“The once-and-for-all washing—signified by baptism—occurs as defiled sinners repent of their sins, in faith receive God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus and proclaimed in his word, and become joined to him. Through this union, believers break with their old lives and begin a process of sanctification in which they take on the qualities of their Savior, who will ensure its completion and a place for them forever in the presence of a holy God.”[i]
The original bronze basin or laver (Ex 30:17-21) for the tabernacle and the enlarged and arresting “molten Sea” structure for the Solomonic temple (1 Ki 7:23-26) were not only for the ministers of worship to ritually cleanse themselves of their own defilement from sin but to cleanse the carcasses prepared for sacrifice (Ex 29:17; Lev 1:9, 13; 2 Ch 4:6). The Torah required cleansing from a specially constructed bowl during priestly service, but by the time the Solomonic Temple was built, a remarkable system was developed due to the increased number of sacrifices, and to expedite and restructure the ability to cleanse both priests and sacrifices. Commenting on the Herodian Temple that followed the Solomonic Temple, Edersheim elaborates:
The first lot, which in reality had been cast before the actual break of day, was that to designate the various priests who were to cleanse the altar and to prepare its fires. The first of the priests on whom this lot had fallen immediately went out. His brethren reminded him where the silver chafing-dish was deposited, and not to touch any sacred vessel till he had washed his hands and feet. He took no light with him; the fire of the altar was sufficient for his office. Hands and feet were washed by laying the right hand on the right foot, and the left hand on the left. The sound of the machinery, as it filled the laver with water, admonished the others to be in readiness. This machinery had been made by Ben Catin, who also altered the laver so that twelve priests could at the same time perform their ablutions. Otherwise the laver resembled that in the Temple of Solomon.[ii]
The bronze laver was as sacred as the altar for several reasons: 1) it was dedicated to service with a unique concoction of holy oil (Ex 30:28), 2) it was positioned in the court with the altar, and 3) it was used as much as the altar. Failure to ritually wash could jeopardize the priest’s life (Ex 30:20), so the priests understood that the sacred bowl, its contents, and its use were integral to holy worship. The use and function of the bronze laver contribute to its symbolic meaning and typological intention, and these in turn provide the basis for understanding how this ritual was specifically fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Logically, if Christ’s sacrificial death rendered the altar obsolete, then the wash basin would acquire the same status. However, the fulfillment of the bronze basin must stand on specific historical elements and have conceptual associations in NT teachings, so that our confidence in dismissing this temple ritual is based on particular aspects of Christ’s work of redemption.
The Hebrew words used to generally describe washing and cleansing (kabas and rachats) focus on the physical action of removing dirt and impurities from clothing or skin (Gen 8:14; 1 Sam 25:41). At first blush, water from this temple fixture was used to “wash” the hands and feet of material defilement. The desired result from washing was to be clean (taher) or pure (chata); uncontaminated and holy.
The first association of washing with the intent to preparing a person to stand before God is when Moses brought the Hebrew evacuees to the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses gave the people two days to wash their clothes so they would be consecrated for the visible manifestation of God upon the Holy Mount on the third day. “So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes” (Ex 19:14). The significance of this is not just that the people would be “clean as a whistle” before God visited them, but that they were removing the defilement of having lived in Egypt (Lev 18:3). This soteriological idea is echoed in the Feast of Unleavened Bread during which all traces of leaven, representing sin and the corruption of Egyptian influences, were removed from the home (Ex 34:28; cf. Ezek 23:7; Lk 12:1; 1 Cor 5:6-8). The Hebrew nation was saved from their oppressors, but also saved (somewhat) from the influences of Egypt. They would naturally rejoice in the freedom of the former, but they would have to repent from the mindset of the latter. The washing was reminiscent of their passage through the waters of the Red Sea and of their desire to begin life anew with their Lord and God, from whom they would receive the covenant (Ex 20:1-2). Salvation and repentance were recapitulated when John the Baptist urged the people of this covenant to prepare their life for the arrival of the Messiah through personal repentance, evidenced by water baptism (Matt 3:1-12). His baptismal washing was directly associated with the forgiveness of sins (Jn 1:36). But John understood that the Messiah would provide a “baptism” that transcended and escalated his water baptism.
