by David Schneider
Like much of early Christian worship, Baptism was a Jewish custom. The people living in the Middle East in the first century were already familiar with the practice. So when the Jews and Greeks saw John the Baptist immersing people in the river, they didn't say to themselves "what is this strange act"? It was something they were already familiar with. An article posted on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website says:
“A significant parallel exists between Jewish proselyte baptism (when pagans were converted to Judaism) and early Christian baptism. The contacts between early Christian baptism and proselyte baptism, with the similarities in terminology, interpretation, symbolism, and the rite itself, are especially notable. What is of greatest interest, however, is that the baptism of the early Church followed that of proselyte baptism, in which children and infants were baptized with the convert’s family. This is especially significant when one realizes that the very early Church was made up primarily of converted Jews.” -“Infant Baptism” by Jordan Bajis, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website, http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article7067.asp
Burnt offerings and silverware obviously have no intellectual understanding of their sanctification through water, yet they are sanctified nonetheless. In the Messianic Jewish understanding, it is the same with people. Christian baptism was the continuation of the Jewish mikvaot- the sanctification and entrance of the person into the faith community. Churches that baptize babies do so with the belief that those who are baptized (infants and adults) are being set apart for a holy purpose and the process of salvation has begun in their lives. It doesn’t mean those churches believe ‘once saved always saved’ or that the individual has a free ticket into heaven.
The Old Testament teaches that males coming into the Covenant should be circumcised. Hebrew men who accepted God’s Covenant were to be circumcised, but what about Hebrew children? Did the law require that they wait until an “age of accountability” so they could decide for themselves? No, the Law taught that Hebrew infants were to be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant, just like any adult convert. The early Church simply continued with this understanding when baptism became the “circumcision of the New Covenant” for the New Testament Christians (Colossians 2).
Forbidding the baptism of infants (“believer’s baptism”) came about in Europe with the Protestant Reformation. In their zeal to distance themselves from anything resembling Roman Catholicism, the Anabaptist and Mennonite reformers lost sight of the historical meaning behind baptism. Protestant theology was heavily influenced by European political ideals, particularly the new emphasis on individual rights and thus baptism became the “public declaration of one’s personal decision.”
There are some Christian communities in Syria whose practices are virtually unchanged after 2000 years. They still worship in Aramaic, their Bibles are in Aramaic, their churches are still built like ancient synagogues- and they baptize infants. We should not assume that American or European Christian practice is somehow better or supercedes the ancient practices of these people, the literal descendents of early messianic Christians.
We are like the burnt offerings and kitchen utensils in a Jewish home in that we can never fully comprehend our sanctification through the mystery of Baptism, no matter what our age is. Yet, we as Christians are separated for a Holy purpose, and we begin the process of salvation through the mystery of Baptism. We are then able to enter God’s temple as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is also careful to point out:
“Baptism in and of itself, of course, is not enough. It must be accompanied by genuine faith. No parents should be allowed to baptize their infant if they themselves have not made an expressed commitment to serve Jesus Christ and raise their children in accordance with God’s Word. As adults, we are called to accept the challenge of our baptism and live dedicated lives for Christ. If we do any less, we have rejected Christ and the gift of salvation He has made available to us since our birth.”