How to get right with God: By water or the Spirit?

Cleansing with water in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, Jews believed that the way to cleanse themselves from their wrongdoings was to wash themselves in water.

After his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, the Old Testament tells us that Moses was given instructions about creating a Holy Tent to house the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 36:8-38). Before entering this Holy Tent to meet with the LORD, the priests had to cleanse themselves thoroughly by washing themselves in water.

As a result, Bezalel (the skilled metalworker appointed by Moses) (see Exodus 35:30-33) “made the bronze bowl for washing, and he built it on a bronze stand” (Exodus 38:8). Moses placed this bronze ‘laver’ (or washstand) “between the Meeting Tent and the altar for burnt offerings, and he put water in it for washing.” (Exodus 40:30)

This ritual cleansing was carried out whenever the priests approached the Tent of Meeting: “Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons used this water to wash their hands and feet. They washed themselves every time they entered the Meeting Tent and every time they went near the altar for burnt offerings, just as the LORD commanded Moses.” (Exodus 40:31-32)


Mount Sinai (Roland Unger)

The mountains of Sinai  (Roland Unger)


Instructions laid down for the Levites (priests from the tribe of Levi) in the Book of Leviticus list numerous instances of ritual uncleanliness where Jews had to wash themselves to become ‘clean’ again. These included:

“When a fluid comes from a person’s body, the fluid is unclean… If the person who discharges the body fluid lies on a bed, that bed becomes unclean, and everything he sits on becomes unclean. Anyone who touches his bed must wash his clothes and bathe in water, and the person will be unclean until evening.” (Leviticus 15:2-6)

“When a woman has her monthly period, she is unclean for seven days; anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening… Anyone who touches something she has sat on must wash his clothes and bathe in water; that person will be unclean until evening.”(Leviticus 15:19-22)

Sexual relations also resulted in ritual uncleanliness: “If a man has sexual relations with a woman and semen comes out, both people must bathe in water; they will be unclean until evening.” (Leviticus 15:8)


Cleansing in ‘The Bronze Sea’ and in public and private ‘mikvahs’

Later, when King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem as a permanent place to house the Ark of the Covenant (see 1 Kings 6:1-37), he erected a huge bronze bowl (or ‘laver’) in the Temple for ritual cleansing. It was so large, it was known as the “brazen sea”:

“Then Huram made from bronze a large round bowl, which was called the Sea. It was 15 metres around, 5 metres across and 2.5 metres deep… The bowl rested on the backs of twelve bronze bulls that faced outwards from the centre of the bowl… The sides of the bowl were 10 centimetres thick, and it held about 40,000 litres.” (1 Kings 7:23-26)


An artist's impression of the Bronze Laver in the Jerusalem Temple (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906)

An artist's impression of the Bronze Laver in the Jerusalem Temple (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906)


In order to ensure their ritual cleanliness, many wealthier Jews had a ‘mikvah’ (a ritual bath) in their own homes. A variety of domestic ‘mikvahs’ have been discovered by archaeologists, including examples with two sets of steps – one for going down into the water when ritually unclean, and another for climbing back out of the water after being ritually cleansed.

For those without their own domestic ‘mikvah’, there were public ‘mikvahs’ provided for visitors to the Temple just outside the Hulda Gates – the main entrance on the south side of the Temple. The remains of these public baths can be seen today among the archaeological excavations.


John’s baptism in water and Jesus’s baptism in the Holy Spirit

The Jews of Jesus’s day were steeped in the practice of ritual cleansing laid down in the Jewish law and reinforced by centuries of tradition. In this context, the form of baptism made popular by John the Baptist in the New Testament was seen as just another form of Jewish ritual cleansing. In John’s baptism, it was water which was said to cleanse a person and make them ritually clean – just like the water in a Jewish family’s ‘mikvah’ or in the ‘Brazen Sea’.

What many twenty-first century Christians do not realise is that there was nothing especially new (or particularly ‘Christian’) about John’s type of ‘baptism’. What was different is that John urged people to repent of their wrongdoings before being cleansed in water in public in the River Jordan. And he urged his listeners to change their whole lifestyle because “the kingdom of heaven is near”. (Matthew 3:2)


River Jordan Baptism Site at Bethabara (David Bjorgen)

The River Jordan where John baptised at Bethany beyond the Jordan  (David Bjorgen)


John the Baptist openly acknowledged that his Jewish form of baptism in water was only a forerunner of something quite different – baptism in the Holy Spirit. “I baptise you with water to show that your hearts and lives have changed. But there is one coming after me who is greater than I am, whose sandals I am not good enough to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

In Christian baptism, the water is purely symbolic (and is a reminder of baptism’s Jewish origins). It isn’t water that cleanses and changes people’s lives, but the power of the Holy Spirit who enters people’s lives and completely changes them to be more like Jesus.

While many modern Christians fail to recognise the difference between John’s baptism in water and Christian baptism in the Holy Spirit, the difference was startlingly clear to early Christians in the New Testament.

When Paul arrived in Ephesus at the start of his Third Missionary Journey in 53AD, it was immediately clear to him that something was not quite right:

“There he found some believers and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They said, ‘We have never even heard of a Holy Spirit.’ So he asked, ‘What kind of baptism did you have?’ They said, ‘It was the baptism that John taught.’ Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of changed hearts and lives. He told people to believe in the One who would come after him, and that one is Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Paul laid his hands on them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them. They began speaking different languages and prophesying.” (Acts 19:1-6)

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