Tag Archives: immersion

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Instructions About Washings

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings…

Hebrews 6:1-2 (ESV)

Hebrews 6:1-3 identifies “instructions about washings” as one out of six fundamental, elementary teachings about the Messiah. Does this refer to Baptism? Learn about the Jewish practice of immersion in a mikvah and discover evidence of early, apostolic-era catechism prior to immersion.

Includes a short introduction to the Didache.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Twenty-one: Instructions About Washings
Originally presented on June 22, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Instructions about washings (plural). After a brief summary of the first two elementary principles, “Repentance from dead works” and “Faith toward God,” Lancaster continues with the third, “Instructions about washings”. This is often considered in normative Christianity to refer to baptism and easily dismissed as such. The King James Version of the Bible even renders the phrase as “the doctrine of baptisms,” but…

The translators of the English Standard Version, like many Bible scholars, recognized that the Greek word “baptismon” does not sound as if it’s talking about Christian baptism, because it appears in the plural form, whereas Christians are baptized only once. Furthermore, in other places in the New Testament, the word “baptismos” refers to ceremonial purification rituals of immersion in a mikvah. Several scholars looked at this passage and said, “I don’t think he’s talking about Christian baptism. I think he’s talking about Jewish purity rituals.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Chapter 5: Instruction About Washings,” pg 64
Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity

This book leverages much of the material from Lancaster’s sermons on these elementary principles from his “Hebrews” series and is a good companion to use with these audio recordings.

Here we learn that it is highly likely that these “immersions” mentioned in Hebrews 6:2 do not reference the modern Christian concept of baptism, since a Christian is only baptized once and the Greek word used in the text is clearly plural. It is more likely that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is talking about Jewish ritual purity rites using the mikvah, since the writer (according to Lancaster) is a Jew writing to other Jewish believers in Messiah Yeshua.

Lancaster presents some historical and archeological information regarding ancient immersion pools in the late Second Temple period to illustrate that it was extremely common for Jews to immerse on any number of occasions for the purpose of ritual purity, including participation in Temple sacrifices.

He also takes this opportunity to go on a small “rant” about how Christianity has fundamentally misunderstood the nature and character of baptism, and he ran through a litany of things that he believes the Church has gotten all wrong (he was talking too fast for me to take notes, so if you want to hear his reasons, you’ll have to listen to the recording). I don’t think Lancaster was trying to “diss” the Christian Church so much as he was being passionate about what he sees as the truth of the early history of Jesus-believing Judaism and how it’s been distorted by subsequent Gentile Christianity.

mikvahAs an aside, Lancaster has been lobbying to build a mikvah at Beth Immanuel for the last seven years (eight years as of this writing) but there hasn’t been much of a response. That reminded me of something I just read in Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. Often, when a Chabad family moves into an area without an Orthodox Jewish presence, their first and overriding priority is to build a mikvah, particularly for the use of the Rabbitzin in relation to the laws of ritual family purity. The reaction from the local Jewish community to the Chabad’s fundraising efforts to build a mikvah (and they’re not cheap) is just as lukewarm. What does Lancaster and the Chabad know about the mikvah that the rest of us don’t, or is that a sad question to ask as connected to “elementary principles” of our faith?

So, what were these “instructions about immersions?” How to build a mikvah? The mechanics of how to baptize? At one point, Lancaster might have said “yes”, but then he realized how “dumb” an answer that was…a typical “Goy” answer.

Jews would have been already well acquainted with the rituals surrounding the mikvah, the occasions when one had to engage in ritual purity rites and so forth. This wasn’t a mystery. While Gentiles may have needed those sort of instructions, they would have been less than useless to the Jewish believers.

Lancaster shared his own revelation. When reading a commentary on this part of the Book of Hebrews, he learned that these instructions about immersions could be referred to as “Catechetical Instructions for Conducting the Baptismal Rite.”

When I was a pre-teen and into mid-teens, my parents regularly took me to a Lutheran church. Lutheran churches, like Catholic churches, put their young people into a two-year Confirmation class where we studied Catechism, which according to Wikipedia is “a summary or exposition of doctrine and served as a learning introduction to the Sacraments traditionally used in catechesis, or Christian religious teaching of children and adult converts.”

That’s what Lancaster thinks these “instructions about immersions” are. Not directions on how to immerse or baptize, but the very basic instructions a new believer had to know before being immersed in the name of the Messiah as a full disciple.

Lancaster than referenced the best known ancient “catechism” we have access to: the Didache.

Last fall, I read and wrote about First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) Toby Janicki’s article “The Didache: An Introduction” published in Messiah Journal. Since then, I purchased a copy of the Didache along with a commentary and wrote several blog posts on the topic which can be found here.

While Lancaster isn’t saying the Didache we have is the actual set of instructions being referred to in Hebrews 6:2, they may very well be related. It’s clear that the Didache was written for new Gentile “novices” in Yeshua-discipleship in order to prepare them to be immersed into Messiah by being initiated in the teachings of the Master. These instructions may have begun as oral instructions that accompanied the delivery of the Acts 15 “Jerusalem Letter” to the various Jesus-believing Gentile communities in the diaspora.

