Yeshua and Mikvah - Matthew 3:1-17
An old Jewish man asked on his deathbed to be baptised and convert to Christianity. His family was shocked. "Why would you do such a thing?" they asked. "I know I'm about to die," he replied, "and I figure, better one of them than one of us!'"
This is an example of how baptism is viewed, it is considered the ultimate act of betrayal. But is it? What are the roots of "baptism" and did Yeshua undergo this ritual? If He did, it was a pre-Christian Church act so what was it, can we call it baptism in today's sense?
The Origins of Mikvah.Mikvah (baptism by immersion) was a common religious practice for Jewish people, it was called the Mikvah' - a ritual washing for ritual purification. Those who served in the Temple had to undergo this ceremony to be acceptable before God to serve in the Temple, women after menstruation, after touching dead bodies, after being ill etc.. Leviticus 15 is an important chapter containing detailed instructions on who should undergo this ritual mikvah.
Three Hebrew words are used in Leviticus chapter 15 for ritual washing - (Rahatz, Shataf, Kabas) First is "to wash, bathe" this is only used for people. Second "to wash, rinse, overflow, engulf, rinse or wash off" This is used once in Leviticus 15 (v11) for rinsing hands. Third "to wash, to be washed out" this is used only for things, clothes etc. When this ritual is over the person is declared to be - (Tahor) to be ceremonially pure. This was a very important part of Israelite life in Tabernacle and Temple times: Leviticus 11:25; 14:8,9,47; 16:26,28; 17:15, Numbers 19:10.
Did Yeshua undergo Mikvah?
Mikvah - the ritual washing by immersion common to ancient Biblical Jewish tradition - a ritual still practised today by religious and orthodox Jewish people. We must remember that Yeshua was not a Baptist, a Pentecostal, a Roman Catholic or an Anglican - He was born a Jewish man and live as a Jewish man. What was Yeshua called by those listening to His teaching, was it Pastor, Vicar, Priest, Guru, Elder or Brother Yeshua - No, none of the above, He was called Rabbi. (Mark 9:5) Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi" John 3:2 "This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." He didn't wear a dog-collar or Anglican surplus, he wore what His contemporaries wore. He looked like a normal Jewish rabbi, (that was half of the problem, He didn't look different and that's why it was difficult to believe that He was the Divine Messiah).
Yeshua was a Jew among Jews, He underwent a public Mikvah as He starts His public ministry Matthew 3:1-17. He was fulfilling all righteousness, as the perfect human, the perfect Jew, He complied with all God's Torah. He was about to minister as the Great High Priest and fulfilled legal requirement before taking up office. This was not John's baptism of repentance, this was "the Mikvah of Priestly Service". John knew that Yeshua need not repent, hence he was unworthy to loosen His sandals! (more later in "Why Yeshua's Mikvah"?)
Many scholars believe that John's "general" baptism was Judaism's proselyte baptism. To become a proselyte to Judaism one had to do three things: Circumcision, Mikvah and Sacrifice.
This was total immersion in water as a symbol of purification. In fact both types of Mikvah: proselyte and purity were total immersion and marked a ritual purification of prior uncleanness. In the Mishnah it is recorded that the best place for a Mikvah was in a spring or flowing river, hence the great crowds following John the Baptist to the River Jordan.
Did Baptism just drop from Heaven?
Interestingly, the religious leaders did not complain as they do today about Messianic Jews being baptised! We must remember that John the baptist was also a Jew, not a Baptist in today's denominational sense! You often get the impression that Christianity just dropped from heaven, shrink-wrapped and delivered to the doorstep of "the Church" as we have it today! That is not the case, there are OT Jewish roots to every ordinance of the Church, including Baptism.
This was still not NT baptism, in fact John's baptism bound its subjects to repentance, and not to faith in Yeshua as Divine Messiah. It was not administered in the name of the One Triune God, and those whom John baptised were re-baptised by Paul Acts 18:24-19:7.
Yeshua institutes baptism as part of the Great Commission. Matthew 28:19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" Both John and Yeshua take the Mikvah ceremony and by degrees show what it really pointed to: Ultimate purity in the coming Messiah. In Luke 3:7 a critique is addressed to the crowd who came to be baptised. So it seems that the Pharisees and Sadducees came with the intention of being baptised by the first prophet to minister in Israel for over 400 years. They were caught up in the popularity of this movement.
John was a personality, revered as a prophet by the people. His austere manner and charismatic persona appealed to popular religious images of a prophet. This was the kind of man that they could even believe was the promised Messiah (Luke 3:15). He even look like the 2 Kings 1:8 description. "And they answered him, He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite." John was not a mad-monk wandering aimlessly in the desert (that is a later Gentile interpretation). He lived the rural rather than the urban life. (Eremos) = wilderness, he would have lived and worked in a rural community when he was not baptising. John hints at the true spiritual meaning of baptism in Matthew 2:11-12. The real meaning should never be held ransom to the literal image. 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 "They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea."
Here is the metaphorical meaning of "Baptizo" it meant a change of identity. The Israelites were not literally baptised into the cloud and sea, they Egyptian soldiers on the other hand were, and drowned. "Pre-Baptizo" they rebelled against Moses, "post-Baptizo" they were obedient to Moses. The true meaning of Mikvah had been obscured, John lifts the veil of confusion, Yeshua brings the ultimate meaning. Yeshua uses interactive methodology' to teach. Communion (from Pesach) uses symbolic foods, Mikvah uses a symbolic act of immersing oneself into water as a dynamic symbol. The symbol becomes meaningless if the act becomes more important that the meaning.
Nonetheless the act has importance. Romans 6:3-4 "or don't you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." We identify ourselves with His death and resurrection and obey His great commission as we humble ourselves in obedience and undergo this mikvah, ritual immersion into Messiah Yeshua.
Why Yeshua's Mikvah?
So why did Yeshua need to be baptised, if He is the ultimate expression of what the Mikvah pointed to? Yeshua was about 30 years old (Luke 3:23) This was also the age that the Levites began their Temple ministry. Yeshua our Great High Priest wants "to fulfil all righteousness." This is to say that the Son of God willingly submits to God the Father's law code for priestly service. Here we see the humility of Yeshua, humility is a mark of the kingdom of heaven that John the Baptist preached about. John also bore this mark as he recognised himself as not worthy to officiate at the mikvah of the Messiah. Yeshua is about to start His public ministry and in receiving John's mikvah He puts His seal of approval on what John was preaching and affirming John's reclaiming of repentance of sin as a central, but forgotten significance of the mikvah.
Numbers 19 shows the importance of the mikvah ritual in priestly service. Leviticus 16:4 shows that Aaron, the High Priest must undergo mikvah before wearing the sacred clothing and entering the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. In the Mishnah (which records traditions and practices from this time) it is recorded that the mikvah was compulsory for all Levites serving in the Temple.
As Yeshua completes the mikvah ceremony He prays (Luke 3:21) the heavens open "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." This affirmation served Yeshua well as 40 days in the wilderness and tempting from Satan followed. This Heavenly voice was a full Psalm 2 declaration that Yeshua was the Divine Messiah. John the Baptist understood this and testifies to it John 1:33-34 "I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God."
We see the humility of Yeshua as He does God's will. True baptism is a sign of humility as we submit to the will of God, leave the old rebellious life behind and rise to a new life in Messiah Yeshua. We are bought with a price, lets proudly bear our owners mark and live for Him.
by Richard Gibson
©2001 Leeds Messianic Fellowship