A principle of the Jewish faith is that everyone is born with original purity and as an individual travels through life they are soiled by life and bad decisions that they have made. Through the ceremonial washing of the Mikvah the individual may be cleansed of the dirt of sin and the stains of life. This article will focus on conversion and repentance Mikvah rites. It should be noted, that in the context of the Mikvah repentance, purity, and spiritual renew are interwoven with each other.
Section I: The Mikvah of Repentance
Numbers 19:20 NRSV: Any who are unclean but do not purify themselves, those persons shall be cut off from the assembly, for they have defiled the sanctuary of LORD. Since the water for cleaning has not been dashed on them, they are unclean.
Psalm 51:2&10-12 NRSV: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Ezekiel 36:25 NRSV: I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from your filthiness.
As a part of any positive religious maturity, taking ownership of one’s own impurities and mistakes is a major first step towards to a stronger spiritual state. Therefore, regardless of which Mikvah is going to be observed – an individual should take time for some serious spiritual preparation before the rite. This time of preparation should include personal reflection and meditation. An individual could use this time of preparation to foster a personal sense of religious maturity and find a spiritual discipline that can govern them. John the Forerunner addresses false preparations when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his Mikvah, he said to them, “Snakes, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come (Matthew 3:7)?”
Through water you are cleansed and through water God forgives you. “They were being immersed by [John] in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins (Mathew 3:6)”? The basic concept of the Jewish Mikvah is that an individual would be immersed in water and this water removes the impurities of the individual and therefore restoring the individual to a proper relationship with God. Therefore, through the Mikvah the water restores an individual to a pure state. While John witnessed the confession of sin, he did not provide an absolution for the sins – the water of the Mikvah provided it. In other words, the water of the Mikvah provides the absolution and not the words of a cleric.
The respected level of individual sacredness that the Jewish Mikvah offered was not lost on Jesus the Anointed One, he chose to begin his public ministry by first becoming ritually cleansed, not unlike what the Jewish priest would do before beginning their service at the temple. While the ministries of Jesus were not to the temple but to humankind, he still honored and respected the place of the Mikvah in the life of the Jewish people. According to the Life Application New Testament Commentary “Jesus was immersed: (1) to confess sin on behalf of the nation; (2) to accomplish God’s mission and advance God’s work in the world; (3) to inaugurate his public ministry to bring the message of salvation to all people; (4) to show support for John’s ministry; (5) to identify with the penitent people of God.” While there is no evidence of it in Scripture or in any other writings, most scholars and myself believe that Jesus begun this Mikvah for repentance by offering some kind of general prayer of confession on behalf of humankind and afterwards was immersed in the water, after which God the Father announced the true identity of Jesus (A voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased with Matthew 3:17).” Throughout his adult life Jesus had not acted contrary to any of the Ten Commandments, therefore he was without sin and free of guilt. Through submitting to the repentance rituals he stood in solidarity with humanity, even if it meant that in “appearances” some would see him as sinful and unclean and therefore requiring a Mikvah.
Within the purity of the nature of Jesus we can see what was happening in Matthew 3:13-14, “Then came Jesus to John, to be immersed by him. But John protested to him, saying, I have need to be immersed by you.” John truly believed that Jesus was already ritually clean and pure, thus he felt it was only proper for him to confess his sins and receive a Mikvah for repentance from Jesus and not the other way around.
A Mikvah Prayer
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and requires us to observe this ritual of immersion.
Concerning Regeneration. Regardless of who we are, our entire life is an on-going process of spiritual renewal and the restoring of our relationship with God. Within this context, renewal and restoration are Sacred Mysteries in and of themselves and are part of the journey of life. Through the Mikvah we are regenerated to another kind of restored relationship with God – in that we are regenerated to a more worthy state than our mere human existence can ever imagine or fully comprehend.
With this said, does this mean that the Makvah is void of any kind of lasting regeneration? No! Through the water of the Mikvah we come forth from the water free of the weight that we once had. The weight that made it difficult and troubling to go forward is gone. It is now a memory that is allowed to fade, it has no teeth and no claws upon our thoughts. However, if you choose to still hold on to them, they will still trouble your mind. So the wisdom of the sage still holds truth, does your convictions and emotions own you or do you own them?