Didache CodexI should mention here that as Lancaster correctly states, the Didache’s initial discovery prompted accusations of forgery and fraud, since the document didn’t match the theology and doctrine of any Christian denomination and was seen as “too Jewish”. But today, most Christian scholars admit that the document most likely originated within one or two decades of the destruction of Herod’s Temple, written probably by Jewish disciples of Jesus for newly minted Gentile disciples. As I mentioned though, these written instructions could well have been preceded by an oral equivalent and could possibly have first come from the apostles themselves.

However, the Jewish disciples may have required a similar, parallel set of instructions to familiarize them with the teachings of Messiah and what it is to be a Jew preparing for a lifelong commitment to “take up their cross” and follow Moshiach, even unto death.

So look at it like this.

The newly initiated Jewish believers were first taught the very elementary principles of Yeshua-faith starting with repentance from dead works (sin) and then faith toward God as specific to Messianic devotion. Once they had mastered those first two principles, they were ready for the third, the basic instructions required for them to prepare to be immersed into the name of Messiah, which constitutes a vow of eternal fidelity.

Jewish people would immerse in the mikvah an untold number of times over the course of a lifetime, so immersing for ritualistic reasons was hardly novel. However, John specifically practiced an immersion of repentance (Matthew 4:17, Acts 19:4) and the Master commanded another specific immersion:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (emph. mine)

Matthew 28:19-20 (NASB)

The immersion in the name of Messiah fits in perfectly with what the Church calls “the Great Commission” but put back into a Jewish context, the ritual immersion in Messiah’s name makes a great deal more sense.

Jewish ConversionFor Lancaster, and I agree with him, a serious time of preparation must have been thought necessary before formally becoming a disciple of the Master. This was probably quite similar to the proselyte ritual process Gentiles experienced when converting under other Jewish sects. Even today, a Gentile converting to Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, undergoes a time of intense preparation and study under the supervision of a Rabbi, and must past several tests before becoming circumcised (for males) and immersing in the mikvah as the final rite in becoming a Jew.

It seems very reasonable to believe that in ancient Yeshua-faith, the Gentile “converts” were required to undergo a similar procedure, although I’m sure there were exceptions (Acts 8:25-40, Acts 10:44-48).

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?

Luke 14:17-28 (NASB)

What Did I Learn?

Actually, I felt there were things Lancaster only hinted at in his sermon. If he believes the Christian Church has gotten baptism all wrong, particularly as far as only being baptized once, what other applications might there be for immersion among the body of believers? I’m sure that Messianic Jewish disciples of the Master could and would immerse for the same reasons as other observant Jews, but what about the “Messianic Gentiles?” If we immerse in the name of Messiah once, on what other occasions should Gentiles enter the mikvah?

It had never occurred to me to apply Matthew 28:19-20 to Hebrews 6:2 but now it makes a great deal of sense to connect the two scriptures. I’m sure an entire study could be done applying what we think of as “baptism” in Christianity to ancient and modern concepts of immersion in the mikvah.

This also made me think of my own immersion. In August 1999, my entire family was immersed, under the auspices of a local Hebrew Roots congregational leader, in the Boise River. The following month, my life started to dramatically fall apart in such a spectacular manner that it would take years for me and my family to recover.

My interpretation is that God takes immersion into the name of Messiah quite seriously, even if the people being immersed don’t know what they’re doing (and I certainly didn’t). God delivered the consequences of my ill-conceived decision directly into my lap and it wasn’t pleasant at all. A lot of re-writing of my script had to be done and it’s not finished yet, not by a long shot. The finger of God is still writing on my heart and slowly converting it from a thing of stone to a heart of beating flesh and blood.

How many churches prepare their people with a dedicated set of instructions and tutelage before determining they are ready for this level of life-long commitment? I know in the church I attend there is some sort of formal preparation, but I fear for the sake of the children, some age nine and younger, who are deemed ready to understand what it is to count the cost, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus, even unto death. How could you be nine years old and possibly comprehend who you’re vowing to obey and what the consequences will be?

child baptismLancaster says he believes our churches are filled with “false converts,” people, like me, who consent to being baptized without any real idea of what that truly means. We have very few formal vows in Christianity left. The one you most likely think of is the wedding vow, but the staggering divorce rate in the Church indicates even that one is not well understood.

When we consent to being immersed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit of God, we had better know what we’re doing, and if we haven’t been prepared adequately for the commitment, then even though we are acting out of ignorance, God will hold us accountable.

Lancaster believes we should return to instructing new believers in the elemental principles of our faith which might include some familiarity with the Didache or something patterned after it. I think he’s right. People declare Christ as Lord and Savior and are baptized in his name far too casually in our day. I think thousands upon thousands of people in the Church are in a lot of trouble and don’t even realize it.

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Immersion

A chassid once approached his rebbe, Rav Yizchak of Vorke, in a very broken-hearted manner. He had a physical ailment that contact with water severely exacerbated. When he had been ill the doctor had declared with certainty that his illness was the result of contact with water. Not surprisingly, they absolutely forbade him from going to the mikveh even after he recovered. Chassidim are generally very careful to go the mikveh every day. Interestingly, many pre-chassidic sources mention that observing this takanah is essential for true spiritual development. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, brings a list of some of these luminaries, including the Arizal, the Beis Yosef’s Maggid, and the Reishis Chochmah.

