Was Jesus baptized by immersion or sprinkling?

by Matt Slick

Many people automatically assume that Jesus was immersed at his baptism, but this is probably not the case.  When we look at the context of his baptism and why he was baptized, it seems apparent that he was either sprinkled or had water poured upon him.  When Jesus spoke to John the Baptist, he pointed to fulfilling the Old Testament Law.  We have to ask, what Law?  Let's look.

Matthew 3:13-17, "Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, 'I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?' 15 But Jesus answering said to him, 'Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.' Then he permitted Him. 16 And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.'”

If you focus on verse 15, you will see that Jesus said, "it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Jesus was born under the Law (Galatians 4:4) and came to fulfill that Law (Matthew 5:17).  This means that Jesus had to do what the Old Testament Law required of him at his baptism.  So, Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness (not to identify with sinners as so many say).  Now we have to ask what Law it was that he had to fulfill.  It seems most consistent with scripture to say he was fulfilling the Law regarding entering into the Priesthood, so that ultimately he could be both the high priest and the sacrifice (Heb. 6:20; 7:25; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:26; 10:12).  When we examine the Old Testament requirements for entering the priesthood, you will notice some interesting parallels with Jesus' baptism.  After all, Jesus is said to be a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:20).

  OLD TESTAMENT VERSES NEW TESTAMENT VERSES
30 Years of Age

Numbers 4:1-3, "Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2 'Take a census of the descendants of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers’ households, 3 from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting.'"

Luke 3:21-23, "Now it came about when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also was baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” 23 And when He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being supposedly the son of Joseph, the son of Eli . . . "

Water

Exodus 29:1,4, "This is what you are to do to consecrate them, so they may serve me as priests: Take a young bull and two rams without defect" . . . 4 “Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and wash them with water."

(Are they immersed in water at the doorway?  Of course not.  They have water applied to them).

Leviticus 8:4-6, "So Moses did just as the Lord commanded him. When the congregation was assembled at the doorway of the tent of meeting, 5 Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do. 6 Then Moses had Aaron and his sons come near, and washed them with water."

(In the consecration of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood at the doorway, does it makes sense to say that they were immersed in water, or that they were washed with water as the water was applied to them?)

Numbers 8:7, "And thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing: sprinkle purifying water on them, and let them use a razor over their whole body, and wash their clothes, and they shall be clean."

(In the cleansing of the Levites for the priesthood work, water was sprinkled on them. The Hebrew word is נָזָה [nazah /naw·zaw/] v. 24 occurrences; AV translates as “sprinkle” 24 times. 1 to spurt, spatter, sprinkle. 1A (Qal) to spurt, spatter. 1B (Hiphil) to cause to spurt, sprinkle upon. 2 to spring, leap. 2A (Hiphil) to cause to leap, startle).

Matt. 3:16, "And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water;"

Anointing with Oil (Holy Spirit)

Exodus 29:7, "Then you shall take the anointing oil, and pour it on his head and anoint him."

Leviticus 8:12, "Now the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls; then offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord, to make atonement for the Levites."

Matt. 3:16, "and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him,"

Verbal Blessing

Exodus 39:43, "And Moses examined all the work and behold, they had done it (regarding the tabernacle); just as the Lord had commanded, this they had done. So Moses blessed them."

Number 6:22-27, "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23 'Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, "Thus you shall bless the sons of Israel. You shall say to them: 24 The Lord bless you, and keep you; 25 The Lord make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; 26 The Lord lift up His countenance on you, And give you peace." 27 “So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel, and I then will bless them.”

Matt. 3:17, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

Hyssop

If Jesus was sprinkled, as seems to be the case according to scripture, then it might have been done with a hyssop branch. 

  • Hyssop.  An indigenous plant to western Asia and northern Africa, 1 Kin. 4:33. The Israelites used, in sprinkling the blood of the paschal lamb upon the lintels of their doors, Ex. 12:22; in sprinkling blood in purifications, Lev. 14:4, 6, 51, 52; Heb. 9:19. Used in the sacrifices of separation, Num. 19:6. Used in giving Jesus vinegar on the cross, John 19:29.1
  • HYSSOP. The hyssop, or marjoram, plant grows to a height of 1 m. (3.3 ft.) and features stalks of many branches with small, fragrant, green leaves. The numerous hairy branches favor its use as a brush or aspergillum for ritual purposes (Exod. 12:22; Num. 19:6, 18; Ps. 51:7; cf. Heb. 9:19) or for the cleansing of lepers (Lev. 14:4, 6, 49–52). Moreover, like other labiates such as mint and thyme, marjoram contains a volatile oil making it attractive as a purifying agent. The use of hyssop as an aspergillum may explain the “sponge” full of vinegar that the Roman guards raised to Jesus’ lips as he hung upon the cross (John 19:29; cf. also the use of hyssop in flavoring wine), or perhaps John alludes to the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death; although the stalks of the plant become woody as new shoots form each growing season, this would not have been sufficient to support a sponge (cf. par. Matt. 27:48; Mark 15:36; Gk. kálamos “reed”). 2

So Hyssop was a plant that was used ritualistically.  In the four versus below, you will see that the first and fourth have hyssop being used with sprinkling.  Perhaps this is what was used in Jesus' baptism.

  • Num. 19:18, "And a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one slain or the one dying naturally or the grave."
  • Psalm 51:7, "Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.  Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."
  • John 19:29, "A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop, and brought it up to His mouth."
  • Heb. 9:19, "For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people."

Jesus came out of the water

One of the objections to the idea that Jesus was sprinkled according to Old Testament law is found in a New Testament passage.

Mark 1:9-10, "And it came about in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him."

The emphasis is on the phrase "coming up out of the water." Some say this means he was immersed, but this is not necessarily so.  When my children were younger and we went to the beach they would often wade out into the waves and be up to their knees in the water.  I would sometimes say "get out of the water" when I thought the waves might be a bit too much for them. Their being in the water was not full immersion but a partial immersion.  It was only their feet that were immersed, and their whole bodies were not.  So, Jesus and John the Baptist could've easily been in the water of the Jordan River up to their knees or even their waists, but it doesn't necessitate that they were immersed.  So, it could've been that John the Baptist took a hyssop branch from the shore, dipped it in the water of the Jordan, and sprinkled it upon Jesus; and then they came up out of the water.

Conclusion

The purpose of this article is not to convince you that the only way Jesus could've been baptized was by sprinkling.  However, when we look at the Old Testament context, when we consider that Jesus entered into the priesthood after the order Melchizedek, and when we see that the requirements of entering into priesthood work involved the sprinkling of water, it makes sense to say that Jesus may very well have been sprinkled at his baptism.

  • 1. Swanson, James, and Orville Nave. New Nave’s Topical Bible. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1994.
  • 2. Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.

 

 

 

 
 
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