "this water" is a proper antitype of the water of baptism--in that the flood water was God's wrath poured out on the wickedness around Noah while he was hidden from it inside the ark, but in baptism, we follow Christ into the water of mercy, and passing through it, we are cleansed.

In short, baptism is the action by which we exercise faith to be saved, just as Noah did when he built the ark. Faith is the key.

If Noah heard from God and believed, but did not construct the ark in the manner prescribed, he would have died like everyone else. God also could have saved Noah without any work on Noah's part at all--in fact, He could have done it without even telling him. By God's design, just as we are condemned by our disobedience, we must submit in obedience to obtain redemption.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

Here Paul directly ties our act of obedience in baptism to Jesus obedience in death and subsequent resurrection and compares it to a spiritual circumcision, which was the act of obedience that God prescribed to Abraham and his descendents as a seal of their faith and share in the covenant.

  • Thanks Richard, for your Scripturally sound explanation. I believe baptism is the ceremony (like a wedding) that seals our faith in Christ who forgives our sins. The NT model was repentance, belief and baptism. If there was no repentance and faith —baptism would be worthless. An obedient faith submits to Christ who commanded His followers to be baptized into His death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-5). Aug 2 '15 at 2:23
  • "It is obvious that we are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, in that our sins are fully payed for by the act of His death, and there no longer stands any accusation or record of wrong against us (Colossians 2:14, Romans 8:1)". Neither of these verses actually literally state what you suggest.
    – user33515
    Apr 9 '17 at 21:00
  • @user33515 I beg to differ. Colossians 2:14 clearly states that the certificate of debt that stood against us, with all its obligations, was completely cancelled and removed by Jesus' death on the cross. It is unmistakably clear from the previous verse that this "certificate of debt" refers our sin and the just sentence of death apart from God that it carries. Since Jesus removed and cancelled this debt by "nailing it to the cross", there is no future work to be done to ensure out forgiveness. Romans 8:1 simply states that once we are clean there is nothing that can make us guilty again. Apr 20 '17 at 18:52
  • Hi, @SamHazleton - which Greek phrase are you translating as "certificate of debt"? The Greek word for "debt" is ὀφείλημα. It doesn't appear in Colossians 2:14.
    – user33515
    Apr 20 '17 at 19:35
  • I think perhaps that you are also misreading Romans 8:1. The verse indeed starts, There is therefore no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, but one must not overlook who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. That which "can make us guilty again" (using your words) is walking after the flesh rather than the Spirit. See Chrysostom, On Romans, Homily XIII.
    – user33515
    Apr 20 '17 at 20:29

In 1 Peter 3:21, the Greek word ἀντίτυπον ( antitypon) reveals that the water that saved the eight souls in the Great Deluge is an antitype of the water baptism that saves. This means that both the eight and all Christians received the same sort of salvation (rescue)away from the evil world not from any kind of sin or sins.

The immediate context shows that water baptism saves us ,not as a physical cleanser for our physical bodies but rather, as an answer (reply) to God from a clean conscience by means of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 11:7 (NASB)

7 By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

1 Peter 3:16-21 (KJV)

16Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ. 17For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing. 18For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: 19By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. 21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

1 Peter 3:21 (NLT)

And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This reality is also evident in the greater context of Petrine Theology:

1 Peter 4:18 (NIV)

And, "If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?"

It is clear that an already saved person ( the righteous) had difficulty to be saved. Saved from what? It is salvation from the evil world as the immediate context shows Christians face sufferings on earth. The Syriac reads "If the rigtheous scarcely live."

1 Peter 4:1, 12-19 (KJV)

1Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;... 12Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: 13But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. 14If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters. 16Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf. 17For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? 18And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? 19Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.


When I read 1 Peter 3:20-21, I properly understand that water saves me the same way it saved Noah during the flood. When I go and read the account of the flood in Genesis, the only thing I find in association with the words "flood", "waters", and "water", are "destroy" and "destruction". The only thing , then, that water did during Noah's day, was literally destroy everything, including Noah if He had been in the water. The flood waters literally destroyed the lost, and and never saved anyone, as they were never intended to save; only to destroy. The church of Christs' doctrine concerning water baptism is that you are not in the presence of God ( saved ) until after water baptism. Since our baptism is likened unto the flood baptism in Noah's day, then, if this doctrine is correct, Noah should not have been in the presence of God until after the flood of baptism. When I read my Bible, I find that God , already in the ark,invited Noah into the ark before the baptism of the flood, therefore Noah was saved before the flood. The only thing the flood did, as my baptism does, is declare me to be saved, the same thing it did for Noah. The only way, then, that baptism saves me today, is the way it saved Noah; figuratively, just as 1 Peter 3:21 says it does. A figure is a picture of the reality, a pointing towards the reality. The reality in Noah's day was that the Ark actually saved Him, and the flood demonstrated and proved this fact to be true . God was not in the water; He was in the ark. No saving power nor life whatsoever was in the water; only destruction, but it was in the ark, for God was in the ark. That's my understanding of 1 Peter 3: 20-21. To teach 1 Peter 3:21 literally would demand that water, since it likens the water to the flood waters of Noah"s day, destroys the ones that are in the water, and never saves. I conclude , as the writer does, that this water " figuratively " saves you.

