“Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (Part 2)

Come Follow Me Manual Recommended Readings:  Matthew 3 (quoting Isaiah 40); Mark 1Luke 3John 1.

Upfront Note:  In preparing my BCC Sunday School lesson this week, I realized my content was divided into two major chunks — one whimsical about Godspell, and one academic about the history of baptism.  For ease of use and commentary, I’m publishing them as two separate back-to-back posts.


Lesson Part 2: Baptism

In the New Testament, John the Baptist preaches “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” in order to usher in the ministry of Jesus Christ — a ministry that begins with Christ’s baptism.  (See Mark 1).

The Come Follow Me lesson manual asks us to reflect on our own baptisms and its symbolism.  Separately, the LDS Bible Dictionary on Baptism teems with confidence that baptism as practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maps onto the first century.  But does it?  What was the actual practice in the early church, and what can we learn about symbolism from it?

Jewish Origins:  The baptism of Christ appears to honor a Jewish practice of ritual purification through submersion in water.  Both ancient and modern Jews use a Mikveh — a bath similar to a baptismal font — for this religious purpose.  A Mikveh traditionally must be connected to a natural spring, river, or lake.  Holiness typically requires fresh, natural, moving water.

While the Jewish faith recognizes many different situations where purification by water is performed, two stand out as analogies to the baptism of Christ.  First, purification by immersion is required before converting to Judaism.  Second, purification by immersion is required to prepare a dead body for burial.  Christian baptism reflects both elements. We publicly join the faith by symbolically burying our old selves beneath the water.

Baptism By Immersion In Antiquity:  The word “baptism” in Greek connotes immersion.  It meant to immerse, submerge, or dip.  This etymology, alongside baptism’s use in the New Testatment and other early Christian writings, as well as ancient archaeological evidence of baptism art and large baptismal fonts, has resulted in a scholarly consensus:  early Christian baptisms were performed by complete immersion.

Interestingly, however, the form of immersion practiced by the early church does not precisely match our modern form of the ordinance.  Furthermore, the early church did not strictly require immersion for a baptism to be valid.

The single best source we have on this is the Didache.  The Didache was the last book to be cut from inclusion in New Testament canon — it dates from the late first or early second century, and is considered a highly reliable guide to early Christian practice.  It’s essentially an early church handbook of instruction.

Helpfully, the Didache sets forth specific instructions regarding the ordinance of baptism:

Concerning baptism, baptise thus: Having first rehearsed all these things, “baptise, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” in running water;

But if thou hast no running water, baptise in other water, and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm.

But if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head “in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

And before the baptism let the baptiser and him who is to be baptised fast, and any others who are able. And thou shalt bid him who is to be baptised to fast one or two days before.

The Didache offers a sense of pragmatism: sometimes in a Middle East desert, there’s no ready access to running water for baptism.  Pouring water over the head, in that instance, symbolizes immersion without requiring an enormous amount of a scarce resource.

The Didache’s form of baptism by immersion also varies: there is a strong preference for baptism in natural, running water.  (This symbolizes that Christ is the living water.)  Evidence indicates that this immersion may not have been done backwards, as we now perform it, but forwards — lowering the individual face-first into the river.  There is also a requirement that those involved in the ceremony partake in fasting.

Based on the historical record, it appears that the following rough order of preferences for baptism developed early on.  Each form was considered equally valid, so long as it was uttered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

  • Immersion in cold living water
  • Immersion in a cold fountain or pool
  • Immersion in a warm fountain or pool
  • Pouring thrice overhead

Sprinkling and infant baptism were both centuries-later developments.  Moreover, assigning only men and not women as witnesses appears to be a later development as well.

As a result, I would urge us to exercise a modicum of humility when critiquing other Christian faiths’ baptism rituals:  a wide variety existed in the early church.  When we espouse that we believe “in the same organization that existed in the primitive church” (Article of Faith 6), we should remember to take account of the nuance.

