“Does Ezekiel 36:25 provide scriptural proof for the practice of sprinkling as a form of baptism? A Roman Catholic friend of mine argues that it does. Here is what the verse says: ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.’”
In order to answer the question adequately, one must note the background of the passage and the nature of the language employed.
First, the historical circumstances have to do with the fact that the kingdom of Judah was languishing in Babylonian captivity. News had finally reached the captives that Jerusalem had fallen (cf. 33:21). The date commonly given for the city’s fall, after a horrible siege of just over two and one-half years, is July 18, 586 B.C. (Jack Fingegan, Handbook of Bible Chronology — Revised, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998, p. 259).
When Ezekiel learned of Jerusalem’s destruction, he was given a series of prophecies relative to the future of his people. These oracles involved the nation’s ultimate restoration to their homeland, but then, more importantly, a vision of the Messianic age — when their most glorious hope would be realized (Chapters 33-48).
Chapter 36 has several points of emphasis. The narrative begins by figuratively addressing the “mountains of Israel” (v. 1), which, in recent years had been occupied by the nation’s enemies, principally the Edomites (see 35:1-15). In a manner of speaking, the land was to rejoice because “my people Israel” will “soon come home” (v. 8, ESV). The sins of the people (e.g., idol worship and human sacrifice), that had “defiled” the land and precipitated the captivity, are rehearsed (16-20). Deliverance from this judgment, however, would eventually come (21-38).
Figurative Language Employed
In promising relief from the rigors of captivity, the prophet employs a series of dramatic figures of speech. For instance, the Lord would remove their “heart of stone” and give them a new heart (26). Surely no one perceives this as a literal “heart transplant”!
It is in this connection that Ezekiel declares that God would “sprinkle clean water” upon them, and they would be “cleansed” (25).
The sprinkling with “clean water” was merely a symbol, borrowed from the cleansing rituals of the law of Moses (cf. Ex. 30:17-21; Lev. 14:52; Num. 19:7-19), that pointed to the forgiveness that Israel could enjoy from the “filthiness” of their idol worship (25b).
Many scholars — especially those not under the sway of premillennial ideology — believe that the latter portion of this chapter, by means of the graphic figures utilized, pictures the joys and blessings of the Gospel dispensation.
This does not mean, however, that the “clean water” here mentioned is a reference to baptism. As Professor H. L. Ellison notes, “to equate [clean water] with baptism is to forget that this is a mere symbol also” (Ezekiel: the man and his message, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956, p. 127).
Not even Adam Clarke, a Methodist who believed in sprinkling, would venture to make the application to baptism. He felt that “water” merely “typified” the influences of the Holy Spirit.
Besides that, it hardly reflects a responsible exegesis to contend that the case for sprinkling, as a form of baptism in this age, is dependent upon a passage in the book of Ezekiel, when there is no supportive data for that proposition within the New Testament itself. Christian baptism is a burial in water, and nothing else (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12).
Even Roman Catholic scholars make startling admissions regarding this matter. Bertrand Conway wrote:
“Catholics admit that immersion brings out more fully the meaning of the Sacrament (Rom. vi, 3, 4; Col. ii.12; Tit. iii. 5; Eph. v. 27 [sic — 26], and that for twelve centuries it was the common practice” (The Question Box, San Francisco: Catholic Truth Society, 1929, p. 240).
Another Catholic scholar, J.J. Ignatius Dollinger, wrote that in the early church baptism was “by immersion of the whole person, which is the only meaning of the New Testament word. A mere pouring or sprinkling was never thought of” (The First Age of Christianity and of the Church (London, 1887, Vol. II, p. 183).
There is no biblical support of the practice of baptismal “sprinkling” — not in Ezekiel 36:25, nor elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures.