Baptism for the Dead

or A Ripsnorter Ritual

Ritual is powerful stuff. Much of modern evangelicalism prides itself in rejecting liturgy and being “open to the Spirit,” and then turns this “openness” into an uninspired (and very uninspiring) human formula, in place of the inspired Divine one. Instead of following a pattern found in every part of the Bible (worship is literary architecture), we are stuck with either erroneous traditions or off-the-cuff rambles which, although “open to inspiration,” somehow sound exactly the same each week. Human beings love repetition in every area of life, and ritual is a prime method of teaching truth and holiness.

The power of ritual is illustrated in its amazing ability to preserve things such as archaic language and symbolic dress “in amber.” Old parishioners love their traditional Church service. If things aren’t done in the way to which they are accustomed, and in the same order, there is a deep feeling of insecurity. The tradition must be preserved. The motivation for this is often as wrong-headed as that of the moderns who want to update everything: a sense of security found in a common identity. The old people identify with the a human culture that is past, and the young people identify with a human culture that is present. It is the tradition, whether old or new, which gives us our identity. Very often, neither group is actually identifying with the Bible.This brings me to the point of this post: I don’t believe the maintenance of the rite of paedobaptism has much to do with the Bible.

Now, before you brainy paedobaptists tune out, this post is probably going where you think it’s going, but there is a surprising twist in the plot. This week, Peter Leithart writes:

One of Paul’s arguments for the resurrection is baptism for the dead: “What will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). Paul is referring to Numbers 19, where those who are defiled by contact with dead bodies. They are sprinkled with a concoction of water and ashes to raise them from their ceremonial death. Paul sees an analogy between that rite and Christian baptism that cleanses from dead works.

If this is Paul’s argument, then it provides some insight to persistent debates concerning the mode of baptism. The rite of Numbers 19 involves sprinkling (vv. 13, 18, 20), and if Numbers 19 is a figure of Christian baptism, then we may be able to draw the inference that Christian baptism for the dead should also be in the mode of sprinkling.

For those used to hearing that Paul is referring to a contemporary pagan ritual, which is in itself a plausible theory, an appeal to the Torah most likely comes out of left field. One thing I appreciate about the Biblical Horizons crowd is their focus on the “self-referential” nature of Scripture. If an allusion is a mystery, the first place we must look is not the contemporary culture but in previous Scripture. Almost invariably, that is where the answers are found. So, how then would I, a credobaptist, deal with this assertion concerning the mode of baptism? I’m glad you asked.

Firstly, Dr Leithart has to ignore all the evidence for immersion as the mode of baptism in actual New Covenant baptismal texts (arguments which, though nothing new, are still potent arguments) and go looking for support in obscure Old Testament rites. Like him, I don’t believe these rites should be obscure to us at all, but surely we shouldn’t be looking to these rites to defy the obvious appearance of New Covenant texts but instead to support them. This practice is just another example of the textual weaseling that goes on to present paedobaptism as biblical rather than merely traditional.

Secondly, this appeal to Numbers 19 does have some merit. James Rogers expounds upon it for us on the Biblical Horizons site here. He writes:

Clearly the writings and practice of the Old Covenant economy are authoritative for the Christian Church. This is why the Old Testament is part of the canon of the Church. The practice of baptism, however, is not an invention of the New Covenant Church (nor of Near Eastern mystery religions). There are a number of ritual baptisms described in the Old Testament, and prescribed for the Jews.

Thus, the New Testament author of Hebrews writes of Old Covenant rituals:

The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the time then present, according to which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they related only to fool and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the flesh imposed until a time of reformation. (Heb. 9:8-10)

The “various baptisms” in verse 10 is often translated as “various washings.” Nonetheless, the Greek word used there is “baptisms” (cf., “instruction about baptisms” in Heb. 6:2).

Now which baptisms is the author of Hebrews writing about? These baptisms are detailed in the immediate context of the passage. Specifically, in verse 13, the author refers to “the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling” as examples of the Old Covenant baptisms that he is writing of.

I agree with him almost 100 per cent and recommend reading the entire article. So, if I agree with him, and thus with the foundations of Dr Leithart’s observation, where do I go from here? What I do is this: I read Numbers 19 without wearing the one-eyed paedobaptist goggle. And what do I discover? I discover that there is another “washing” which is crucial to every stage of this rite which Rogers and Leithart apparently deem to be irrelevant. With their typological cross-hairs focussed solely on evidence for sprinkling, they’ve missed the component which is ripsnorting evidence for immersion. I don’t know how they missed it. A similar command appears four times:

Verse 7: “Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening.

Verse 8: “The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening”

Verse 10: “And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.”

Verse 19: “And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he [the clean person] shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean.”

This evidence is not exactly subtle, is it? It exposes the paedobaptistic exegetical monacle for what it is: the insight of a one-eyed man.