Section II: The Christian Mikvah for Conversion and Unchanged Basics
Exodus 30:25 NRSV: You shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.
Leviticus 812 NRSV: [Moses] poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.
Matthew 28:19 NRSV: Immersing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
John 3:5 NRSV: Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
Acts 2:38 NRSV: Peter said to them, “Repent, and be immersed every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you shall receive 1 the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 8:14-17 NRSV: When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been immersed in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands 2 on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Acts 19:5-6 NRSV: On hearing this, they were immersed in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands 3 on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them.
Apostolic Council, circa 50 A.D. (The Didache): Section Three: Now about immersion, immerse this way: after first uttering all of these things, immerse in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit in water.
The Synod of Laodicaea: Canon 48: Those illuminated shall be after immersion be anointed.
A conversion rite with a Mikvah was first practiced by Judaism and then the Christians adopted this as one of their rituals. Both faith communities hold to the principle that a person receives the Mikvah associated with the conversion rite only once in their life time.
The basic Christian conversion rite and its Mikvah has not changed in over fifteen-hundred years. The first event in the ceremony was an examination of the candidate. The point of this exam was to test his/her sincerity about joining the religion. The next event was a Mikvah. It would wash away the impurities and restore the individual to their original state of purity through the cleansing water of the Mikvah. The next event is the anointing with the Sacred Oil, the purified individual comes forth from the water and is anointed with the oil of the Spirit of God upon the forehead, it is at this point when the individual is sanctified and is initiated into the Christian religion. This new life in Christ and holiness is best summarized in the devotional book My Utmost For His Highness when it says, “In sanctification the one who has been born again deliberately gives up his right to himself to Jesus Christ, and identifies himself entirely with God’s ministry to others.” In the Scriptures we also find this wonderful verse on the Mikvah of the conversion rite and Sanctification, “You are washed, you are sanctified 4, and thus you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (1st Corinthians 6:11).”
Knowing a good spiritual thing when they see it, the early leadership of Christianity simply modified the Jewish conversion rite and its Mikvah in a way that would express Christianity, and by maintaining the basic form – they kept their Jewish heritage (a two for one deal). The Christian conversion rite and its Mikvah is not only for a restored level of purity, but also the final step that would that initiates the individual into Christianity. In this manner the Christian conversion rite reflects the Jewish conversion rite, in that the individual joined the religion and not an individual congregation or denomination. As a means of affirming their principle of one conversion rite and its Mikvah for an entire life, the leadership of the Church of Christ placed this conviction in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” With this in mind, one can see why the early Christians placed a major focus on spiritual development and religious education before this conversion and Mikvah ceremony. For a Christian it was more than just stating that Jesus is their Lord and Savior (which is true enough), but a long and extensive period of preparation before being admitted into the Christian religion through the water of the Mikvah.
Section III. A Final Note on the Christian Mikvah
Over the centuries Christianity has developed penitential rites that are independent of the Mikvah. While the conversion rite and its Mikvah continue, the Mikvah for repentance fell out of usage and in time penitential rites such as confession and absolution replaced it. In theory Christians can participate in the Mikvah of repentance as a means of rededicating themselves to God and the teachings of Christ.
We should never forget the importance of washing rituals, they came to Christianity from it Jewish roots. Judaism reminds us that we are born with original purity and as we journey through life we dirty ourselves with the sins we have committed. It is within this context that we can see that two-thousand years ago why so many Jews and Christians would see a ritual washing as a form of absolution and as a means of cleaning themselves from the sin that they have done during their life time. After coming forth from the water, committing themselves to a more discipline and spiritual life style. This return to a healthy spiritualism is a good example for us in our modern self-center world to follow. We would do well to journey towards developing a more religious center and a return to a sacred life.
Footnotes from an Eastern Orthodox Bible Study: 1 through anointment 2 with oil 3 with oil 4 through anointment
Written by Dave Pflueger November 2007 © copyrighted by Pflueger