  • Your answer is excellent. As you answer questions, kindly hyperlink verses, so that we may check them with one click. Also, I followed your logic quite well, but I am guessing that most of the commentary is your view, but do you have any references? For example, how does the baptism of the great flood compare to the baptism into Moses, when the Israelites were saved from Egypt? Please use other references from the Bible to help us tie into your logic. In this way, there is more than one data point (beyond your particular view) to enable us to draw the correct inferences from the text. Thanks!
    – Joseph
    Jun 28 '15 at 22:05
  • I disagree in that the text literally states the 8 souls were saved by the water, not by the ark, which is not mentioned. Now, I'm not saying the ark wasn't clearly important, but the text of 1 Peter is what we're discussing. And that the text emphasizes that the water saved them communicates an interesting notion: that the water saved Noah, et al., from the sin covering the world. Indeed, I believe this is the first baptism example in the Bible: where God first begat the earth through water, and then the earth itself is "born again" when God baptizes the whole thing.
    – Kaelin
    Mar 26 '18 at 18:11

This may be the wrong question to ask of the passage.

One major theme of 1 Peter is responding correctly to unjust suffering: to being accused of doing wrong, and even punished, because your holy lifestyle doesn't fit with the culture of the society you live in. You can see this clearly in 2:12, 2:18-24, 3:14-18; and it makes good sense as the unifying underlying idea of 2:11-3:22.

If you accept that as the unifying idea, 3:18-22 gives us one or more reasons why it is "better ... [to] suffer for doing what is right". How does baptism fit in here? I suggest that it fits best if we follow those commentators who take επερωτημα to have the meaning attested in 2nd century papyri of something like "the process of formalising a contract".

The noun eperotema is found in the papyri on the occasion of sealing a legal contract to refer both to a formal question of willingness from one party and a positive response from the other ... If this second-century lexical evidence is allowed, it makes good sense of the contrast and fits the larger context as well. Peter is reminding his readers that when they were baptized, a question was asked about their faith in Christ, to which they gave a positive response.

Karen Jobes, 1 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)

On this reading, Peter's point isn't about the soteriological value of water. Instead it's a reminder that if you have been baptised then you have entered into a covenant, in the presence of witnesses, which commits God to save you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and commits you to live rightly, doing good rather than conforming to the world around you. So don't e.g. go back to visiting pagan temples so that people will stop calling you an atheist (contextualise as appropriate).


Distinguish different types of salvation

1. Physical Salvation

There are, without a shadow of a doubt, certain passages in the NT that speak about salvation which obviously refer not to eternal spiritual salvation, but to a physical salvation from peril/danger/illness or other physical trouble. A typical example is found in Acts 27:20, 31, and 43:

Acts 27:20: And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away.

Acts 27:31 Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.

Acts 27:43 But the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land [...].

2. Spiritual Salvation

This is the type of salvation that the vast majority of NT writers are referring to in texts that refer to the words "saved" and "salvation". These include texts like Acts 4:12:

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

And Ephesians 2:8, 9:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

3. Moral Salvation

There are, nonetheless, a few verses that do not fit the picture. These are verses like 1 Timothy 4:16:

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.

Evidently, not speaking of spiritual salvation from wrath to come, because Paul clearly teaches that that salvation is not of our works, it is totally of faith. What he is referring to is a moral salvation, otherwise known as sanctification.

Compare 1 Peter 3:21 with Romans 6:1-6

In Romans 6:1-6, we read:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

Here we have a clear image of what baptism is. It is, in a tangible (while yet symbolic) way, the representation not only of dying with Christ, but of rising in newness of life (sanctification). Hence, if we look once again at 1 Peter 3:21, we find that it fits not into the category of physical or spiritual salvation, but the category of moral salvation, salvation from the power of sin, also known as sanctification. Lastly, note the similarity of the language in 1 Peter 3:21 with Romans 6:

The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.


Two waters are at issue here--liquid waters and invisible gaseous waters. These two states of waters are emphasized, beginning at Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, all referencing THE WORD OF GOD.

The "liquid" waters always typifies Jesus Christ--that WORD of God in the visible flesh on earth under the firmament, just as liquid water is located only on earth under the firmament. The gaseous waters are typical of the invisible eternal spirit WORD of God. That liquid water is personalized in the Jordan river which passes down through the land of Israel into Judah seeking out the lowly and into the Sea of Galilee (representing the people, nation and tongue of Israel), and finally where it deposits the impurities from the earth into the Dead Sea, leaving those impurities there when it ascends out of the Dead Sea in it's invisible gaseous form again.