The second association between washing and sanctification was in the preparation of Aaron and his sons for ministering in the temple (Ex 29:4-9). Their hallowing for service included unleavened bread and sacrificial animals, but it began with washing, dressing with fine linens, and anointing with oil. This washing prepared the priests for service in the tabernacle, giving them greater responsibility and closer proximity to the Holy Place as representatives of Israel before God. But this priesthood and all the rituals associated with them must yield to the greater priesthood (Heb 5:4-6; 7:4-10, 12), just as John the Baptist, himself a Levite, proclaimed to his fellow priests and Levites his inferiority to the Messiah who should come (Jn 1:15ff). This new High Priest would ritually wash the feet of His disciples to prepare them for worldwide ministry in the kingdom of God. Wrapped with a simple linen, He need only wash their feet to establish their qualification for this new priesthood, for they were made clean by His word (Jn 13:3-5, 10-11).
The bronze wash basin is the third picture of washing with water, restricted to the Aaronic priests in the course of their service, “When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water” (Ex 30:20). However, prior to entering the temple arena, priests would have already washed themselves thoroughly to establish their ritual purity for ministry (Ex 40:12-15; Num 8:7). The bronze laver, then, standing beyond the altar, allowed the priests to maintain that purity while they labored in the temple court. It was perhaps understood by priests that the act of washing did not actually make them pure and morally innocent before God—it was symbolic οf their need to remain pure of heart or morally clean. In contrast, the religious establishment at the outset of Jesus’ ministry were likened to vipers to be trampled, trees to be cut down, and chaff to be burned (Matt 3:7-12), despite their punctilious attention to temple rituals. Israel was about to “cleaned” through judgment because they did not internalize their ritual of maintenance cleansing. However, priests of the new covenant may pass on repetitive water rituals to cleanse visible debris, and instead cleanse their lives of immoral conduct, their hands of sinful actions, and their minds of insincerity through repentance, humility, and confession (1Cor 7:1; Jas 4:8; 1 Jn 1:9).
These episodes and rituals in the law do not explicitly associate washing with moral cleanness. This idea, though, is eventually expressed when the word of God comes through David (a king), Jeremiah (a priest), and Isaiah (a prophet).
David: “Wash (kabas) me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse (taher: to purify) me from my sin” (Ps 51:2).
Jeremiah: “O Jerusalem, wash (kabas) your heart from wickedness, That you may be saved (yasha: safe). How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?” (Jer 4:14).
Isaiah: “Wash (rachats) yourselves, make yourselves clean (zakah: innocent); Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes” (Isa 1:16).
Washing became a metaphor for cleansing the heart and mind from the pollution and defilement of sin. It is plausible then, that ritual washings entered the public sphere to demonstrate innocence of wrongdoing (Deut 29:6; Ps. 26:6; Matt 27:24). Sickness was often thought to be the consequence of sin. Jesus employed the symbolism of washing to demonstrate the innocence of the man born blind—then healed when he washed (Jn 9:1-7). Eventually, the baptism of John, indicating personal repentance of sin, became the symbolic ritual for the disciples of Christ to proclaim the forgiveness of their sins through the blood of Jesus Christ (Act 22:16; Rev 1:5).[iii] Christian baptism is likened to the safety of the ark passing through the judgment of water (God purged the world of sin), not necessarily to the cleansing of material defilement by water (1 Pet 3:21). Christian baptism is also likened to the figurative washing of Israelites as they passed through the Red Sea, cleansing them from their former idolatrous lives (1 Cor 10:1-2). Baptism also recapitulates the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—an event with which Christians identify (Rom 6:3-5).
In the law, washing and cleansing were also necessary for those who were ritually unclean, like a leper who experienced healing (Lev 14:1-20). Cleanness was to be achieved by two clean birds, one of which was sacrificed, and its blood sprinkled on the person seven times. The healed leper proceeded to wash his clothes, shave his body, wash his body, and waited seven days; and in near repetition, he washed his clothes again, shaved his head, and washed his body. On the eighth day (the first day of the week) the work necessary to declare cleanness increased:
“And on the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, and one log of oil. Then the priest who makes him clean shall present the man who is to be made clean, and those things, before the Lord, at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. And the priest shall take one male lamb and offer it as a trespass offering, and the log of oil, and wave them as a wave offering before the Lord. Then he shall kill the lamb in the place where he kills the sin offering and the burnt offering, in a holy place; for as the sin offering is the priest’s, so is the trespass offering. It is most holy. The priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and the priest shall put it on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. And the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. And of the rest of the oil in his hand, the priest shall put some on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot, on the blood of the trespass offering. The rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. So the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord. Then the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. Afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean” (Lev 14:10-20).
