When we hear the word “baptism” the first thing we think of is the Christian sacrament in which a person baptised with water and the Spirit dies to sin being born to spiritual life and becoming a member of the Church. Interestingly, when interpreting this sacrament in the context of biblical and ecclesiastical history, the Holy Fathers distinguished between several so-called types of baptism. St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his Oration 39, “On the Holy Lights” names five such types, while the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus (Vol. 4, Ch. 9) describes eight.
It should be noted that the baptism of the Lord was and remains the only perfect Christian baptism, both for ourselves and for the Holy Fathers suggesting this differentiation. All the other types given here are rather prototypes, or phenomena, which the patristic thought has considered acceptable to be equated with Christian baptism in one way or another. These are biblical events, Old Testament practices, certain phenomena from early Christian history and eschatological concepts.
This row sometimes contains very heterogeneous elements, which differ in historical scale, object, perpetrator, frequency and duration, as well as in other ways. What unites them is that they are called to release the human soul from the bonds of sin and give rise to a new stage of life, bringing a person closer to God.
The Great Flood
“The first baptism was that of the flood for the eradication of sin,” St. John writes. Another source indicating that the Flood was a model of the New Testament Baptism was the First Epistle of St. Peter: “…in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you […] through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:20-21).
Some theologians followed the Apostle in seeing the Great Flood as baptism for a number of reasons. Firstly, both events are directly related to water, which has always been considered a symbol of purification and renewal. During the Flood, water cleansed the earth from sin and impiety, while in Baptism water also serves as a means to eliminate every sin.
On the other hand, both the Great Flood and Baptism are regarded as events leading to a new creation. In the Great Flood, God destroys the old corrupt world and creates a new one through Noah and his family. A baptised person parts with his old self that dies before he is born again as a new spiritual creature in Christ.
In addition, both the Great Flood and baptism are seen as events leading to salvation. In the Great Flood, Noah and his family are saved from a sinful and corrupt environment, while a baptized person is saved from the power of sin and death, receiving the gift of eternal life.
Baptism in the Cloud and in the Sea
This Old Testament event was regarded as Baptism by St. Paul. “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:1-2). St Gregory the Theologian saw in this type of baptism an emblematic significance: “Moses baptized but it was in water, and before that in the cloud and in the sea. This was typical as Paul says; the Sea of the water, and the Cloud of the Spirit; the Manna, of the Bread of Life; the Drink, of the Divine Drink” .
This event, as well as the subsequent experience of the Jews in the wilderness, is replete with parallels to life before and after Baptism: The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, whereas an unbaptized person is a slave of sin. In the Exodus story the Israelites are liberated from slavery and bondage. Similarly, in the sacrament of baptism, one is liberated from the bondage of sin, and ushered into a new life under God’s guidance.
For the Israelites who crossed the sea there was no return to a past life of slavery and pagan temptations, just as the Lord’s Baptism imposes on a person the indelible seal of the Sacrament and cannot be undone in any way.
Old Testament Ablutions
After crossing the sea, God gave His people the Law, and with it He established priesthood and temple worship. He also gave the Jews the rites of ablutions, the essence of which was purification from sin and, in some cases, an introduction to the chosen nation. “The third baptism was that of the Law: for every impure person washed himself with water, and even washed his garments, and so entered into the camp” . The Old Testament ablutions had two forms – Tevilah and Netilat Yadayim.
This ritual derives its meaning from the washing of hands and feet ordained by God for priests (see Ex. 30:19). The Lord established it upon entering the tabernacle and especially before the sacrifice. This ritual was a part of the Lord’s perpetual due prescribed to Jewish priests under pain of death. Later rabbis made the washing of hands mandatory for all Jews. In the Orthodox Church it is still the custom of the clergy to wash hands before the Liturgy.
Netilat Yadayim was an outward expression of man’s desire to be cleansed in order to serve God, which echoes the spiritual content of New Testament Baptism. This washing of hands was seen not only as physical cleansing for ritual purity, but also as cleansing for the forgiveness of sins: “If you do not allow yourself to begin praying with unwashed hands, then all the more you should not defile them with sins. If you fear the least, then fear the greatest all the more. While praying with unwashed hands may not be considered obscene, the act of stretching out hands defiled by a multitude of sins incurs the great wrath of God.”
