The mikveh and uncleanness
The Torah speaks of many kinds of washings that were to be done to remove ceremonial uncleanness from a Jew. We modern Westerners struggle to grasp the idea of cleanness today, and so we tend to overlook these passages, but ceremonial cleanness surely played a big part in the thinking of First Century Jews.
In Jesus’ days, the Temple was surrounded by several large pools used for pilgrims to immerse themselves to become clean before entering the Temple. Many synagogues had small pools designed for the same purpose, called a mikveh. A few homes were elaborate enough to have a private mikveh.
Thus, when John the Baptist came baptizing, he would have been seen by the Jews as washing away their uncleanness.
Under the Torah, a Jew would become unclean by touching a corpse or leprosy, by menstruating or having an ejaculation, or by using certain earthenware. But the prophets referred to Israel herself as “unclean” for following idols —
Jeremiah 2:20–24 (ESV)
20 “For long ago I broke your yoke
and burst your bonds;
but you said, ‘I will not serve.’
Yes, on every high hill
and under every green tree
you bowed down like a whore.
21 Yet I planted you a choice vine,
wholly of pure seed.
How then have you turned degenerate
and become a wild vine?
22 Though you wash yourself with lye
and use much soap,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,
declares the Lord God.
23 How can you say, ‘I am not unclean,
I have not gone after the Baals’?
Look at your way in the valley;
know what you have done—
a restless young camel running here and there,
24 a wild donkey used to the wilderness,
in her heat sniffing the wind!
Who can restrain her lust?
None who seek her need weary themselves;
in her month they will find her.
Lamentations 1:8–9 (ESV)
8 Jerusalem sinned grievously;
therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans
and turns her face away.
9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
she took no thought of her future;
therefore her fall is terrible;
she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed!”
In the Torah, worshiping idols is declared as a means of making one unclean, and by Thus, by the time of Jesus, “unclean” was a term that included any rebellion against God.
As a result, in the First Century, Gentiles were considered unclean, since they were idol worshipers.
Thus, to require a Jew to be baptized implies that had been unclean, indeed, the moral equivalents of the idolaters who sinned so greatly that God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to overthrow Jerusalem.
Just as the word “repent” is a call to leave a corrupt generation and enter God’s kingdom, baptism paints a picture of an unclean people who need God to wash away their uncleanness.
Baptism further represents the cleansing that the prophets promised —
(Eze 36:24–29 ESV) 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you.
Notice that the cleansing promised by God is with “clean water” and the giving of the Spirit. Peter’s sermon is a close parallel to this important Kingdom passage.
Just so, Zechariah promises cleansing by a flowing fountain —
(Zech 12:10–13:2 ESV) 10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. …
13 “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.
2 “And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness.
The water and the Spirit
Peter’s listeners would have also associated the waters of baptism with the giving of the Spirit, as the association of the Spirit with water runs throughout the Old Testament.
Isaiah 32:14–16 (ESV)
14 For the palace is forsaken,
the populous city deserted;
the hill and the watchtower
will become dens forever,
a joy of wild donkeys,
a pasture of flocks;
15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,
and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.
16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
Isaiah 44:3–4 (ESV)
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.
4 They shall spring up among the grass
like willows by flowing streams.
Indeed, Peter had just quoted Joel, in which the Spirit is to be “outpoured,” referring to the Spirit as water — a powerful metaphor among a desert people where water was both life giving and precious.
And so we see why Jesus referred to the Spirit as “living water” in John 4 and 7. Whether the Spirit is pictured as falling from heaven or being drawn from a stream, the Spirit is pictured as the source of life and refreshment.
Of course, it would be hard to miss the image of John’s baptism. Although many of the pilgrims in Jerusalem would have never been to the Jordan, much less been baptized by John, they would have heard the stories. After all, many considered John a true prophet, proving that the Spirit of prophecy had finally returned to Judea.
John pointed to the Messiah who was to come, and so Jesus’ adoption of John’s baptism would show continuity with John’s preaching and a claim to be the promised Messiah. Baptism in the name of Jesus therefore meant faith in Jesus as the Messiah promised by John.
John’s baptism was for repentance, that is, a turning toward God in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. Thus, Peter’s call for baptism also signaled that the Kingdom had dawned.
Finally, when Peter promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, he is declaring that this baptism fulfills John’s promise that the Messiah would baptize in the Spirit.
In short, the baptisms at Pentecost laid claim to all the promises given by John the Baptist — the Kingdom, the outpoured Spirit, the Messiah — all received by repentance — just as promised by the prophets before John.
In a culture steeped in story, symbol, and typology, it’s no accident that John baptized in the Jordan River. Israel had to pass through the Jordan River to enter the Kingdom following the Exodus. Indeed, the Jordan marked the dividing line between the generation that died in the wilderness for a lack of faith and the generation that believed and so entered Palestine to enter into God’s mission to take the land.
(Deu 3:18–20 ESV) 18 “And I commanded you at that time, saying, ‘The Lord your God has given you this land to possess. All your men of valor shall cross over armed before your brothers, the people of Israel. 19 Only your wives, your little ones, and your livestock (I know that you have much livestock) shall remain in the cities that I have given you, 20 until the Lord gives rest to your brothers, as to you, and they also occupy the land that the Lord your God gives them beyond the Jordan. Then each of you may return to his possession which I have given you.’
Thus, to offer an immersion in the Jordan was to call people to choose between death in the wildness or a life in the Promised Land on mission with God.
(Psa 95:7–11 ESV) 7 For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
Now, the baptism offered by Peter was in Jerusalem, not the Jordan, but the association with John’s baptism and its symbolism would have been unmistakable. Indeed, to “cross the Jordan” and “enter the Kingdom” are virtual synonyms.
In short, Peter was drawing a symbolic line in the sand: either enter the Kingdom by repenting of your lack of faith or else suffer the same faith as the Jews who died in the desert.
- Can you think of other symbols founds in baptism? To this point, we’ve covered only the symbols that would be found in the prophets or the Gospels. What other symbols are found in the scriptures? [Death, burial, resurrection; circumcision; what else?]
- Is it true to the scriptures to think of baptism as itself a test of faith, a willingness to do whatever God commands? Is that how Peter presents it?
- If you were in Peter’s audience, what would have understood baptism to symbolize? Repentance? From what?
- What should be our attitude toward a penitent believer who was baptized by immersion but believing his sins had already been forgiven — at the moment of faith?
- What about a penitent believer baptized as an infant?
- Why do the Churches of Christ baptize by immersion rather than pouring or sprinkling? Do you agree? Does the mode of baptism determine whether it’s effective? Must someone baptized with too little water be re-baptized to be saved? To be part of this congregation?