Near the end of Nephi’s (the first Nephi) ministry in the Book of Mormon, Nephi explains the important doctrine of baptism. The doctrine described by Nephi is both simple to understand and beautiful. Nephi begins in 2 Nephi 31 by saying in verse 2, he “must speak concerning the doctrine of Christ” and that he “shall speak unto [us] plainly, according to the plainness of my prophesying.” This is a fortunate relief as much of Nephi’s writings are literal copies of Isaiah, which often times are difficult to understand in the modern context.
After clarifying that he will speak plainly, Nephi provides an explanation for why we need baptism today. He states:
5 And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!
6 And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?
Nephi concludes chapter 31 with this verse:
21 And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.
These verses, in addition to being trinitarian, beautifully describe the virtues of being a Christian and following Christ.
In the following chapter, Nephi describes the benefits of being baptized, by water and by fire:
2 Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost?
3 Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.
These powerful verses on baptism provide such clarity on doctrine. I begin to wonder why Nephi was able to describe so acutely the concept of baptism and Christ’s baptism. What is the etymology of baptism? The language used by Nephi also seems vaguely familiar, almost like he’s speaking as an apostle of Jesus Christ or reading Matthew 3.
So my first discovery is that the concept of baptism did not necessarily originate with John the Baptist; however, its purposes in the law of Moses appear to be very different. Wikipedia explains that ritualistic cleansing, also known as “Tvilah”, was used for a priest preparing for service in the temple. After the exilic period there appears to be evidence that converts were also washed in a similar manner, representing a conversion to Judaism. What is clear is that ritualistic cleansing was considered symbolic of cleansing and becoming prepared to serve God. Perhaps this is why Jesus was baptized before he began his ministry. Despite this origin, John the Baptist is still considered the first to use baptism as a symbol of accepting the messianic movement. John converts the Jewish cleansing, to one focused on preparing for the Messiah.
Why would Nephi be so intimately familiar with the concept of Christian baptism if he escaped Jerusalem just prior to the exilic period? Is it possible that Nephi was familiar with New Testament writings when he discussed the need to fulfill all righteousness? Or were his writings, when translated, just heavily influenced by the New Testament which would have been familiar to Joseph Smith. For example:
Mathew 3:15 states: And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
Acts 4:12 states: 12 Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
1 Corinthians 13:1 states: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
Timothy 6:3 states: If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;
What is clear is that Nephi’s language appears to be influenced by the New Testament. Nephi is intimately familiar with the baptism of Jesus Christ, and the concept of a Christian baptism, despite a very different purpose being instituted in Judaism. Unfortunately, Nephi doesn’t correlate baptism to the law of Moses as this would be more realistic approach given the context of Nephi’s life and experience. While these scriptures are beautiful, I struggle to see how they could have been written nearly 600 years before the events described transpired. That all being said, I look fondly upon my own baptismal experience and feel that God accepts my heart as being full of pure intent.