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John the Baptist and Purification

question? It is simple; John’s baptism appeared to be purifications to these Jews. If his baptism was different or foreign to Biblical purifications, this question would not have come up. So, what did they see that made them equate John’s baptism with purifications? Let us look at the Scriptures.

Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him.” Numbers 9:13

To cleanse the house then, he shall take two birds and cedar wood and a scarlet string and hyssop, and he shall slaughter the one bird in an earthenware vessel over running water. Then he shall take the cedar wood and the hyssop and the scarlet string, with the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the slain bird, as well as in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times.” Leviticus 14:49-51

Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the Levites from among the sons of Israel and cleanse them. And thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing: sprinkle purifying water on them, and let them use a razor over their whole body, and wash their clothes, and they shall be clean.’” Numbers 8:7

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The Jews carefully watched John the Baptist. They attempted to find fault with him as they would later with Jesus. In their evaluation of his behavior they saw something that caused them to question his work which they called purification.

And John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water (many springs) there; and they were coming and were being baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. There arose therefore a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have borne witness, behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him.’” John 3:23-26

In the opinion of the Jews, John the Baptist was performing certain rites of purification, and concerning these purifications, John’s disciples and a Jew squabbled. Now the question is, “Biblically, how were purifications done?” Why, you might ask is this an important
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Psalm 51:7

See Numbers 19 for additional illustrations of sprinkling and purification or cleansing.

It boils down to this; the Jews knew how purifications were performed. The passages above tell us how these purifications were performed as well; by sprinkling. If John was using a method of purification other than sprinkling, they would not be certain what he was doing. But they were certain. Why? It was because he was sprinkling. The word purification in John 3 is critical in understanding New Testament baptisms. John’s baptisms were rites of purification as his current audience recognized. John the Baptist was performing purifications, therefore, John was sprinkling.

“Had John been immersing at Aenon the subject of ‘purifying’ would never have been raised, for the purifications of the Old Testament were never by immersion!”

There is no rite of purification depicted as a dipping in all of Scripture. “There is no Old Testament ritual which provides a satisfactory precedent for a total immersion baptism. The mode of applying the cleansing agent varies, but sprinkling predominates in ritual cleansing.”

As we have seen, John the Baptist was identified with purification by the Jews. Now, purifications were only rendered by sprinkling in the Old Testament. It was clear to the Jews that John was performing rites of purification. The Jews knew this because, knowing and living the Mosaic laws, they knew what rites of purification looked like. From the Old Testament passages quoted above, we know what they looked like also. They looked like, and were, sprinklings and pourings. John was performing rites of purification or baptisms by sprinkling or pouring.