January 4, 2016

Prefigurations of Baptism in the Old Testament

Blessed Jerome says that “the Spirit of God above moved ... over the face of the waters [Gen. 1:2], and produced from them the infant world, a type of the Christian child that is drawn from the laver of Baptism.”1 He also observes, “When the world falls into sin, nothing but a flood of waters can cleanse it again. But as soon as the foul bird of wickedness is driven away, the dove of the Holy Spirit comes to Noah [Gen. 8:8,11 ], as it came afterwards to Christ in the Jordan [Mt. 3:16], carrying in its beak a branch betokening restoration and light, and bringing tidings of peace to the whole world.”2

According to St. Jacob of Serugh, when Patriarch Jacob reached the well where Rachel watered her flocks, a great weight lie across it, which could scarce be removed by many men. Yet Jacob, a type of Christ, opened the baptismal font for His betrothed, that she might bathe there. He (Christ) lifted up the weight of sins by His mighty strength. He revealed a spring that gave a sweet draught to all the world. The fair sight of her so multiplied his strength that he was able to roll away the stone that was too heavy for many men [Gen. 29:10]. The mystery of the Church lay on her face like a jewel. All the flocks drank there for Rachel’s sake, who was the cause thereof by her grace, her love, her beauty.”3

In the exodus, Saint Ambrose tells us, “Holy Baptism was prefigured in that passage of the Hebrews, wherein the Egyptian perished and the Hebrew escaped. For what else are we daily taught in this sacrament, but that guilt is swallowed up and error done away, but that virtue and innocence remain unharmed?”4

In the life of Prophet Elisha he healed the barren waters with salt [4 Kgs. 2:19-22], which prefigured the fruitfulness that the august font should bring forth mystically.5 And he sweetened the waters by means of salt, manifestly proclaiming the grace of Baptism.6 Saint Kosmas says, "Jordan received into its deep bosom a sharp axe, and then was forced by a stick of wood to give it back again [4 Kgs. 6:1-7], thus betokening the cutting of error by the Cross and Baptism."7 At the Prophet’s behest, the Syrian leper Naaman washed seven times in the Jordan, and was cleansed [4 Kgs. 5:14].

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, speaking of the true circumcision spoken of by Prophet Jeremiah, says “By the likeness of our faith ...we become the adopted sons of Abraham; and consequent upon our faith, like him we receive the spiritual seal, being circumcised by the Holy Spirit through the laver of Baptism, not in the foreskin of the body, but in the heart, according to the words of Jeremiah: 'Circumcise yourselves to God, and circumcise your hardness of heart' [Jer. 4:4], and according to the Apostle: 'In Whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, Who hath raised Him from the dead' [Col. 2: 11,12].”8

Saint Basil the Great interprets the triple immersion of the baptismal rite by the three days of Christ’s burial in accordance with the sign of Jonah.9 Saint John of Damascus regards the Prophet Jonah’s three nights in the belly of the sea monster and his coming forth again as a manifestation beforehand to all of our regeneration by the washing [Titus 3:5] and our deliverance from the dragon that slays mankind.”10

Saint Gregory of Nyssa remarks that “most manifestly does Zachariah prophesy of Jesus [Zach. 3:4], who was clothed with the filthy garment (to wit, the flesh of a servant, even ours), and stripping him of his ill-favored raiment adorns him with the clean and fair apparel. He teaches us by the figurative illustration that verily in the Baptism of Jesus all we, putting off our sins like some poor and patched garment, are clothed in the holy and most fair garment of regeneration.”11


1. Saint Jerome, “Letter LXIX,” Vol. VI, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, p. 145.

2. Ibid.

3. Mar Jacob, Bishop of Serugh, “A Homily on our Lord and Jacob, on the Church and Rachel, and on Leah and the Synagogue,” The True Vine, vol. 4, no. 4 (1993), pp. 51-64.

4. “On the Mysteries,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. X, 2nd Ser. Ch. III, p. 318. 5. January 5th, extract of Matins Canon, Ode Seven, Tone One.

6. June 14th, Matins Ikos.

7. September 14th, Exaltation of the Cross, Matins Canon, Ode Four, Tone Plagal Four.

8. “Catechesis V,” Fathers of the Church, Vol. 61, pp. 142, 143.

9. “On the Spirit,” Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VIII, pp. 14, 32. 10. Theophany, Matins Canon, Ode Six, Tone Two.

11. “On the Baptism of Christ,” Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V, Bk. VI, pp. 522-3.