In this case, even though the leper was healed, he still had to be ritually cleansed and declared clean. This was achieved not only by water, but by blood and oil—the same elements used in the dedication of priests (Num 8:5-16). Interestingly, cleansing involved the hands and feet of both the priest and former-leper, and the priest had to cleanse himself with a sin offering and trespass offering in the process (Heb 7:27). More importantly, the healed person was not declared “clean” until the eighth day, that is, the start of a new week. There is no record in the OT that this ritual law was ever employed, so Jesus’ healing and cleansing of ten lepers should have been a momentous occasion for temple priests (Lk 17:11-18).
While water washing is not directly associated with moral cleanness in the Pentateuch, blood atonement is (Lev 16:24). Attaining a “clean slate” from sin was possible for the nation only on the Day of Atonement: “For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse (taher: to purify) you, that you may be clean (taher: to purify) from all your sins before the Lord” (Lev 16:30ff). Blood atonement on the Sabbath of all Sabbaths was the means for Israel to be “washed” clean of all her sins and to eventually experience Edenic rest. The minister of this climactic ritual, the High Priest from the tribe of Levi, washed and put on articles of clothing befitting his office and the extraordinary service he provided on behalf of the people of Israel.[iv]
“And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. So you shall speak to all who are gifted artisans, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments, to consecrate him, that he may minister to Me as priest” (Ex 28:2-3).
Cleansing and purification of the heart under Mosaic law was accomplished primarily by blood atonement, but allusions were made to the cleansing effect of water. The NT uses both blood and water to figuratively describe the spiritual cleansing effects of redemption. “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses (καθαρίζω) us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7). “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify (ἁγιάζω) and cleanse (καθαρίζω) her with the washing (λυοτρόν) of water by the word (ῥῆμα), that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). “You are already clean (καθαροί) because of the word which I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3). “Sanctify (ἁγιάζω) them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). “When He had by Himself purged (καθαρίζω) our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3).
Returning to the bronze basin, Exodus relates that master-craftsman Bezaleel obtained the necessary material for its construction from devoted women who voluntarily surrendered their polished brass mirrors to the task (Ex 38:8). Henry muses about the association between this seemingly obscure detail and the function of the Word of God as a mirror (Jas 1:23).[v] David attributes to the word of God the cleansing effect of water (Ps. 119:9) as did Jesus (Jn 15:3). It is possible that the bronze laver served as a type of the cleansing effect of God’s word, that is, His continual, “maintenance” work of purifying the hearts of His kingdom of priests who daily render services of praise and thanksgiving. But this word must be closely related to the work of the Holy Spirit, who is also likened to active streams of living water (Jn 7:38-39). By the Spirit, we are able to comprehend God’s word (Heb 3:7; 9:8; 10:15; 1 Pet 1:2, 12, 22; 1 Jn 4:2-3. 13). By the Spirit, we are sanctified in our salvation through the truth of the gospel (2 Th 2:13-14).
The law of Moses provided no “once-and-for-all washing” that sanctified and purified someone from all their sins. Like most of the other fixtures and services associated with worship, the statutes of the bronze basin were to be followed forever by each succeeding generation of Levitical priests (Ex 30:21). The repetitive nature of washing in this case can be compared to the repetitive nature of sacrifices. And if continual sacrifices didn’t remove sin and continual washing didn’t purify the heart, then continual Sabbath-keeping did not provide rest. And if all OT sacrifices can be undone by one sacrifice and all OT washings are undone by one spiritual cleansing, then all Sabbaths are done away by the everlasting rest in Christ (Heb 4:3). By grace, through faith, we have been cleansed of all our sins. “For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed (καθαρός) from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:9). At the same time, we are encouraged to “wash” daily by the word of God and His Spirit: “having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse (καθαρίζω) ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). And after death, our sanctification and purification from sin will finally be complete.
The bronze laver is another OT ritual that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and like the other Mosaic ceremonies, there is a component of fulfillment yet to come. The surety of the “not yet” part of our spiritual washing and purity is made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who seals these promises to us. Were this not the case, we must, whenever we sin, renew ourselves in purity with another baptistic ritual. Like the Sabbath, the fulfillment of the bronze laver by Jesus Christ has both an “already” and “not yet” aspect. If we were to apply the same rule to the basin that Sabbatarians apply to the Sabbath (that a ritual law with a “not yet” aspect should still be observed to the letter), then we should continue to perform ritual cleansings in church to remind us of the day to come when we, like the cleansed priests prepared for ministry, don our white robes of holiness (Rev 7:9-17: 19:8). However, through Christ’s work of redemption, we are forever cleansed for His service, forever free from the guilt and dominion of sin, and forever at peace and in fellowship with God (that is, sacrifices, washings, and rests are fulfilled). The fulfillment of these types is complete, even though there is more to be realized. As Greidanus explains: “Even fulfilled promises can still point forward toward the future. The Old Testament acquaints us with the concept of multiple fulfillments or progressive fulfillment, that is, the initial fulfillment may hold the promise of further fulfillment.”[vi] This is true of figures and types as well.
