In Matthew 3 we are introduced to John the Baptist. In Luke we will learn that John the Baptist was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-20, 39-80). John’s mother was cousin to Mary the mother of Jesus. John was a Levite and he was of the Priestly line, however God had other plans for John. As it says in Matthew 3:3: This is he that was spoken by the prophet Isaiah saying, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1.
Contrary to what many Christians think (especially Baptists), baptism did not originate with John. What we call baptism is actually the Jewish custom of “cleansing” as stated in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament.). Ceremonial cleansings have been part of the Jewish written law and oral traditions for millennia.
The Torah contains purification rituals relating to menstruation, childbirth, sexual relations, nocturnal emission, unusual bodily fluids, skin disease, death, and animal sacrifices. Modern mainstream Judaism is based on a combination of the Torah and Jewish oral law, including the Mishnah and Gemarrah (together comprising the Talmud) as well as other rabbinic commentarie. This oral law specifies rules for ritual purity, including requirements relating to excretory functions, meals, and waking. These Biblical and oral laws generally require a water-based ritual washing or immersion in order to remove any impurity. In some instances,simply washing hands is all that is required, but other instances require the full immersion of the head. When full immersion is required, an additional requirement of un-drawn water is used. Un-drawn water is water either from a natural river/spring or is water from a special bath or Mikvah which contains rain water.
Jews consider the Tumat HaMet (“The impurity of death”), coming into contact with a human corpse, the ultimate impurity,. This impurity cannot be purified through the waters of the mikvah. The impurity of Tumat HaMet can only be purified by sprinkling of the ashes of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. since neither the Temple in Jerusalem nor the red heifer is currently in existence, this ritual cannot be performed. All are assumed to possess the impurity of death.] However,a Kohen of the priestly class cannot intentionally touch a dead body, nor come too near graves in a Jewish cemetery.
Ancient Israelites and contemporary Orthodox Jews, and some conservative Jews continue to observe these regulations, except of course the regulations associated with Temple sacrifice because the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists. The most common observance of ceremonial cleansing is the hand washing rituals.
Unmarried women have immersed in the mikveh prior to their wedding. Of the full immersion rituals currently carried out, is the immersion rituals related to the nidda in which menstruating women are required to avoid contact with her husband until after she has immersed herself in a mikvah of living water seven days after her cycle has ceased. These ceremonial washings were used by women in the Jewish culture for 3500 years, but for a time were discontinued because women thought they were demeaning. Today however, these rituals are seen as a way that women are able to celebrate their femininity. In December 2006 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of Conservative Judaism re-affirmed this traditional requirement that Conservative women ritually immerse following menstruation. In recent years a form of cleansing for women called Mikvah has returned to Jewish culture. Click here to learn more.
This Jewish tradition is the predecessor to Christian Baptism and gives us further insight into the baptism’s significance. Ritual immersion is the total submersion of the body in a pool of water. Immersion, tevillah, is the common core component of every [traditional] Jewish conversion process, for male and female, adult and child, ignoramus and scholar. Without immersion a proselyte cannot be accepted into the Jewish religious community as a Jew.
Immersion serves several religious functions. In the days of the ancient temple, anyone who wanted to be included inside the Temple grounds had to be immersed in the mikveh. The law required every person inside the Temple grounds be spiritually pure for them to be part of the Temple.
A major function of immersion in the mikveh is for conversion to Judaism. The sages declared that for a gentile to become a Jew, he or she must undergo the identical process by which Jewish ancestors converted. As Jews performed immersion at Mt. Sinai to complete the conversion process they had begun with circumcision as they left Egypt, so converts in every age must immerse in a mikveh.
Symbol of New Birth
Immersion was not for the purpose of using the water’s physical cleansing properties. The submersing in water expressly symbolized the change-of-soul through the spirit. No other symbolic act can embrace a person. In immersion water touches every part of the body just as God’s presence swallows up the old and gives new birth in the new.
In the Jewish mikveh as well as the Christian baptism, immersion symbolizes a person’s cleansing of past deeds. The convert is like a newborn child. The spiritual cleansing prepares the convert to confront God, life, and people with a fresh spirit and new eyes–it washes away the past, leaving only the future. .
In both the Jewish Mikveh and Christian baptism, there is something deeper than mere cleansing of the past. It marks the beginning of the ascent to an elevated religious state. Anthropologists call this threshold of higher social status as “liminality.” The liminal state is common to virtually all persons and societies, ancient and modern, and it marks a move to an altered status or to a life transition. Entering adulthood from adolescence, for example, requires a tunnel of time, a rite of passage, a liminal state that acknowledges by symbolic acts the stark changes taking place in one’s self-identity, behavior, and attitude.
If we in our immersion truly understood it’s power, we would, as Jesus tried to explain in John 3, truly be born again.