This typifies Jesus as coming from above and becoming visible in the flesh as the Jewish Son of man/Son of God/Seed of the woman, who passes through the land of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David seeking out the lowly rather than the elevated. His destiny as the (liquid waters) Messiah was always toward His "death," "burial," "resurrection," and "ascension." That ascension was in a new spirit form of eternal man. This insures that he will come again to receive all those who believe in His work of redemption for the sin of mankind.

The visible liquid waters are those that John baptized with. Jesus, however, was to baptize with the HOLY GHOST--the waters which Jesus emphasized were living invisible moving gaseous waters that He described as the "wind" that "bloweth".

John, the Baptist stressed this point over and over again. Jesus, Himself, repeatedly declared the same thing. See: God’s Day-One Creation, A Type of the Word of God, Pages 19-29 for many references.



It becomes immediately apparent, when reading this verse, that the ritual of water baptism, though symbolising a spiritual change that has taken place, is not the principal subject here. Peter informs us that he is NOT referring to "the physical removal of dirt from the flesh" (i.e. water baptism) but a spiritual reality of which water baptism is merely a picture.


Jesus had made known to his disciples that there is a spiritual (or 'true') baptism of which water baptism is only a symbol: "For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5 NIV); (see also Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16).


Peter has already made reference to the new birth in Christ as the basis for our hope and salvation: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3 NIV). This is taken up by Titus also who links it to the baptism of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus as the basis of our salvation: "... he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).


Paul brings all of this together in his letter to the Christians in Rome when he states: "...don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom 6:3-4).

  • 1
    If its not water baptism, why's it compared to the flood? I would also note in Acts 10, after Cornelius' house already received the Spirit, Peter commanded them to be baptized in water. Oct 12 '14 at 7:16
  • Richard, I lovingly disagree with your interpretation. The context is wet (water). In the early church, baptism was practiced immediately. Early Christians connected baptism with their salvation. Water baptism reflected their identification with the death of Christ and commitment to walk in a new life. Rom 6:3-4 "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? "4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" Oct 15 '14 at 4:42
  • 2
    I think there is more agreement than disagreement here. I also understand that water baptism is in mind as the symbol of what is effected through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is the outward witness we give to what God has accomplished within. It is the public demonstration and proclamation, by means of a physical act, that we are no longer our own but Christ's. Water baptism, though an important sign and ritual, is not the thing which unites us to Christ.
    – Richard
    Oct 15 '14 at 4:55
  • @davidbrainerd "why's it compared to the flood", because they are analogous. The flood is a 'cleansing' and 're-creative' event but not effective for regeneration (Peter is saying that essentially it only effected "…removal of dirt from the body…"). Peter emphasises regeneration by comparing and contrasting baptism with the flood — emphasising the internal (good conscience) aspect of baptism rather than the external. Apr 11 '17 at 8:55

"Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"

This scripture appaears self-evidence in its' meaning, that of not being the passing through the physical water in and of itself, but all of the other things that constitute how a person is saved by Christ, which baptism is a part of.

Note the reference to a good conscience, which means that repentance of sin, and asking forgiveness for it, will results in a noticeable effect in the mind of the person who goes to Jesus to repent. His conscience will be cleansed, the Bible says, "by the blood of Jesus Christ", which is the only thing that can do this, and "which the blood of animals was never able to achieve'.

The baptism itself, was desscribed by the apostle Paul in this way, saying that going down in the water is how the person is united with Christ in his death, and coming up out of the water is how the person is united with Christ into Jesus' resurrection.

In this way, through the indication of the baptismal actions, a person is shown to pass from death to life.

  • "appeal to God through Jesus' resurrection' - because Jesus resurrected, the person being baptized can enter into all that Jesus bought with His blood.
    – Hello
    Feb 23 '15 at 20:39

He is making the distinction that baptism is not the same as cleaning up one's body. That it's a symbolic action.

It might have been a time when washing was starting to be seen as mostly an action for cleaning up one's body. From my reading of the law, it seems that washing had more of a ceremonial meaning, as when it mentions that a man who has had an emmision of semen overnight should wash and "will be pure in the evening" (if it had to do with being clean physically, why wasn't the man "pure" right after the "bath"?)

Also, I tend to think that in the times of the Israelites, people didn't wash too often but instead used oils and perfumes (there are many references to oils and perfumes, including the gifts of the " 'Rab-Mag' " at Jesus' birth). So in those times (and probably much later, too), washing was seen as more of a ceremony than something one HAD to do.

It might also be good to look into the traditions of the Essenes, and perhaps the Pharisees. I seem to remember that they practiced "ceremonial washing." And some think John's baptism came from being influenced by the Essenes.

In short, it has to do with making a distinction, and making clear that baptism was not to be taken lightly.

  • Sanders devotes 9 pages of Judaism: Practice and Belief 63BCE-66CE to ceremonial washing, and observes that it was a subject on which there was (broadly speaking) unanimity among all groups of Palestinian Jews (not just Essenes and Pharisees), who practised purification by full immersion. Diaspora Jews seem mostly to have washed e.g. hands and feet rather than to have immersed themselves fully. Aug 1 '15 at 15:10

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