Yeshua commissioned his disciples to go out and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [he had] commanded [them]” (Matthew 28:19-20).
A disciple is a student of a rabbi. Baptism was originally a Jewish purification ritual involving immersion in water. Why does becoming a disciple include undergoing this ritual?
When the church separated from Judaism, it also lost track of the meaning and significance of baptism. Messianic Judaism attempts to recover some of that lost meaning and significance.
Christian baptism has evolved into several different types of rituals with a broad range of meaning and significance to various sects of Christianity. It’s a contentious issue. But we can sidestep all that controversy by looking at the ritual as it functioned in early Judaism and in the New Testament era. Regardless of what brand of baptism you might prefer, all of them have one thing in common: they all began as a simple Jewish purification ritual.
Objections to Baptism
Generally speaking, most teachers in Messianic Judaism do not regard baptism as sacramental. Messianic Jews have an uncomfortable relationship with baptism because in the past, Christian missionaries forced Jewish believers in Yeshua to undergo baptism to become members of their respective churches. Those baptisms required Jews to break from the Jewish community. Jewish communities conducted funerals for Jews who underwent baptism. Once a Jewish person was baptized as Lutheran or Catholic or Methodist or Baptist, he or she was no longer considered Jewish or able to practice Judaism. Some unscrupulous missionaries were known to pay Jews to undergo baptism.
Due to these negative associations, most Messianic Jews prefer to avoid the word “baptism” completely. They prefer to translate the New Testament Greek behind the word “baptism” more literally as “immersion.” That’s why you might hear about the interesting New Testament character “John the Immerser” but nary a word about “John the Baptist.”
Many of the Messianic Jewish luminaries who pioneered Messianic Judaism resisted undergoing baptism into any formal church or denomination. Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein initially baptized himself in a Sabbath mikvah and refused to be immersed as a member of a church. Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein immersed himself in the name of Yeshua along with other students from his yeshiva in a nearby river. Rabbi Daniel Zion staunchly rejected appeals by various missionaries to let them baptize him.
Most Messianic Jewish teachers would agree that immersion need not be performed in any specific manner, or in fact performed at all, to obtain salvation. Instead, salvation comes by God’s grace, mercy, and kindness, and he grants forgiveness of sins to those who repent from sin in our Master’s name, with or without water. Neither are Messianic Jewish immersions conducted for the purpose of removing original sin—Judaism does not hold with the doctrine of original sin. In Judaism, if a child dies (God forbid), that child’s spirit goes straight to Paradise. So if baptism doesn’t remove original sin, what does it accomplish?
A Change in Legal Status
In Jewish practice, immersion into a pool of water (called a mikvah) indicates a change in status. For example, a ceremonially unclean person immerses to change from a state of ritual impurity to one of purity. A person getting married immerses to symbolize the change from being single to being married—and to purify himself or herself before the wedding for the sake of holiness. A person undergoing a conversion to become Jewish immerses in water to symbolize the legal change from non-Jewish identity to Jewish identity. The disciples of John the Immerser underwent immersion to symbolize a change in status from sin to repentance.
In this respect, Jewish immersion rituals have more in common with a legal procedure than a sacrament. Immersion effects a change in legal status from one state to another. This explains why we immerse people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To do something “in the name of” someone else is a Hebrew idiom for legal authority. It answers the question of who is in charge and who has authorized the transaction. The immersion is conducted under the authority of God, under the authority of his Spirit, and under the authority of his Son.
As a legal procedure, immersion must be observed by legal witnesses, as it says in the Torah: “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Not everyone always has witnesses present. As mentioned above, Messianic Jewish luminary Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein immersed himself in a Sabbath mikvah when he first became convinced that Yeshua was the Messiah and wanted to dedicate his life to him. But technically speaking, the procedure requires witnesses who can testify and say, “Yes, you were immersed into the Master, under the authority of the name of Yeshua. We heard your confession, and we saw you go completely under the water—three times.”
For early disciples of Yeshua, the immersion ceremony symbolized five specific transitions:
- Entrance to the school
- Allegiance to the King
- Spiritual cleansing
- Death and resurrection
- Being born again as a child of God
The immersion does not cause any of these things to happen. The ritual is not magical. The immersion is an outward ceremonial expression of God’s work in one’s life through his Son, Yeshua. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Entrance to the School
Immersion marks the point in a person’s life when he or she officially becomes a disciple of the teacher, Yeshua of Nazareth. Don’t think of it as a graduation from school; it’s more like passing the entrance exams. When you are immersed in the name of Yeshua, you become a student in his school of disciples, and that’s when the real education begins. The name of the school is “the community of Yeshua’s disciples,” or just “the community” for short. In New Testament Greek, it’s the word ekklesia—the Greek word that ordinarily gets translated as “church”—but it literally means “assembly” or “community.”
