First, it must be understood that baptism is an outward proclamation of an inward conversion. In other words, baptism is a ceremonial act undertaken after a person accepts Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior. This is usually done in the presence of the church body as a public proclamation of one’s faith.
Concerning the origin of baptism, Christian theologians suggest that although Christian baptism may have been widely used by John the Baptist, baptism itself did not originate with Christians or, for that matter, with John. Jews practiced baptism as a traditional act of purification and the initiation of converts to Judaism long before the coming of the Messiah. The origins of baptism might be found in the book of Leviticus where the Levite priests were commanded to perform a symbolic cleansing in water before and after performing their priestly duties. Leviticus 16:4 tells us, “He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on.” Scripture also states in Leviticus 16:23-24, “Then Aaron is to go into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. He shall bathe himself with water in a holy place and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people.”
Although the act described in these Old Testament passages was not specifically called “baptism,” it does highlight how important and holy ceremonial (and practical) cleansing is to God. John’s “baptism of repentance” (Luke 3:3; Acts 19:4) followed this paradigm of cleansing, although the final cleansing from sin is only available through Christ, and John’s baptism was the foreshadowing of that. The significance of baptism as a New Testament ceremony is that, as believers in Jesus Christ, we are baptized into His death (Romans 6:3) and raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4 KJV). The Lord taught the significance of baptism to the extent that He Himself was baptized by John the Baptist at the start of His ministry (Mark 1:9).
Like most of the essential doctrines and rites of the Christian faith baptism has deep symbolic roots in the types and shadows of the Old Testament and profound implications for New Testament believers. Linguistically and historically, it can be linked with most of the cleansing rituals of Judaism, especially the sprinkling with water or with the blood of sacrificed animals using hyssop (Exodus 12:22, Leviticus 14; Numbers 19; Psalm 51:7, John 19:29, Hebrews 9:19). The subject of baptism is initially introduced in the New Testament through accounts of the ministry of John the Baptist. Although we encounter John in the pages of the Gospels, he was actually an Old Testament prophet. John was under the law, not grace, and his mission, to prepare the way for Christ, came prior to the inauguration of the Kingdom of God (Mt 11:7-15). His audiences and baptismal candidates were also Jewish people under the law (Mt 3:5-6). The more pious of the Jews deeply resented John’s call to repentance and cleansing. Up to that point only gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith were required to be baptized.
When John appeared, he told devout Jews that being Jewish was not enough (Mt 3:9). Like the gentiles, they needed to be cleansed and to make themselves ready (repent). The King is coming; make His paths straight (Isa 40:3, Malachi 3:1, Mt 3:3). It is significant that Jesus as well as the Jewish people recognized John the Baptist as a true prophet of God under the law (Mt 11:9-11). As such, he literally spoke for God and his words were law, just as binding as the written law. That is why Jesus insisted on being baptized by John. In order to be an acceptable sacrifice for our sins, He had to be perfectly righteous, fulfilling all of God’s law on our behalf including the latest oracles delivered by John (Mt 3:13-15). However, the baptism ordained by Jesus prior to His ascension is fundamentally different from John’s baptism in its significance, i.e., what it signifies. The baptism ordained by Jesus (Mat 28:19-20) transcends John’s baptism of repentance (Ephesians 4:4-6).
While John’s baptism was a cleansing rite, the sacrament of baptism we practice now is a sign and seal of the new covenant in Christ Jesus in the same sense that circumcision was a sign and seal of the old covenant (1 Peter 3:21-22). Baptism in the new covenant is the counterpart of and replacement for the rite of circumcision in the old covenant. Circumcision was a physical act producing a physical mark that signified a person was a member of the Jewish nation and household of faith either by birth or through conversion. Baptism today is a physical act producing a spiritual mark that signifies a person is a member of the household of faith in Jesus Christ by new birth and conversion (Galatians 3:26-27, John 3:5). It is a better sign and seal for a better covenant (Hebrews 8:6-13). Baptism does not mutilate the body (the temple of the Holy Spirit), is available to everyone equally (not gender specific), and is wonderfully symbolic of our identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:1-7).
Jesus needed to be baptized to fulfill high priest holy ceremonial cleansing to God, that the high priest would do once a year. The Hoy Spirit descended ON, Him like a dove because Jesus needed to fulfill God’s perfect plan of redemption BEFORE, the Holy Spirit could live inside us. For we before that time was dead inside because of sin, and the Holy Spirit could not, and will not live in a grave.
So then, the origins of baptism are seen in story of the flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), in the first Passover prior to the exodus, in the exodus itself, in the crossing of the red sea, in the cleansing rituals under the law, and in the rite of circumcision. It follows the general pattern in scripture of progressive revelation (first the physical, then the spiritual) as God demonstrates His will and His character to His people in ever increasing detail and clarity. Today, we enjoy the privilege of participating in the sacrament of baptism as a wonderful means of grace, rich in the beauty of symbolism. As we publicly identify with our Lord by physically acting out the drama of His suffering, death, burial and resurrection through the Christ ordained ritual of baptism we are spiritually marked as children of the household of faith by His grace and mercy.