This study would not be complete without mentioning the foot washing of the disciples sometime near Jesus’ final Passover. This final week relates Christ’s preparation for His ultimate sacrifice, but there was still much to convey to His disciples. Like the three washings described in the Pentateuch, Jesus uses this foot-washing episode to describe three new covenant concepts: 1) of spiritual readiness, 2) of priesthood readiness, and 3) of priesthood maintenance. The primary lesson for the disciples was His example: that if Jesus being Lord would wash the feet of his disciples, then this same attitude of humility should guide those who follow Him. In this spirit the disciples were cleansed, clothed and anointed to humbly serve the flock, by caring for them and being willing to give their lives for them. This is what Jesus was about to do on the cross on behalf of his sheep. The link between foot-washing and His sin payment demonstrates the profound love for His own and the cleansing of their sins by water and by blood.
Washing 1. Potentially Clean—Spiritual Readiness. Jesus washes the feet of all the disciples, including Judas Iscariot. This is reminiscent of the washing performed by the Israelites in preparation for the Lord’s descent upon Mount Sinai (Ex 19). Many were called, but few were chosen (Matt 22:14). Shortly after the Israelites readied themselves by washing, God both amazed and terrified them with a demonstration of his power and might. In spite of this, many refused to obey God and suffered the consequences of unbelief (Ex 32:28; Heb 3:12). The warning in Hebrews applies—should one fall away following an experience of God’s goodness and grace, they will not benefit from another washing of repentance (Heb 4:2; 6:4-6). This acknowledges the gruesome end of many Israelites who previously washed, but whose disobedience revealed the true alliance of their heart.
Washing 2. Salvation clean—Priesthood Readiness. The foot-washing was for His followers: those who were privileged to understand through the gift of the Holy Spirit the teachings of Christ. For these disciples, the foot-washing signified their salvific spiritual cleansing. “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (Jn 13:10). The eleven disciples were called and chosen, cleansed and sanctified for their apostolic work. True believers are also declared clean by virtue of their faith in the sin-payment made by Jesus (2 Pet 1:9; cf. Act 10:9-16). Washing clothes did not actually sanctify; foot-washing was not efficacious by itself; neither does the act of baptism ensure the cleansing of the heart from sin. We are clean when we believe on the word of God (Jn 15:3). However, Jesus, as the Prophet who should come to replace Moses (Deut 18:15), will wash and sanctify a kingdom of priests to serve Him in His heavenly sanctuary (Heb 9:11). These priests will ultimately be clothed in righteousness, though they at this present time, wear common garments.
Washing 3. Ministry clean—Priesthood Maintenance. Having declared that some disciples were already clean, Jesus states that He must wash only their feet. This corresponds to the use of the bronze laver that priests availed themselves of during ministry. “Individuals who have been cleansed by Christ atoning work will doubtless need to have subsequent sins washed away, but the fundamental cleansing can never be repeated.”[vii] Jesus dons the linen apron of a servant. Dress indicates the status of the person, so Jesus assumes the dress of a lowly servant. This is in juxtaposition to the attire of the highest religious official in Israel: the high priest whose duty was to labor on behalf of the people of Israel. Jesus, of course, is the high priest after the order of Melchizedek, but He is adorned with a simple linen wrap and prepared to serve rather than be served (Matt 20:28). Jesus revealed this just a week before the current High Priest, Caiaphas, would interrogate Him and allow Him to be slapped for answering truthfully (Jn 18:19-23). This intimate gathering with the apostles is characterized by intense personal instruction aimed at keeping these disciples focused on their calling. Jesus’ instructions and teachings, and even His enigmatic sayings, will be brought to remembrance by the Holy Spirit (Jn 13:7; Lk 12:11-12). It will be Jesus Christ’s teachings that provide direction for the church, and His word will be instrumental in saving generations from their sins, and His word will be necessary for sanctifying future generations for daily living (1 Jn 1:9-10).
[i] Estrada, Justin E. “The Bronze Basin” Tabletalk, December 2017, p. 17.
[ii] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1997), p. 108.
[iii] Skarsaune, Oskar. In The Shadow of the Temple (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), p. 353-375.
[iv] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1997), p. 201.
[v] Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol 1. p. 346. (Ex 38:8)
[vi] Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 208.
[vii] Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: Apollos, 1991), p. 465.