Last week I began a discussion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. I want to continue down that road with what I believe is the baptism connection to be found in John 3. Before I begin, I want to reiterate that I am not a scholar. I’m just a wannabe theologian with only a modicum of biblical knowledge and training. What I offer here is my opinion. It is not authoritative. But perhaps it will strike a chord with you and help you in your own studies. Onward…
As mentioned last week, when Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse 5 that he must be “born of water and Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God, he was alluding to a passage in Ezekiel 36:25-27 in which God tells Israel that he will cleanse them with water and transform them by his Spirit. My understanding is that these verses are what Jews of the time used as the basis for proselyte baptism (Note: the passage says that God would “sprinkle” them with water—interesting). Proselyte baptism was common in ancient Judaism. The Essenes also practiced multiple baptisms for multiple purposes. When John came baptizing, he was baptizing Jews in the manner of proselyte baptism. That was part of the controversy and “offense” of John’s baptism.
Notice that these baptisms (sprinkling, pouring, or immersing) were all symbolic—pointing toward what God would do one day in reality. Jesus’ reference to Ezekiel was not to imply a requirement for baptism for initiation into the kingdom of God, but to declare that the “birth from above” spoken of in Ezekiel was imminent. Nicodemus certainly would have caught the reference to Ezekiel, and he knew the symbolism of proselyte baptism. The baptism connection then is only found in the symbolic practice of ancient Judaism. The fact that the early Christians practiced baptism (and we still do today) doesn’t mean that baptism was (or is) salvific. Rather, pre-Christian baptisms looked forward to God’s work in renewing his people. Christian baptism now looks backward at what God did in cleansing and renewing his people on Calvary and in the resurrection. It is still a symbolic act declaring God’s activity in our lives. It is an important act, and it declares publicly our faith in what God has done, but it is God that does the cleansing, renewing and saving—not the act of baptism.
My next post will deal with the “wind” and the “Spirit.”