Some old questions surfaced as I started re-reading the Gospel of John. Why is baptism so important? Why was John’s ministry of “making straight the paths” so important? What did these things mean to the people of that time? I have begun researching these things. This post is to share the beginning of that research with you, perhaps bringing some fresh light to our modern understanding of the practice of baptism.
The Jewish people had been practicing a variety of ritual purification baths since the giving of the Mosaic law, though the practice of these purifications changed over time. Full immersion purification emerged in the hundred years before Christ, becoming familiar and common by Jesus’ time. Poorer villages in that era would build purification bath before constructing a synagogue because it was considered so essential to worship.
“Tevilah” means immersion in a ritual bath, and the bath itself is a “mikvah” or “mikveh,” literally meaning “a gathering of the waters.” The plural is “mikva’ot“. The Torah mentions many ways to become unclean, along with many ways to ritually purify. Mikvah was included in all purification rituals. One could not come into God’s presence in an impure state.
Like so many of the oral traditions raised to the level of Law by the pharisees, the complete submersion of the mikvah appears to have been an interpretive rabbinic consensus from the inter-testament period. The mikvah tradition is recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud, the collection of oral traditions still studied and held by many of the Jewish faith to be as important as the Torah. The Mishnah goes into great detail regarding acceptable size, source, purity and use of mikva’ot. The mikvah must be clean, supplied by “living water” — ideally a spring or flowing well.
This is just a general overview of mikvah, but there is already so much revealed in understanding baptism! Think about how often Jesus talked about being the source of Living Water. From a first-century Jewish perspective, the water and blood flowing out of our Lord’s side when He was pierced is easily recognized and understood in connection with mikvah and the Passover. We are cleansed by the Living Water and the Blood!
Jesus told us He is the fulfillment of the Law. Central to this is understanding Passover with the True Lamb of God. Jesus completed and fulfilled the meaning of the Passover. He gave us the Lord’s Supper as a reminder that spiritual death has passed us over once and for all because of His completed work. Christian baptism is very likely the same.
The mikvah was a common purification ritual under the law, required before coming into into God’s presence. Jesus is our perfect Mikvah of Living Water, and we only need to pass through once to be cleansed of our sin. So complete is this tevilah that the Spirit of God dwells in us. Once purified, we are able to be in His presence everywhere and all the time. We can pray to Him directly without the intervention of a priest or the need to go through ritual purification before doing so. Baptism is a reminder of our Mikvah, our Savior, in the same way the Lord’s Supper is a reminder of our Passover Lamb.