Thursday, February 14, 2008

John 3 & Baptism

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."

There are a variety of opinions as to what Jesus means by "water" in verse 5 of John chapter three. Some say water means amniotic fluid, but if Jesus meant natural birth why didn't he say "of the womb"? Some say water means baptism, but if He meant baptism why didn't He say baptism? Some say it means living water, but again, why didn't He say living water?

Enigmatically, at least to us, Jesus simply says water. Perhaps we need to look at the verse in context.

John just finished telling us that Jesus is omniscient - He knows what is in a man without the man's testimony. Along comes Nicodemus, a high ranking Pharisee, and Jesus answers Nicodemus' question before he asks it. Compare this to the interaction with the rich young man found in Matthew 19 (also in Luke 18 and Mark 10). In Matthew the RYM asks (v 16), "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?" and Jesus answers (v 17), "If you would enter life, keep the commandments."

Not the same answer He gave Nicodemus.

Next the RYM asks Jesus which commandments he should keep. Jesus lists a few and the rich young man claims to have kept all of them. He asks Jesus (v 20), "What do I still lack?" Jesus knows the RYM has not kept all the commandments (covetness, idolatry) and tells him, "“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Ouch...the RYM went away sad.

But notice the answer to "what do I lack?". It is (v 21) "If you would be perfect...come, follow me." See it again in Mark 10:21: "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” And Luke 18: "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

The interaction with the RYM illustrates the Law (you must be perfect [but you are not] to enter heaven) and the gospel (follow Jesus and you will have treasure in heaven). The young man needed to get rid of the possessions, not because it was a good work that earned his salvation, he needed to give it all away because it was a stumbling block keeping him from following Jesus. Read the rest of the story and note what He says in Matthew 18:29, Mark 10:29-30, Luke 18:29-30.

Back to John 3 and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is wondering much the same thing as the RYM, how to enter the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus tells him he must be "born of water and the Spirit."

Not the same answer he gave the RYM.

Remember Jesus is omniscient. Just as He knew in what areas the RYM was lacking/not lacking, He too knows what Nicodemus is lacking/not lacking.

Nicodemus is not lacking water. Two important terms (today's vocab lesson) from Judism 101: <u>Mikvah - a ritual pool of water, used for the purpose of attaining ritual purity. Immersion in a Mikvah is performed for the following main purposes: It is used in connection with Repentance, to remove the impurity of sin. It is also used in connection with Conversion, because the convert has taken upon himself or herself to adopt the lifestyle of the Jew, that is based on the recognition of G-d as King of the Universe and on the obligation to perform the commandments of the Torah.

Tevilah- full body immersion in a mikvah. (See Wikipedia for more on ritual washing.)

The Pharisees were all about keeping the law (see Matthew chapter 23). Especially note verses 25-26: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean."

Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be "born of the Spirit" which we know as regeneration, new life, to be born again, or born from above -- the light and the life we are blessed with when by God's grace the Holy Spirit dwells within us and draws into a faith relationship with Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Getting the inside of the cup clean--so to speak.

We cannot will ourselves to be reborn - it is the work of God/the Spirit as Jesus says in John 1:12-13 and again in John 3:8. By the power of that Spirit we are able to believe in Jesus, and those that believe will have eternal life (John 3:15-18).

So that brings us back to the issue of water. Given the amount of ritual washing involved in Jewish life, there is little doubt that Nicodemus would have understood water to be mikvah. Does this mean we must keep the laws for ritual washing in order to be saved? Remember the RYM? We see law & gospel presented side by side. In this case, the law is the water, or rather the ritual washing that it represents. But the "water" wasn't enough - the "cups" are still dirty on the inside. That is where we need Christ, where the Word of gospel found in John 3:16 saves us.

Additionally, from the definition of mikvah we learn it is used in connection with conversion. It is also used in cases of adoption. This is what is involved in converting adopted gentile infants and children to Judiasm (from

