Baptism or Immersion?

Baptismal site at the Jordan river

Baptism or Immersion? – The Old Covenant Background and the New Covenant Application

(Bible quotes have been taken from the Tree of Life Version, which evokes a Jewish flavour with its use of certain significant words and expressions)

As Christians, we generally think baptism is unique to our faith, and that it started when John the Baptist went around the wilderness of Judea calling people to repent and turn back to God. In reality, baptism is a biblical ritual that has been practiced regularly by all of Israel since the time of Moses.

The word baptism comes from the Greek word baptizo, which means a thorough change of condition accomplished through immersion, meaning the submersion of the whole body in water. That’s why some Christian traditions, including early Baptists, have used the name John the Immerser instead of John the Baptist. It’s an apt title, as it conveys the act of going underwater much more clearly than the transliterated word baptism.

That act of going underwater was a crucial part of life in biblical Israel long before the time of Jesus. Let’s take a look at the role it played. But first, here are a few relevant words in Hebrew.

The word for total immersion is tevilah, and the place where the immersion is carried out is called mikvah, which means gathering of waters. Interestingly, mikvah has the same Hebrew root letters as the word for hope, giving it a spiritual significance.

The law of Moses commanded immersion for ritual purification: tevilah marks a change from being tamay (impure or unfit for the presence of God) to being tahor (pure). It was required in a range of life events:

  • Men who entered the Temple had to pass through the mikvah. Without the Temple, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in modern times enter the mikvah before Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew). Some even do so every day before their morning prayers.
  • Anyone who became ritually unclean through contact with a dead or diseased person had to be immersed in water before re-entering the Temple (Leviticus 14: 1-4,7,9).
  • A tevilah was to take place when a leper had been declared healed by the priest. That is why Jesus asked the ten lepers in Luke 17 to go show themselves to the priest so that, after the immersion, they could return to the community.
  • A woman who completed her menstrual cycle needed to be immersed before resuming sexual relations with her husband (Leviticus 15:19-24).
  • Today, one of the most widely practiced uses of the mikvah is in the pre-wedding preparation of the bride and the groom. It is a way of becoming ritually pure before the marriage.

To us as Christians, the mikvah is significant for a number of reasons, which come directly from the Jewish understanding of tevilah. First and foremost, the mikvah symbolises spiritual cleansing. The Apostle Peter tells us:

Immersion now brings you to safety—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but a pledge to God of a good conscience—through the resurrection of Messiah Yeshua.

(1 Peter 3:21)

The Prophet Ezekiel also uses the symbol of cleansing waters for spiritual renewal:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean from all your uncleanness and from all your idols.

(Ezekiel 36:25)

The term born again is also related to immersion and has Jewish implications. According to the Talmud, the Jewish oral law, when a Gentile man wants to convert to Judaism, he must go through circumcision and immersion, while a woman needs to only be immersed. When Gentile converts go down into the waters of mikvah, they leave behind their pagan ways and come out of the water as a new-born child. In Judaism, the mikvah is symbolic of the mother’s womb, which is called rechem in Hebrew. This comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for mercyrahamah. So, in a sense, immersion is like re-entering the womb, the place of mercy, and emerging from the waters is like being born again. Does the analogy sound familiar to the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus in John 3?

Immersion in a mikvah also represents death and resurrection, and here we are on familiar ground. When we are immersed into Jesus/Yeshua, we will rise up to a new life. Paul gives a good explanation of this in Romans 6:3-4:

Or do you not know that all of us who were immersed into Messiah Yeshua were immersed into His death? Therefore, we were buried together with Him through immersion into death—in order that just as Messiah was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

As already mentioned, the word mikvah has the same root letters as the word hope. When believers are immersed in the waters of the mikvah, they have the hope of a new life, a new beginning in Jesus. The Apostle Paul speaks about this hope a lot in his letters, encouraging believers to hold on to their faith in Jesus.

Finally, coming back to John the Baptist/Immerser – his message was clear:

Turn away from your sins, for the kingdom of heaven is near! 

(Matthew 3:2)

People responded to his call: “Confessing their sins, they were being immersed by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3:6). John’s message of ‘turn and repent’ is the message of teshuvahthe Hebrew word for the return to God. This is the message that sounds through both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

Jesus’ final words of instruction make it evident that tevilah/immersion plays a significant part in making all the Gentile nations into disciples (talmidim in Hebrew) of the Jewish Messiah.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and the Son (Yeshua) and the Holy Spirit (Ruach ha-Kodesh) …

(Matthew 28:19)

May we all experience great joy as we are cleansed and transformed by the Holy Spirit, having gone through the waters of immersion.