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Baptism of Priests

Baptism of Priests

Moving chronologically in the Old Testament leads to the baptism of the Levitical priesthood. The event occurs in two different stages. First, God provides early verbal instruction on the institution (Exodus 29). Later, the canonical recounting of the historical consecration (Leviticus 8-14). In these long and detailed passages, a couple lessons on baptism are presented that have interpretative implications for the New Testament. The baptism of the Levites supports the thesis that Christian baptism is always a union of water and Spirit while revealing other elements that will be helpful in future sections.

Speaking generally, the book of Leviticus promotes washing as a form of consecration and making clean.  All these washing can be evaluated as types of baptisms (e.g. the washing for lepers) as the author of Hebrews indicates (Heb 9:10). For the sake of time, it is best to restrict the scope to the baptism of the priests themselves. This particular washing will encourage a deeper understanding of the priestly theology in Hebrews later. This priestly baptism and consecration is split across a long chapter but the summary washings are presents in the order of water, oil, and blood.

5 And Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded to be done.” 6 And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water…12 And he poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron's head and anointed him to consecrate him…23 And he killed it, and Moses took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron's right ear and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot…30 Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments, and also on his sons and his sons' garments. So he consecrated Aaron and his garments, and his sons and his sons' garments with him. – Leviticus 8:5-6, 12, 23, 30

What may seem like an arduous passage to read is certainly an arduous task for Moses. The consecration of the first priests for the nation of Israel is a solid day’s work. The process can be summarized as a washing of water (Exo 29:4), oil (Exo 29:7, 21) and blood (Exo 29:20-21). There are no new insights in the washing with water — this practice is consistent with the water baptism practiced in both the Old and New Testament. Water is expected as part of the symbolism of purification. The pouring of oil is a symbolic event representing the Holy Spirit (1 Sam 16:13). Practically, the pouring of oil was given for the house of God (Gen 28:17-18; 35:13-14). Here oil begins to cover those who can enter into the house of God. It is the symbolic event of consecration and cleansing that permits one to enter to the house and presence of God — this is the pattern seen in Psalm 23:5-6. Looking forward to the New Testament, Paul’s theology of the church as “the temple of God” are only possible for those baptized in water and spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21).

This entrance themed symbolism is seen more clearly in the similarities between the Levitical service and the cleansing of a leper,

28 And the priest shall put some of the oil that is in his hand on the lobe of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot, in the place where the blood of the guilt offering was put. 29 And the rest of the oil that is in the priest's hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed, to make atonement for him before the Lord. – Leviticus 14:28-29

These events do not accomplish the same purpose, but both represent gained access to a place once forbidden. In the case of the priests, the washing of water in conjunction with the washing of the Spirit (represented by oil) is necessary for their consecration to enter the temple in their service to God. Not to be ignored, the blood of a sacrifice is also necessary to wash them (Lev 8:23). In all of this, the truth of Christian baptism is represented. Christian baptism is a washing with water, Spirit and the blood of Jesus Christ. This general image seems to have its biggest impact on the more Hebraic books in the New Testament canon.

This combination of water, Spirit, and blood for the priesthood may have been what the apostle John had in mind when he spoke of “the Spirit and the water and the blood” (1 John 5:8). What testified once for the priesthood of Aaron was now testifying to Jesus Christ in His priesthood. Christ’s anointing in this way would permit Him to enter where no other person could. The anointing of the priests points to this priesthood of Christ. The consecration of the priests lasted seven days (Lev 8:35) with the full inauguration having occurred on the eighth day (Lev 9:1). The symbolism representing a new birth and creation that baptism often accompanies. This consecration period also correlates to a circumcision with washing in water, spirit and blood at its foundation (Gen 17:12; Lev 12:3). It is not surprising then that Christ’s death — which He describes as a baptism in Mark 10:38-39 and Luke 12:50 — inaugurates a new priesthood and new creation through a new circumcision “made without hands” (Col 2:11).

From a historical perspective, the people of Israel had already been baptized by water and Spirit (in the Red Sea) and even by blood when they ratified God’s covenant (Exo 24:7-8). They were ready to enter the Promised Land as part of the symbolism to their closeness to God. The Levites were still special representatives for this “kingdom of priests” (Exo 19:6) before God. This issue will be taken up at large later (in a deep evaluation of the book of Hebrews) but the correlation of this concept should be noted in two New Testament texts. The first book clearly affected by this imagery is 1 Peter. In this epistle, Peter begins by stating that the church has been sprinkled with the blood of Christ (1 Pet 1:2). This new covenant initiation has traditionally been associated with baptism. It is this blood Peter lays at the root of his ethics (1 Pet 1:13-21). This consecration of blood permits the great indicative that the church is a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9). It is these ordained priests that Peter eventually turns to and speaks the truth that “baptism now saves you” (1 Pet 3:21).

The second book affected by this Levitical imagery is Titus. Though lacking an explicit reference to priesthood, it is not surprising that Paul concludes his letter with a strongly efficacious statement that is symbolically connected to the priesthood,

5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior – Titus 3:5-6

Salvation is linked to washing. This noun is used by Paul more explicitly in Ephesians to refer to baptism (Eph 5:26). The verb form (G3068) is used almost exclusively with reference to water (Rev 1:5 being a possible exception). To presume this “washing of regeneration” is anything but baptism is to permit prior theological requirements to bind exegesis. Here Paul brings together washing (water), the Holy Spirit (commonly associated with oil) and blood (the pouring out of Jesus Christ). This is the Levitical pattern of consecration.

Only in this manner does baptism in fact save and provide us a clear conscience (1 Pet 3:10). In the Levitical sense, Christian baptism is a washing of water, Spirit, and blood of Jesus Christ.

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