This school is also a family. Your fellow students are more than just classmates; they are your spiritual brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God united by deep love for one another.
Allegiance to the King
Immersion in the name of Yeshua includes a legal declaration of faith made in front of witnesses. The person being immersed clearly states the conviction that Yeshua is the Messiah, that he is risen from the dead, and that he is coming again to reign as King over Israel and the whole world. These are not just empty words; the person being immersed pledges his or her allegiance to the King. The new disciple consents to become a servant of Yeshua and submit to his authority because he is the King. That’s what we mean when we speak about having “faith in Yeshua.” Faith in Yeshua means allegiance to him as King.
The immersion that takes place in Yeshua’s name symbolizes repentance and cleansing from sin. An old legend about Adam and Eve says that after they were sent from Eden, they immersed themselves in a river to try to show their repentance. They wanted the water to wash away the stains of their guilt. John the Immerser taught an immersion of repentance (Luke 3:3). The Apostle Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Before a new disciple immerses in the water, he or she confesses sins and resolves to live a godly life under the authority of the Bible and all Yeshua’s teachings. In this way, the immersion ceremony symbolizes a spiritual cleansing. Just as water washes away grime, so God’s forgiveness washes away the stains of guilt left on our souls by the sins and wrongful things we have done. Peter explains that it’s not “removal of dirt from the body but … an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
Death and Resurrection
In apostolic teaching, immersion symbolizes death and resurrection. Going down into the water symbolizes being buried in the ground. Coming up out of the water symbolizes rising from the dead. A person being immersed under the authority of Yeshua connects with the Master’s death and resurrection. Our old life dies with Yeshua on the cross as we go into the water. We give it up along with our sins and selfish ways. Our new life as disciples begins when we come out of the water, connected to Yeshua’s resurrection from the tomb. You could say that a disciple’s immersion is a rehearsal for his or her own future death and resurrection.
The Apostle Paul explained that everyone who immerses in Messiah connects with Yeshua’s death and resurrection:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
Being Born Again
Immersion symbolizes being “born again.” Think of it as going back into the womb and coming out again. When we come out of the water, we are considered to be like spiritual newborns who have been born again as sons and daughters of God. When Yeshua was immersed, he heard a voice from heaven say, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Something similar happens to every new disciple. When we are immersed in Yeshua’s name, we become children of God, spiritually reborn into new life. In Messiah, we become “new creations” as sons and daughters of God.
Yeshua said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). To be physically born again implies being resurrected from the dead—reborn, so to speak, in a renewed body as a son or daughter of God. Even though we can’t be physically born again until the resurrection, disciples of Yeshua are spiritually reborn by taking hold of that future hope in this life through their faith in Yeshua, because a student is like his teacher. Since we have spiritually died along with him, we are spiritually resurrected along with him in preparation for the future physical resurrection. Immersion in Yeshua symbolizes spiritual rebirth.
The procedure involves water immersion, preferably in the manner of Jewish ritual immersion—three full-body dunks into a river, lake, or pool of water. Since we don’t believe that it’s a magical ritual, the actual mode of the ceremony is not the critical aspect. Nevertheless, our Master commanded that we should be immersed in his name, so we try to do so when possible.
The mode and method of immersion varies within the Messianic Jewish movement, and most communities have developed their own unique traditions. At Beth Immanuel Messianic Synagogue, where I serve as a teacher, a candidate for immersion first completes a basic introductory course of study that lays out the elementary principles of our faith. After that the candidate prepares for immersion by undergoing a day of fasting. The immersion is usually performed at a semi-private beach. Men attend to serve as witnesses for males; women attend to serve as witnesses for females.
Prior to immersion, the candidate makes a confession of faith and renounces sin. He or she descends into the water to chest depth, bends at the knees, and ducks under the water for three consecutive dunks. Back on shore, the candidate is welcomed warmly by those in attendance, dabbed with oil to signify the anointing of the Spirit, adorned in a white kittel (a festival garment) to symbolize the righteousness of Messiah, and offered bread and wine in memory of the Master to break the fast. Sometime later we invite the candidate to the bimah during a synagogue service—often in conjunction with a Torah service. The elders lay hands upon the candidate and pray over him or her in a ritual investiture. Afterward we conduct a celebratory community meal in honor of the newly immersed disciple, welcoming him or her to Yeshua’s school of disciples.