One Implication of a Single Word in Hebrews 9:10


David H. Linden, University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM  USA (December, 2011)


8  By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing  9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper,  10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.  (Hebrews 9:8-10)


I have lectured on Hebrews a few times. I know this word is in there, but I have never bothered to draw attention to it that I can remember. One may study a good commentary and find that what I am about to point out is ignored. The simple reason for this is that delving into the meaning of this word is not what the text is about. The situation is a little like a man saying he went to Houston on a bus to see a dying friend. Then another person responds by saying, “Do you know that buses have black tires?” That remark, though true, is irrelevant to the conversation. Hebrews is on track to proclaim in the very next verse the wonder of our Great High Priest entering the Presence of God for us, having obtained by His blood eternal redemption and cleansing of the conscience. With that kind of gospel treasure, it is no wonder that the meaning of a certain word in v.10 gets left in the dust. But it is there, and it can help us.


The word for washings in v.10 is baptismois (βαπτισμοις). It would be a needless distraction to translate this word as baptisms, because people would likely think of Christian baptism with water. The text is talking about various OT ritual washings. But we sometimes face the argument that the word baptism means to immerse. Well, it does not, and here is a text to show that one word in Greek for these OT ritual washings is baptism, yet not one OT ritual was an immersion. I wait to be shown one example.  


Then in Mark 7:4, we find that the Pharisees would not eat unless they wash, and various items to be washed are listed. Mark 7:4: “ and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash (βαπτίσωνται, a verb). And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing (βαπτισμοὺς, a noun) of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches. Charles Hodge (1797-1878) said in his Systematic Theology: “To maintain that beds or couches were immersed, is a mere act of desperation.”  (Vol. III, p.533.)


And in Acts 2, we read of 3000 believing the gospel. They were commanded to be baptized, and they were (v.41). That day they were added to the number. If they were all baptized by immersion – where? in the Pool of Siloam or the Pool of Bethesda? – That would contaminate the city’s drinking water. But if the word does really mean to immerse, then that is what they did, and there would have been quite an uproar in Jerusalem. But just as in Hebrews 9 and Mark 7, baptism can be done with less water.