The second form of Old Testament ablutions – Tevilah – is a complete immersion in a river or a mikvah, specialised bath for ablutions. Tevilah was obligatory for proselytes – non-Jews wishing to convert to Judaism. It was also performed for cleansing from the gravest sins and various types of impurity, for example, after childbirth. Tevilah symbolized spiritual rebirth and renewal.
The Jews resorted to it only in exceptional cases. It could be said that the severity of a person’s sin was directly related to the type of cleansing or purification they needed to undertake. Thus the Jews practised the washing of hands, while the Gentiles, whom they considered more sinful or unclean, were brought to Tevilah if necessary. For example, the prophet Elisha commanded Naaman, a Syrian leader, to immerse himself in the Jordan River seven times.
Baptism of John
The baptism of John virtually mirrored Tevilah, yet it differed from it in two ways: its personalised appeal to each individual and its correlation to John’s preaching, presaging the coming of Christ and His baptism. The former was especially challenging for the Jews, few of whom were ready to realize and accept their sinfulness, and perform the ablution intended for pagans who were both ritually unclean and deeply mired in sin.
By all means, John’s baptism was only a preparation for the ultimate perfect Baptism of the Lord: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Baptism of the Lord
“The fifth was the baptism of our Lord, whereby He Himself was baptized. Now He is baptized not as Himself requiring purification but as making my purification His own, that He may break the heads of the dragons on the water, that He may wash away sin and bury all the old Adam in water, that He may sanctify the Baptist, that He may fulfil the Law, that He may reveal the mystery of the Trinity, that He may become the type and ensample to us of baptism. But we, too, are baptized in the perfect baptism of our Lord, the baptism by water and the Spirit”.
This perfect Baptism, which we confess in the Creed, is incomparable to any other. St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes: “Great is the Baptism that lies before you: a ransom to captives; a remission of offences; a death of sin; a new-birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot to heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom; the gift of adoption!”.
All the other types of baptism discussed above were only harbingers of it. Besides, they were limited to certain individuals and did not have the complete ability to forgive sins, while the Baptism of the Lord is a gift available to all of humanity that has the ultimate power to absolve any sin. Baptism embodies all the love of God, because it is open to any person who has faith. It is as unhindered and unconditional as the very love of God. It alone can give a person a new spiritual birth and lead him into the Church founded by Christ, opening the way to other Sacraments. To find out how Baptism affects a person click here .
Baptism through Repentance and Tears
St. Gregory the Theologian explains this type of baptism as follows: “Yes, and I know of a Fifth [baptism – AN] also, which is that of tears, and is much more laborious, received by him who washes his bed every night and his couch with tears; whose bruises stink through his wickedness; and who goes mourning and of a sad countenance; who imitates the repentance of Manasseh and the humiliation of the Ninevites upon which God had mercy; who utters the words of the Publican in the Temple, and is justified rather than the stiff-necked Pharisee; who like the Canaanite woman bends down and asks for mercy and crumbs, the food of a dog that is very hungry.” .
Clearly, this passage speaks of repentance, comparing its power with the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This resonates well with the words of the prayer to St. John the Baptist: “…renew our souls by repentance, as by a second Baptism. Purify us, corrupted by sins, and compel us to enter into the Kingdom of heaven where no corruption can enter.”
Another interpretation of baptism with tears can be found in the life of St. Gregory the Great. It is associated with a remarkable event that is somewhat reminiscent of the episode from the life of the holy martyr Varus where through his prayers God forgave certain deceased pagans.
After the death of the Emperor Trajan, St. Gregory heard a story from the life of the deceased describing a widow begging the Emperor for vengeance for the death of her son. Taking time off from an important battle, Trajan ensured that justice was served for the widow
Moved by this story, the saint prayed in church, shedding streams of tears to alleviate the pagan emperor’s suffering in the afterlife, until he received divine revelation that his prayers were heard. According to the life of St. Gregory, “the soul of Emperor Trajan was illumined and even baptized with the tears of the Saint”.
