Throughout the New Testament, beginning with John the Baptist, the concept of baptism is portrayed historically with minimal explanation for what it is or why it is happening. This is continued through the writings of Paul.

It leads me to believe none of the writers thought to really answer the following question: What is baptism and why is it significant?

This is corroborated somewhat by the fact that John the Baptist was actively baptizing people before Christ. Clearly people understood some meaning here.

Interestingly, Grudem's Systematic Theology is silent on this issue. Grudem focuses intensely on the Christian and historical Christian perspective on baptism, but not that of the pre-Christ culture.

So my question is:

  • What was the historical context and meaning of baptism around the time of Christ?

Matthew 3:5-12, NIV

People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”


2 Answers 2


The Essenes were a religious sect of Judaism, first appearing after the Hasmonean revolt, up through and during the time of Christ. You can find more about them here.

Thus, for the Essenes, the physical act of immersion was insufficient in itself to render the individual fit for participation in community functions. The immersion had to be preceded by a properly pious attitude and by actions which adequately reflected that attitude in order for the physical immersion to be effective. These actions included turning from evil and disobedience to the road of obedience to God’s commandments, including proper conduct toward one’s neighbors (1QS I 9–10; IV 2–6). This inner attitude was required any time an immersion took place. Only a repentant and upright spirit ensured the effectiveness of ritual immersion to obtain the external purity necessary for inclusion in the sacred rites of the community. (Taken from here)

While ritual cleansing(mikvah) and the Essene practice of cleansing of ritual immersion provided a context for Baptism, the understanding of "One Baptism, for the forgiveness of sins"(1st Council of Constantinople 381AD) didn't come until later. What is important to understand is 1 Pet. 3:21,

"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.

Thus Baptism went from an action that signified cleansing from impurity, to the answering of a good conscience towards God, and that is the context of Rom. 6:4,

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.

When one 'enters' the waters, it is the 'old man' dying to his life in flesh; when he is 'raised up' out of the water, he is raised up a 'new man in Christ'. This is the understanding of Jesus's statement when He says,

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

  • This seems to focus on the post New Testament interpretation of baptism, rather than the pre-John historical context of baptism.
    – enderland
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 12:38
  • @enderland You're correct. What I attempted to point out was although there was a 'ritual' for cleansing, called "Baptism", in no way can this be construed as an understanding for what we now call "Baptism"-there are 2 different understandings. The same word "baptizo" is used, however one did not 'morph' into the other, rather there is a completely new understanding of the same word. My apologies for not spelling all of this out in my answer. This is the context for understanding the scripture you quoted(Mt. 3:5-12)
    – Tau
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 1:59

Baptizo is the Greek word used to translate “Mikvah” from Hebrew which means to dip or submerse. This was a required process to enter the Temple for worship. To enter the mikvah pool you must also already be scrupulously clean prior to entry. The entire object of the Mikvah is to wash away any impurities before entering into the presence of the Lord. The Mikvah is standardized by Torah and can be first found in Leviticus:

Leviticus 11:36 (KJV) 36 Nevertheless a fountain or pit, wherein there is plenty of water, shall be clean: but that which toucheth their carcass shall be unclean.

See also Leviticus 16:23-24 where the high priest is expected to wash himself as well before entering the presence of the Lord. This was the Mikvah.

There are several mikvahs in terms of what your purpose for mikvah is. The one mostly known about is for repentance.This is the one John was doing in the Jordan River.

  • Thank you for your contribution; +1 for the perspective and information. To improve this post, you will want to cite a credible source to support the definition of Mikvah. You will also want to cite a credible source to support your statement that in Jesus time, to enter the mikvah one needed to be scrupulously clean. I see from your profile that you have already answered a few questions, but are fairly new to the site; welcome to BH-SE.
    – user2027
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 12:13
  • 1
    The passage in Lev 11 is about whether a pool of water is made unclean when a carcass falls into it. It says nothing about people purifying themselves before entering the temple.
    – fdb
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 17:16

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