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Mayim Chayim: The Living Waters

As we progress through the Bible, we find water playing a crucial role in the cleansing of the priesthood, as the sons of Levi must be ritually purified before carrying out their religious duties. In fact, by the time we get to the New Testament, the mikveh was a critical part of life in the daily routine of Jewish religious society. Women had to undergo the immersion every month after the completion of their menstrual cycle. Men, particularly the religiously observant ones, engaged in the mikveh every dawn, in preparation for morning prayers in the Temple. Archeologists continue to unearth ancient mikveh pools near and around the Temple mount. These pools are identical in form and construction to the mikveh baths found in modern Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

In the times of the New Testament, the mikveh was a critical part of life in the daily routine of Jewish religious society.

Today, when a Gentile converts to Judaism, his final act is to go through the immersion of the mikveh. In this practice, the Talmud teaches that he enters the waters, dies to himself, is buried, and emerges on the other side, “born again.” Not unlike the Christian understanding, is it?

Immersion was observed for a variety of reasons, one of which was the immersion of repentance, the practice we find John the Baptist engaging in the gospel of Matthew. He had not created a new liturgical ritual. Rather, he was following in the tradition of his fathers. John was the son of Zechariah, of the Levitical clan of Abijah (Luke 1:5). As a Levite, John would have been well accustomed to the mikveh. In fact, one custom among the Levites was that in order for a priest to be ordained, he had to undergo immersion and have that ritual purification witnessed by another Levite.

Ancient mikveh from the Second Temple Period.

In Matthew, chapter three, we find Yeshua coming to John for baptism. This has long perplexed Christian theologians and laymen alike forcing the question, “If the Messiah was without corruption, Why did he need to go through the immersion?”

Alfred Edersheim aptly points out “Had it primarily and always been a ‘baptism of repentance,’ He [Yeshua] could not have submitted to it” (The Life, p. 280). Certainly we would all agree! Yeshua had nothing to be repentant of, no sins to confess.

However, He was about thirty years of age, the biblically required age of a man to be ordained a priest. John was a Levite, qualified to witness such immersions. When Yeshua says, “We must fulfill all things righteously,” (Matthew 3:15) He is not referring to a baptism of repentance, but rather stepping into the Living Waters of ordination. Yeshua was about to take on his mantle as Messianic priest.

This might help us understand the point of Yeshua’s immersion, but what about us? Why is it an important part of faith today? Why did the Messiah command this ordinance for all converts in Matthew 28:19? On the one hand it can safely be looked at as an outward expression of an inward condition. Immersion, or baptism, certainly is this and it has great validity. But this author thinks there is something more.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1999

About the Author: Kevin M. Williams, Litt.D., H.L.D. has served in Messianic ministries since 1987 and has written numerous articles and been a featured speaker at regional and international conferences on Messianic Judaism.

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