This will be the second part to the teaching concerning ritual purification or washings. There were several types of immersions. There are hand and feet washings (Psa 26.6; Exo 30.21; Deut 21.6-7), washing of of utensils (Num 31.21-34) and even clothing (Lev 15.13-14). But first we will be dealing with the rabbinic view of full body immersions as they have evolved.
When entering the Second Temple, an immersion was required at least by the first century. Did these laws pertain when the First Temple stood? The quick answer is it does not seem likely. We will look at that alternative later on in the teaching. You entered the mikvah bath with your hands held high and it was a way to dry them and it showed you had “clean hands” as referenced in James 4.8. “Lifting up holy hands” in 1 Tim 2.8 seems to come from this Temple practice, but this was also done when the hands were ritually washed. Ritual purification with water included: after bodily discharges; after being cleansed from leprosy (not the disease we know today); touching a dead body and nocturnal emissions.
These immersions were required as long as the Second Temple stood and you were going to enter there, but since there is no Temple, these are temporarily suspended. We know immersions were done when you repented from sin and became a disciple of a particular teacher (Matt 28.19-20; John 3.22-30; Acts 2.37-41) and these are done today. You entered a mikvah (immersion bath), river or lake and you went in about chest deep. You stretched your arms straight out in front of you and bent your knees till you were totally submerged. You went in alone and came out alone, like a resurrection.
There was one who could supervise you, but they did not need to be in the water with you. When it says that John (John 1.25) or Yeshua (John 3.22) were immersing it does not mean they were in the water with the person, laying them in the water and back out like you see today in churches. It just means they were supervising the ceremony. They could watch you from the shore to make sure you were totally under the water. If they could not see you, like in the case of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8.38), he could go out into the water with you. According to the rabbis, the water severs all contact with the outside world and your past. When you came out of the water, it was like being “born again” and you take a breath. The term “born again” predates the first century and Yeshua. This was the first century practice, but was full body immersions always done? We will look into that.
The main concept behind a ritual purification with water is a change of status. The land coming out of the water during Creation in Genesis 1 is seen as an immersion, and this is tied in with Yeshua’s immersion in that it was the “new creation” with the Spirit hovering over him just like in Genesis. The High Priest immersed five times on Yom Kippur. We know proselytes were required to immerse before they were initiated into their new faith. The Essenes practiced daily immersion before noon meals, which were seen as meals consecrated to God.
There were about 40 “mikva’ot” (immersion baths) at the Second Temple, and we see them being used in Acts 2.41 when 3000 people were immersed. However, none were found before the second century BC. Archaeology has found mikva’ot all over Israel, even at Masada, but none from the First Temple period. Mikva’ot for full body immersions seem to have evolved after the second century BC. The first century tevilah is a ceremony of consecration. It required a witness, a benediction, total immersion and a right heart before the Lord. But was that the practice in the Torah?
Water purification is one of the elementary principles of the Faith (Heb 6). Believers today know of immersions in two circumstances, in water and of the Holy Spirit. The Second Temple had rules concerning immersions before you enter which said “None may enter the Temple Court for the service even though he is clean until he has immersed himself.” In Acts 2.40-46, we see believers going to the Temple everyday, so they immersed everyday. Immersions were so important that it was said that if a congregation only had money for either a synagogue building or a mikvah, you built the mikvah. But, was this always the practice? The evidence does not point to full body immersions being the norm before the second century BC.
Synagogues were often built next to rivers (Acts 16.13). Salvation has nothing to do with any water ceremony. People were saved going back to Adam and you must be born from above (Shamayim) anyway. Even the Hebrew word for Heaven teaches this concept because the word is “shamayim” which means “there is water.” Remember, to enter into the Temple and its benefits you went to a mikvah.
Yeshua is greater than the Temple (John 2.19; Matt 12.6) and to enter into the benefits of the Kingdom of God you enter into him by emunah (faith). So, you are immersed in his name because he is the agent of the Kingdom of God, so you enter into his purposes. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can mean in the name of the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. When one believes, he receives the Shekinah (presence of God). When the power of God comes upon you, you receive the Ruach.
In John chapter 1, we see John immersing and the Jews (religious authorities) asked him if he was “the Prophet” of Deut 18.15). There was an eschatological expectation of the Messiah. They asked him if he was “Elijah” because he was expected before the Messiah. John answered “no” to both questions. They then ask why is he immersing. Notice they didn’t say “what are you doing” because immersions have been done for over 1500 years. They asked “why” are you doing this if you are not one of the eschatological characters we are expecting.
If you go to the Mishnah, under “Mikva’ot” (immersion baths) you will see how they immersed in the First Century and all the purity laws. Wars and denominations have sprouted up over this. One wouldn’t think of going to the Temple and offering sacrifices any way you wanted to. You did it a certain wsy and this was called “rightly dividing” and Paul uses that concept when talking about how we should handle the Word of God. Water purifications are the same way. God was communicating something. Our finite minds cannot comprehend the things of God, so he gave us ceremonies to teach us.
The Lord’s Supper is another ceremony that was not initiated by Yeshua, but he defined the terms. It was a meal consecrated to God and these were done before Yeshua. It was not done like it is today. It was not mournful with little pieces of bread and a thimble full of grape juice. It was a meal like Passover or any festival meal. There was plenty of bread, wine, a full meal with blessings and songs. People argue about how to scripturally do this or that, and we haven’t even come close. The people in the first century believed that when the Messiah came there would be an immersion (Zech 12.10-14; 13.1). The rabbis taught that this would be done by the Messiah.
This was the back-ground for the priests question in John 1.21-25. Johns immersion was for repentance. This was always done but now it was “eschatological” because something new was coming. The Malkut Shamayim (Kingdom of Heaven) was coming. The people rehearsed this at every festival. God was going to do something eschatological on these dates. So, they set themselves apart for it by immersing.
The Kingdom of Heaven was opening up again for man. When John was immsersing, the people were in a season called “teshuvah” which lead up to Yom Kippur. One of the idioms for Yom Kippur is “face to face” and that is when the people expected the Messiah to be revealed. After Yeshua resurrects, immersions are not done in preparation of his coming, but to enter into the benefits of the Kingdom of God. The restoration has begun, but not in its fullness yet. That won’t happen till the resurrection/rapture/natzal but we have it “in part.” The Kingdom is his rule, or his movement. The Jews knew all this. They knew of the Father and the Holy Spirit and all of the manifestations. But Yeshua tells the people to go into “all the world” and teach the non-Jews about all of this (Matt 28), a world full of people who had no concept of these things.
Today, many believers have not been “immersed” in all of this either and the enemy has come in and planted many false teachings. But, more and more information is being learned and passed on so people can come into what was being communicated. There is no way to get into all of this here, but in Part 3 of this series, we will touch on some deeper concepts associated with ritual purification.