As a Baptist pastor, I’ve done a lot of baptisms. Some have come with groups I’ve taken to Israel. Most have been thousands of miles away from the Jordan River.
Our baptisms? We don’t sprinkle. We get the full-deal, soaking wet, splash-the-choir kind of baptisms. Baptisms are incredible experiences, and fabulous symbolism. And it’s something Jesus asked us to do.
So Jesus invented baptism … didn’t he?
Not by a long shot.
It wasn’t until I traveled to Israel that I put this piece of the puzzle into its proper place. Baptism was already going on long before Jesus lived.
Remember John, the baptizer? When he was preaching, all the people who came to him seemed to know exactly what to do. They needed no instruction. There was no introduction about the symbolism because no introduction was needed. They already knew about the symbolic purposes of going under the water.
It’s a very “Jewish” thing to use water as a symbol. Remember when Pilate tried to communicate his own innocence with his Jewish crowd by washing his hands? He knew they’d understand.
Travel to Jerusalem today, and you’ll find hard evidence of this. When I take groups to Israel, we always plan a stop near the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. Within sight of the famous “Western Wall” are several excavated “micvahs.” They date to the First Century, which is exactly when Jesus lived.
A micvah is a place of water baptism. Not for Christians. For Jews!
A micvah has steps leading down into a small pit, a place to sit at the bottom, and a dividing wall. The idea is to go down one side of the steps into the micvah, getting chest-deep in the water, to wait for a while, and then to come up on the other side.
Go in dirty.
Come out clean.
Clean on the outside, clean on the inside. When a man or woman went through this ritual cleansing, there would be a time of prayer and commitment. Sin would be confessed. If he did it right, he’d stay until he felt right with God. If she took it seriously, she’d remain until she felt she had come completely clean.
Why? The Bible had recorded the answer centuries before.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place? (Psalm 24:3)
That’s a good question. Who, knowing all that is wrong with us, can possibly approach a God so creative, so powerful, and so holy? The same scripture has the answer: The one who has clean hands and a pure heart. (Psalm 24:4)
And so, people washed. They washed their hands as a form of spiritual cleansing. Remember the wedding in Cana, recorded for us in John 2? The six big jars of water were there for the “ceremonial cleansing of the Jews!” It was a ritual of worship! The synagogues had micvahs. Some wealthy homes had them. The wedding John tells us about – when Jesus turned water into wine – had six large stone jars for ritual cleansing. In fact, it was this water that Jesus turned into wine!
Ceremonial washing is very important. It still happens. If you’ve been baptized, you know the thrill. If not, there’s water waiting!