With all these sources it is no wonder that the young man felt frustrated by his inability to maintain this practice. The Vorkever Rebbe turned to his young follower and said, “In Bava Kama 28 we find: ‘—The Merciful One absolves those constrained by mitigating circumstances.’ This seems superfluous. Why not just say that one who is constrained by mitigating circumstances is absolved? In addition, who cares if he is since he didn’t fulfill the mitzvah? The Rebbe answered his own question: “Hashem sees into a man’s heart. If a person yearns to do a mitzvah but truly cannot, it is as though the Torah itself fulfills the mitzvah for him!”

The chassid lingered in his rebbe’s presence, obviously unsatisfied with this response. He clearly was hoping to receive a blessing that he would, in fact, be able to immerse in the mikveh. The rebbe admonished him, “Why are you still standing here? Who will do the mitzvah better—you, or the Torah?”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Merciful One Absolves Him”
Shulchan Aruch Siman 161 Seif 1

All of this is probably hard for most Christians to understand. About the closest we might get to the idea of a mikvah is the concept of baptism, but that happens only once in a lifetime. We also might have a tough time with understanding how someone could suffer because they can’t perform a specific action that they believe God requires of them (namely, a daily immersion in a mikvah). For many Christians, the one time event of “being saved” pretty much sums up all of our requirements. If, for some reason, we were unable to physically perform some act of righteousness because of a medical condition, we would more or less assume God would be understanding.

However, observant Jews conceptualize their relationship with God in a fundamentally different way than Christians (and I’ve said this before). For a Christian, it’s all about what you believe. For a Jew, it’s all about what you do. And yet, whether or not the poor fellow in our “story to share” is able to enter a mikveh, does not particularly determine if he will merit a place in the world to come. Also, and this is important, the chassid’s merit in the world to come may not be the primary focus of his life.

Shocking, I know. For a Christian, “getting into Heaven” is pretty much what it’s all about. We are a very future-minded group of religious people. For a Jew, the main focus of a relationship with God isn’t what he’s going to do for us in the future, but what Jews can do for God right now through performing the mitzvot. The inability to obey God and to perform deeds of righteous and charity for the sake of Heaven is very painful for religious Jews. I don’t think we have this concept in the church, but maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to cultivate it a little bit.

No, I’m not talking about turning Christians into Jews, having us wear tzitzit, immersing ourselves daily in a mikvah, and kashering our kitchens, but imagine what life as a Christian would be like if our overarching purpose in serving God were to actually serve God right here and right now.

I’m being unfair of course, because many Christians are extremely mindful of their duties to God and to human beings, and Christianity throughout the ages has carried the Torah out of Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem (Micah 4:2):

Christianity has brought billions of people to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and King of the Jews. This is a non-trivial accomplishment. Even some Jewish scholars have recognized the significance of this fact. In Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10-12, Maimonides credits Christianity with preparing the Gentile world for the arrival of King Messiah by spreading knowledge of the Bible far and wide. If even those who do not claim Jesus as Messiah can affirm the good that has come from Christianity, certainly believers should be able to as well.

-from an unpublished manuscript of a super-secret book I can’t talk about right now

But as James, the brother of the Messiah noted, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).

Christianity has helped uncountable numbers of poor, hungry, destitute, abandoned people. Myriads of counselees—drug abusers and alcoholics, victims of abuse, troubled spouses—have benefited from a pastor’s Biblical advice. From Carey and Wilberforce’s campaigns against satī in India to the modern phenomenon of “adopting” starving African children, Christians everywhere have expended their resources to help those less fortunate. Today, Christian orphanages in India take in abandoned children with nowhere else to turn, just as devout Christian George Müller did over a century ago in England.

-from the same super-secret book I still can’t talk about

As difficult as it may be to actually experience the concept, Christianity is an offshoot of ancient Judaism. We share the same foundation. We share the same God. The writers of the New Testament were almost assuredly all devout Jewish men and as such, they would have understood God, the Prophets, the Messiah, and the entire tapestry of the Creator’s continual interaction with humanity from a uniquely Jewish framework.

The Holy Scriptures the church has today were inspired by God and written by Jews. We Christians have done a good bit of “sanitizing” of these works over the past couple of thousand years, but if we choose to, we can try to recapture the good of both Christianity and Judaism as authored and willed by God.

Maybe someday, we in the church will understand why a young chassid would be so anguished to be forbidden to enter a mikvah. Maybe we’ll understand also how the unfulfilled desire to do so can be counted as if completed by the Torah. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll reclaim the ancient tradition and commandment to obey God in this world as our real reason for being here. The world to come will take care if itself.

Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and comforted the mourning the very day all these events were happening. He didn’t wait for his death or resurrection and he didn’t wait for his second coming to start performing tikkun olam (though that won’t be completed until a future time). We don’t have to wait either.

It’s time to immerse ourselves not only in the Word and the Spirit, but into the action of obeying God and living like our Master.