Salvation 2.0: Part 6.8A: Baptism and the Temple

grace5I’ve been reading Andrew McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective, a fascinating account of early Christian worship. I just got to the chapter on baptism.

Early on, McGowan says,

Ritual baths, or miqva’ot, [mikvehs or mikvehim] have been excavated at the entrance to the Jerusalem temple as it was rebuilt by Herod the Great. Devotees could readily wash in a miqveh as part of a journey to the temple, often undertaken from some considerable distance as pilgrimage. The placement of these pools at a liminal (cf. Latin limen, a threshold) point suggests that they enabled a symbolic transition for those coming to present offerings or to pray; the path to God’s presence and promise, as often before, lay through the water.

The internal architecture of such a miqveh also indicates a sense of movement from impurity to worship. Some had internal dividers or walls that marked a path for the bather to follow, inviting movement into the water in one direction and out the other. Those coming to pray or offer sacrifice were not merely removing symbolic impurity by washing but were walking from everyday life into the different world of the temple. The waters functioned, as in the exodus, both as a boundary between two states of being and as a path from one to the other.

(Kindle Locations 2878-2891). 

So the mikveh (or mikvah or miqveh) washings outside the Temple built by Herod were, at the time of Jesus and the apostles, seen as a pathway into the Temple.

The Torah requires the worshiper to be ritually clean before entering the Temple to offer sacrifice. By the time of Jesus, the scruples of the Jews, especially the Pharisees but also the priests, required a washing even if the worshiper had not touched a corpse or otherwise suffered an unmistakable contact with uncleanness.

Rather, by this time, the idea of ritual uncleanness had come to include Gentiles in general, since they made no effort to be clean and so should be presumed unclean. Of course, this “transitive rule” that touching someone who is unclean will make you unclean is more from rabbinic logic than from the Torah itself.

Moreover, the fear was that the dust of the air might render one unclean, if that dust should have come from a corpse, a Gentile, a menstruating woman, a leper — anyone or anything unclean. This was such a concern that the rabbis had cemeteries placed downwind of cities so that the prevailing winds would not make the residents perpetually unclean.

And so, in their zeal to honor God’s commands regarding ritual cleanness, the idea developed that the priests should always wash before performing their services in the Temple. After all, the penalty for engaging in worship while unclean was death.

Soon, the same logic led to the need for the worshipers to wash. After all, Jews were scattered across the Empire, and Jewish pilgrims to the Temple had been in constant contact with Gentiles or things touched by Gentiles. They would arrive on the shores of Judea certainly unclean. Even Jews who lived in Jerusalem were at risk of encountering the dust touched by the feet of a Roman soldier or many other unclean things. And so the rule was universalized. All who entered the Temple were to be cleansed by washing in water.

Now, that’s not only interesting, it ties to this from N. T. Wright —

[D]uring his Galilean ministry, Jesus acted and spoke as if he was in some sense called to do and be what the Temple was and did. His offer of forgiveness, with no prior condition of Temple-worship or sacrifice, was the equivalent of someone in our world offering as a private individual to issue someone else a passport or a driver’s license. He was undercutting the official system and claiming by implication to be establishing a new one in its place.

N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 65.

Read this story now with early Christian eyes, and what do we find? That the Temple, for all its huge importance and centrality within Judaism, was after all a signpost to the reality, and the reality was the resurrected son of David, who was the son of God. God, in other words, is not ultimately to dwell in a human-built Temple, a timber-and-stone house. God will indeed dwell with his people, allowing his glory and mystery to “tabernacle” in their midst, but the most appropriate way for him to do this will not be through a building but through a human being. And the human being in question will be the Messiah, marked out by resurrection.

This, I submit, is more or less how the early Christians reasoned. Jesus—and then, very quickly, Jesus’ people—were now the true Temple, and the actual building in Jerusalem was thereby redundant. We must remind ourselves, crucially, that the Temple was, after all, the central “incarnational” symbol of Judaism. It was standard Jewish belief, rooted in Scripture and celebrated in regular festivals and liturgy, that the Temple was the place where heaven and earth actually interlocked, where the living God had promised to be present with his people.

N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 110–111.

In other words, Wright asserts that Jesus himself was seen as replacing the Temple. To become a Christian was to enter into the true Temple: Jesus.

And if that’s so, then how would any good Jew enter this newly conceived Temple, the body of Christ? Through a washing in water. Cleansed.

Now, re-picture Pentecost. The Spirit was outpoured in Jerusalem, at the Temple itself. Peter preached Jesus, Lord and Messiah. And 3,000 Jews accepted Jesus — and so they were immersed in the mikvehs placed there to prepare people to enter the Temple.