Similar cases of saints interceding for the unbaptised were mentioned by St. Mark of Ephesus in his speech at the Council of Florence: “Some saints were able to pray not only for the virtuous, but also for sinners, saving them with their prayers from eternal damnation. This is confirmed by the lives of the Holy Protomartyr Thekla and St. Gregory the Dialogist.” Although these cases are exceptional, they offer hope for the relatives of those who have died without faith, that the power of sin can be overcome by the fervent prayers of the living Christians.
Baptism in Blood
Baptism in blood refers to an act of martyrdom for Christ by a person who has not been baptized with water. Such a martyr is likened to Christ in His death and is baptised with the Baptism with which the Savior was baptised (see Mark 10:38). St. Basil the Great actually calls baptismal water a symbol of Blood: “…There have been some who in their championship of true religion have undergone the death for Christ’s sake, not in mere similitude, but in actual fact, and so have needed none of the outward signs of water for their salvation, because they were baptized in their own blood” .
St. Gregory the Theologian believed that such Baptism was superior to any other type: “I know also a Fourth Baptism — that by Martyrdom and blood, which also Christ himself underwent— and this one is far more august than all the others, inasmuch as it cannot be defiled by after-stains” .
Martyrs baptized with blood were either people who had not heard about Christ, yet saw the courage and faith of Christian martyrs, or Christians who were still preparing for Baptism (in ancient times, the process of catechisation could last several years).
Among them were the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, the martyrs Boniface, Irinarchos and Aglaius, who suffered together with the forty Martyrs of Sebaste, the eight tormentors of St. Tatiana who suffered martyrdom together with their victim after they received a revelation through her prayers and called themselves Christians.
Baptism by Fire
All the types of baptisms described above were performed during a person’s lifetime (with the exception of baptism with blood performed during the transition from bodily life to bodily death). But what if a person was not baptized during his lifetime?
St. John the Baptist said that Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (see Matt. 3:11). St. John of Damascus and St. Gregory the Theologian understood baptism by fire as a sinner’s suffering in the afterlife. This type of baptism differs from the ones described earlier in that it is not considered salvific, but an outcome of living without, rather than with, God. St. Gregory the Theologian writes: “Perhaps in it they will be baptized with Fire, in that last Baptism which is more painful and longer, which devours wood like grass, (1 Corinthians 3:12-19) and consumes the stubble of every evil.” Those who were not immersed in the waters of the Lord’s Baptism during their lifetime “cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (see John 3:5) and will be immersed in fire after death.
This type of baptism, like all others, serves the purpose of purifying and completely eliminating sin. Through suffering the soul is brought to a state where sin is no longer possible. Yet, unlike all other types of baptism (with the exception of the Flood), this one is not accepted voluntarily, but is given as a punishment: “The eighth is the last, which is not saving, but which destroys evil: for evil and sin no longer have sway: yet it punishes without end”.
Baptism means Becoming Closer to the Savior
Just as, according to Paul, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (see 1 Cor. 1:18), so Noah probably seemed mad to his contemporaries. Similarly, as those who turned away from God without expecting any retribution perished in the waters of the Flood, so those who are following in their footsteps today will be baptised by fire. There remains a small hope that the Lord will have mercy on those worthy ones who have not been baptised in their lifetime, not because of their opposition to God, but because of ignorance, as was shown in the lives of St. Gregory the Great and the Holy Martyr Varus.
One way or another, the main reason for all the described phenomena (as well as the history of mankind as a whole) is the Love of God and His desire “for all men to be saved” through the trampling of sin, turning to righteousness and drawing closer to the Savior. “…Says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).
Noting this, St. Gregory the Theologian reminds us that every baptized person, having accepted grace and purification, must serve people and God: “God rejoices in nothing so much as in the amendment and salvation of man, on whose behalf is every discourse and every Sacrament, that you may be like lights in the world, a quickening force to all other men; that you may stand as perfect lights beside That great Light, and may learn the mystery of the illumination of Heaven, enlightened by the Trinity more purely and clearly, of Which even now you are receiving in a measure the One Ray from the One Godhead in Christ Jesus our Lord; to Whom be the glory and the might for ever and ever. Amen”.