Ritual washing in the Scriptures is an important subject. Many participate today in what is called Tevilah, which is a full body immersion in a ritual bath called a mikvah according to current rabbinical teaching. We will also present an alternative view of the idea of ritual washing in a procedure where washing (rachatz) was done by pouring water out of vessel over the body before the Second Temple era, as in the case of Bathsheba (2 Sam 11.1-4). Karaite Jews, for instance, use a shower for purification not a mikvah. Be will present both views. We are going to deal with the full body immersion according to current Jewish tradition first, and the place it has in the life of a believer, along with concepts associated with it. Then we will talk about “rachatz” and what was done before the second century BC.
Water purification had an important place in the Scriptures and it was done for many reasons. Since there is no Temple or priesthood, many of these reasons are temporarily suspended, but there remains other reasons for it that we will explain. What is going to presented first is the idea of tevilah (immersion) as developed by the rabbis after the second century BC and contained in oral traditions. These practices have been incorporated into the life of a believer in Yeshua even today.
Water purification is something that is acted out in faith. Today, the act is done in a mikvah which is a ritual bath or pool. There are not a lot of details about the mikvah in the Torah but it is to be filled with “mayim chaim” or living water. A tevilah can be done in a lake, stream or river also. The subject is fully immersed in the water, with no clothes, and a blessing is said when the person comes up out of the water. In the first century there was a custom that said when a person wanted to follow a particular rabbi (teacher) and the rabbi accepted you, the rabbi would supervise you in a tevilah in his name, or purpose.
Immersions were also done with a particular purpose in mind. For instance, by the First Century, some Pharisees and lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves by rejecting John’s immersion of repentance (Luke 7.30). We see this practice in many places in the Gospels and Epistles, and we will touch on this later. As the Faith became more “gentilized”, immersions lost it original meaning in many ways and it became an initiation into what was being called Christianity. But, the purpose of this article is to present immersions in its first century setting and meaning and to present some concepts along the way. However, this does not mean that full body immersions were always done the way they did it during the Second Temple period, as we shall see later in Part 3. In fact, no mikvaot have ever been found before the second century BC.
Many people do not understand several things concerning ritual purification and until they do, it will be hard to explain this concept. We need to know what is called the “promise of the Father”( Acts 1.4) and what the “basar (gospel)” really is (see the article called “The Basar” on this site). We also need to see what role purification plays in the life of a believer today and how it relates to our “change of status” in the Lord.
In John 3.22-25 we have the word “purifications” that were done at that time. Water purification set aside or sanctified the flesh (Heb 9.9-13). It opened the way for a believer to receive the benefits of the Kingdom of God, but it did not cleanse the conscience (Heb 9.14). Water alone was insufficient for spiritual cleansing (Job 9.30; Jer 2.22).
Immersions are ceremonial, like the korbanot (sacrifices) and it is a picture of resurrection and new life. It is a matter of the heart and proper intent is required. We know that Paul did not see it as essential to salvation or he would have immersed everyone that he could, but he didn’t (1 Cor 1.15-17). It is called an elementary principle of the Faith (Heb 6.1-2) and notice it is in the plural, so there are several types. Even though water purification is a righteous act (mitzvah), it needs to be done with the right intent or the person is just getting wet.
Faith is required (Acts 16.31; John 11.26; John 3.16). Good works, or righteous acts, glorify God (Matt 5.13-48) but if works could make a man righteous then one must surpass even the Pharisees and they weren’t making it either. If we think keeping the letter of the Law saves us, then God will hold us accountable to the intent of the Law, as he sees it. John had an immersion of repentance, getting the people ready for Messiah and the Kingdom of God. But why did the people who were immersed into John’s immersion have to be immersed again (Acts 19.1-7).
Immersion was required to enter the Second Temple, even if you were already ritually pure. You entered to participate in the Temple benefits (services, prayers, experiencing what God had for you, etc). We know that Yeshua was sent by the Father, as his agent, to restore that which was lost and to bring the benefits of the Kingdom of God (God’s rule in the lives of men). We enter into those benefits through Yeshua.
Now, “in the name of Yeshua” means “in the power or authority of what that name represents” (Exo 3.15). It means by what power or authority you do something. A policeman acts in the name of the law that empowered him. He can stop a car or a train with a wave of his hand.
Yeshua has gone ahead of us (like the Ark in Josh 3.1-17) and is leading us into the benefits of the Kingdom (Mic 2.12-13). There was an expectation among the people that when Messiah came there would be an eschatological immersion (John 1.21-25). People flocked to John’s immersions at the Jordan because they were in expectation of the Messiah (Luke 3.15). The Kingdom of God was here and they were getting ready.
Man’s generations were diminished because of Adam’s sin, and Yeshua is the first one with restored power and authority (second Adam). After his resurrection, this will be available to all who believe in him through faith (John 7.37-39). Acts 2.38-39 tells when the experience begins and the restoration is available to all.
When the Scriptures record that that people were immersed in the name of Yeshua, it is not a formula. It means to be immersed in the “power and authority of” that name and what it represents in relation to the Kingdom of God (Acts 4.7).
Acts 19.1-7 proves that immersion is not necessary for salvation. They were already believers (v 2) and immersed into John’s immersion of repentance, getting ready for Messiah. They already had a part in the first resurrection of the just, but were missing out on the benefits of what an immersion in Yeshua’s name would bring. They didn’t know that the Ruach (see the article on Shekinah, Ruach and Kivod on this site) had come yet (v 2).
Now they knew about the Spirit because John taught it, what they were missing was the benefits of the Kingdom. They had not heard about Yeshua, but when they did, they were immersed again in his name, power and authority and the Holy Spirit fell upon them (v 6). So, immersion is not linked to salvation, but to it is linked to receiving the benefits of the Kingdom of God. Yeshua is the “door” through which we walk to enter into these benefits (John 10.9).
We will pick up here in Part 2.