To the Eastern mind, this is not merely a fortunate coincidence that allowed people to be quickly baptized in large numbers. Rather, the mikvehs were re-purposed to a greater, truer purpose: to cleanse God’s people to enter into the true Temple of God, his Son, Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is where God’s presence is most truly found. Jesus is where sacrifice is most truly made. Jesus is where true forgiveness is found. Jesus is where the true priests of God serve. Jesus is where true worship is performed. Jesus is where the Torah is most truly taught. Jesus is where the poor are most truly cared for. Jesus provides all that the Temple provides — except better.

As a result, the washing that must be received to enter the true Messiah-Temple is a better washing — not just with water but with the Holy Spirit —

(Tit. 3:4-7 ESV)  4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Paul’s language takes on new meaning when viewed in this light.

Thus, baptism joins together the OT prophets’ assertions about the Spirit being “poured” out like water, forgiveness being like a “fountain” of water, with ritual cleansing being required before someone enters the Temple to offer sacrifice.

Then, of course, the church becomes the body of Christ on earth. It is therefore an extension of the true Temple. We enter the Temple when we enter the church. The church is the Temple, because the church is an incarnation of Jesus on earth — which he indwells through his Spirit.

One last point. Jews went to the Temple to worship, but “worship” did not mean “sing out of a hymnbook.” They likely did sing some of the Psalms while there. How could a Jew climb the steps to the Temple and not sing a Temple psalm? But the point of going was to pray and to sacrifice — especially to sacrifice. There was no other place at which a Jew could lawfully offer a sacrifice.

Therefore, when we enter Jesus-Messiah as Temple, we do so to worship by offering a sacrifice. The difference is that the sacrifice is now ourselves. But we don’t offer ourselves for atonement. Jesus is the only atoning sacrifice. Rather, like so many Jews did for 1500 years, we offer ourselves as a thanks offering — in gratitude for what God has already done for us.

Thus, the “church” is neither the building nor the people. Not exactly. The “church” is the body of Christ, filled with people serving him as priests, in constant sacrificial worship. It’s the presence of Jesus that makes the people the church.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Salvation 2.0: Part 6.8A: Baptism and the Temple

  1. Jim H says:

    While the milkveh baptism was a ritual of external (bodily) cleansing prior to entering the temple, John’s baptism of repentance for remission of sins was, I believe, a pivotal change in the understanding that water baptism (I Peter3:20-22) now addresses the conscience, the spiritual internal awareness of guilt resulting from sin, and as the preparation of water baptism’s ultimate symbol of uniting/clothing one with Christ in His death and resurrection of (Romans 6).

  2. Monty says:

    The sources I have read concerning Mikveh state that it was not done for physical cleaning at all. But for reasons of spiritual purification. For example a woman who had finished her menses was not allowed to enter the Mikveh without first having washed(bathed).

  3. Dwight says:

    The law of cleansings probably covered both the physical and spiritual aspects of the person, more than we want to realize or admit. They understood to be unclean was to be unclean in the presence of God and to be clean was to be clean in the presence of God. Did there have to be witnesses to the cleansings? From what I can tell, no. It had to do with their condition before God.
    Now the Jews later made Laws and regulations about the washing of things like plates, cups and even the hands before eating, which God had not commanded and it had to do with cleaning of things of physical filth and not the cleansing of the unclean.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Now the Jews later made Laws and regulations about the washing of things like plates, cups and even the hands before eating, which God had not commanded and it had to do with cleaning of things of physical filth and not the cleansing of the unclean.

    Kinda yes and no. It wasn’t about sanitation as germ theory was unknown in the First Century. The Jews washed their hands and their utensils for purposes of ritual cleanness — even though the Torah requires no such thing. It’s this “transitive” property that anything touching something unclean is thereby made unclean — also not found in Torah. Hence, if a cup has touched a particle of dust blown from a corpse or Gentile, the cup is unclean. Drinking from the cup makes the person drinking unclean. To be safe, the cup must be washed. Same logic as to washing hands.

    This is why Jesus didn’t require his disciples to wash their hands before eating. He disagreed with extending the Torah cleanliness rules beyond what the Torah said. Jesus objected to adding new commands to the Torah just to be safe.

    (Mk. 7:1-8 NRS) Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

  5. Dwight says:

    Jay, Not sure I totally agree as that the Jews did understand dirt and they would have had to come in contact with something that was unclean to be unclean. I think they thought that everything was unclean until washed and then this washing would make them clean. I’m sure they understood unclean from a practical level. But they thought the practical justified them before God.
    did they understand that the washing after touching a corpse made them spiritually clean?
    But I do agree that they Jewish leaders extended the Law and made washing of things not commanded a Law from tradition.
    Ironically, Jesus was somewhat of a true legalist in the sense that He knew what the Law said and didn’t argue on veering from it and He condemned those that did by applying traditions. If we just stuck to the word of God, we would have less of our words interjecting itself into what God said.

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