Baptismal Symbolism:

For more on the wide variety of Christian baptism, I strongly recommend the “Baptism” chapter in Rachel Held Evans’s reflection on Christian sacraments: Searching for Sunday.  Her work struck me by just how much the symbolism of baptism has in common across sects, even while the form varies.

For your family’s study this week, I recommend unpacking that symbolism.  Here’s a starting place.  A fascinating compilation of baptism theology is also reflected in the baptismal catechism of the Catholic church.

One more symbol, not often used in our church.  The early church symbol of the fish was used to signify the gentle youth of a soul born in living water through baptism.  These fish then join to swim together in the school of Christ.

*Baptism photo by Elisey Vavulin on Unsplash


  1. Something that stood out to me when reading the lesson is how the Gospel authors all use John the Baptist as a reference point. It’s like they felt that to connect to their audience they had to first establish the already accepted common ground (or at least a time and place reference) of John the Baptist.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I had no idea about the preference for cold water. Glad to hear that my baptism at age 8 in Rockford, Illinois in 1966 fully complied with that preference!

  3. I seem to remember reading somewhere that baptismal fonts in pioneer Utah were often constructed when possible to be fed with naturally running (“living”) water. I can’t remember where I read that, but it’s interesting to see there was a early Christian parallel. I wonder if the Utah pioneers were going for an early Christian primitive church thing, or if they were going more for an Old Testament thing. I also wonder when they ended that preference. Maybe when indoor plumbing became a thing?

  4. Interesting Carolyn. After looking at the link for the Didache, I’m wondering why the Catholic Church doesn’t follow it. I assume they would defer to their own version of modern revelation or modern guidance from their contemporary leadership?

  5. Bro B. — that’s a question for my Catholic husband, not me. But my rough sense is that Catholics distilled the sacrament down to its pure essence (water + invoking the name of the Trinity), plus the pragmatism reflected in the Didache itself, to envelop a wide variety of baptismal forms as acceptable. Catholics do, after all, recognize almost all other Christian baptisms as valid.

    Separately, infant baptism really took off during plagues when infants were dying and the Church wanted to give comfort to families.

  6. Makes sense. Thanks.

  7. Truckers Atlas says:

    Heck yeah–dad’s in a polo and khakis while he baptizes his angry teen son in a blue mountain lake.

  8. Ryan Mullen says:

    jader3rd, I was interested to learn this week that Josephus gives a different reason than Mark for why Herod arrested John the Baptist. Mark cites John’s critique of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife; Josephus tells us it was to quell a rebellion. The latter implies that John was immensely popular, attracting large enough numbers of people out to the wilderness to warrant government attention.

    I also get the sense there may have been some confusion early on regarding if Jesus was a disciple of John in those early days. Each gospel seems to carefully lay out how Jesus’ baptism does not imply submission by Jesus to John.

  9. What I found interesting is that baptismal waters represent the waters of a new birth. Baptism is a feminine symbol of birth. Performed by men? Hmmm.

  10. SVBob, that’s why it’s a “new birth”. Female administered birth into mortality, male administered birth into eternity. It’s complementary. I realize you can argue all you want about inherent sexism and so forth, but it seems pretty widely accepted across all cultures, not to mention biology, that for every yin there’s a yang. For whatever it’s worth, Nicodemus was also confused on this issue.

  11. mehbae:
    When I see something like this: “…it seems pretty widely accepted across all cultures, not to mention biology”, I know that some sort of over-reach is about to occur.

  12. In discussions about immersion vs sprinkling, Ezekiel 36: 25-27 is always relevant: Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.

  13. My daughter spent six weeks digging in Petra, home of the Nabateans (and the place where Indiana Jones looked for the Holy Grail). She said that the wife Herod wanted to replace was a Nabatean princess. To marry Herodias, Herod planned to kill his Nabatean wife. John warned him that this was a bad thing to do, but that didn’t stop Herod. His wife got wind of the plot and and fled back home. This made the Nabateans angry and when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, many of the fighters were actually Nabateans, proving that John was right.

    I don’t have any sources for this, but she’s usually pretty reliable when it comes to archaeology.

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