The Levitical Covenant: The Key to Baptism
Many years ago, as I was graduating from Denver Seminary and trying to figure out what to do with my life, I decided that since I got this degree, maybe I should give the pastor thing a try. I really only went to seminary to learn the Bible and delay life a little more. I had little designs on pastoring. But now I had to decide.
By this point in time, I was well into my Reformed journey and there was no looking back. But I was still a Baptist. Yet, wanting to stay on the Front Range, I knew there weren’t exactly a lot of Reformed Baptist churches. In fact, there weren’t any! So, I tried very hard to become a paedobaptist, that way I might be hired in a Presbyterian church or something like that. But try as I may, I just couldn’t do it.
I was wrestling with the infant Baptist argument that we are to give our children the sign of the new covenant because that’s what they did in the old covenant. The idea of continuity really appealed to me, but the idea that baptism replaces circumcision just didn’t make any sense, no matter how good the arguments I read were. The Reformed Baptists were helpful on the point of credobaptism (only baptizing those who confess Christ), but I found their arguments too full of discontinuity for my liking, even though they were covenant theologians.
Simultaneously, three ideas struck me. I was reading a book on Fasting of all things by John Piper and he spent a little bit of time looking at the typology of Jesus as the New Moses in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was sent to Egypt after a king tried to kill him when he was under two. He returned, got baptized, went into the wilderness for forty, and taught the law on a mountain.
Wait, he got baptized? That’s when it hit me that Paul says that the Red Sea was a baptism, not a circumcision. Then I realized that Peter said that the Flood was a baptism, not a circumcision. Suddenly, I was seeing baptism everywhere in the OT. Why didn’t anyone point this out to be before now?
That’s when the second thought struck me. The paedobaptist argument has as much discontinuity as the credobaptist argument. In fact, in picking Abraham and circumcision out as “the” sign of “the” covenant, they conveniently forget that God gave a covenant to Adam and Noah before Abraham, and their infants were not circumcised. Amazingly, that's at the minimum 4,000 years of human history, or double the history between Abraham and Christ. After Abraham, there were also other covenants, and those covenants were not entered into as infants. Only the Abrahamic covenant was.
I started to investigate the Adamic covenant and found that the Jews taught that Adam and Eve were both baptized in the waters by Eden to atone for their sins. I realized, in fact, that the word mikveh is used in Genesis 1 for the gathering of the waters together on the third day. A mikveh happens to be the Jewish equivalent of a Christian baptism. Indeed, the Church Fathers even called Genesis 1:2 a baptism. Baptism was everywhere, and unlike circumcision, it went back to the very beginning of time.
As I was wrestling with the covenantal part of this, I realized a third thing. Paul says that when we are baptized into Christ we are clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27). That’s the exact image of a priest being ordained into his ministry in Exodus 29:4-5. But this priestly ordination, I instantly understood, was itself attached to a covenant as its initiatory sign or sacrament.
That covenant is one that few (though some) systematic treatments of covenant theology never even mention. Here's a recent blog article that does. Yet, there it is in Jeremiah 33:21 with David’s covenant—which they always spend a great deal of time discussing. This covenant is talked about by Nehemiah and Malachi by name as well. And we find hints of it throughout the OT, including in the name of the third book of the Bible: Leviticus. It is called the Levitical Covenant.
My first book was on this topic and details my journey and the theology behind why I believe this Levitical covenant solves the problem of baptism. On one hand, it creates great continuity between the sign of the old covenant and the new. In both cases, it is baptism. It creates even greater continuity in the recognition that all the covenant somehow or another have baptism attached to them. Furthermore, it seems apparent that this is precisely what Jesus is obeying when he is baptized into the Jordan River—as our High Priest.
But the way credobaptists practice baptism is also perfectly in line with all we see explicitly mentioned in the NT. We baptize professing believers, because infants cannot serve God as his priests. It’s similar to no Levite being given the sign of the Levitical covenant until they were 30 years old. The NT changes some things about this, but not this fundamental truth. And another reason? It’s because the “children,” the “infants” of the new covenant are those in faith. The NT tells us this over and over again.
I’ve had many people over the years tells me that this book needs a wider reading, because it really does solve the debate that we’ve been going round and round on for centuries. If you are curious and would like to read more, check out Waters of Creation: A Biblical-Theological Study of Baptism.