I’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.