So, thirdly, the next logical question to ask is this: What is the difference between these two uses of water? Which of these types finds its antitype in New Covenant baptism? Again, the answer is found in Numbers 19. [2]

Verse 9: “And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering.

The text makes a clear distinction between the clean and the unclean, that is, between the pure priesthood and the impure and contaminated people. This “water of impurity” was not purely water. It contained the remains of the heifer (“…its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung”), and the cedarwood, the hyssop and the scarlet thread. It seems to me that the heifer signifies the Bronze Altar, the hyssop (possibly the aromatic herb, “ezov” [1]) signifies the Incense Altar, the scarlet thread signifies the Table of Showbread (which alone was covered with an extra scarlet veil under the common coverings [Number 4:8]), which would leave the cedarwood, a source of medicinal oil, as the signification of the Lampstand, a holy tree of Pentecostal (kingly) anointing. [3] The “water of impurity” is thus an outflow of the ministry of the Tabernacle. The entire humaniform (and cruciform) house itself was symbolically cursed, slain and incinerated, both its earthly and heavenly altars, to free the people from a contagious death, a death spread by a touch of the skin. [4] But note that this water was for the cleansing of those outside the Tabernacle. It was applied to the people by ministers from inside. It was mediated by those who washed their bodies and clothes by immersion (unless the ancients used dry cleaning).

I have used the architecture of Exodus 24 as support for credobaptism, and we see the same idea here. All the people are sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice, but only those on the mountain, the leaders and elders, eat with God as representatives of the people of Israel. After this, the Levitical priesthood is established, with the Tabernacle as a portable Sinai. There is a line between the priesthood and the people. The crystal sea was seen on the mountain. The water is mediated by those who may ascend as model citizens, images of maturity.

The entire point of the transfiguration of the Covenant was to create a priesthood of all believers. All believers are to be witnesses carrying the testimony of Jesus, mediators of the Gospel. We are to be sources of living water, not merely its recipients, which is why our whole bodies and robes are washed. This means that the washing of the body and the clothes in Numbers 19 is far more likely to be the type of New Covenant baptism, and even the New Testament says as much, with its references to “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Revelation 22:14)

All the cuttings and sprinklings were related to sin offerings and thus were fulfilled in Jesus, who was all Israel in One Perfect Offering. The impure water containing the remains of the Old House was the water which flowed, with blood, from the expired flesh of Christ. It is not a testimony of life but of death, a sign that the Law has been satisified and nothing more. The desire of paedobaptists to link the sprinkling in Numbers 19 is entirely logical, because their errant baptism amounts to nothing more than a strange new circumcision, and since the resurrection, circumcision and uncircumcision are nothing. Paedobaptism is nothing more than a testimony of death. It is not a testimony of life.

Paedobaptism is nothing but the washing of a sacrificial corpse, a body which awaits the fire. Credobaptism is the robe of ministry for one already clean, temporarily removed in humility to provide cleansing for others (as the High Priest on the Day of Atonement and as Christ when He washed the disciples’ feet) but replaced as an eternal robe of glory, of continuous resurrection, from glory to glory. Baptism is for the gatekeepers, those who are able to discern the spirits because they are of the Spirit. The waters of baptism do not contain the curse, the remains of the Old Tabernacle, but are pure waters rushing out in chariots from a new Bridal Temple.

It is highly ironic that those who speak so much of “the baptized body” limit the ministry of the water to an Old Covenant sprinkling on the head.

[1] See the wikipedia entry.
[2] For the position of Numbers 19 in the structure of the book, see The Beauty of Numbers – 3.
[3] Note that the cleansing of lepers in Leviticus 14 contains similar ingredients, and includes 2 sacrificial birds, which from our study of Genesis 15 the other day, would symbolize the “holy head,” or the Ark of the Covenant. Also, cedarwood has to do with the  Temple of Solomon.
[4] On leprosy as “snakeskin,” see Scales of Justice.

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5 Responses to “Baptism for the Dead”

  • Dave Says:

    That was good read : )

    Are you going to come out with a matrix study bible with all this stuff in the lower half of the page and all the biblical text all indented in the patterns… That would be good. Just a little weekend project for you ;)

    BTW, where is that picture from? He looks like a Borg guy, but I didn’t think they wore leather jackets.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    I’m glad somebody liked it.
    This WAS my weekend project.

    Pretty sure the pic is from “The City of Lost Children.”

  • Dave Says:

    Just for encouragement, I like most of your stuff. Much of the time its so far ahead of me I can’t meaningfully comment. I think systematizing this stuff like you are doing is a really important part of trading the church to see God’s mind better in the bible. You indicated a while back that there was work being done towards some videos. How’s that going? While I don’t feel confident converting your books to Sunday school material, I’d show a video of yours in church for sure (assuming I got permission – your material is different, but it’s orthodox at the same time)

  • Mike Bull Says:

    There’s some videos at the link at the top of the page. I hope to make some more.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    And thanks for the encouragement.