  • Jewish parents in all movements need to convert adopted Gentile minors for the minors to be considered Jewish. The adoption itself, or even the raising of the children as Jewish, does not make the child Jewish.
  • The conversion of an infant or child has Jewish legal sanction. According to the Talmud (Ketubot 11a), it is permissible for a religious court (a bet din) to convert a gentile infant. The basis in Jewish law is that it is a privilege to be Jewish (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 268:7). Therefore, a minor can be converted even though not mature enough to understand the act because making the minor Jewish is performing a favor for that infant or child.
  • Jewish law also allows those people converted as an infant or child to renounce the conversion when they reach maturity. After girls reach 12 or boys 13, converted infants and children can legally reject the conversion and go back to their previous religion. If they accept Judaism or are silent, they are deemed to be considered adult converts.
  • The conversion of a female infant or child according to Conservative and Orthodox practices only requires tevilah (immersion in a ritual bath called a mikveh). A male child also requires immersion in the mikveh. Prior to the immersion, the male must have a brit milah (a legal circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel). If possible, this should be done on the 8th day after the birth of the boy. If a circumcision has already been performed, a drop of blood needs to be drawn in a ceremony called hatafat dam brit. A Hebrew name can then be given to the child, though some wait to give the name until after the tevilah ceremony. There is usually a wait of a couple of weeks between the circumcision and the immersion.
  • A Bet Din, usually consisting of three rabbis, is convened for the immersion. Parents can enter the mikveh. If the children are old enough, they recite the needed prayers; if not a rabbi does so for them. After the tevilah ceremony is completed, and a name chosen if one has not already been selected, the child is declared by the Bet Din to be Jewish.
  • The conversion of infants and children is, of course, a moment of joy for parents, but it is also such a moment for the entire Jewish community. New children add precious lives to the community and bring with them that most valuable idea of hope for the future.

And Adoption & Jewish Law from Star of
  • For the child to be considered Jewish, he or she must be formally converted. Such a conversion is an absolute requirement of Jewish law, and dispensing with it can have serious consequences later in life, for the child may reach Bar Mitzvah age, want to marry or join a synagogue, only to be told by a rabbi that he or she is not really Jewish. The ceremony is simple, and should be done as early as possible.
  • The conversion consists of two parts, circumcision (milah) and immersion (tevilah). If possible, a boy should be circumcised on the eighth day (but not on the Sabbath or on a Festival) with a slight change in blessings.
  • Immersion is a requirement for both boys and girls. The immersion is done in a "mikvah," or Jewish ritual bath. Usually the immersion takes place as soon as the infant is old enough so that there is no physical danger. Six months is the age preferred by many rabbis. Yet it is permitted any time until "Bar" or "Bat Mitzvah."
  • The immersion must take place before a "beit din" of three rabbis. The child should be naked and held in such a way that the water touches every part of the body. The child is quickly immersed, and two blessings are recited by the rabbi (or by the child, if old enough). The child is then immersed once more. (Some rabbis do it twice more.)
  • The two blessings recited at the mikvah are: "Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us on the immersion." Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us and allowed us to reach this season." Following the immersion and after the child is dressed, he or she is given a Hebrew name and welcomed into the Jewish community with a special prayer.
  • Bringing an adopted child to the "mikvah" for a conversion is a happy event, worthy of celebration. Many couples invite other members of the family, take pictures, and celebrate with refreshments at home or at a favorite restaurant. As the child grows up, pictures and memories can be shared of the day the child was welcomed into the Jewish community.
  • An important question still remains. What gives the "Beit din" the right to convert an infant to Judaism without the child's permission or understanding? The Talmud asked the same question.
  • It answered that one can act to someone's advantage without his permission, and becoming Jewish is to the child's advantage. But there is an important proviso. Upon reaching the age of majority (12 for a girl, 13 for a boy), the child can protest and annul the conversion. He or she has a right to say, "I don't wish to be a Jew, and I consider the conversion invalid." On the other hand, acts of Jewish identity at the age of majority serve to reaffirm the conversion.
  • For this reason, "Bar" or "Bat Mitzvah" takes on a particular importance to an adopted and converted child. It serves as a reaffirmation of the conversion done years before. It completes the process of conversion. Circumcision and immersion can be done to infants; acceptance of the "mitzvot" can only be done upon reaching the age of majority. The validity of the entire conversion is contingent upon assuring a positive Jewish identity upon reach "Bar/Bat Mitzvah."
It all sounds so very familiar. So much like baptism & confirmation. :-)

Ephesians 1:5: In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will...

Maybe I'll continue this...when I have the brainpower to tackle it...


Milehimama said...

Acts 28, Christ commands His disciples to baptize all people. The interactions with RYM, Nicodemus, etc. were all before the Old Covenant was fulfilled. (The OC was fulfilled by Christ's death; the veil in the temple was rent.)

Baptism is not just symbolic. In the NT, everyone is instantly baptized, even in the prison.

Sue Bee said...

I agree that baptism is not merely symbolic, I believe it is a divinely instituted sacrament.

I didn't mean to imply otherwise.