Fourth Century Baptism

Due to a typo, this post was published two weeks ago under an incorrect Title. My apologies., but I thank those who read and liked it then.

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot, …

  • Ecclesiastes :1-2

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

  • Acts 19:1-5

“This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 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.

  • Leviticus 16:3-4

“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 the sanctuary area 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. He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
“The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.

  • Leviticus 16:23-26

” ‘As soon as you entered [the baptismal chamber] you took off your clothes, symbolizing taking off the old man with his deeds. Having stripped you were naked, thus imitating Christ who was stripped naked on the cross and by his nakedness disarmed the principalities and powers, triumphing over them on the tree. … Having stripped you were anointed with exorcised oil, from the very hairs of your head to your feet, and became part of the good olive tree, Jesus Christ. For you were cut off from the wild olive, and grafted onto the good one, and were made to share the abundance of the true ollve. The exorcised oil therefore symbolized participation in the richness of Christ, a charm to drive away every trace of hostile influence. … You were next led to the holy pool of divine baptism, just as Christ was carried from the cross to the sepulchre which is before our eyes [here in Jerusalem]. And you were each asked whether you believed in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Having made that saving confession, three times you descended into the water and ascended again, here again mystically signifying Christ’s three-day burial.  At the same moment you were both dying and being born and that water of salvation was both your grave and your mother. What Solomon said of others applies also to you: ‘There is a time to be born and a time to die’ [Ecclesiastes 3.2]. But for you the order was reversed—there was a time to die and a time to be born. Both of these took place at the same time and your birth coincided with your death. (Catechetical Lecture 20 [Mystagogic Lecture 2]: Baptism)’.”

  • Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought

Cyril of Jerusalem (313?-386) did not get exiled as often as Athanasius of Alexandria, but I doubt if this was a contest.  Cyril was forced to step aside as bishop of Jerusalem on three occasions, consisting of fourteen years when he could not perform the duties of the bishop, for not welcoming Arians into the church.  Constantine and the emperors that followed seemed to be highly motivated to provide unity within the church.  Constantine created the Council of Nicea where the Nicene Creed was written, based on the Scriptures that they had at the time.  But then, when an Arian, a follower of Arius, who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, just a better form of man than we are…  When these Arians wanted fellowship and membership, even a platform in which to preach, they would swear to follow the Nicene Creed.  Why not lie about that when their theology was a pack of lies anyway.  Like Athanasius, Cyril would rather be banished, exiled, or whatever other punishment applied, than to welcome heresy into the church.

When I verbally told my wife the synopsis of Cyril’s fourth century baptism ritual, she snarled.  “What a grotesque series of religious rules is that?!  I am so glad we just use a little water and speak of the baptism being in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Where does your faith depend, on the religious ceremony or in Christ alone?!”

My response was that I agreed.  It would get to be more important to cover each step properly than it would be to understand that we are adopted children of the Most High God, just by believing and trusting in Jesus.  We are, at that moment of belief and trust, baptized in the Holy Spirit and the water becomes secondary, only a symbol.

But then I suggested that the description of all the symbology throughout the ceremony of fourth century baptism would make a great message for baptism day.  Behold the old person is gone.  Behold we stand before God stripped of our worldliness as Jesus was when He hung on the cross.  And yes, we must confess with our mouth that we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.  And the concept of the old dying and the new emerging from the water, or the sprinkling, whatever.  That would be a great sermon.

But look at where the John the Baptist (Baptizer) ceremony originated.  The High Priest had to bathe before putting on the linens required to enter the Holy of Holies.  He had to bathe again coming back out.  And almost as a footnote, the guy who escorts the scapegoat out of the camp must bathe before reentering the camp.  After all, the scapegoat represents all the sins of the entire community that have not been covered by other sacrifices.  The activities in Leviticus 16 all revolve around atonement, becoming “at one” with God.

It seems natural that John the Baptist then calls for repentance and following the One who is to come, who was Jesus.

We do not need the nakedness, the exorcised oil, the emersion three times, and the pomp and circumstance, but it is beautiful and powerful to look at that symbology and understand the great gift Jesus gave to us.  For Cyril, it made it that much more powerful when fighting heresy as in the Arians.  That symbology made all the difference in a holy sacrament and merely taking a bath.

In this post, I am not saying that the fourth century baptism ceremony is wrong, but it does seem a bit over the top.  I am not advocating emersion or sprinkling.  There are many denominations with a wide variety of practices.  But the concepts within that baptism of 1700 years ago should be present.  But for the mechanism, as stated above, the important baptism is spiritual, by the Holy Spirit, which happens when Jesus comes into our heart.  Anything added to that might constitute salvation by faith plus works, and salvation is by faith in Christ alone.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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